Do You See Yourself in This Picture?

The brief stories in this chapter have a common theme: that understanding and dealing rationally with the realities of a life in science are as important to science survival as being bright. Once you leave graduate school, the clock is ticking. Unlike a fine wine, you do not have many years to mature. As a young professional, you must be able to select appropriate research problems, you have to finish projects in a timely manner, and you ought to be giving compelling talks and publishing noteworthy papers. When job opportunities present themselves, you should be able to assess their value realistically. Romanticizing your prospects is a major mistake and is likely to have serious consequences, not excluding dropping out of scientific life prematurely. The first story is an excerpt from my own scientific beginnings. The others are also nonfiction, though I have altered locations and personal characteristics to avoid invading the privacy of the protagonists. I have deliberately identified the various characters with initials, rather than names, to avoid any ethnic implications.

What Do Scientists Do? Technique Versus Problem Orientation

Virtually all classroom work and much of what happens in a typical thesis project is aimed at developing a student’s technical skills. But although the success of your research efforts may depend heavily on designing a piece of apparatus or a computer code, and on making it work properly, no technical skill is worth more than knowing how to select exciting research projects. Regrettably, this vital ability is almost never taught. When I signed on with a research adviser in my first year of graduate school, I was thrilled to be given a problem to work in the physics of the upper atmosphere. That I had no idea what motivated the problem did not prevent me from carrying out an analysis, on a supercomputer of the day, and publishing my first paper at the age of . For my thesis, I consciously switched to a project that would require learning the tools of modern quantum physics, but again I found myself assimilating technical skills without ever grasping the significance of the problem, without understanding how or whether it was at the cutting edge of science. This way of working became a habit, one that seriously threatened my career. My first seven publications were in seven different areas of physics. In each case, I relied on a senior scientist to tell me what would be an interesting problem to work on; then I would carry out the task. I assume it was my ability to complete projects that impressed my superiors sufficiently to keep me employed. It certainly wasn’t my depth in any field.

Four years and two postdoctoral positions after earning a PhD—still having little sense of what I wanted to learn as a scientist—I was on the job market. More than anything else, I needed good recommendations from faculty at the university where I was employed. I was asked to give the weekly solid-state physics seminar and realized, at best dimly, that my performance in this venue was either going to make or break me as a scientist.

The talks I was giving at this point in my career reflected my approach to science. There was little in the way of introductory material. Much of the presentation was technical. I would describe a few “interesting” problems I had worked on and explain the methods I had used but would give little idea of context because I really didn’t know what it was. For the seminar at hand, I prepared my usual hodgepodge of this project and that, with no introduction, no theme, and ultimately no meaning to anyone but an expert. Fortunately, the professor supervising my research, C., understood what was about to happen to me, and asked for a preview of my seminar in his office. Thank goodness I accepted this invitation. C. expressed surprise at how poorly I had prepared my talk (though I don’t think he was surprised at all), how little grasp I seemed to have of the reasons that the problems we had worked out were meaningful, and consequently how uninterestingly I was going to present them to my audience. But, he told me, he thought I was too good technically to be allowed to fail in the way I was about to, and he gave me the lesson I needed.

His most important advice was:

  1. There has to be a theme to your work—some objective—something you want to know. There has to be a story (Do not start with, “I have been trying to explain the interesting wavelength dependence of light scattering from small particles,” but rather “There is a widespread need to explain to one’s kids why the sky is blue.”)
  2. If you know why you have chosen to work on a particular problem, it is easy to present an absorbing seminar. Start out by telling your story, why the field you are working in is an important one, and what the main problems are. Give some historical material showing where the field is, the relative advantages of different methods, and so on. Then outline what you did, and describe your results. Conclude with a statement of how your results have advanced our understanding of nature, and perhaps give an inkling of the new directions that your work opens up. Do not assume that your audience comprises experts only. There may be a couple of them, but even experts like to hear things that they understand and particularly to have their colleagues hear (from someone else) why their field is an important one.
  3. Lastly, rehearse your talk in front of one or two of your peers or professional supporters. Choose listeners who will not be shy about asking questions and offering constructive suggestions. Giving a seminar is serious business. Your future depends on the strong recommendations of your senior colleagues. If your talk is a hodgepodge of techniques or experiments or equations, if you seem to have no idea where you are headed, if you reek of deference to the experts in the audience, you will not be perceived as a rising star, a budding scientific leader. You will fail.

