In September I got promoted to full professor. Achieving this long-sought career goal led me to reflect on what advice I could share with others hoping to do something similar. As a lifelong gamer, I realized that academia is not dissimilar to open-world role-playing video games. In this type of game, the player has complete control over what happens (as seen in the Grand Theft Auto series, for example), rather than just playing as the protagonist, who follows a pre-set path (as in The Last of Us).
In both gaming and academia, you have to decide where to invest your efforts. But rather than splitting points between strength, dexterity, intelligence and wisdom — as you would in some games — you need to choose how to divide your time and energy between the different areas of academia. Most institutions value a core of four domains: research, teaching, internal service (doing something for the organization outside your own research, such as chairing committees, managing a department or running a search committee) and external recognition (what your peers outside the university think of you, for example, with recognition through prizes, invitations to speak at conferences or inclusion on advisory boards). Of course, you can get distracted and become lost in a career ‘rabbit hole’, similar to what happens in a game such as Skyrim (which features an enormous world without a map). However, no academic can expect to completely neglect any one area. It is crucial to address all aspects of your career — demonstrating leadership in teaching, doing university-level administration roles, having renown in your scientific field and achieving a solid research track record are all necessary to succeed.
However, research is widely considered the only thing that matters and many think that not publishing papers in prestigious journals such as Cell, Nature or Science and not having a billion dollars in grant funding will doom your chances of progressing. But, as they say in the game Portal, “The cake is a lie”. I can confirm that, at least for me, this was not the case — I do not have a paper published in a ‘top’ journal and have taken a more portfolio-like approach to research funding, meaning that I’ve secured many small and diverse grants rather than a few large funding packages. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to focus on my strengths: I have written articles — including a diary about my experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic — for Nature and have done science engagement through books and talks.
Follow your own path
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An important point is that you don’t have to do the same thing as everyone else. Many people can be put off academia because of a perception that it is for only one personality type — the alpha, Street Fighter type. But there are several ways through the system, just as you can complete a game in different ways. Admittedly, some are harder than others, the scientific equivalent of starting the notoriously difficult game Dark Souls as the ‘Deprived’ class (where you start the game in your underwear, rather than covered from head to toe in armour). My slightly unusual route to professorship involved a stint in the army reserves during my scientific education. I also had children at a relatively young age, which took time away from the bench but enriched my life in a way no PCR assay ever could.
The biggest difference between academia and video games is that in academia there are no extra lives and no do-overs. The choices you make are not without consequences. There are many paths with unsatisfactory endings. Hopefully, there wasn’t some obscure thing you should have done years ago that will entirely shape your destiny (as happens in the game The Witcher 3, in which choosing whether to have a snowball fight three hours into the game affects the ending several days of play later). One past career choice I worried about was my relatively static CV. I’ve effectively stayed at the same institution (Imperial College London) since my PhD and the received wisdom is that you have to move around, but in the end this wasn’t a problem.
One thing that is true in both academia and games is that done is better than perfect. There are diminishing returns in trying to get everything completed. Being locked in an endless loop trying to find the last Riddler trophy in the Batman: Arkham games or running the perfect western blot is not time well spent. Eventually you need to have something to show for your work. Science is never complete, and a paper will never be perfect; there will always be someone who can find something wrong with it or some other experiment to add. Knowing when to submit your manuscript for review is a crucial skill. Even though there is always another region to explore, quest to finish or experiment to run, you need to know when to stop, otherwise you might find yourself still awake at 2 a.m. (as can easily happen when you’re playing one of the Civilization games).
‘The ultimate reward’
If you do get the career story right, you can unlock the ultimate reward: a change in title! This might sound minor, but I have been Doctor Tregoning for 20 years and, all of a sudden, I am now Professor Tregoning; it felt a bit like discovering I was a different character all along, like finding out I was Darth Revan in the Star Wars game, Knights of the Old Republic. Even if there are more important reasons to aspire to professorship than just getting a better letterhead, it feels like a switch has been flipped in the way that people, especially those who don’t know me, value my knowledge and experience. Which is strange, because although my title changed overnight, nothing else did; I didn’t become wiser by some academic transcendence. The position can be used to do new and interesting things — since my promotion, I have been invited to speak at two conferences, which I doubt would have happened otherwise.
At the same time, it is important not to take it all too seriously. My worry is that somewhere along the way I lose sight of my own (many) limitations because of the way other people interact with me and that I expect to be treated in a certain way because of my job title, rather than because of what I can actually contribute.
Collection: Coronavirus diaries
The one thing I fear the most is accidentally becoming an asshole: taking myself too seriously in a quest for further success and forgetting the challenges inherent to career progression for those more junior than me. On the flip side, I don’t necessarily want this to be my career peak and to fade gently into tweed-coated, musty-smelling insignificance. Either way, there is an excitement to the open road, even if it has no defined end. By contrast, a friend who became a professor a while ago described the profound ennui of promotion, how it was a box ticked with no sense of reward. I couldn’t disagree more. Now, several months after my promotion, I still feel a warm glow thinking about it, and the future seems full of opportunity. Part of this comes from playing to my strengths and being recognized for them. I might be reading it wrong, but promotion is a way of the system saying keep going down the path you’re on.
Deciding what to do next is not inconsequential. I am at an inflection point because I still have 20 more years ahead of me — the same amount of time ahead as I have already spent sciencing. To strain my role-playing-game analogy even further, I’ve reached a point where I can level up no further and yet there is so much of the game left to play (I’m looking at you, Fallout 3). The aspiration is to spend the remaining time wisely, contributing to the careers of others and having fun while doing so. But even if none of that works out, I will be rather happy with the progress I have made.
The author declares no competing interests.