There is ever-increasing pressure on university academics to research or to perish, to teach to exist, or be forced into other careers. Selection pressures on individuals and organisations are enormous and it feels like survival of the fittest, particularly during these turbulent economic times. Academics therefore need to consider their individual and institutional strategies (niches) to ensure survival. Different individual academic strategies can be explored by developing the plant ecological-evolutionary approach of Grime . Grime worked on strategies of a different kind: those that help plants survive in testing environments, recognising a continuum of approaches that fall between three extreme strategies used by plants: competitor, stress tolerator and ruderal (C–S–R). Classic plant-based C–S–R theory has been debated over the past three decades with >1500 citations. Here, we argue that this elegant, but anthropomorphic, theory can readily be adapted to provide interesting insights into the traits required to survive in a harsh academic environment. Academic roles can be diverse, with individuals simultaneously engaged in research, teaching, pastoral care, administration, business and public engagement. While undertaking these multiple roles, they are often exposed to a range of disturbances via operational changes, policies and funding support. However, success in the academic environment is ultimately determined by research performance, which is the main metric of individual productivity in universities worldwide as measured by regular research assessments (e.g. ). Grime  used a triangle to visualise C–S–R plant strategies, and this can be adapted to describe academic strategies (Figure 1). Modern research is expensive in terms of time and money, and being successful involves investment in both at the expense of other activities, inside and out of the work environment. To survive as a research competitor demands focus. By contrast, academics with a high teaching and/or administrative load have limited capacity for research growth and can easily be forced further into the specialised, potentially stressful, high-contact teaching-only niche.