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biochem belle

Research-and careers therein-rarely follows a linear path. Instead, it is often a long and winding road. These are stories about science and my personal experiences on this road.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Nov 07, 2010, 4:50pm
Tuesday, November 23, 2010

"Nothing matters but papers."

This is the mantra of some folks in academic science, as highlighted in Doctor Zen's post, which was sparked by a comment from an SfN10 blogger on Tideliar's post regarding the negative reaction of some colleagues to his blog.

"Papers are the only thing that counts."

For the benefit of any undergrads or new grad students out there, this is a bald-faced lie!!!

In the case of the most self-absorbed "mentors" (and I use this term lightly with the preceding modifier), then it could very well be true that the only important thing, in their minds, is for trainees to crank out papers that in turn get them (the PIs) grant. Note I say "for trainees" because these may be the very same people who spend a very small percentage of their time in their labs or offices because they travel so much. And they might also be the same ones who sit on papers until they're perfect... or at least until they're ready for their closeup in GlamourMag.

Papers are important. After all, they show that you produced results that survived the scrutiny of peer-review. But there are those advisers who seem to think that trainees should toil away in the lab 14 hours a day, 365 days of the year, for their entire time in the lab. All other things are simply distractions that take you away from time you should be generating results for the next publication.

Even setting aside things that contribute to one's mental, social, and emotional well-being (which were taken on during the #k3rn3d fiasco), there are things outside of papers that matter to your career. There's a dirty little secret that they're not telling you: Good science alone isn't enough.

If you ever encounter a PI who basically locks trainees away in the tower laboratory, run away as quickly as you can! If people in the lab never go to conferences, seminars, networking events, lunches with speakers... this is a huge problem. I have no link to back this up, but a career strategist (e.g. someone who helps people figure out what they're doing with their careers and how to get a job) quoted Harvard Business Review as saying that 90% of jobs are found through someone the applicant knows, and she's seen it time and again in life science industries. . Even in academia, where you have to go through search committees, interactions with applicants before they applied can influence the process. Speaking with a young PI, s/he commented that having met a search committee member had made the interview process a little more comfortable because a rapport was already established. The same person mentioned that s/he had seen applications thrown in the out pile early in the search process simply because someone had met the applicant for 5 minutes at a meeting and thought s/he was an arrogant ass. When you already have a job, meeting people is crucial. One successful PI said he underestimated the importance of attending meetings as a new PI. Why does it matter? Members of your grant review sections attend meetings, and getting your name out as an expert in your area is crucial to grant success. Plus informal interactions are, it seems, the most common way of establishing collaborations. A friend in grad school struck up a collaboration with another lab after attending a seminar and got a paper out of it. In grad school, I met with a candidate interviewing for a tenure-track position; s/he ended up taking a job elsewhere, which happens to be in my current city. We recently chatted, and I had no expectation of gaining anything beyond some discussion of the tenure-track career path; between travel and meeting time, this took about 2 hours out of my typical work day. In addition to some career and grant advice, I have a potential future collaborator who can offer just what I'm interested in and can't get at my current locale.

Of course, this particular case-in-point above was about blogging and its "waste". How can this possibly contribute to your career? I accept that I'm probably preaching to the choir at this point, but I'll keep going. Science blogging and Twittering* require a time investment. And  there are many times, even a majority of times, that there is no or little tangible return on that investment. Guess what? Real-life interactions are exactly the same. But if you keep at it, and there's a good chance that one of those interactions will pay off. Blogging can improve communication skills, and Twitter helps improve conciseness. It also provides a forum for discussing things you don't often find in journals--like the ins and outs of applying for grants and jobs. I'm applying for a career development award next year and solicited advice from the Twitterati. Later that same day, my adviser and I were talking about the training plan section and the critiques that had come back regarding this section of another postdoc's application. It matched exactly with what a few PIs on Twitter had told me. I may have received the same advice from both sources, but my adviser wouldn't have had that perspective a year ago. Blogging and Twitter expand access to people who have recently and successfully competed for similar awards. That is an invaluable resource when you're writing a grant.

Blogging is a timesink. So is talking with colleagues, meeting speakers, and attending seminars. But both things have incredible potential to provide opportunities you'd never have if you just barricaded yourself in the lab. Papers are important but publishing alone doesn't get the job done. The careers of successful scientists (e.g. those doing what they want to do) are replete with evidence of this, regardless of their age. The digital age is simply bringing along new ways to waste time and make new connections.


* Upon request, I will have a post more specific to Twitter coming soon.

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Mr. Gunn

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Speaking as someone who has gotten job offers via twitter connections & whose current job owes much to his social networking activity, I would say this is definitely true.

Doctor Zen
The University of Texas-Pan American
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Thanks for the link, mate!

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I agree - blogging is a time sink and if its taking away time from one's productivity in the lab, then it's not a good thing. I agree that personal interactions, blogging, etc. allow you to make connections and formulate ideas, much like sitting around just thinking about things. But you can't argue that papers are not going to have a much bigger impact on your future career than anything else. After all, if you are doing science, that's what you are supposed to do and papers are the main source of dissemination. Papers are not just tools for PI's to get grants, they are what is going to make or break your career. That being said,  it doesn't mean that one can't find time for blogging and also be productive in the lab. As long as you can manage your time, you will have plenty of time to blog and do other things. When I was a grad student and a postdoc I rarely worked on weekends and left the lab by six or so every day, but when I was in lab I was very focused and very efficient. I got tons of stuff done. In contrast, other people may have spent 14 hours a day in the lab, but were not any more productive, because they were not as focused and were tired. So it's all about time management. If you can get your shit done, then the rest of time is yours.

