Like it or not, you're in sales

May 09 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

It always fascinates me to get different opinion of how this career works. It's part of my interest in blogging and why I find the NIH crowd worth watching. But one thing that unites scientists is the need to sell their ideas. Without being able to pitch your research plan to an audience (whoever has the money) and convince them that you have a worthy investment, you aren't going to be able to continue to do science. Whether you are going for crowd-sourced money, an institutional grant for $10,000 or an R01, your job depends on getting other people excited about what you are proposing to do.

That is part of why it has been so painful to watch the public journeyman science exploits of Ethan Perlstein. In a twitter exchange yesterday, it became clear that not everyone agrees with this. But whether your audience knows the same literature as you should not be the deciding factor as to whether or not your proposal is understandable. And no, this is not ancillary to the science, it's critical if you want to DO the science. These are fundamental aspects of grantsmithing and finding ways to keep a lab funded.

I hear people say, all the time, that so-and-so only got the money because they can sell their work. It is usually said with at least a subtle air of "my science is better, but they're smoother". The reality is that selling the ideas is critical to doing the science. Whether you are trying to get money from the federal government, industry or private donation, you still need to get people interested! Part of that is establishing feasibility based on what you have done, demonstrating you're on to something and making a case that the result is going to be AWESOME. If your response to any question of the work is either "well if YOU knew the literature like I do, you wouldn't ask such a stupid question!" or "Clearly you can't see the brilliance of my work because you're too vested in the current dogma." then you are biting the hand that feeds. Maybe BSD graybeards can pull that off, but it's no way to get established.

I'm not trying to pile on while there is an on-going discussion about the research involved, but if you can't sell an idea in plain language to your target audience you are not going to make a go of this. The sooner one recognizes the simplicity of this point, the better off they're going to be.

Oh, and it also doesn't help if you keep publicly bashing whole fields that review your work.

20 responses so far

  • MCA says:

    It's part of job talks and seminars and conference talks, too. If you just dive right into the nitty gritty details of the science without telling us sufficient background or why it matters or what questions you're answering, I'm going to pull out my phone and start playing Temple Run or sudoku.

    IMHO, molecular folks are particularly bad at this - they just launch right into stuff about how protein R2D2 interacts with protein C3PO without a shred of explanation of what these are or why they matter, even though they've been warned that the audience also contains ecologists, morphologists, organism-level physiologists, paleontologists, and sometimes even geologists. Plenty of people do it in all fields, but IME a lot of molecular folks even at senior levels blithely assume a much greater audience background understanding of their field than is reasonable.

  • AnonPI says:

    This post is dead on, PLS. Snarky arrogance about how the importance of your ideas should be self evident is a guaranteed way to stay unfunded unless you are in a position to get away with it (and I guess most of us reading this blog are not in that category).

  • Casey says:

    I get what you're saying, but in my field at least, there a ton of labs selling nothing but snake oil and - for political reasons - no one will take them down or call them out. The need to tell a nice story shouldn't mean you can gloss over the fundamentals (boring things like "controls" and such). In a real life, ignoring the fundamental means the fancy stuff is never to work - but in grant applications it seems to be OK to promise the moon without proving that you know how to crawl.

    Diejdrek Stapel gave very good talks, and Felissa Wolfe-Simon's story was a game-changed, until someone bothered to think it through.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Casey, that's why I included "establishing feasibility based on what you have done". It's up to the funders to critique your proposal and decide if they want to put money towards it. If they don't do that well and you've sold an empty bag, that's on them. It's also the price of investment. Not everything is going to fulfill the goal. However, building a track record appropriate to your career stage is all part of the package too.

  • Dr Aust says:

    Errm..... What Casey just said. The problem with your (proflikesubstance's) response is that you're kind of saying:

    'Well, you just have to out-sell those guys to stay afloat in the meantime, and hope the funders eventually get wise to the other guys' BS'

    - Which is probably true, but nonetheless pretty depressing.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I never said you have to outsell others, but you DO have to sell your ideas. You CAN NOT rely on the fact that your proposal reader is just going to make all the links for themselves, decipher the message you've obscured in your text and come to the same grand conclusions you would draw. Doing this is pretty much ground-zero N00B grant writing. Of course, going the other way and overselling an idea is just as bad.

    I'm not advocating for people to make a big deal over nothing, over-hype questionable findings or inflate the significance of anything. But, if you don't have a hook and a solid (interesting) take home, why would anyone want to give you money to do it?

  • odyssey says:

    'Well, you just have to out-sell those guys to stay afloat in the meantime, and hope the funders eventually get wise to the other guys' BS'

    This has always been the case. Just more so now than before.

  • Casey says:

    >I never said you have to outsell others, but you DO have to sell your ideas.

    Doesn't that amount to the same thing? Otherwise it wouldn't really be "selling", would it?

    >Of course, going the other way and overselling an idea is just as bad.

    It doesn't seem to be. At least, the incentives are there to oversell ideas right now:
    http://www.northeastern.edu/tomorrow/curing-disease/albert-laszlo-barabasi-maps-the-disease-network

  • proflikesubstance says:

    If your brilliance were so apparent that you never had to explain why funding your ideas was a Good Thing, then you wouldn't need to apply for funding in the first place.

  • becca says:

    The real danger with viewing it as a sales job is that most scientists WANT to believe they are rigorous. Most want to believe they are in it for the knowledge/helping humanity first, and that the career benefits are instrumental but not the ultimate goal per se. So most scientists have a huge incentive to NOT see the problems in their work. Or see just enough of them to sneak in past the radar of reviewer #3, but not enough to actually save some poor hapless grad student tasked with repeating your work years of her life.
    It works out ok in the end, mostly, but god is it frustrating up close...

  • St. Louis Pasteur says:

    Yeah, because when I think of the great minds that inspired me to pursue a career in research (Darwin, Curie, McClintock, Schrodinger) the first thing I think is that they were all great Salesmen. No wonder young scientists are leaving the field in droves.

  • Busy says:

    Darwin, etc. the first thing I think is that they were all great Salesmen.

    Because if he had been he would have spent months writing an abridged more accessible version of his "Theory of Natural Selection" which he would have titled "On the Origin of Species".... oh, wait!

  • I agree with the post, but could we stop borrowing business terms? Next you'll have some post about "incentivizing" your graduate students "moving forward".

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I prefer they think outside the box.

  • I prefer that they only perform "value-added" experiments

  • >Because if he had been he would have spent months writing an abridged more >accessible version of his "Theory of Natural Selection" which he would have titled "On >the Origin of Species".... oh, wait!

    Or he wouldn't have bothered publishing because Wallace had already gotten there. No point.

  • anon says:

    Darwin had Huxley to do his selling ("Darwin's bulldog"), what would have happened to the theory of evolution without Huxley? Curie gave numerous public lectures and traveled widely to great fame. McClintock arguable suffered because she was not the personality to win over converts (plus sexism), she did it the hard way.

  • DJMH says:

    I count on synergy among my datasets.

  • [...] lot of circling around the idea of communication, both to the public and to granting agencies. I'm on the record as thinking the ability to "sell" one's work to any audience is critical. Who your target is [...]

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