The wonderful result of C.’s mentoring was that I finally learned what it means to be a scientist. In making my work meaningful to others, I had also made it compelling to myself. No longer was I just working on somebody else’s problems. I was part of an intellectual enterprise with relatively well-defined goals, which might actually make a difference to humanity. I scrapped most of the equations I had planned to show and refocused my talk using thematic material I had garnered from C. I gave an excellent seminar—people I scarcely knew complimented me afterward on my choice of an exciting research area and remarked on the clarity of my presentation. In science, the reinforcement doesn’t get much more positive than that. I had learned a key lesson and was on my way.

Timing Is Everything

Having completed a respectable thesis problem and having acquired a reputation in graduate school as an excellent sounding board and scientific consultant, T. accepted a postdoctoral position with a leading scientist at a first-rate government laboratory. There, he was offered and began to work on a computational research project that first involved arriving at a numerically practical mathematical formulation of a problem and then required a considerable computer programming effort. As the months passed, and with the necessity on the horizon of finding a permanent job, T. absorbed himself totally in his very challenging work. Whereas in graduate school, under little time pressure, he would have spent a few hours each week visiting labs and contributing to projects other than his own, as a postdoc, T. became utterly single-minded.

Working 12 hours a day and more, he managed to complete his computer program soon enough to be able to run test calculations. The results were promising but not far enough along to yield a persuasive “story.” Accordingly, neither T. nor his audiences found his job seminar very exciting. What is more, since he had not taken time to meet and consult with scientists at his lab, his only strong recommendation was from his postdoctoral adviser. The lab itself was unwilling to promote T. to a permanent position, which it sometimes did, because he had not made himself useful, or even known, to a spectrum of its staff members.

On the outside, his job offers were a cut below what his thesis adviser had expected for him. In the competition for the best positions, T. did not persuade potential employers that he would ever derive useful results from his postdoctoral project, even though T. believed that he would have them within six months to a year. Other job candidates whose postdoctoral work had been far less ambitious, but had resulted in two or three finished projects, appeared much more impressive. Moreover, they had obtained excellent recommendations from the experimental colleagues whose data they had analyzed.

On the whole, it is hard to blame potential employers for their view of T. To them he was “a pig in a poke,” an unknown quantity. His thesis work might just have been done by his thesis adviser, and his postdoctoral project, though in principle a worthy one, was unfinished. Would T. be able to complete projects on his own? Was he a self-starter? The information simply was not there, in the eyes of the interviewers.

To some extent, T.’s fate was the fault of his adviser. Assigning a long-term project to a postdoctoral researcher who will be on the job market in 18 months is a clear risk to the postdoc’s future. But, had T. been as reflective about his career as he was in carrying out his research, he himself would have realized the dangerous path he was taking. As exciting as his assigned project seemed, he would have recognized that his postdoctoral years were the wrong time for such a large effort. At the very least, he would have reserved time each day or week to establish contact with other researchers at the lab and involved himself in one or two short-term projects with a clear chance for success. Many a graduate student or postdoc spends time trying to understand what his adviser wants and getting it done. In fact, it is the young scientists who define and carry out what they want, who learn to be scientific leaders, who find the best jobs and have the most productive and satisfying careers. Making your thesis or postdoctoral adviser happy is sensible, and worth doing, but not more so than acting in your own best interests.