Dr Becca, Ph.D.
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Starting my blog--which I did on a complete whim and with no awareness of the "science blogosphere"--may be one of the best things I could have done for my career. The advice, support, and general collective wisdom of the online community has made a huge difference in how I approached the TT quest this year, and it appears to be paying off! Like Namnezia says, you have to manage your time, but this is not an impossible feat.

biochem belle
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<i>But you can't argue that papers are not going to have a much bigger impact on your future career than anything else.</i>

Namnezia, I'm certainly not arguing that. I am arguing, though, that in most cases, papers alone are not enough. Those who imply otherwise have either forgotten or (more likely) aren't all that concerned with the future (i.e. after leaving their lab) success of their trainees. My view is: first and foremost, you have to do good science and get it out for the world to see; second but important, make personal connections with scientists outside your lab and institutions. Blogging isn't for everyone, and it shouldn't diminish productivity in the lab. The latter is true for going to seminars, as well.

Genomic Repairman
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I agree with what BB is trying to put out there:

Papers are most critical item, but getting your ass out there and pressing the flesh with other scientists is going to be a tremendous help as well.

biochem belle
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Yes, let's just not take the pressing of flesh too far, GR...

Genomic Repairman
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I agree BB, no one should have to get the shaft in order to get a job around here...

Jeanne Garbarino

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I just tweeted this blog post.


Comrade PhysioProf

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Twitter is for fucken teenagers, asshole motherfucken politicians, celebrities, and other gibbering moron blights on humanity. Fucke fucken twitter. I'll hammer a thousand motherfucken rusty nails through my dicke, pour gasoline on it, and light the motherfucker on fucken fire before you'll find me twittering. Grow the fucken fucke uppe and act like a motherfucken adult, not an infant.

Psi Wavefunction

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Twitter got me in touch with a bunch of people who may well be beneficial to my career. I'm perfectly ok with being a motherfucking infant blight on humanity in that case; humanity can go fuck itself as long as I have a job ;-)


And yeah, blogging harmonises nicely with the NSF "Broader Impacts" stuff, as I found out recently. And, quite frankly, it gives me shit to write in my personal statements – you'd rather not read me blabbering on about how I analysed this T-DNA insertion line and found that phenotype and then stained it with ASSFUCKING stain to find that X was bigger than Y in Z with a p value of blah. Science communication and other forms of outreach actually give you something to talk about, at a grad school applicant level anyway. Besides, any monkey can do the physical labwork. Not every monkey can take difficult-to-read research and produce an interesting story out of it. Also, I firmly believe scientists have an obligation to give back to the very public that funds our research, and a significant part of that is explaining it. That's the only way we would revive support for basic science, which is in a miserably depressing state right now. By basic science, I mean, diversity of blah or evolutionary mechanisms of  whatever, not fucking cancer research. We're useful and important too!


Dammit, CPP's comment fouled my fucking brain for the rest of the motherfucking evening, and I can no longer write a single asscunting sentence without goddamn tabarnak swearwords in it. Perfect time to work on my fucking grad school applications. Sacrement! (this is why we still keep Québec)

Prabodh Kandala
Texas Tech University Health Science Center
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Well crafted post. Networking is very important. It has potential to get you collaborations, grants what not.

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I've got to agree.

Networking is anything but wasting time. I feel that I've been a solid scientist through PhD and Postdoc, but that alone wasn't enough. That "little bit" that put me over the top, at every level, was the networking and being in people's minds when they're making a selection for a position.

A very, very, very close second would be "passion." And you better be dripping wet with it.

biochem belle
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expat, I have to say, I didn't even consider where passion ranked, because frankly, I wouldn't survive very long in any career/job where I didn't have passion (hence, why I left my first postdoc). In my eyes, passion first, papers second, networking a close third Smile

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Comrade PhysioProf said:

Twitter is for fucken teenagers, asshole motherfucken politicians, celebrities, and other gibbering moron blights on humanity. Fucke fucken twitter. I'll hammer a thousand motherfucken rusty nails through my dicke, pour gasoline on it, and light the motherfucker on fucken fire before you'll find me twittering. Grow the fucken fucke uppe and act like a motherfucken adult, not an infant.

Ahh, that felt good. I was worried tweeting might not be a great investment of my time. No, instead I should clearly be wracking my brain for more innane comments about baseball to post on my joke of a blog. AHAHAHAHAHAHA.

Nothing like CPP to help me affirm my choices. Granted, it's by knowing that doing the *opposite* of whatever he says is right, but hey. It's still useful! Kind of like I know to question my own opinion whenever I find BikeMonkey agrees with me. Thanks CPP you're the best!!



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biochem belle said:

expat, I have to say, I didn't even consider where passion ranked, because frankly, I wouldn't survive very long in any career/job where I didn't have passion (hence, why I left my first postdoc). In my eyes, passion first, papers second, networking a close third Smile


Maybe. But I still think you're really lost without the connections. Papers (or any other type of currency) don't really mean anything without getting it/them into the correct hands for evaluation.

Perhaps, what I should have stated is the "ability to convey your passion without sounding like a BSer."

Anyways, this place is full of interested threads (including this one.)


biochem belle
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expat, I completely agree--connections are critical, and you will eventually lose without them.

PhysioProf, Becca, and Psi--you guys are cracking me up :)

Oh, and PhysioProf, thanks for the vivid illustration. I'm sure no one ever said such things about blogging. Oh, wait... nevermind.

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