There is an I in science

Jun 11 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers], Uncategorized

Science is a collaborative effort. Very rarely does a project ever get done by one person without the valuable input of others. Increasingly, funding agencies are looking to put money toward interdisciplinary research, on both large and small scales. Even universities are increasingly moving to shared space for research labs.

As a PI these waters can be a little tricky to navigate, but as a trainee they can become downright treacherous. Set aside the issues of 4 equal first authors for a second and think about the way we talk about science. At least in my field, it is extremely common for lab members to use "we" when discussing lab research. In many cases that is entirely valid - the full story is often a compilation effort. But there are exceptions.

One of the most critical time for a early-career scientist to say "I" is for job interviews. Interviewing for a postdoc, faculty or industry job? It's time to break out the I. Concerned about seeming selfish? Don't be. What is critical to get across during an interview is all the great things YOU did. Having the context of the lab's work is important, but do not leave what you did vs. what lab technician or the other postdoc did, remain ambiguous. Sell yourself for what you have contributed, while openly acknowledging the efforts of others.

This is what your interviewers want to see from you. Don't make them try and read between the lines.

3 responses so far

  • A says:

    A while ago we interviewed a postdoc who gave an impressive talk. There was A LOT of work crammed in that one talk. Much more than one single person could realistically do in 2 years. When asked to distinguish between his work and the work of the lab, he replied that there was very little distinction. Everybody contributed to all projects. We were less impressed, since he seemed unable to really tell us what "he" did. And then imagine my surprise when 4 weeks later I attended a national society meeting and saw another postdoc from the same lab present the same talk complete with the same slides. I use this as an example of how not to give an interview talk.

  • physioprof says:

    When interviewing for entry level faculty positions, the issue isn't what you did with your own hands, but what you understand and can talk about. For highly interdisciplinary projects that include, e.g., genetics, physiology, biochemistry, behavior, and imaging, of course no single post-doc did all those techniques.

    The question is whether you as a post-doc on one of those projects can understand and explain the full scope of what was done sufficiently to be considered a likely prospect for having the capacity to *lead* such projects in the future. Key evidence for such likely capacity includes being the first author of a manuscript reporting the results from such a project and being able to explain and field difficult questions about *all* of the technical approaches employed during your job talk.

    I'll never forget one faculty job candidate we interviewed a few years back who looked great on paper and was the first author of an impressive multi-disciplinary paper published in a veyr prominent journal. His job talk was quite nice, and explained physiology, biochemistry, genetics, and behavior. During the question period, someone asked him a question about the biochemistry results. It was a somewhat detailed methodological question: not to the level of what concentration of DTT was in some buffer, but more than "was this done in mice or rats"?

    The candidate looked at the questioner as if she was out of her mind, and said "How should I know? That was the other post-doc who did all the biochemistry experiments. I did the physiology, so you can ask me about that." Needless to say, no offer was forthcoming.

  • NewProf says:

    I completely agree with Physioprof. I am a newish Asst Prof and was head of our search committee this past year. We interviewed 5 postdocs with K awards for the position. Most of them gave really bad talks. Several put in way to much data and there was no clear delineation of what they had done versus the rest of the lab. More importantly, they didnt explain why they where doing the experiments. For a job talk, we know that you can do the experiments and pull organs our of a knockout mouse. What we dont know if you know why you did it, what it means and what that implies to lead you to the next experiment. And even more importantly, how do the results matter in a broader context of your disease and field. All of the talks had things wrong with them and we ended up not hiring anyone.

    Amazing to me is that they all came from top notch labs, had good papers, received K awards but really gave shitty talks and generally had a lack of creativity in their near term future projects.

    I think it points out that the postdocs getting the K awards are just from well funded big name labs and not necessarily the ones that would turn out to be good PIs in the long run (except me of course!)


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