An open letter to my graduate students and post-docs
Dear Students and Post-docs,
I’ve learned a few things as my career in science has progressed from graduate student to post-doc to assistant, associate and finally professor. I’d like to share some of these pearls of wisdom with you in hopes that you’ll be able to use them during your journey as a scientist. I post these suggestions here because, although I see you working diligently in the lab, we haven’t had enough time recently to drink beer together and have this discussion.
A few years ago, when I was in graduate school at Texas A&M University, I was involved in a protein folding project. This was a new project started by my advisor, so there was a sense of urgency to spend the time required to learn new techniques in order to collect data, to attend classes and seminars, and to learn material on broader topics related to our work. This also helped me develop a passion for science. You too should develop a sense of urgency. JAYFK recently posted a blog entitled “5 Things you should know before dating a scientist”, and I repost point #4 here. Although this is a very funny and irreverent look at science, there also is good advice in this particular blog:
4. You’re not less important than the job — the job is just more important than anything else. One doesn’t become a scientist to sit in an office from 9 to 5 Monday through Friday. We do take our work home. If science is happening, we’ll drop whatever we’re doing — even if it’s with you — to study it. We’re always looking for fundable research ideas, so yes, we’ll stop on the street to write something down, interview grad students or gather information for a grant. On that same note, don’t get upset if you call us on grant deadline suggesting some afternoon nookie and we say, “I’ve got to put the paper to bed first.” That could mean hours from now, but we’ll have plenty of time to put you in bed later.
How many hours do we work? There are 168 hours in a week. That’s how many hours we work. Yes, we have families and other interests, but we’re always “on.” There’s a sense of urgency even today, many years after my graduate training. It doesn’t matter if you want to be a research scientist in academia or industry. It doesn’t matter if you want to teach undergraduate students at a smaller college or master’s students at a smaller university. To be successful as a scientist and educator, you have to have a passion for science and develop a sense of urgency.
Back in the day, email was a relatively new thing, and, in fact, my first email address was shared with one of my lab mates. Sometime over a few beers I’ll tell you about the confusion it caused years later when I interviewed for a post-doctoral position with a preeminent crystallographer, and the guy kept mixing up my name – because my email address was a combination of mine and my lab mate’s name. I’m still laughing over it.
Anyway, aside from weird email addresses, we students also had to trek to the library to find journals in the stacks. We made photocopies of the papers of interest, and we stored the copies in file cabinets. I still have two cabinets full of papers that I’ve copied over my career. They’re now taking up valuable office space and provide surfaces for coffee pots and plants. All of the papers in those cabinets (and more) can now be downloaded as pdf files that would easily fit on my iPad. My second pearl of wisdom is to embrace the changes in technology.
You also have to find your audience and learn to communicate with them outside of your publications. I’ve seen many graduate students disappear into a lab after their first year in the program, and they resurface five to six years later when they’re ready to graduate. This is a mistake.
Research is moving progressively toward collaborative efforts – combining expertise from different labs to solve a problem. If you are a biophysicist, how can you collaborate with a cell biologist, for example? You have to learn how to communicate effectively with each other, and that’s not going to happen if you’re buried in the lab. Attend seminars and look for techniques that are complementary to your field. Attend seminars and journal clubs that are not in your department. Talk to the speakers, and take advantage of the opportunities offered by your department or university to network with scientists outside of your field.
Do you expect a future boss to find you buried in the lab and offer you a job because you’re such a great person? You ARE a great person, but it’s not going to happen that way. Because of the explosion of the internet, large amounts of information come in many small pieces, and the shared information influences how we communicate with each other. Gunther Eysenbach recently published an editorial (1) in which he stated that highly tweeted articles are more likely to be highly cited. Interestingly enough, the article has been tweeted almost 2,000 times and was the subject of a recent article in The Atlantic.
It appears that social media will have a lasting influence on how we communicate with scientists as well as non-scientists. In an excellent series of blogs at Scientific American, Christie Wilcox reports:
If you’re trying to communicate but you’re not on social media, you’re like a tree falling in an empty forest – yes, you’re making noise, but no one is listening. It’s not much of a dialogue if you’re the only one talking.
You have to make a significant effort to find your voice among the other voices out there. Learn to express yourself in 140 characters, or 110 if you include a URL.
So, here are my pearls of wisdom for young scientists:
- Develop a passion about science (not just your field) and a sense of urgency.
- If you want a 9-5 job, you’re in the wrong field.
Embrace the changes in technology.
Get out of the lab and make an effort to network.
Find your audience and learn to communicate with them.
Embrace the social media. Cultivate your audience on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, especially.
Find your voice and let it be heard in places other than your publications.
This should give us a few talking points when we have time to grab a beer.
- Eysenbach, G. (2011) Can Tweets Predict Citations? Metrics of Social Impact Based on Twitter and Correlation with Traditional Metrics of Scientific Impact. J Med Internet Res 13, e123. doi:10.2196/jmir.2012