Step up to leadership for mid-career growth

It’s easy to get stuck in an endless whirl of grants and papers. Jeffrey McDonnell offers tips for becoming a leader in your field to ascend to the next professional level.
Jeffrey J. McDonnell is a hydrologist in the School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada.

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Halfway through the 1990s, I felt like my mid-career progress as a hydrologist at the State University of New York in Syracuse was on track. I was promoted to associate professor four years after finishing my PhD.

When I applied for a US National Science Foundation mid-career grant that required a senior colleague in my field to review the contents of my CV, I reached out to a luminary who was a member of the US National Academy of Sciences. I was excited about what I thought was a strong package, one that would merit a strong endorsement.

I don’t remember how I came to see the form he faxed back, but his rating is still indelibly stamped on my mind: he had ticked a ‘good’ in the CV-evaluation box, next to a scratched-out ‘poor’. I had been certain that I would get an ‘excellent’.

Aghast, I wondered what had happened. My transition from assistant to associate professor had gone swimmingly — even ahead of schedule. What had gone wrong?

Years later, I realized two things: first, the standards of excellence in my department were not the same as standards elsewhere. My institution’s bar was lower. Looking back, I see now that my luminary’s department had faculty members of my age and career stage who were publishing regularly in high-impact journals and pursuing the ‘big questions’ of the field, whereas all of my work was in disciplinary journals.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the reviewer had determined that I had been doing largely more of the same — grants in, papers out — since getting tenure, and that I hadn’t taken any steps towards leadership. If I read between the lines, he might well have thought that I was not going after the big, important questions in my field. Admittedly, I was letting grant opportunities drive my work, instead of pursuing the bold research questions that distinguish researchers as leaders in their fields.

Unlike the mentorship-heavy early stages of a career, a scientist’s mid-career years in academic or government research are largely mentor-free. My own mid-career disappointment (I did not get that grant) taught me that I had to take steps into leadership beyond my local institutional bubble. But what were they?

Now, when I mentor mid-career colleagues, I tell them about my experience and try to help them to understand the differences between early-career expectations — which for tenure decisions tend to centre on numbers of grants, numbers of papers,and numbers of students supervised — and the new set of leadership expectations that define mid-career advancement.

But mid-career can be a tough transition: gone are the days of a gradual introduction to teaching obligations for the first few years. The heavy weight of committee work, teaching, research, peer review, service to professional societies and more can begin to take its toll. On top of that, there is the mid-career churn: the money-in-papers-out treadmill that can lead to tenure, but that might prevent you from thoughtfully reflecting on the big questions in your field. Many get trapped into what they let the job become, rather than reshaping it into a new path forward. Like me in my earlier mid-career days, they are not deliberately controlling what they are working on. Malaise can set in.

Here are some tips that might help you to avoid getting stuck on that mid-career treadmill, and ascend to the next level of your career.

Shift to a leading role

If you haven’t already, take some time to think about where your field should be headed. Ask yourself, ‘What are the grand challenges in my field?’ ‘What should we know that we don’t?’ ‘How can my work help?’ Instead of focusing on numbers of publications, concentrate on the impact your published works will have on these grand challenges.

To maximize the impact of your work, take steps to catalyse the international scientific community to answer these questions. Organize international conferences and workshops on the big questions that you’ve identified. Write persuasive commentaries for both disciplinary and high-impact journals, if possible. Serve your scientific society by seeking leadership roles on committees. These activities will help you to strengthen your academic-leadership identity.

Reframe your achievements

All of these activities can lead to further acknowledgement of your mid-career leadership: invitations to give talks at universities and keynote addresses at meetings, and invitations to join review panels at funding agencies and journal editorial boards. Although you cannot necessarily trigger these yourself, your visibility as a leader in your discipline will.

You can also demonstrate your mid-career achievements on your CV by listing only presentations that are invited talks or keynotes, and only service contributions to professional societies — not just your membership. These changes can help you to focus, and to differentiate previous dossiers you submitted for early-career evaluations from those that you need for progressing to your next career level.

Rediscover your enthusiasm

You might encounter a mid-career plateau as you continue to do what you’ve done for years. But reflecting on the big questions in your field can be a way to re-excite your professional passions. Pursue those questions with zeal together, working with your graduate students and postdocs.

You might also consider a 6–12-month sabbatical, if you’ve not done so already. This can be a crucial time for purposeful reflection when you can ponder the big questions, using a laboratory you might visit on your sabbatical as a sounding board for your new ideas. The longer you go during your mid-career stage without developing leadership — in your personal science and within your collegial network — the tougher it is to begin, thanks to inertia.

Although citizenship and collegiality are still essential in mid-career as you become a leader in your department, external scientific leadership and evidence thereof are an important mid-career target — something I did not understand all those years ago.

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at

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