(Don’t) Hack Your Way To Becoming A Professor: Productivity Tips For PhD / Doctoral Students

What to consider?

As a PhD student sometimes, you will feel overwhelmed with advice. People, both academic and not, never seem to be short on things to tell you about how you should do your PhD. They have advice on what school you should go to, what topic you should research, how you should research, and what you are doing wrong. Often the advice is contradictory and, in many cases, unhelpful. One of the other areas that PhD students get a lot of advice on, is how to pursue an academic career or how to become a professor after their PhD is finished. It seems that everyone has an opinion on this, and often they will tell you that you only need to follow a few simple tricks to become a professor.

Advice givers often make landing the coveted academic jobs seem so easy, but in reality, it is a lot of work. In this post I am going to break down some of the common pieces of advice PhD students are given to start their academic career and discuss if they are helpful or not. I will also lay out a few pieces of advice that actually are helpful in the pursuit of an academic career and as a PhD student generally.

              This post was written by a recent PhD graduate (to keep the discussion frank) on behalf of Dave Maslach. For more on this topic check out this video:

What to Consider When Looking for an Academic Job

Oftentimes, when PhD students are looking for jobs, they mainly think about what they have to offer: their skills and their accomplishments. These things are certainly great and should be highlighted in any application, but it is also important to remember that you are not the only candidate or indeed the only qualified candidate applying for a job. Academic jobs, particularly permanent academic jobs, are becoming increasingly scarce, however universities still produce a decent number of PhDs (check out this link for some stats on how many PhDs are awarded every year).

              While your research is super exciting and new, you are not the only one. Many of the things you are doing to try to stand out from the crowd or make yourself an attractive faculty or staff member to various universities, many other PhDs are doing as well. This is not meant to discourage you from trying for an academic job, but rather it is something that you should just be aware of. I am part of several academic groups and have heard from both sides on this issue. I have heard about the disappointment of PhDs who felt they were perfect for a position but did not even get an interview. But I have also heard the counter from the people on the hiring committee. The hiring committees were impressed with a great number of qualified applicants, but they only have one position and 200 applicants.

              When faced with these odds it is sometimes tempting to try to follow the advice people give to take short cuts or hack your way to a professorship. Let’s break down some of the common pieces of advice to see if they are really worth it.

Common Tips and Pieces of Advice Given to PhD Students


Network, network, network. This is probably the most common piece of advice given to PhD students (and non-PhD students) looking for a job. Advice givers will encourage you to go to conferences, go to colloquia, go to any event that gives you access to a wide range of people. Being exposed to a wider range of people gives you a better chance to be connected to someone making a hiring position, gives you more exposure, and is just generally a good idea. Advice givers will encourage you to constantly expand your network for the highest return on exposure.

Is Constantly Networking Worth It?

This tip doesn’t really have a clear cut yes or no answer. Networking is important for a quite a few reasons. Networking does gain your research more exposure, but it also allows you to make connections with others interested in your research topic. Networking brings you more in tune with the current state of your field and gives you a higher chance for collaborative projects. There are a lot of positives to networking (see this post), but you shouldn’t network just for the sake of networking.

              When you are making connections with people at conferences and events make genuine connections and don’t view these new connections simply as a means to an end. Make connections with people you have a genuine interest in knowing, not just people who are famous and important in your field. Don’t just tick the boxes, get to know the people you are networking with and while they may be beneficial to know in terms of career prospects don’t just see your connections as that.

Write Quickly

Academia is filled with pressure to produce large amounts of research and publish that research as quickly as possible (Here is a Great Guide On Writing Papers). There is no shortage of people that will tell you that your worth as an academic is directly linked to your published research. Advice givers will tell you to write as much and as often as possible. They will tell you to get projects done quickly and move on to the next project. They may also tell you that publishing your research is much more important than other aspects of academic careers such as teaching. A good academic is a proliferate academic.

Should I Get Research Out as Quickly as Possible?

Research and publishing that research is of course an important part of being an academic. Many universities seek faculty members that are active researchers as well. Professors are usually expected to continue to research and publish throughout their careers. Every field has a different standard for how many publications per year is considered normal or achievable. Writing quickly is more of a quality vs. quantity issue. Producing and publishing a ton of studies could be great, but are they of high quality? Are the studies any good or are there just a lot of them? Having a ton of low-quality publications could be just as detrimental as having a very low number of publications for your field.

              Writing and publishing needs to be done on a balance. You will of course need to publish, but you shouldn’t be so preoccupied with it that the quality of your work suffers. It also shouldn’t negatively impact the other aspects of your career. Many PhD students have other responsibilities besides their research, many also teach and serve on committees, a preoccupation with a large quantity of publications could be detrimental to these areas as well. In addition to being a good researcher you also want to strive to be a good teacher and faculty member. So, getting published is important, but it is not the only important goal of a PhD student, and not the only qualification for becoming a professor.

