Want to succeed in academia? Here’s what universities are looking for

Dreaming of becoming a professor one day? Then it might be worthwhile to know what universities are looking for and plan your career strategically. We spoke to scientists who regularly attend hiring committees to find out what the first thing they look at when a CV lands on their desk.

Good publication history

‘If you are a fantastic teacher but do not have a good publication list you will never get a professorship, except in very rare cases’ says Sven Hendrix, founder of smartsciencecareer and director of the Doctoral School for Medicine & Life Sciences at Hasselt University, Belgium. But a single highly-cited paper 10 years ago followed by a few low impact papers raises question marks.

‘It is the quality of the papers from recent years that counts,’ adds Sven Rau, head of the Institute of Inorganic Chemistry and vice dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Ulm University, Germany. ‘The trend needs to go up.’

Though Rau finds the h-index important – and would even get it calculated if an applicant doesn’t state it in her CV – Hendrix is less convinced about its power. ‘The h-index is not suitable to qualify young scientists, it is more of a lifetime achievement award,’ he says. Perdita Barran, chair of mass spectrometry at the University of Manchester, UK, agrees that the h-index should be treated with healthy scepticism. ‘I check who they worked for. Not everyone can work for a star scientist and publish great papers. This doesn’t mean that a scientist who has fewer publications and worked in less-known groups is a worse candidate. They can still have done very innovative stuff.’

Clear, collaborative research

All interviewers are looking for a clear scientific vision, independence from your supervisors, and a good fit in the department. ‘You need to show that your research complements, not competes, with the work of your future colleagues. We have enough lone wolves. We want internal collaborations and apply for grants together,’ Rau and Hendrix agree. ‘Collaborative projects are generally more successful in grant applications, but academia is a broad church,’ Barran adds. ‘There is a place for niche work and less collaborative scientists.’

Though our experts don´t expect applicants to describe possibilities for collaboration in the application documents, the interview is a different scenario. ‘You’ve got four to six weeks to prepare yourself for the interview. I expect creative ideas for internal collaborations,’ Rau states.

It’s not just collaborations within departments that matter, too. ‘Interaction with industry is incredibly important, not only because you might want or have to transition to industry at some point during your career, but much of the research funding is coming from there,’ Barran says.

‘This has changed over the years,’ says Hendrix. ‘Twenty years ago it was still seen as “dirty money”, but now it is a big bonus.’

International experience

In some countries, such as Belgium and Germany, committees are very critical towards home-grown talent: meaning that heading abroad is a necessity. ’Having spent time in a country with a different language and culture is not only great for your network but is essential to understand PhDs and postdocs from abroad who come to work in your lab,’ Hendrix says. You need to have been abroad!’

This isn’t the same for the UK and US, although is likely to be viewed as a bonus by a selection panel. However, there is another area of experience useful for any prospective professor: teaching. Although many selection committees consider teaching experience less essential than research, never having given a lecture is not going to help you secure the job. In Europe, local languages need to be mastered to the level of being able to teach undergraduates (C1 level). However, this can be postponed by exempting you from such teaching duties for about two years.

Grants and funding

Hendrix says it’s a bad sign if someone has never raised any money. ‘At the start you might get a tiny budget from your university, but then you are expected to bring money into the university.’

Barran notes that it helps to be selected for a first academic appointment if you have a fellowship. ‘There are three types of fellowships: university-based, national and international (such as the European Research Council). The latter two are very good. If you bring these five years of salary and research money, it is highly likely that a university will give you a permanent position.’

Rau points out that he rates study and PhD scholarships very highly. ‘In Germany, this is very competitive and if the CV is still good by the time they apply for a professorship, it shows long-term excellence.’ Similarly, the status of generating patents has increased in recent years, as you can show that you might be able to create a start-up company or licensing opportunities. ’This is now a very important component of UK academia in order to maximise impact from public money, which is sometimes called third-stream funding,” explains Glenn Burley, Reader at the University of Strathclyde, UK.

The X factor

If you excel at all the aspects mentioned so far, you are certainly in the race for a good position. But there are a number of other factors that can make you an interesting candidate, enrich your own work experience or indirectly support your research.

Prestigious prizes certainly highlight successes in your career. ‘They are nice external indicators about your work. Here quantity matters rather than quality, unless it is a big prize,’ Hendrix says.

In the UK, outreach work has a higher status compared with continental Europe, where it is viewed as interesting experience but less prestigious – and a potential distraction.

Perhaps surprisingly, leadership isn’t viewed as a strong criterion during the application process. ‘If you have the potential to do world leading research and you have (or already demonstrated) the potential to bring in the pounds, leadership is shunted down the priority list,’ Burley advises.

But perhaps the most telling remark is from Barran: ‘Actually, the CV is normally not the first time you meet the people.’ While a CV is important on making the transition to professor, networking activities may be the most important way to get ahead in your career.


This work was inspired by Promotion, Postdoc, Professur by Mirjam Müller. The authors would also like to thank Paul Walton, professor of inorganic chemistry at the University of York, UK, for helpful discussions.