Know Thyself—A Sweet Job Turns Sour

I obtained a PhD from a top-flight university in the Midwest. He had two different thesis advisers during the course of his four years as a graduate student. The first was a Nobel prizewinner, a theoretician whose name is a household word to chemists. The second was an experimentalist, also a very widely respected scientist. Having completed his degree, and cognizant of the scarcity of real jobs, B. accepted a “permanent” position at a major laboratory instead of a postdoctoral, temporary slot. It did not take him long to realize that this apparently wonderful opportunity was a trap. On arrival at his new location, B. was presented with two options. A senior staff member, who was involved in a major experiment, suggested that B. begin his tenure by working in his lab. That way, B.’s knowledge of the experimental aspects of his field would deepen, and after a couple of years, he would be much better prepared to work on his own. Objectively, one would say that this was a wonderful opportunity, effectively a postdoctoral job, but at a regular staff salary and with a reasonable approximation to regular staff job security. B.’s alternative option was to begin independent work immediately. Talking to his younger colleagues, he heard that, in the eyes of management, a full staff member was supposed to run his own research program and that at the annual performance review, if he was perceived to be working as someone else’s “assistant,” his rating, salary, and job security would suffer, perhaps irretrievably.

One does not have to be a rocket scientist, as they say, to appreciate that B.’s two-year stint as a graduate student in experimental physics was inadequate preparation for him to perform at the level of his supposed peers. Nevertheless, unmentored, B. was not willing to risk his all-too-sweet regular staff position by choosing the training that he badly needed. This was a mistake. After three years of buying equipment and setting up a lab, B. had still not established a research program, and indeed had little idea of what he wanted to accomplish as a scientist. Thus, despite its investment in his laboratory equipment, and despite his nominally very impressive pedigree, B.’s employer moved him out of basic research. In an environment where goals were clearly defined from above, he eventually matured into a real contributor and is reasonably happy. On the other hand, he is not doing basic research any more, and he went through several very stressful years as a result of his bad start. Sadly, his failure at work coincided with the breakup of his marriage, an unhappy fate shared by many whose scientific careers flounder.

The PhD Technician

L. spent two postdoctoral years at a prestigious lab, switching into a new field. He had been hired as a postdoc there because of the technical know-how he had acquired as a graduate student. As a postdoctoral scientist, his task was to build a piece of equipment combining technology in his new area with that of his thesis work. The lab where he did his stint as a postdoc was satisfied enough with At the end of his two years, the desired instrument was in place, and L. had his name on a couple of publications with his postdoctoral adviser. Of course, it was recognized that L. had not really learned the basics of his new field, and so his postdoctoral employer did not offer him a permanent position.

A more aggressive or aware young man might have spent a significant fraction of his two years not simply building the desired instrument but also asking questions about the direction of his new field, reading as widely as possible in its literature, and formulating a research direction of his own. L. did not, however, and even at the end of his postdoc, no one had told him, nor did he realize that becoming an expert in a field and having an exciting research program is an essential aspect of being a scientist. L. did manage to land a “permanent” job after his postdoc. But as in B.’s case, permanency was an illusion.

In his new job, L. again built an instrument. But he never participated as an equal member in the group that hired him. At seminars or in planning research proposals, he had little to contribute. When he went before his manager to explain what his research plans were, he could say no more than that he planned to look around for “interesting” problems. L.’s employer was happy to possess the new instrument that he had built and got running. But it was not long before L. was moved from the research division of his company.

Some will argue that L. just wasn’t suited for research, that his fate was predetermined by his personality. This may be the truth. On the other hand, I have the lingering feeling that if L. had been appropriately mentored at some point during his decade of higher education and as a postdoctoral researcher, he would have succeeded in the career for which he had trained, or perhaps would have switched earlier to a more appropriate field of specialization. It remains to be seen how well he will perform in his new job.

Institutionalized Conflict

Managers make many mistakes. More often than not, these hurt the people they manage rather than themselves. Consider F.’s experience as a postdoc in R.’s lab.