Get to Know the Right Professors

PhD students often get a lot of advice about doing the “right” thing. One of the big ones is getting to know the “right” professor. Whether this is just getting to know a big important person in your field through networking or actually having this professor agree to be your supervisor. A lot of advice givers tell PhD students to get to know this or that professor because they are important and can connect the student to the right person. The advice says that once that happens, you’ll be set and have nothing to worry about.

Should I Get to Know Important Professor?

Well do you want to? Do you and that professor share common research interests? Do you and that professor have grounds on which you can help each other? Are you trying to form a genuine connection rather than ticking a box? If so, then yes go ahead and try to get to know them or try to work with them. Do keep in mind that many prominent professors often have several students asking them to be their supervisors, so even though you may have tons in common and your proposed project is right up their alley, they might simply just not have the time or resources to be your advisor.

              Also keep in mind that knowing this one important person will not have you set for life. Knowing the right people can be helpful when looking for a job, but it is not the only successful component in a job application. You also need to be what the university is looking for, simply knowing someone in a position of power is not enough.

Take the Right Courses

Along with knowing the right professor, many advice givers will tell you to take specific courses. Some course or another will be way more important than other courses and be crucial to your future career options either because of who teaches it or because the topic is trendy at that time. You should take that course even if you don’t need to and try really hard to get into it.

Should I Bend Over Backwards to Take a Specific Course?

Again, do you need the course? Do you want to take the course? Taking courses during a PhD is not like taking undergraduate courses. They are much more intense, they require an incredible amount of time, and the exams are a bit harrowing (see post on What PhD Students Do All Day or this post about What Doctoral Courses are like). Courses are often determined by your field of research and what will be important for your particular project. If that specific course fits those requirements then by all means take it, but if you are just taking it because of who teaches it or because the topic is popular or important at that moment, then it might be a mistake. You might set yourself up for a lot of extra work and stress for no reason. Your PhD courses should be determined by what you need to do your research rather than the opinions of others.

Do the Right Research

When you are going through the proposal writing process people will have no shortage of advice on what they think you should research. People may even be so vocal as to tell you that your own idea is stupid or irrelevant and you should try X topic instead. They will try to tell you to research something that is either never been studied before or is going through a period of popularity. Advice givers will tell you that getting in on X research will guarantee you a job.

Should I Change My Research Topic?

Does the proposed project interest you? Do you feel passionate about that topic? Do you think you would enjoy researching that topic day in and day out for several years? If yes then go for it but do keep in mind that a research topic alone does not guarantee you a job. What is more important is the quality of the research and the outcomes rather than just the topic itself. If you don’t think you would like to research X topic then don’t. A PhD is a long project and your PhD research can shape your future research career. You are the one that has to research the topic not the advice giver. If it is not something you are excited about or interested in that will make for a very long process.

              Your passion and interest in your research are often reflected in your work. You can often tell when talking to a researcher if they feel a genuine excitement about their topic or if they just knew that particular topic would succeed or get them grant money.  

If you want to get some research topic ideas, you should check out this rich post we wrote about how to pick research topics.

General Helpful Tips for PhD Students Looking for Academic Jobs

Be Authentic

When you are looking for an academic job or generally going about your life as a PhD student, be authentic.  If you are at a conference and doing some networking be a genuine person and get to know something rather than shoving your business card in their face so that now they have your contact information. Professors and other people can tell when someone is networking or contacting them purely for the transaction quality of the interaction. That kind of networking or interactions doesn’t really help you at all, plus it is really uncomfortable for all involved.

Be authentic during your time as a PhD student. Make genuine connections with people, do research you are interested in, and take courses that are actually helpful to you. Don’t focus on things that are purely a means to an end, it won’t help you in the long run and you’ll also have a more enjoyable experience as a PhD student if you do things you are interested in.  

Be Caring

In relation to being authentic, also be caring. PhDs and careers in academia can be tough. Be caring towards yourself and others (post on dealing with rejection). If someone needs help, help them. It’ll make the university a better place to work. Also care about the people you network with, and their needs and wants from your connection. It may be that you can help them. It is also helpful to be caring in your work. Do something you enjoy. You don’t want to dread going to work every day. Care about the people around you and the work you do. This will really show through everything and make you and your work better.

Do Good Work

Let your work speak for itself. Don’t get too focused on churning out paper after paper and allow the quality of your work to suffer. It is better to take a little longer on something and get it done right than to do it quickly and with little regard for accuracy and presentation. Doing good work will ultimately reflect the best on you. Your care, your passion, your expertise will all show through if you do your work well and to a high standard.

              As you go through your PhD there will be no shortage of people willing to provide you with some magic shortcut or trick to getting through the work and becoming a professor. In reality, however, a lot of getting that academic job and becoming a professor has to do with your authenticity and the quality of your work. Don’t get tricked into hacking your way through. Even if the hacks were successful, would you be happy with yourself for doing a crumby job?  

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