The 13 unwritten rules that guarantee success* in grad school and academia

*-success not guaranteed

Zach Portman
4 min readJun 16, 2021

As a scientist in the biological sciences, I have seen many grad students crash and burn because they didn’t know the unwritten rules of success. This generally happens because grad students believe in the stated values of academia rather than the things the system actually values. In fact, many people go their entire graduate career mistakenly believing that as long as they do Good Science (tm), everything else will just fall into place.

Here, I provide the secret steps that are necessary for success in academia. Follow all these steps, and you will have a distinct leg up over the hundreds of other PhDs who will be competing with you for jobs. My experiences are in biology/ecology, so some points may be specific to the field, but the main points should still hold across most of the STEM fields.

Graduate_School.jpg from wikimedia

The rules:

  1. Focus on the metrics, not the science. If you can’t publish it, it’s not worth doing. Your goal should be to produce as many publications as you can in as many high impact journals as possible. What you work on doesn’t really matter, since no one will actually read your papers anyways.
  2. Devote your life entirely to work. Don’t buy the BS about work life balance. Have you ever seen a professor with a healthy work life balance? I didn’t think so.
  3. Don’t put down roots. The expectation in academia is that between your tech jobs, grad school, and various postdocs, you will move at least 6 times between your bachelors and final job. It’s best not to get too attached to any one place or you risk being viewed as provincial and torpedoing your career prospects.
  4. Be independently wealthy (or at least have well-off family members who will give you money). This is probably the most important step. Between all the moving, the abysmal pay, and the antiquated reimbursement systems, it will be difficult to cover all your major expenses. If you aren’t well-off or have well-off family, consider finding a partner who can subsidize your lifestyle.
  5. Pick an adviser with clout. In a world where your next postdoc position depends almost entirely on a phonecall from your adviser, it makes sense to pick one with clout to spare. The simplest way to identify a professor with clout is to make sure they have mostly a mix of first- and last-author publications. If they have too many middle-author publications, this means they are using up their clout to weasel their way into other peoples projects and will have none left over for you.
  6. Join an incestuous lab group. Related to having an advisor with clout, join a lab group where everyone is on everyone else’s publications. They can be identified by finding cases where two or three faculty are on all or most of each others publications, with a rotating baseball-team-sized roster of grad student coauthors. This is a great way to maximize your output without doing any extra work. Be careful though, because these groups are often weird and cultish.
  7. Be a brown-noser. Many people — including your adviser, the department head, or random faculty — will have the power to make or destroy your career if they so choose. Your best bet is to worm your way into their good graces with excessive flattery, since most faculty are both incredibly insecure and have gigantic egos. Remember, while some people may claim that academia is a meritocracy, this is a lie. Getting jobs often comes down to who you know.
  8. Never rock the boat. Having strong opinions and offending people is a big no-no. If you offer up anything stronger than bland platitudes, you risk offending future collaborators, politicians, funding sources and jeopardizing those grants and job prospects. If you find glaring flaws in papers, don’t do anything about it. Talking about it will only make a ruckus and risk making you permanent enemies.
  9. Don’t research what you love, research what’s popular. Right now that’s climate change, diseases, and microbiomes. Not sure what will be the next fad? It’s always a safe bet to combine two of the current fads (e.g. diseases of microbiota, how microbiota are affected by climate change), and something to do with genomics is always a good choice.
  10. Use inspiration from the broader field. Read widely, and go to conferences and watch lots of presentations. See a project that looks really interesting? Steal it. But make sure to steal it from someone junior to you so they can’t retaliate (they probably weren’t going to finish it anyways).
  11. Quantity over quality. Publications are the currency of academia, so print as much as you can, as fast as you can. It’s better to get it done than get it right. Sure, some people might realize that your research is an empty shell, supported by buzzwords and p values twisted beyond their limits, but hiring committees rarely notice.
  12. Remember you are eminently replaceable. At any given time, there are dozens of eager, naïve people who will take your place at a moments notice. Act accordingly.
  13. Grind this out for 10 years. After spending 6 years in grad school, and then another 5 years over three different postdocs, you’ll probably find success! Hooray! Then after you continue the grind for another 5 years, you’ll probably get tenure and can finally relax and focus on pumping out clutches of grad students to start the cycle all over again.



Zach Portman

I am scientist who studies bees. My research covers the identification, biology, evolution, and conservation of native bees.