Ten Tips to a Successful Academic Career

An early career psychologist, Dr. Kate Wolitzky-Taylor, offers ten tips to a successful academic career:

1. Carve out research time and treat it like any other appointment you wouldn’t cancel.

I am guilty of not doing this enough. It was easier during graduate school and post doc to set aside time to just sit in front of my computer analyzing data or writing a paper. The many demands of an academic career can pull you in different directions. It is so important to make time to work on grants, read new articles in your area, and write manuscripts. Having a full day (or more) dedicated to this type of work can sometimes be challenging but if possible, I think this is the ideal way to do it.

2. Say yes to all opportunities that will help you to develop as a researcher at first, and then learn when it’s better to say no.

During graduate school, internship, and post doc, take advantage of all the opportunities presented to you (unless they sound totally irrelevant to your work or interests of course). You never know how saying “yes” to working on a paper with someone, giving a guest lecture, or helping a faculty member write a grant will serve you later, but it almost always does. Not only will you learn something and get experience you can talk about when you are on the job market, but you may develop a collaborative relationship that will be important to you later (and you may get some publications out of it too, which is always a good thing). However, once you become a bit more established, it’s important to set limits and say “no” once in a while if things are getting in the way of your own professional development. It’s important to prioritize. For example, saying “yes” to reviewing a manuscript for a journal as a post doc, and occasionally as an Assistant Professor, is a good idea. Howe!
ver, if I agreed to review every manuscript sent my way, I’d never get anything else done. Also, keep in mind the importance of a professional relationship when making these decisions. For example, my mentors, Drs. Michael Telch, Ken Ruggiero, and Michelle Craske, were always generous with the opportunities they presented to me. For this reason, I will probably never say no to one of their requests!

3. Be flexible.

You may have a very clear idea of what you want your academic career to look like. It might not end up that way! Geographic limitations (because of family or significant other/spouse’s career, for example), the job market, and other factors make it important for you to be flexible. There are many ways to have a successful academic career as a psychologist. If you are unsure about the options, ask around (you can ask me too!).

4. Choose quality over quantity.

This one is so counterintuitive because we always hear about how many publications people have, or how many grants have been funded. However, I am a firm believer that a few great papers in top-tiered journals are more important than a dozen mediocre papers you threw together in a couple of weeks and got into a lower-tiered journal. Of course nobody gets all of their papers into top-tiered journals, but aim high. Always start with a top-tiered journal, and if you think your paper has no shot at even a second-tiered journal, ask yourself if this is really the type of work you want out there with your name on it.

5. Run your own studies in graduate school, if possible.

I cannot stress this enough. I understand that some labs have mentors with large grants and tons of data, and I know from experience during internship and post doc that it is so fun to have easy access to great datasets that can turn into lots of great papers. However, I think something crucial is lost in relying on this “existing dataset” approach for the majority of your work in grad school. Coming up with your own study idea and design and actually carrying it out is essential for becoming an independent investigator. Moreover, it is so important for developing your own sense of what lines of research you want to develop. I am so thankful that my graduate mentor, Dr. Michael Telch, insisted that all of his students develop and run their own independent investigations for 2nd year project and dissertation.

6. If you are interested in clinical outcome research, continue to see patients and/or supervise graduate student therapy cases.

Sometimes people don’t want to do this because they think it makes them “less” of a researcher and “more” of a clinician. It is not crucial that academic psychologists see patients or supervise cases. Certainly many successful psychologists have not taken this path. However, if the nature of your work that you intend to develop as an early career investigator has anything to do with therapy, outcomes, health services, prevention, interventions, etc., I think this is very important. Remember that research and clinical practice are reciprocally informative. I get many of my research ideas from seeing patients or observing phenomena either in my own small practice or as I supervise the cases of others (in my case, psychiatry residents’ CBT cases). My mentors, Dr. Telch and Dr. Michelle Craske (my postdoc mentor) both have small private practices and supervise graduate student therapy cases, and I have followed this model which I believe to be very successful.

7. Welcome criticism.

This one is not always easy. Developing appreciation for critique is what makes us better scientists. The more I progress in my career, the more I realize I don’t know, even within my own research area. Frame criticism as a way to learn and improve. Being resistant to critique or defensive about your work probably won’t get you as far as being excited about hearing from other experts. I recently asked someone to be a co-Investigator on a grant I am writing. When I first met with him, he started with “I don’t want to pick at it right away…” to which I responded “Please do! That’s why I want you on this because you know this area so well.”

8. Build collaborative relationships that complement your own research interests.

This one is particularly important as you transition away from your work with your mentor and into a new role as an independent investigator. You can’t do it alone! It goes back to the idea that you are not an expert in everything, and pulling together the expertise of yourself and others to develop ideas is optimal. I am learning this more and more as a faculty member. Have people you know make introductions to people you are interested in working with, or introduce yourself over email. You’d be surprised—most people are very receptive to forming new collaborative relationships, which tend to be mutually beneficial.

9. Maintain relationships with your mentors and other faculty you admire after you finish your degree and move into an academic career.

I guess this one depends on your relationship with your mentor and other faculty in your program. Assuming the relationship was good, I think it is important to continue these relationships, possibly for collaboration but mainly for professional development guidance. It is always good to have someone who has been in your position before and can give you advice.

10. Have a clear idea of the lines of research you plan to develop and how you plan to build your research program, but be open to new directions or ways of thinking about your research plan.

It is important to know what you are interested in and where you are going with your research. When you are on the job market, and as you develop your expertise among the research community, it is important to have direction and focus, and a bit of a plan. However, it is very important not to be rigid about it, because this not only closes doors to interesting opportunities (see Tip #2) but also may result in a much too narrow niche. I have always thought about myself as an “anxiety disorders researcher.” When I began developing an idea for my K Award with Dr. Craske, which involved learning about anxiety and substance use disorder comorbidity and developing and evaluating anxiety treatment to be delivered in substance abuse settings for this population, my first thought was “I never thought of myself as someone who would do substance abuse research.” However, as I began to keep an open mind and saw how important this topic was (and how interesting!) I jumped in, and am not !
only carrying out this study now, but am developing a series of additional grant proposals along these lines. I still think of myself as “an anxiety disorder researcher” but with a new line of research that complements the previous ones I was developing and that may turn out to be very exciting and fruitful for my career.

About the author:

Dr. Kate Wolitzky-Taylor is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and the Behavioral Sciences at the University of Southern California. The overarching goal of her research is to improve the treatment of anxiety disorders. Dr. Wolitzky-Taylor obtained her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Texas at Austin, where she obtaining research and clinical training in the Laboratory for the Study of Anxiety Disorders under the direction of Dr. Michael Telch. She completed a predoctoral internship at the Medical University of South Carolina in the Traumatic Stress Track (on an NIMH-funded T32) under the supervision of Drs. Ken Ruggiero and Heidi Resnick. After obtaining her Ph.D. in 2009, Dr. Wolitzky-Taylor completed a 3-year postdoctoral fellowship in the Anxiety Disorders Research Center at UCLA under the mentorship of Dr. Michelle Craske, where she directed a multi-site, longitudinal R01 examining common and specific risk factors for anxiety and depression. Shortly after being awarded a NIDA-funded K23 to develop and evaluate a brief CBT program for anxiety disorders to be delivered by substance abuse counselors in addictions treatment centers, she began her faculty position at USC. In addition to her research, she currently supervises and trains psychiatry residents in CBT, conducts research training for residents, and sees patients with anxiety and related disorders in the Faculty Practice. Dr. Wolitzky-Taylor has 47 publications and 40 conference presentations.