You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Man holding briefcases looks up long stairway emerging from a book as if wondering how to get to the top

Yutthana Gaetgeaw/Istock/Getty Images Plus

As a contented and productive senior professor at a major research university, colleagues and students often ask me for advice. They wonder about achieving work-life balance, interacting with students, navigating administrative challenges, writing papers and grant proposals, and many other topics. Out of those conversations, I have developed my own “rules of conduct”—guidelines that have contributed to my academic longevity, successes, and satisfaction during my 45-year career.

Although other academics have published general guidance for professors and rules for effective teaching, comparatively few have written about how to be a productive and fulfilled research professor. The requirements for research professors are different than for teaching faculty members: researchers tend to spend more hours working on manuscripts and grant proposals or engaging with group members on research projects, and less time developing curricula and lessons or teaching students in classroom settings.

What follows are the primary rules I’ve written out at the behest of colleagues just starting their careers who want copies for their own reference. I’ve broken them down into major categories, starting with health and overall well-being. I recognize that some of these rules reflect my particular discipline and experiences, but I believe most of them are widely applicable.

Health and Overall Well-Being

  1. Spend time doing what you love; it will help prevent burnout. I am a botanist and love plants, so from March to October I spend time outside every day studying and enjoying plants. During the winter, I spend more time attending seminars, reading the scientific literature, and writing articles about plants. Keeping in touch with what you value can help sustain you over the long haul of your career.
  2. Work to stay strong, healthy and content. Devote time to activities that maintain and improve your physical and mental health, clear your thinking after hours on the computer, and boost your creativity—all of which can improve your research efforts. Depending on your interests and needs, those activities might involve exercise, hobbies, spending time with family and friends, and religious observances, among others.
  3. Recognize that no job is ideal. You are at your current job because it was the best you could get at the time. So, unless you are serious about looking for another position, make the best of where you are, do a good job and identify ways you can make your institution stronger. Don’t be envious of colleagues at more prestigious or wealthier universities; money and prestige don’t correlate with happiness.
  4. Determine your own worth as a professor and a person. Base that assessment on your own personal measures of success—such as satisfaction with your work, positive feedback from students and colleagues, the production of good research, and the achievement of a reasonable work-life balance. That said, if you want to want to receive promotions and salary raises, you do need to also pay close attention to the expectations of your university.


  1. Learn how to effectively apply for grants. A key first step in almost any application process is to obtain copies of recent successful grant proposals or fellowship applications. You can typically write to recent awardees to get these copies. Successful proposals or applications are extremely useful as guides for developing the content, style and organization of your document.
  2. Continually broaden your scope. Learn new skills and research content that can maintain your enthusiasm. Use sabbatical leaves and time off in the summer to do so. Alternatively, rather than spending time learning a new discipline yourself, find an expert in a key field necessary for your research and make them your collaborator and friend.
  3. Pay someone (or offer co-authorship) to help with routine tasks. Those might include creating figures, editing manuscripts, formatting bibliographies, and performing statistical tests. That will leave you more time for the creative parts of research.
  4. Be willing to review papers for journals and proposals for funding agencies. They are the best sources of information on advances in your research area. Be willing to read over and comment on colleagues’ manuscripts and proposals. That is helpful to them, and you will learn more about current ideas in the field.

Working With Grad Students and Junior Colleagues

  1. Help graduate students and undergrads publish papers in peer-reviewed journals. You might need to extensively edit or rewrite a paper, but this will help the students in their scientific development as well as advance the academic discipline.
  1. Work closely with first-year graduate students on a few carefully selected endeavors. See what they like to do. As the students mature as scientists, encourage them to develop their own projects and articles.
  2. Be fair, generous, and transparent with authorship on publications. Be especially so on projects involving junior colleagues, graduate students and undergrads. It is the right thing to do, and it may help start their careers in research. If your grad student or colleague has done anything close to half of the project work, let them be first author of the resulting publication, as they very likely have greater need for the recognition.

Students and Teaching

  1. When you teach, follow “The Golden Rule of being a professor.” Treat students the way you would like professors to treat someone in your family or how you wish you had been treated when you were a student.
  2. Use your research to strengthen your teaching, and use your teaching to explore new research ideas. This is particularly appropriate in advanced courses and seminars—which, in rare situations, might even produce publishable review papers as group projects by the end of the semester.
  3. Read and review student work within a reasonable period of time. Normally, that should be within one or two weeks. While a thorough reading is best, a fast read with a few general comments is better than not reading a paper at all.
  4. Get to know students and other members of your research group as people. Show them respect and sympathy. Meet regularly with your students so you are aware of their progress, life circumstances and problems. That will help you develop actions to help their progress.

Collegial Relationships

  1. Nominate students and colleagues for awards and fellowships. Focus especially on junior colleagues at your university and colleagues at other universities. It creates good will, and they may win.
  2. Ask your colleagues to nominate you for awards and fellowships. It’s perfectly acceptable—this is the way the world works—and those nominations can help your career. Many colleagues will be happy to do this, but they might not think of it on their own.
  3. Keep in regular touch with colleagues. And by that, I mean broadly—in your department, other departments, the university administration, and at other institutions. Spend time talking with colleagues, especially junior faculty. Invite people for coffee or lunch. Exchange emails or organize a Zoom call with a distant colleague. You may develop long-term friendships, help colleagues with advice and discover surprising and useful information. Inviting researchers from other universities to visit your institution to present a talk is another great way to establish and deepen relationships.

Outside Relationships

  1. Get out and about.Attend seminars at other universities and in departments at your institution as well as society meetings when possible. This is a valuable way to grow your research network, hear about academic exchanges and funding opportunities, and gain new information and insights. Send follow-up emails to people with whom you had a good talk or who gave a good presentation.
  2. Help colleagues from foreign countries improve their English writing in drafts of their papers. Alternatively, match them up with freelance editors. When needed, and if you have the means, consider paying for this editing out of some discretionary funding source. Your foreign colleagues will truly appreciate the gesture.
  3. Agree to write recommendation letters for students. Also write letters of promotion for colleagues at other universities. If you are busy, a short clear definitive letter is fine. This is part of being a responsible and caring citizen of the academic community.

The Wider Audience

  1. Make your research available to a broad audience. You can publish popular versions of your academic articles, write blog posts and press releases, contact and talk with journalists, produce or be interviewed for podcasts, or become active on social media like X or LinkedIn. Make sure to let your university’s public relations office know about these efforts, ideally before they occur, to get the broadest exposure and engagement.
  2. Update your website at least once a year. If you have a blog or something similar, post regularly. Send PDFs of your recent academic papers to your research colleagues to ensure that your work is read by the target audience.

Talks and Travel

  1. When visiting another university, ask to meet with graduate students and others at early stages of their careers. If possible, treat them for dinner or lunch. They will often remember this experience for decades.
  2. When you give talks or seminars, try to arrive 10 to 15 minutes early. That way, you can chat with audience members and find out who they are, their backgrounds, and (for foreign audiences) their level of English comprehension. Adjust your lecture, as needed, with this new information in mind to best speak to this particular audience.

To conclude, other scholars may have developed additional rules, and I invite them to share them with me and their own colleagues. Meanwhile, I hope those I’ve outlined will help you on your career journey. If 25 rules seem like too many, just select a few that might be useful. Good luck!

Richard Primack is a professor of biology at Boston University. He has served as the editor-in-chief of Biological Conservation and president of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation, and has authored the popular book Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods as well as several conservation biology textbooks.

Next Story

More from Advancing in the Faculty