How to succeed in academia according to a Nobel Prize Laureate

Many PhD students have the opportunity to listen to the thoughts and ideas of influential thinkers and researchers. At the PhD Life blog, we welcome reflections from seminars, conferences, symposiums and plenaries. This time, Felipe Cicaroni Fernandes shares with us the advice from Sir J. Fraser Stoddart…


In July this year, I had the chance of participating in the 46th IUPAC World Chemistry Congress in Sao Paulo, Brazil. From a personal perspective, it was truly inspiring to see my hometown hosting the largest and most important meeting in Chemistry in the history of Brazilian science.

Among a fantastic scientist programme with a number of simultaneous sessions (sometimes with 8 taking place in the same room – a quite unorthodox approach that actually proved to be quite successful), the apex of the six days of intense scientific discussions was the plenary lecture delivered by Sir J. Fraser Stoddart (follow him on @sirfrasersays). The Scottish-born scientist was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (along with Jean-Pierre Sauvage and Bernard L. Feringa) for the design and synthesis of molecular machines through the exploration of mechanically-interlocked molecular architectures. Ok, the terminology is quite complicated, but it simply means the study of molecules that are bounded like chain segments: there is no actual chemical bond between the segments – instead, they are mechanically stuck into each other.

You would expect that a talk delivered by a Nobel Prize in this area would be the most intense 60-minute-long Chemistry lecture of your life, right? But Sir Stoddart surprised us with a very empathetic and relatable approach. He delighted the more than 3000 attendees with a summary of his career, from the difficulties and lessons learned from someone that has been devoting his life to Chemistry since 1967, to the success and development of the works that ended up resulting in his Nobel Prize.

At the end of his lecture, Sir Stoddart shared with us some of his points of view about how one should conduct research in order to be successful in academia. I felt it was my duty to blog here and spread his words with those who didn’t have the opportunity to hear from him. Although some of the tips might sound only applicable for senior researchers, we can easily relate and translate them into our reality as early-career researchers. The tips given by him are the following (as quoted from his presentation):

  • To put teaching students before research
  • To let students take ownership of their research
  • To put your students before yourself
  • To support your students through thick and thin
  • To identify a line of research that is receiving little attention
  • To be able to appreciate the significance of a discovery
  • To find out how to manage research
  • To employ best practice in writing grants and scientific papers
  • To set very high standards in presentations – oral and written
  • The strength of a horse, the hide of an elephant, the work ethic of a honey bee

He shared with us not only academic insights, but also his opinion on the core principles one should keep in mind to become a successful person, independently of the field:

  • Treat people how you would expect to be treated yourself
  • Be respectful towards people younger than yourself
  • Treat people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds the same
  • Don’t speak ill of other people
  • Think before opening your mouth
  • Realize we live in a “village”
  • Be more ready to give than to receive
  • Be supportive towards those around you
  • Be ready, willing and able to praise
  • Work out how to turn the pig’s breakfast into a sow’s purse

Finally, Sir Stoddart quoted the English composer and actor Noël Coward: “The secret of success is the capacity to survive failure”. Pretty inspiring words, aren’t they? Commitment, humbleness, passion for your topic and resilience: key points for those who want to succeed in life (and perhaps end up winning a Nobel Prize).


Have you been inspired by a speech? Do you want to make sure others are as lucky as you and get to listen to those words? Then write a post for us! Send us an email at with your blog post idea. You can also tweet us at @ResearchEx or leave a comment below.


Felipe Cicaroni Fernandes is a PhD student at the Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG), University of Warwick. He holds a BSc degree in Chemistry and MSc in Physical Chemistry from the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Unicamp), Brazil. Currently, Felipe works in the production of sustainable polymers from waste resources. He is also Director of Membership Activities of NESSE (Network of Early-Career Sustainable Scientists & Engineers). He tweets at @fcicafernandes


Image: hot-air-balloons-floating-fun-1984308 / skeeze / CC0 1.0

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