Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A bit of advice from a fellow Memphian...

If you click on the above link, it will take you to an opinion piece by Douglas Green, a researcher at the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital here in Memphis, TN.  The point of the piece is to provide some advice for those of us just starting out in science and looking to become successful, which I take to mean: get lots of papers and grants which are the currency that can be used to purchase a PI position at a college or university of good standing.  (PI by the way stands for Primary Investigator, but, for all intents and purposes, it usually means tenure-track, or tenured, faculty).  I agree with Green on several points, I think that being passionately curious is a great driving force that can keep you motivated regardless of the many setbacks one too often faces in the process of scientific investigation. However, this passion can also make it that much more disheartening if your grant proposal fails to convince your peers that what you so ardently want to know is something the rest of the world should want to know as well.  It is here that Green boils down what he thinks is the essence of academic success, which appears to be, to paraphrase: "wow me."  Or, rather, "wow us".  "Us" being the members of the study section reviewing your grants, or the fellow scientists selected to review your papers and determine whether they are worthy of publication.  I think this is a wonderful sentiment, and something that I believe we all try to do in coming up with original research ideas.  Most of the scientists I know hope that their ideas will bring something completely new to the table, or that they will someday change the way people think about a particular idea in their field, BUT, I also think this idea is too simplistic to be complete in offering substantive advice for burgeoning scientists.  The reason for my dissent is simply that "wowing" your audience of scientific peers is a somewhat limited goal.  Not only is it poorly defined (some ideas are truly great, but may be seen as too risky) but also it seems that there may be numerous ways to garner such approbation from scientific peers, yet Green provides little road map for how to get there, nor does he address the road blocks one might find along the way.  He diminishes "grantsmanship" in favor of astonishing or important ideas, and, while I agree with him that a really great idea would strike me as more favorable than a flawlessly put together grant for a lesser idea, grantsmanship (or salesmanship) can definitely mean the difference if your proposal floats dangerously close to the cutoff line.  Similarly, dumb luck all too often plays a role in one's success in science.  First, there is the fact that many important discoveries come from unforeseen results from sometimes unrelated fields of research (Thermus aquaticus and Taq polymerase, CFC refrigerants and Teflon, Staphylococcus and Penicillin, etc.) and thus those avenues initially proposed can only be identified as groundbreaking after the fact.  Even if we leave serendipity aside, consider how important luck can be just in the sense of relying on fellow human beings for funding and for approval.  If the political climate favors fiscal conservatism, then public funding for science will be scarce, and many very good ideas will fail to get funded, regardless of how "wowing" they may be.  Conversely mediocre ideas can get funded or accepted in important journals simply because a particular field is getting a lot of attention in the media, where whole issues of Science and Nature get devoted to something like "swine flu" and any paper that happens to be ready for submission that month gets published.  Often the fate of one's science can rest less on its merit and more on a reviewer's mood, how much time and attention they have to give, how open they are to contradictory ideas, or how well they can sell your idea to other scientists on the panel.  As scientists, or perhaps as academics, we like to believe that we exist in a true meritocracy, where there are no corporate politics, no game playing or salesmanship, and certainly nothing so fickle as chance.  We would believe that if you have great ideas you will be rewarded, if you work hard and support your ideas through grants and publications, you will be rewarded, and if your work truly impacts the field, you will be rewarded.  And while this is true to some extent, an academic career is still a human endeavor, and like all human endeavors, an ability to play politics, an ability to be a good salesperson, and a bit of dumb luck are all likely going to be essential supplements to hard work and ingenuity if one hopes to be truly successful.

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