23 January 2013

Hard science requires soft skills

You defended your PhD in a good research group, you have a number of papers in decent (or even outstanding) journals and your boss speaks highly of you. Congratulations! Now you are looking for an academic position: the competition is tough, but after a few years of postdoc with the same productivity you hope you'll get your own group and start having PhDs in turn. This would be very cool, but what are your chances of success? And how can you improve them?

The odds

Let us start by a quick calculation: assume the number of permanent scientific positions (tenured professors and staff scientists) in your country and discipline will remain constant from one "generation" to the next. It might go down in an economical crisis or it might increase (in exceptional circumstances, but not for a long time). Estimate the average number of PhDs advised by a scientist over the course of his/her career (let us say, between 5 and 20). Statistically, only one of those will get a permanent position. The odds are worse in countries where these positions are open to foreign PhDs. To fix the ideas, let us say your chances are 1 in 10.

There is life outside academia

Before discussing improvement strategies, you should however consider your options thoroughly. It might be that an academic position is not made for you (or vice versa.) After spending a number of years in a research lab, surrounded by people who made the same career choice, it is easy to forget this simple truth. Even if you decide science is your calling, do have a plan B.

 I will work harder!

One obvious way of increasing your chances is to keep doing what you've been doing so far (solid lab work etc.) only more of it. This does not cut it for the equally obvious reason that graduate school is very demanding and has probably already pushed you to work quite hard. Longer hours will not significantly increase your productivity. If you cannot work harder, you should of course work smarter (choice of the postdoc lab and topic, external collaborations etc.), but this is another story.

The other half of the problem

So far you have focused on doing great science (and this is quite natural), but chances are you have been neglecting an activity equally important for your future career: letting others know that you've been doing great science. This is where a small investment in time and effort can bring a large reward. More precisely, you need to aim for two (highly interconnected) goals:
  1. Sell your results
  2. Network with other scientists in your discipline
Of course, the reason you have not worked on this so far is that you did not consider it important. In my experience, it is almost as important as the "pure science" part and I will sketch some of the reasons below. If you are still not convinced, discuss this with more senior colleagues.

The steps to take

There are several things you need to achieve:
  1. An overall view of the relevant research community in your country and abroad.
  2. An overall view of the topics under study in this community and a good understanding of how your own activity fits into the picture.
  3. Knowledge of the various kinds of positions available to you, with the corresponding requirements (official and otherwise).
  4. The ability to give effective presentations (at conferences and in lab talks).
  5. Personal contact with as many scientists as possible.

1. Know your colleagues

Which are the groups working on similar topics in your country and worldwide? Who are the top researchers in the field? This is a relatively small community, and you will encounter its members at each point of your career, in various capacities:
  • Collaborators
  • Referees for your papers and grant applications
  • Audience for your talks
  • Competitors for the same positions
  • Members of selection committees
 You will spend a considerable amount of time dealing with them directly or indirectly (e.g. reading their papers or trying to reproduce their experimental protocols) so you should know who they are and how they interact.

2. Know your science

In graduate school you concentrate on your own research. By the time of your defense, you should be one of the most knowledgeable people in the world concerning your particular topic. However, science is essentially collective and I would argue that you cannot be an accomplished scientist without thorough "background" knowledge:
  • What are your colleagues (and competitors) doing? (see point 1)
  • How does your work compare to theirs (quality of the results, novelty of the methods, etc.)?
  • How does it fit within the more general area?
  • What are the important problems of your field? Are you working on one of them? If not, why? These questions were posed by Richard Hamming in a famous talk; they might be difficult to answer now, but keep them in mind for later.
Armed with this knowledge you will also be able to present your results more convincingly (see point 4).

3. Know your opportunities

A PhD is mandatory for certain jobs and might be a plus for others. Make sure to identify these categories and to find out their advantages and downsides, as well as the availability of such positions. How much will you earn and how many weekly hours will you work as an assistant professor/industrial scientist/science writer/patent examiner/project officer etc.? Which of these jobs interest you (at least on the "plan B" level)?

One of the best ways of getting "inside information" is from people who already have experience in these particular areas.

4. Explain your results

Giving a talk can feel like a chore, and your first impulse may be to leave the preparations for the last minute (I know mine is). This is a big mistake, since a presentation is the most effective way of advertising your results and yourself as a scientist. At best, you will get the audience to read your papers and -more importantly- to understand that your personal contribution was essential.

It is a safe bet that nobody in the room is as familiar with your topic as you are. They probably do not even care about it. It is your job to get them interested, and this is most easily done by telling a story. Your talk should have a narrative that the audience can relate to, on a professional or even personal level.

You can find on the web abundant advice on how to give a good presentation, but there is no substitute for attending talks (this also helps out with points 1, 2 and 5). After each one, summarize the speaker's message and also list the details you liked and could use in your own presentations (as well as those to avoid at all costs).

Practice your talks (with an audience, if possible) and, last but not least, do not exceed the time limit. Ever.

5. Get in touch

This item is strongly related to points 1 and 4. I listed it apart because it involves making direct contact with people, and this might not come naturally but you need to make the effort. Of course "direct contact" covers many situations, such as:
  • Sending a reprint of your paper, along with a brief but personalized message.
  • Inquiring about open positions in a lab.
  • Asking questions after a talk.
  • Exchanging ideas at a conference dinner (engage, but do not monopolize).
Speaking of conferences, they are an ideal occasion to meet people, but also to observe their interaction and to realize that a scientific community is also a social community.

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