R. had been hired after a two-year postdoctoral position but had the wit to appreciate that his “permanent” position would only really be permanent if he proved himself a capable scientist in his first two or three years. He invested his first year building a lab around a major piece of equipment and was ready to begin to do science when F. appeared at his threshold. F. had been hired to work on a project that seemed rather exciting to its managerial proponents but had failed to get the hoped-for, and necessary, external funding. The result was that management had to find something else for F. to do and had decided that because his training was similar to R.’s, F. would be a postdoc in R.’s lab. The results were inevitable. Being a clever young man, F. realized that his future depended on gaining recognition for a significant piece of work, work that would have to be done in short order. R., no less clever, understood that his probationary position required him to complete several projects and get credit for t The result was not a happy collaboration but months of bickering over who would turn knobs on the machine and who would get credit for the scientific progress. Despite its responsibility for a bad situation, management did not like to hear the resultant whining from either side. F. ultimately won credit for most of the work done in R.’s lab, with the result that R., whose competence was felt to be more technical than scientific, was moved out of research. But management’s distaste for F.’s complaining far exceeded its pleasure in his scientific achievements. F. was not considered as a candidate to replace the hapless R. He did eventually find another position in science, though, and I hope he will succeed.

Postmortem: Successful collaboration is possible when one or both contributors have established reputations, or when each researcher brings a different, identifiable skill to the collaborative project—for example, when a theorist and an experimentalist work together. Collaboration does not work, as a rule, for two young competitors. Neither F. nor R. was mature enough to realize that F.’s postdoc was a predictable nightmare, an arrangement that should have been rejected by both of them.

If F. and R. had found or had been assigned appropriate mentors early on, they might have been able to deal with the competitive relationship imposed on them. If management had explained to F. at the outset that R. was to be “the boss,” and had discussed with both how credit for results was to be allocated, then F. could have made an informed decision on whether to work in R.’s lab, and he would have had little reason to complain later. However, on their own, F. and R. spent a miserable year and a half together, and R.’s scientific career is just a memory.

Impressing Mom and Dad: Whose Life Is It Anyway?

A common theme in the minds of young scientists is impressing Mom and Dad. This strong motivation is to be cherished, of course, but only if it does not overwhelm one’s ability to make rational decisions. H. is the eldest daughter of a successful professor of microbiology. Having obtained a PhD in an area of limited interest to employers, she decided to switch fields, hoping her technical expertise would enable her to establish a niche. However, she decided to carry out this (wise) move as an assistant professor at a prestigious university (a questionable choice, at best).

A major factor in this decision was that she wanted to show her father that she could succeed in the academic world, just as he had. Had she thought her choice through, H. would have realized that when her dad was starting out, research funding was expanding dramatically, making the odds of success much better. She might also have foreseen that her next five years were going to be a major struggle, a period when any desires for a personal life would have to be put off. Between coming up to speed in her new field, fulfilling her teaching assignments, writing proposals, and building equipment—all essential before any research results could be produced—H. found herself spending 16-hour days in her office, the classroom, and her lab. Yes, she did receive tenure after five years. So in that sense she succeeded. But during those years, she had no life beyond her work, and by the time she was done, her marriage had disintegrated. Did this impress Dad?

In a national or industrial lab, H.’s plan would have been much easier to realize. With no teaching assignments, no committee meetings, no insistent students at the door wanting their grades explained, she could have made her name working eight or maybe ten hours per day. After five years of building a lab and producing science, she would have had little difficulty landing a tenured job at an excellent university. Meanwhile, she would have had time for her family—maybe even time to have the child she wanted. She would have been earning 30 to 60 percent more and would have had better job security. She might have relaxed with a good novel occasionally, or even taken a vacation. Things are working out for H. now, but she paid what I see as a high price for the romantic notion that she needed to move directly into academia to win her dad’s approval.

Get a Mentor

I certainly hope that reading this book will help you recognize what is in your own interest. But no author can be expected to foresee your own special pitfalls. The best preparation you can make toward the goal of having a scientific career is to find yourself a “research aunt or uncle,” someone with little or no authority over you, who has enough experience to act as a sounding board and to give accurate advice. Do not be shy about getting to know people outside your adviser’s realm. The scientists at your lab will very likely cherish the human contact. They spend a lot of time behind the closed doors of lab and office, and everybody likes to give advice.

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