Career Success

Top 7 Characteristics for Success in Academia

By Mike BergelsonSeptember 5, 2014

It’s September! Back-to-school time for many. We’re taking inspiration on the Everwise blog. Every week or so we will run a post about careers in education and academia. Like all of that we publish here, we hope you find valuable regardless of your profession.

This first one is about talents and skills of people who tend to enter and thrive in these fields. Whether you consider becoming a researcher, administrator or teacher at any level, here are 7 characteristics that can help you climb the ivory tower.

How does this apply to you? Do you similarly leverage charisma to succeed? Would more attention to detail help with teaching responsibilities that are part of your job? Do your creative talents indicate you should consider re-directing your career? Is patience something you should improve?

1. Discipline

If you choose an academic profession, you’ll likely end up with more control over use of your time than in many other fields. But with freedom comes responsibility. Serious motivation is required to establish expertise and prominence in chosen fields of specialty. In one study of the characteristics college students expected from their professors, key terms included: prepared, organized, disciplined, consistent and prompt.

2. Patience

Join the right startup, and you just might enjoy great success in a short amount of time. In the academic world, things move more slowly. You may have to complete a Ph.D., and then spend a couple of years in a junior research position, and then work up the ranks, with “adjunct”, “associate” or “assistant” in front of your title until you can finally become a full tenured professor. If your course is more administrative, there may be a rigid hierarchy and complex politics to navigate. There are great reasons to serve causes of knowledge and education, but “getting rich quick” certainly isn’t one of them.

3. Integrity

Promising and prominent academic careers have been ruined over a slight bending of the rules in an experiment, or citation without sufficient attribution. And with a role in shaping views of impressionable students, standards of conduct are understandably high.

4. Creativity

This may not be a characteristic normally associated with education, but enhancing people’s understanding of the world is often best served through ambitious and unconventional techniques. This can also apply to administrative roles — you might need  to come up with new ways to convince alumni to donate to an institution, for example. Creativity could apply to work in the public relations department, like translating highly specialized academic research into press-friendly soundbites.

5. Attention to Detail

You can’t be only a ‘big picture’ person in academia. Points have to be backed up with proper references and footnotes, and mistakes are pounced upon. In a joke about doctoral programs, the answer to a question about whether graying hair comes from ill health or family stress, is “footnotes”. With complex inter-relationships spanning government, industry and individuals, the intricacies can extend to multiple operations within education like admissions and financial aid.

6. Intelligence/Problem-Solving Skills

Colleges are complex organizations with highly varied populations. Whatever’s the job, you’ll confront intricate problems all the time. How can you manage a departmental budget, advise about financial aid qualifications, or help a student who’s struggling to fit in?

7. Charisma

Think it will be enough to have your head buried in books, and produce great research? Think again. You’ll likely have to fulfill teaching responsibilities as well, and even the research work is often contingent on attracting funds. Success can also depend on being invited to speak at prestigious events or contribute to books and journals, so networking is important. The stereotype of the shy or nerdy academic is highly misleading.


Mike Bergelson

Mike Bergelson

CEO at Everwise

About the Author

Mike Bergelson is the CEO and a co-founder of Everwise, a talent development startup that connects employees to the people, development resources and experiences they need to thrive at every stage of their career.

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