Being a Successful Researcher

The bioinformatics community is an interesting one in that, as a result of its relative infancy, is highly connected to the social internet in a way that "older" sciences have yet to catch up (Google "bioinformatics blog" and "astrophysics blog" for a very rough quantity comparison).  An interesting result of this is that there is a large amount of noise emerging at the grassroots that decries the state of academia, the treatment of graduate students and postdocs, and how people are being forced to leave academia.  In fact, it seems like the most universal qualification that comes with a Ph.D. is being able to complain about academia.

I'd imagine that none of the sentiments are new; Isaac Newton simply never had a blog.  I don't really buy into all of it since there seems to be a lot more complaining than offering of solutions, so I was heartened to find that Mick Watson, a prominent figure in the bioinformatics community, recently posted a blog titled "How to stand out in academic scientific research" which boils down to a few tips on being an outstanding (in the literal sense of the word) postdoc.  Rather than simply dogpile on to the fantasy notion that every Ph.D. student will/should try to become a professor but that doing so is a futile endeavor, he offers some experience-driven advice on how to actually get an edge in the academic world that is refreshingly realistic and representative of in-the-trenches research.

I liked much of his advice, which ultimately amounted to four key points:
  1. Learn to write papers - "Nothing else matters, other than publications."
    No real arguments here.
  2. Write fast - "you are no use to your PI if you take 6 months to go from results to a first draft of a paper"
    This is more specific to Watson's field of bioinformatics.  When I was still in the trenches doing computational chemistry, I had the benefit of divining insight from models that nobody else was using.  As a result, my advisor (not me!) could (and still can) afford to wait years before publishing papers that are still relevant and cited.
  3. Know more than your PI - "be able to do something that people need"
    I think Watson is too gentle with this point.  If your advisor can do everything you can do, you are closer to being a technician than a researcher.  Your core understanding of the scientific field will overlap, but I think a good researcher should be far enough into the weeds to actually be able to use and understand what relevant techniques are on the cutting edge.
  4. Finish stuff - "ideas are easy"
    This extends far beyond just being a research scientist, and Watson acknowledges this with the allusion to the Belbin Team Inventory.  However, I'm not sure I agree with having to be "the Finisher" simply because there's something to be said about "done" being better than "perfect."
However, I found this advice a little siloed.  Folks who have made it to being a postdoc but haven't learned the essentials are already late to the game, and I think there are more general philosophies that can be applied to scientific research in all fields.  The remainder of this post is my contribution to the trendy business of philosophizing about research as a profession.

I should also stop here and state that I am in no way qualified to speak on any of this.  I have never done a postdoc (although I'm not the only one!) and am no longer in the trenches of full-time scientific research (computer science doesn't count--sorry CS folks).  I also have a formal education in what amounts to an engineering discipline despite my research peers largely being in chemical physics and chemistry, so my outlook is skewed accordingly.

I was fortunate enough to have an exemplary advisor who shared extremely meaningful insight during various moments of off-the-record candor.  I lived Watson's point #3 in terms of diving into the gory details of my research, so this insight is really the most universally valuable knowledge I gained while doing a Ph.D. under my advisor's guidance.  Despite the fact that I effectively "left" full-time academic research, the following keys to being a successful researcher remain relevant in what I do today.

The patented Glenn K. Lockwood Five Keys to Being a Successful Researcher (FKBSR) are remembering:
  1. Don't just do what your advisor tells you
  2. Become a salesperson
  3. Nobody cares
  4. Have an ego
  5. Watch reality TV
These probably sound a little crazy, and perhaps they are (recall that I have no idea what I'm talking about).  However they are worth explaining since they're how I continue to navigate the no-obligations research career I now have.

1. Don't just do what your advisor tells you

This is similar in sentiment to Watson's #3.  If you just do what your advisor tells you to do, realize that you are meeting his or her minimum expectations and that's it.

When I started out as a graduate student, I was shocked at the sheer number of outgoing graduate students in my department who had no job prospects upon completion of their degree.  The norm seemed to be to defend, then slide into an informal postdoc while searching for gainful employment.  While this is particularly relevant to engineering disciplines where there is no dearth of private-sector jobs for Ph.D.s, I came to realize that this was largely a result of graduate students simply doing what their advisors told them to do for five to seven years.  At the end of their graduate studies, all this amounted to was a piece of paper and an empty CV.

