Ray Moynihan: Ten things I wish I’d been told as a junior academic

When I got my PhD in 2015 and started out as a junior researcher, a professor friend shared this pearl of wisdom about academic life: “the stakes are low, but the knives are long.” That was pretty much the only pitchy advice I got. 

So recently when I was invited to give some tips to early career researchers, I thought long and hard about what I wished someone had told me. My presentation was well received, so some colleagues urged me to share these thoughts more widely.  

1.Don’t get dejected about rejection

Let’s cut to the chase. The life of most junior academics is full of rejection. Conference abstracts, funding applications, and of course research papers, particularly if you’re silly enough to submit to snooty journals like The BMJ. Grant applications are the worst because so much heart and soul go into writing them. My application for a publicly funded post-doc fellowship was rejected three times before final success. And that’s the key tip here. Temerity, tenacity, audacity. Disappointment is human, but don’t let the dejection deter you. 

2.Marry the metrics, for better or worse 

I hate to say it, but the earlier you seek out the metrics by which your success is measured, and get engaged to them, the better your chances. Thankfully, metrics have broadened away from the narrow focus on numbers of publications, and now include assessments of the actual impact of your work in the real world. If your supervisor doesn’t force you early to get overly familiar with the metrics, find another one. 

3.Pursue your passions 

Perhaps most importantly your marriage with the metrics must be driven by a passionate pursuit of what matters most to you, ideally something of social value. Science requires rigorous transparent replicable methods, but it’s created by human beings. Well, for the moment anyway. 

4.Use your autonomy 

As a junior researcher, assert your autonomy. Academic freedom is real. There are limits, but I’ve found the boundaries are wider than you think. The climate crisis and the related crisis of medical excess require that those boundaries be pushed even wider, in order to imagine and evaluate the required transformative changes. Think laterally and use that precious academic freedom, in concert, of course, with its flipside, responsibility. 

5.Seek the right collaborations

One of the greatest joys of academic life is the opportunity to collaborate with good people all over the world. And one of the worst aspects is collaboration that goes sour. Choose collaborations carefully with people prepared to share the grunt work, start small, and then develop long-term collaborations with those you enjoy working with. And think big too. We all get involved in far too many tiny projects. With larger global collaborations, mountains will move. 

6.Develop links with health systems and citizens

Depending on the research field, building links with the people who manage and run health systems, and groups representing patients or citizens, can be vital to making our research both relevant and impactful. Seek them out.  

7.Learn to say no 

As others have previously written, learning to say “no” politely and respectfully is one of the most important things to learn. Especially to your supervisors. Being a junior researcher, with all that autonomy and enthusiasm, means we all say “yes” far too often, sometimes stretching ourselves far too thin. 

8.Don’t be afraid to change direction 

We all make the wrong decisions sometimes, and some of us more than others. So don’t be afraid of jumping ship, pulling the plug, or changing direction, depending on your metaphor of choice. Maybe that means switching a PhD topic, swapping a supervisor, or moving out of the academy altogether. Keeping as much contact with the outside world as possible – on the off chance you might want to return to it – is highly recommended. 

9.Talk to people

I know this seems an odd tip, but in these golden days of technology, it’s scary how rarely people actually speak to each other. As a journalist, before moving into the academy, I would spend my days on the phone or in visits with sources and contacts. Similarly, as a researcher, the one-on-one chat can prove very fruitful. Not only is it a great way to learn, it can build relationships and research collaborations that may last a life-time.

10.Have fun, be fun 

Trying to have fun yourself, and bring fun to those you work for and with, seems to me one of the most important tips of all. The truth is I was given some very valuable guidance as a junior academic, not least by my chief supervisor and now boss, the surfing professor Paul Glasziou. He never did teach me to surf, but he did stress that the potential for having fun was one of the most important criteria for judging the value of any new endeavour. And along with decent health, equity, and a clear road map out of the climate crisis, we all want to have fun too, don’t we? 

Ray Moynihan is an assistant professor at the Institute for Evidence-Based Healthcare at Bond University, and an adjunct associate professor at the University of Sydney. He has also co-hosted The Recommended Dose podcast, produced by Cochrane Australia, and co-promoted by The BMJ. 

Competing interests: none declared.