On talented academics, and why Sherlock Holmes isn’t one  4

Do you know talented academics? I do, or at least I think I do. Considering that you are reading a research blog you will presumably also have an opinion on who is, or is not, talented as an academic. Does ‘you know it when you see it’ apply to academic talent? And how can you become successful?


I could try to answer these questions myself, but considering that I have only worked as a PhD student for less than a month that might be a bit presumptuous. Instead, I will summarize a dissertation on this subject. Yes, you read that right: someone spend the first four years of her academic career to investigate what a successful academic career entails. I think that is simply brilliant, although I wonder how successful she is now.


The ‘grantballing’ effectGrants

Research grants, such as the Veni- and Vidi-trajectory are extremely important for starting academics. Researchers who receive any type of grant early in their career are much more likely to continue to receive grants. Those who do not get such a grant typically hop from one short-term research contract to another, or stop working as an academic all-together. Obtaining a research grant does not only allow you financially to continue working as an academic, the prestige which comes with it is just as important, if not more so. It makes it easier to expand your network, which helps you to collaborate with more researchers, which leads to more publications in top journals, which leads to… more grants. Behold: the ‘grantballing’ effect.


When good is not good enough

Other than obtaining grants, what makes a talented academic? Not one thing. Working hard, having ambition, publishing a lot and having outstanding research skills do not suffice to be considered an academic talent. Instead, these are prerequisites. Those who strife for an academic career have already gone through so many selections that those who are left can generally be considered good academics. But being good is not good enough. Many researchers who have published a lot of high quality studies in top journals experience difficulties in securing their academic position. Likewise, having a high citation score does not secure your academic career. So when are people considered an academic talent?


Sherlock HolmesIt’s all about social capital

When most researchers deliver high quality academic work then this cannot function as a criteria for talent. Talented academics do not excel on one dimension but possess outstanding research skills as well as personal and social characteristics which distinguishes them from their peers. Research is done more and more in teams which emphasizes social skills like communication, leadership, ability to motivate others and more generally being a pleasant colleague. Unlike popular characters like Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes would like you to believe, being a solitary, asocial genius will simply not do. Job interviews and grant allocation interviews are both highly social processes to which you might be invited to based on your professional capital but in which you will succeed or fail based on social capital.


How to become an academic talent?

Before we tackle the question of how to become an academic talent there is a more important question: do you want to have an academic career? Considering how difficult it is to obtain and maintain academic positions you might be better off in a different line of work if being an academic is not your dream job. For those who do really want to pursue an academic career these are the best pieces of advice I have found:


  • Be ambitious
  • Work hard and efficiently
  • Work together with other researchers (e.g. be a team player)
  • Be aware of which grants you can apply for
  • Apply for grants
  • Publish high quality studies in top journals
  • Publish at least some articles as the only author (yes, even without your promoter and supervisor)
  • Publish on new topics


Most of these tips might not new to you, but they summarize the set of minimum requirements which any successful academic meets. However, there are several other aspects of success/talent which might be less known yet are equally relevant:


  • Support from your mentor or supervisor
  • Support from your partner and family
  • Using the academic network from your mentor or supervisor
  • Building your own academic network
  • Being at the right place at the right time (e.g. look for and use opportunities)


These are the less salient characteristics of highly talented academics which might help you too to become more (recognized as being) talented. Interviews with researchers indicated that the talented researchers obtained a job or crucial contact based on advice from their mentor or supervisor while academics who left their field often did not. As career advice from a mentor was found to be one of the only factors which could independently predict academic success there is nothing left for me to say then: stop reading this and go talk with your supervisor!

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Hi Tim and Steven,

Thanks for the discussion so far. I am not sure I agree with the distinction being successful and showing research quality. Of course there will be cases who are succesful, without much quality, and the other way around, but most of the times success and quality coincide or are highly correlated. And in the domain of educational sciences, many indicators for quality are used, not only H-indices or receiving research grants. Probably, try to be a bit less stressed about being succesful and focus more on research quality, no matter how indicated. At least during your PhD period, which should be a period of BECOMING an academic researcher, not of BEING one.

Great piece, Tim! However, I would like to add a point: A successful academic does not necessarily make a good academic.
The dissertation equates ‘the talented academic’ with someone who is able to move up in the ranks of current academia quickly. In the current climate I wouldn’t dare to assume that those who are high-ranked academics are also talented academics. But here I use a different meaning of ‘talented academic’. I sincerely hope in the future ‘talented’ comes to mean ‘uses good research practices and produces highly replicable studies’ (or something like that).
In short, academic career advice is not necessarily aligned with good academic practices. However, if you would like to pursue an academic career, you will have to play along (for now). It is a bit of an academic catch-22, if you will.

Thanks Steven. Your observation is spot-on: having a ‘successful academic career’ is not equal to being a good researcher. I agree that good research practices is a much better quality criteria than, say, being awarded a research grant (as always, I would love to discuss with you what makes certain research practices good or not).

However, publishing does function as a general minimal requirement, and I can agree with that notion. Likewise, building an academic network is not a quality criteria but it does not only aid your career (e.g. having a job) but also help you to combine forces in order to do higher quality research.

Perhaps these are better described as ‘enabling conditions’ for academic talent than actual quality criteria’s?

On a site note: Personally I was happy to see that merely being productive does not at all relate to how successful academics are in their career, how much grants they get or how ‘talented’ they are as perceived by their fellow academics. In fact, in one of the studies it was found that academics who (willing or unwillingly) left their career had published MORE than their more ‘successful’ peers. This speaks against the popular notion that ‘we’ are ‘forced’ to publish a lot and that only publication/citation metrics are used as quality criteria.

Tim, thank you for bringing this to our attention. This is very interesting to read and certainly brings us something to think about. Or, as I know now, better to act on it 😉

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