Tips for Thriving in Your Research Career

This blog post is written by University Texas at Austin graduate student Rayna Harris, and was inspired by the “NIH and You: How to Survive and Thrive in Your Research Career” Symposium at the 2014 Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting in Washington D.C. on Saturday, November 15, 2014.

NIH Panel Members included:

  • Stephen J. Korn, Director of the Office of Training, Career Development, and Workforce Diversity
  • Nancy L. Desmond, Office Director and Associate Director for Research Training and Career Development
  • Michelle Jones-London, Director of Diversity Training and Workforce Development
  • Alan L. Williard, Acting Deputy Director of NINDS

#1. When it comes to choosing mentors, be promiscuous!

Successful experimenting! L-R: Manisha Sinha, Hilary Katz, Dalia Salloum. Photo credit: Rayna Harris

Successful experimenting! L-R: Manisha Sinha, Hilary Katz, Dalia Salloum. Photo credit: Rayna Harris

Choosing the right mentor is one of the most critical decisions grad students and post-doctoral fellows must make (see # 2). However, don’t forget the importance of having multiple mentors during each stage of your research career.

Other mentors will not only nurture and advise you, but they can also fill the voids in your relationship with your primary mentor. For instance, if your principal investigator (PI) is not a statistician, seek the advice of one who is to verify that your results are statistically sound. Or, if your mentor is a single male and you are a soon to be mother, seek the guidance of a female PI with children to discuss work-family balance.

#2. But seriously, choose the right mentor for you

It is important to join a lab where you will be supported in your training and your career; receiving good mentorship support is pivotal for success in your career. When choosing a lab, do your homework first and find out where former trainees have gone. Did they continue down their chosen career path? Do they still have a good relationship with the PI? These are important questions you need to have the answers to.

A good mentor should have the experience and the connections to get you were you want to be!

Altmetric score for Barres 2013 Neuron article.

Altmetric score for Barres 2013 Neuron article.

Once you join a lab, develop a relationship with your mentor that is built on good communication. How, when, and how often you communicate will be different for each mentor-mentee relationship, so find a strategy that works for both of you. Don’t be afraid to talk to your mentor about your goals! Work together to create an individual development plan and revisit it periodically.

For more on this subject, the following articles are highly recommended:

  1. Barres, Ben A. (2013) How to pick a graduate advisor. Neuron 80: 275-9.
  2. Wood, Charles (2012) When lab leaders take too much control. Nature 491: 785-786
  3. Raman, Indira M (2014) How to Be a Graduate Advisee. Neuron 81: 9-11.

#3. Be a good advisee

It would not be fair to demand quality from your mentor without returning the favor. By being a good advisee, you can actually help your mentor be a good mentor. Be proactive, and ask for your mentor’s time or advice when you need it. This way, both of you can shine!

If you ever find yourself in the unfortunate situation of being in a toxic relationship, swallow your pride and ask for outside help. Talk to your graduate program director, your department chair, or one of your other mentors. These people can either help you work it out with your mentor or can help you find a new lab.

Be proactive and talk to your mentors. Downloaded from

Be proactive and talk to your mentors. Downloaded from


#4. Have plans and follow through with them.

I recall The Serial Mentor saying that the number one common mistake grad students make is proposing an overly ambitious thesis. Don’t be one of those folks! Propose a doable project. Then do it. Persist even when parts of it fail, and do not take rejection personally.

Stay focused and learn to balance the time and effort you spend on your projects with classes, grant writing (see #8), reading, publishing, exercising, relaxing, and the plethora of other responsibilities you may have.

If you are a post-doctoral fellow, your focus should be to develop a research program that you can take with you! Discuss this early on with your mentor, and don’t join if you suspect that you won’t be able to.

Of course, a healthy dose of ambition is fantastic. Ambition is probably one of the most common shared traits among people who are “the first” to do something. The trick is, though, to not be so overly ambitious that you have little to present in your next job talk or award acceptance speech.

#5. Learn to cope with failure and develop grit

In addition to technical training, accumulate transferable skills throughout your career. These skills will help you succeed no matter what you choose to pursue and include (but are not limited to) critical thinking, communication, leadership, reasoning, grit, and perseverance.

Empowerment, resiliency, and grit are essential characteristics in a good researcher. Learn to cope with failure and you will have much more success in life. Take control of your academic environment rather than stumbling along after failure. Your mentors are there to help you up when you fall, but you must empower yourself.

#6. “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em”

Don’t let failure stress you out! Image from:

Don’t let failure stress you out! Image from:

This quote is actually from a song about gambling by Kenny Rogers, but I think the advice really applies publishing goals and whether or not you really want to stay on the tenure track.

Set your aims high. If you aim to publish in top tier journals, then will you have a good chance of publishing in journals ranging from good to the very best. However, don’t spend 6 years trying to get one project into the
best journal and then never publish. Ask yourself if publishing small bits early in a solid journal is a better career move or if you really want to hold out for that chance to revolutionize the field with one great piece.

Remember, industry is not easier; it’s just different.

Many of my peers struggle with deciding whether or not to stay in academia. The most common advice I’ve heard is to stick with research as long as you passionately love it and to not quit until you have to. Every minute you spend in academia is useful, so don’t think that you’re wasting your time. If you are considering leaving academia, peruse opportunities as they present themselves and seize the right one when it comes along.

#7. Network whenever possible and don’t burn bridges.

Networking at conferences is a must #SfN14

Networking at conferences is a must #SfN14

When you go to meetings, don’t just socialize with people from home. Schedule lunch or coffee with your letter writers to keep them updated or with potential employers to get to know them better. Meet new people at posters or socials or during interactive sessions.

Along those lines, try to keep positive relationships with all your colleagues and don’t burn bridges. Our communities are small, so try to be nice to even to your bad colleagues. You never know you will need something from them or someone they know.

#8. Talk to your program officer before and after applying for grants

I’ve saved the final tip for the topic of funding. This could probably be a 1000 word blog all by itself, but I’ll keep it short. Visit the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) for more online resources.

Remember, your program officer (PO) is there to help you get funding! I’m sure you have heard that you should call or email them before submitting a grant, but what’s the best approach? The POs say that the best way is to send an email with your Specific Aims page and your Biosketch attached.

Also, contact your PO to discuss interpreting the summary statement of a grant that is not funded. This is especially useful if you have a hard time understanding the essence of the comments or if the reviews are conflicting.

Applying for grants as a grad student or post doc is a great idea because it gives you experience with the whole process and will help you thrive in your research career. However, you don’t need a grant at this stage to get a faculty position. If you have heard this, know that it is a myth! According toDr. Stephen J. Korn only 15% of new assistant professors had a K99 award.

Final thoughts

There is a pretty good chance you have heard most of this advice before. My mentors (yes I have multiple) and other great scientists have said this over and over again. But, sometimes it’s good to hear things more than once

I hope you found pieces of advice contained herein useful and worth sharing with others. Best wishes in your journey as a research scientist!

E.O. Wilson’s advice for thriving in sciencing

E.O. Wilson’s advice for thriving in sciencing



I have a great mentor and a good relationship with him. But, I strive for perfection and am always looking for advice on how to do things better.

One of my live tweets from #SfN14

One of my live tweets from #SfN14



Many thanks to @karinaalbab and @maruca221 for comments and suggestions for this blog, the organizers of #SfN14 for providing a great forum for discussion, and to @PLOSNeuro and @emilyjanedennis for inspiring me to blog and tweet at #SfN14.

This story was originally published here on Medium and here on PLOS as part of the PLOS Neuroscience Community.

For more information, you can contact Rayna at rayna.harris at utexas dot edu.

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