Being a graduate student (and by extension, a postdoc) comes with tremendous flexibility to pursue opportunities and build up a CV.  There are innumerable funding opportunities, fellowships, and travel grants that are exclusively available to graduate students.  Once you've got that piece of paper saying "Doctor of Philosophy" in hand, the doors close to literally hundreds of thousands of dollars of easy money that (a) secures your intellectual freedom to pursue what you think is interesting, and (b) gives you momentum in climbing up the academic ladder.

a. Securing Intellectual Freedom (and not hating your life)

I wasn't a particularly successful graduate student as far as changing the world, but I was competitively awarded two small grants that allowed me to do what I wanted to do for my research rather than do whatever funding dictated.  My first graduate fellowship, funded by the Office of Nuclear Energy, let me pursue my personal interest in nuclear energy and get paid to do it.  It opened a lot of doors as far as getting to meet important people in the field and visit world-class research labs, and although it ultimately didn't amount to much other than two un-cited manuscripts I wrote, I am most proud of those two manuscripts because I was able to dictate everything from defining the problem through experimental design to stating the ultimate conclusions.

My second graduate fellowship came from the Corning Foundation and saved me from a year-long sentence doing research on battery materials.  I hated batteries (still do), hated my research, hated my life, and I was staring at an impassable wall dictated by promised deliverables.  I applied for and was awarded a year's support by the Corning Foundation a year into that work though, and the day the Corning Foundation money came through, I told my advisor that he'd need to find someone else to do the battery work.

I also applied for a number of fellowships that I did not win and amounted to a waste of a week each (again--truth in Watson's item #2).  However, my advisor never outright told me that I needed to apply for any of them (although his support was instrumental).  Pursuing these opportunities was just essential to maintaining my mental health for as long as I did while doing research.

b. Getting the Career Momentum

Perhaps more importantly, going beyond what your advisor tells you will provide opportunities to pad your CV.  This sort of clashes with Watson's point #1--at the end of the day, publications are what matter.  However, having a list of awards in your CV from the day you get your Ph.D. makes you stand out when applying for funding.  It is an unfortunate fact that it is easier to win awards and get grants simply by being the past recipient of other awards and grants.  I certainly saw this with my nuclear energy research--I subsequently won an award for one of my two nuclear energy manuscripts as a result of being connected to that community of researchers, and the awards kept coming up until the day I changed careers.

2. Become a salesperson

Like it or not, being a successful researcher means being a successful salesperson.  Very little research stands on its own, so unless you are already being recognized as a world-class researcher, it's likely that you will have to sell and promote your work for as long as you're producing it.

I've found that this most successfully translates into literally standing up in front of a bunch of people and telling them why your work is awesome.  You can call it "presenting at conferences" to make it sound more prestigious, but it really boils down to the same thing as selling Slap Chops and Ronco Rotisseries.  People need to be told why they need to buy into your findings.

Of course, there is a much more literal truth to this as well: being a good salesperson can go a long way towards getting and maintaining funding.  Ideally, a genuinely good idea written into a proposal or presented to a program manager would stand on its own, but this just isn't often the case.  At best, your meritorious proposal will be competing against the sales pitches of PIs and researchers who have surrendered to the salesmanship game.  Understanding how to play the game yourself is critical, and I'll mention this again in my key #5.

The most compelling anecdote that instilled this key point in me came from my advisor over a few post-conference beers.  Back when computations were still emerging as a valued tool in applied science, he was lobbying his department's industrial partnership consortium for $200,000 to purchase a large computing cluster to give his group the computing capacity they needed to advance the field.  Despite his extremely strong publication record and international recognition as a leader in simulation, his oral presentation and proposal were not approved by the industry consortium the first time he presented it.

Not one to give up (he is known within the department for his unending proposal writing), he delivered the same exact proposal to the industry consortium the following year.  The only difference was that, in lieu of his regular slide deck, he presented a very impressive visualization that was laboriously rendered on his then-state-of-the-art Silicon Graphics machines.  One of the panelists immediately said, "Get him his new cluster."  Years later, I wound up doing my undergraduate thesis on that machine's last legs.

You really need to sell what you're doing.  In fact, this point is so important, items #3-#5 below should actually be sub-points, as they all factor into how to be an effective salesperson.

3. Nobody cares

This is another valuable pearl of wisdom I learned directly from my advisor that follows from item #2 above.  At the end of the day, it is a suitable approximation (a spherical cow sort of thing) to say that nobody cares about your work.  The majority of Ph.D.s and postdoc projects become so obscure that there are only a handful of people on the planet who understand what you are doing, much less care about it**.  If you're lucky, your advisor will care, but provided you are following Watson's Rule #3, he or she will not fully understand the details anyway.

