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DRS Member  Prof. Emmanuel Tsekleves on 5 Profound Career Mistakes Everyone (From PhD To Professor) Should Avoid In Their Academic Career

DRS Member  Prof. Emmanuel Tsekleves on 5 Profound Career Mistakes Everyone (From PhD To Professor) Should Avoid In Their Academic Career

This is the final article in a series from DRS Member Prof. Emmanuel Tsekleves, Convenor of the Design Research Society Special Interest Group in Global Health, on his advice for PhD students and early career researchers. These posts cover everything from writing, networking, finding a mentor, getting a job, applying for a research job, self-care and wellbeing and more. Watch this space for more articles from Prof. Tsekleves, and if you have ideas for a series like this, or want to share your voice with the DRS community, get in touch at 

A few years ago, I asked 16 established professors one simple question:
“What early career mistake will you never make again?”
Little did I know that their responses would completely reshape my perspective and provide invaluable insights.
Today, I want to share with you five profound mistakes that all aspiring academics, from PhD students to professors, should steer clear of in their career journeys and five key insights to accelerate your academic career.
Let’s dive in:

Mistake 1: Choosing the Wrong Path
Too often, individuals in academia find themselves making the mistake of choosing the wrong decision.
They base their choices on flawed reasoning or follow conventional wisdom, only to face disappointing outcomes.
Instead, it is essential to focus on making the right decisions.
Embrace a path that aligns with your passion and strengths, leading to positive outcomes, growth, and fulfilment in your career.

Insight 1: Postdoc is not the only route to lectureship
You do not need a postdoc to get a lectureship.
You can go straight from PhD.
What you need is a strong teaching portfolio.
If you're passionate, driven PhD, and have a teaching portfolio, don't hesitate to apply directly for lecturer/assistant professor positions.
Showcase your skills, network, and prove your potential.
Leapfrog the traditional path!


Mistake 2: Settling for Good Instead of Striving for Greatness
In academia, being good at what you do is commendable, but it's not enough to create a lasting impact.
Striving for greatness is what sets the exceptional apart from the average.
As an aspiring lecturer or assistant professor, aim to be legendary in your field.
Push boundaries, challenge the status quo, and make significant contributions that shape the future of your discipline.
Remember, a giant outcome is what truly leaves a mark and inspires others.

Insight 2: You don't have to be a jack-of-all-trades in academia. Be exceptional at one!
You do not need to excel at all academic activities.
You only need to excel at one, be strategic and do the rest above the line.
Identify your passion and core strength, then become exceptional in that area.
Delegate or collaborate with others for tasks outside your expertise.
Maximise your impact by strategically focusing on what you excel at.


Mistake 3: Losing Sight of the Big Picture
As you progress in your academic journey, it's easy to become overwhelmed by the minutiae of daily tasks and lose sight of your long-term goals.
One valuable piece of advice I received from a seasoned professor was,
"Until you've reached a significant milestone, keep your focus unwavering. Be strategic to work less for more."
This quote resonated deeply with me, serving as a constant reminder to stay dedicated and avoid distractions.
Remember to prioritise your milestones and remain steadfast in pursuit of your objectives.

Insight 3: You Don't Need to Work Long Hours to Make it
Working more strategically, not harder is the key.
Eliminate distractions, select tasks strategically and say no more often to tasks outside your priorities.
Automate or delegate other tasks to save time.
Work on strategic activities that yield the most outcomes.


Mistake 4: Blindly Following Traditional Wisdom
Tradition often carries weight in academia, and conventional wisdom can guide our decisions.
However, blindly adhering to traditional practices without critically evaluating their effectiveness can hinder progress.
It's crucial to approach established methods with a discerning eye.
By making the right decisions, challenging outdated norms, and embracing innovative approaches, you can pave the way for meaningful advancements in your field.

Insight 4: Go for Paper Quality over Quantity
Conventional wisdom often suggests aiming for multiple publications.
But that’s only true if you don’t do two things correctly:
* publishing in high-impact journals in your field
* actively disseminating these to establish leadership
Instead of chasing many publications aim for impactful research that contributes significantly to your field.
Aim for a few impactful publications in reputable academic outlets.
Disseminate these via your networks and collaborate with experts in your field to amplify your impact and reputation.


Mistake 5: Overestimating Own ability
We often fall into the trap of thinking we have all the answers, limitless resources, and are immune to setbacks.
We all think we can make the right decisions every time.
We all think we have unlimited time.
We all think we are immune to failure.
But the truth is, we’re not.
Which is why it's much better to seek out mentors and advisors who can help guide your career from the very beginning.

Insight 5: Don't go all alone. Get a mentor to help
The old way is doing it all on your own.
The new way is to get a mentor.
Getting a mentor who has been through the academic journey can offer invaluable insights, help you navigate challenges & accelerate progress.
Collaborate with someone who has walked the path before you.
Every person should have an academic career mentor.


In Summary
The journey from PhD to professorship is riddled with potential career mistakes.
By avoiding these five profound missteps, you can chart a more purposeful and successful trajectory:


  • Choosing the Wrong Path
  • Settling for Good Instead of Striving for Greatness
  • Losing Sight of the Big Picture
    Blindly Following Traditional Wisdom
    Overestimating Own Ability

These mistakes have led me to discover the following truths and insights about career development in academia:
Postdoc is not the only route to lectureship

  • You don't have to be a jack-of-all-trades. Be exceptional at one!
  • Don't need to work long hours to make it. Work less for more!
  • Go for paper quality over quantity
  • Don't go all alone. Get a mentor to help

Armed with this knowledge, you have the power to shape your academic career, leave a lasting impact on your field, and inspire the next generation of scholars.


Whenever you're ready, there are 2 ways I can help you:

  1. Get a free actionable daily tip on how to secure a tenure-track job in academic by following me on TwitterLinkedIn and Instagram.
  2. Join for free The Academic Insider Newsletter. Every Saturday morning, you will get ONE actionable tip on how to secure a tenure-track job in academia, in less than 4 minutes.



 August 09, 2023