7 principles to consider while navigating the academic journey


Academia is like a real-life game, complete with roles and rules. Over the years, I learnt from those around me, and I’d like to pay it forward by sharing seven principles to consider while navigating the academic journey. Just a disclaimer before I continue: these principles are based on my own experience, each person’s story is different, and not everything will apply to everyone. Take what works for you, and let go of the rest.

#1 Create impact

We have all heard the saying “publish or perish”. Indeed, our academic reward system encourages us to publish; however, nothing stops us from focusing on creating an “impact to cherish”. We cannot spend our time doing research just for the sake of doing research. I even think we should refer to our “research projects” as “impact initiatives”, with their main aim to create a positive societal change. This is what I refer to as changing the world.

But how can one create an impact? As they say, the more one knows, the more you know how little you know, and I’ll therefore stick to examples within my scope, sports research. As academics, we must build bridges between research and practice to facilitate the translation of findings into practice. Encourage research and postgraduate students to present their findings to the stakeholders, be they coaches, parents or health care providers. Create infographics, exercise sheets, and checklists from research projects that lend themselves towards that. Share these on social media, write a blog post or create a YouTube video. Organise conferences that cater for both academics and practitioners – get researchers, coaches, physiotherapists and other clinicians all in the same room. This is where new relevant research questions are born, and research findings are disseminated and translated. Search for ways in which your research can inform policy, processes and systems.

Photo by Bruno Bueno


#2 Marginal gains persistently lead to high impact consistently

In 2020, when Covid hit, we all went into lockdown. The world changed forever. As a professor with teaching and research responsibilities, like many others, I was working from home. All of a sudden, we had to change the way in which we did everything – from comfortable contact to unknown online overwhelm. To deal with the overwhelm of having soooo much on my plate, I decided to set a weekly goal, but thereafter turn my focus on what is in front of me in the here and now. We often dismiss our smaller efforts as “nothing” while we don’t realise they are part of the road towards something bigger. We look at others with impressive CVs and biographical sketches that emphasise the end-product of big hairy audacious goals, but those CVs don’t show the road to get there. The many small steps are not depicted, the footprints have been erased, and all that is left is the trophy. The reality is that each of these big goals took multiple “marginal gains”.

I created a quote that proudly features on a sticky note in my office: “Marginal gains persistently lead to high impact consistently”. This quote reminds me that even though it does not feel like I’m moving forward, I am chipping away slowly.

#3 Acknowledge your excuses (and then chuck them)

Vusi Thembekwayo once said that we all have our excuses but that none of those excuses bring us closer to our goals. I had a whole list of excuses up my sleeve at the time when I was doing my PhD: my husband is a cricket coach and is away from home quite often, English is my second language, I'm living 68km from campus, doing a PhD with small kids, a full workload and no sabbatical… and my list goes on. And there are many more valid excuses out there than the few I could list here, but those excuses do not bring us closer to our goals. So ask yourself, how can I relieve the effect of these excuses? Can I appoint someone to help with the cooking at times when my husband is away? Will Grammarly Pro or Trinka improve my writing? How can I optimise my time available to get this PhD done?

There will be some things you can improve and others you need to accept. Putting my four and two-year-old boys in boarding school was not an option, although that thought certainly crossed my mind (tongue in cheek). I had to find ways to ensure I achieved my goals while being a present parent. Money is one of the things that may hold you back when it comes to finding solutions, but not all solutions involve money. Some solutions need innovation. The point is to remediate whatever excuses you can remediate and accept the rest, then move to the point of asking, "how can I make it work?"

Photo by Hung Tran

#4 Acknowledge your ecosystem

Acknowledge your support network. You are not doing this alone – we live within an ecosystem; those around us shape our paths. People influence our direction, be it through formal rules and regulations or informal corridor conversations. And it is not only the positive interactions that help us grow; remember this.

Photo by Stephanie P


#5 Pay it forward

Seeing that we are part of an ecosystem, we need to “pay it forward” through sharing. Sharing your research data is a good place to start – within legal and ethical bounds, of course. Share your experiences to allow others to learn from you. Share the resources that you have built up over the years. Share without expecting anything in return. You are contributing to your ecosystem, and your ecosystem is teaching you valuable life lessons.

Photo by Thought Catalog


#6 Failure is learning

In academia, we are constantly faced with peer review, in other words, people telling us where we lack and can improve. Sometimes, we wonder if we will ever be good enough. One of my articles was only published after seven journals rejected it. It is here where some reframing of the mind is needed. Failure is not failure, it is an opportunity to learn. As Ken Blanchard say… feedback is the breakfast of champions. What can you learn from the experience? Pick the learning points out and let go of the rest. Then move on in search for the next opportunity to fail, aka learn.

#7 Keep the balance, even if you get it right only 50% of the time

Do your best to balance it all, even if you just get it right only 50% of the time. When I was busy with my second master's (yes, you are allowed to ask WHY one would do that after obtaining a PhD), I had three little boys. I didn't have much time for my own needs. One Sunday afternoon, my crowd was immersed in an afternoon nap with the potential of waking up any moment. I needed one more hour to declare myself prepared for the next day's exam. I went to a shopping centre to buy some bread and other basics. I took my notes with me and studied in my car in the parking lot for an hour. Now the ideal is not to go through such desperate measures but also to accept that desperate times call for desperate measures. And it helped; I passed the exam, not because of that one hour, but because I accepted that, at times, I'm going to have to do a few bizarre things to achieve my goals, and I was okay with it.

Checking emails while standing in the grocery store queue is not something I recommend because we also need time to “think”; we should not fill our minds with busyness all the time; however, when desperate times call, embrace it. Balance may go out the window temporarily but will soon be back.

A few years ago, I saw a tweet where the tweep reported that she had just heard some awful news and was going to eat salad and do some yoga to cope with it. I must say, this made a profound impression on me. We often hear that someone would turn to a burger and a beer rather than yoga and salad. What a great example of healthy coping strategies!

You now have my strategies for dealing with the academic journey. Now grow this list by adding your own principles. Apply them in your own life. Enjoy this journey we are on. Go out there and change the world.

I’d like to acknowledge the website https://www.pexels.com/ for the images used in this blog post. Cover Photo by Buro Millennial.

For more value, go to https://www.researchmasterminds.com/. And one last thing, if you are a (post)graduate student working on a master's or doctoral research project, and you are passionate about life, adamant about completing your studies successfully and ready to get a head-start on your academic career, this opportunity is for you! An awesome membership site - a safe haven offering you coaching, community and content to boost your research experience and productivity. Check it out! https://researchmasterminds.com/academy.

1 comment

Monique Keller

Research Masterminds you rock! Thank you for paying it forward towards changing the world one principle at a time!

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