Whenever you are trying to sell your work, remind yourself that nobody cares.  This should give way to two important guiding factors:
  1. People need to be told why they should care.  This means contextualizing your work.
  2. The details of your process aren't important.
Point (a) should be obvious to any seasoned salespeople (researchers), and I will elaborate upon this idea in my key item #5 below.  Point (b) may be a little less obvious despite its truth though.  Even though you are proud of the insights and discoveries you've made during your research, if they aren't directly contributing to point (a) and selling your work, they don't need to be said.  The details belong in a manuscript, not a sales pitch, because nobody cares how clever you were during the process.

Personally, this is the point with which I struggle the most, as I enjoy documenting the journey in addition to describing the final destination.  When I develop presentations, they always wind up being about twice as long as they should be, and I have to make a second pass over every slide and ask myself "will anybody care about this?"  It can be a painful process (for example, how do you condense five years worth of painstaking research into a 45-minute dissertation presentation?), but it is ultimately necessary once you realize that your chief job as a researcher is to be a salesperson, not an encyclopedia.

** The exception to all of this, of course, lies in developing new methods.  This is a can of worms that I will not open here.

4. Have an ego

This key item is intimately related to #2 (be a salesperson) because your competition fuels their sales pitches with giant egos.  Backing your salesmanship with an ego is necessary just to make par, and I think this item is perhaps the largest source of anguish and disgust with academia.  Even if you think your work isn't that great, you may have to sell it like it's Nobel prize-winning stuff to get that next round of funding.  There is, of course, some degree of required moderation; as in any walk of life, having an ego can be a very easy way to burn bridges.  More on this in item #5 below.

In a more general sense, presenting your work (both orally and in manuscripts) with a sense of confidence goes a long way in the whole salesmanship aspect of research.  It can also stave off belligerent critics or reviewers who may be trying to stifle your work out of their own undeclared self-interests.

5. Watch reality TV

Perhaps the most abstract of these key items, the value of understanding human nature has been largely lost on a lot of STEM researchers.  I have the benefit of being married to a woman whose passion lies in the humanities and who used to force me (with much resistance) to sit down and watch reality television with her.  At the surface, it's mindless and borderline-exploitative entertainment, but there is actually a tremendous amount of insight that can be gleaned by watching that stuff.

Take, for example, a show like CBS's Survivor--the premise is that a group of strangers are thrown into inescapable circumstances with the objective of clawing their way to the top of their tribe.  As ugly of a comparison as it is, this is fundamentally similar to the business of academic research.  These sorts of reality shows (the "good" ones, at least) let you see how different sorts of behaviors (haughtiness, meekness, bullishness) affect others and how others respond, both in public and in private.

In a more practical sense, it's easy to liken people you know (e.g., your program manager) to at least one person in any given season of a well-crafted reality show, and that provides a reasonable starting point for understanding how that real person might respond to various angles of approach.  If you have a very unobtrusive approach with others but your program manager's reality-TV-analogue looks down on the quieter players, perhaps you should consider taking a different approach during in your next evaluation.  It sounds silly, but there are definitely patterns of behavior that emerge across the interactions between different types of personalities, and these patterns shouldn't be underestimated.

This last point may all sound a little fluffy to STEM researchers, and perhaps it is.  However, there is undeniable value in the concept of understanding people in that, if nothing else, it allows you to communicate more effectively.  Talk to your business office and custodial staff.  Go to jury duty and watch the people around you.  Even though they won't be the ones reviewing your grant proposals, remember key item #3 above: nobody cares about what you are doing, which means your review panel will probably care as much about your work as the fellow sweeping the cafeteria does.  The only differentiator is the amount of context you need to provide.

The most dramatic case where this has affected me lies in the field of nuclear energy research.  Perhaps more than any other field of applied science, funding for nuclear energy is intricately tied to public opinion as a result of the perceived safety threat and the politicians elected to represent the public.  Consider the example of Yucca Mountain, a proposed (and constructed) nuclear waste repository that has never opened despite billions of dollars invested in thoroughly understanding every scientific and engineering challenge involved in storing spent nuclear fuel there.

I was awarded a fellowship to study the behavior of nuclear wasteforms in 2008 when Yucca Mountain was on the verge of opening up.  That same year, President Obama was elected to office on the platform that he would shut down Yucca Mountain; he effectively did so starting in 2009, and the fellowship that funded my Master's degree also ceased to exist as a result of subsequent restructuring of DOE's Office of Nuclear Energy.  I say this not as a reflection of any sort of political stance of my own; rather, popular opinion got the snowball rolling despite the extremely high degree of engineering and investigation that went into siting Yucca Mountain, and I maintain that effective communication with the public is the only way to change course in that area.