Repost: Like it or not, you're in sales

Feb 10 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

In light of the most recent "I'm leaving science because I don't like what this job is", I thought I would pull this back out. The reality of the situation is that you can't be a PI interested in getting federal funding without appreciating The Sell. Whether you like it or not and whether you're willing to embrace it or not, this is the deal: You are selling your ideas.

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.

10 responses so far

  • I had a similar discussion with some one that as scientists we are "selling our ideas". To my surprise this seemed to have a negative connotation of being a "sales man" and in their minds seemed to drop us (the scientists) from elite thinkers to a mere-old-trashy-sales-person.

    I am not sure what the general public perception is but I think to be successful any scientist has to be a sales man who can sell hir ideas.

  • Dr Becca says:

    If you cannot convince anyone besides yourself that your ideas are awesome, perhaps they're not that awesome.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Well said Dr Becca.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    Obviously it's important to be able to explain to other people what your work is and why it's important, and WRT the specific rant that inspired this (re)post, I'm largely in agreement with DM that the NIH's bar for "relevance to human health" is pretty low.

    However, I think the source of recent frustration is not the fact you have to sell your work, but concerns over what % of the job should be salesmanship and what % should be doing science. I know that the 2 aren't totally distinct, but they're not identical either.

    I suspect people are succumbing to the shifting baseline effect where the way things are now comes to seem totally natural. But seriously, I'm not that old and I can remember a time when submitting multiple RO1s every round wasn't the sin qua non of doing science.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I don't disagree with what AL is saying, but I think it's important to look at the landscape. Just the other day I was complaining that I'm spending too much time on chasing money and drifting away from the science I should be doing. However, it doesn't change the fact that survival right now depends on hitting the funding cycles harder than we would like. I would rather adapt to the current reality than pine for what was because only one is going to keep my people fed. Is it ideal? No.

    But the point of the post is that there is an affect of grant-smithing. You can't just vomit your ideas down and expect everyone to recognize your singular brilliance. You can't get away from being able to craft a proposal in a attractive and easy to understand format that convinces a reviewer to support it.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Increased demand for grant writing due to ballooning competition / lower amounts of money available isn't directly related to "salesmanship". People are just assuming that because they face steeper odds that this means that some other PI who is better at "selling" is somehow having an easier time of it. I'd like to see the evidence for this.

    Now maybe sure, there are individuals who suck at selling who are *always* coming in right at 20th percentile, no matter what grant they put up. if you assume that the reason they are always at 20th instead of occasionally sneaking down to 10%ile is exclusively sales then sure, increased competition makes the difference.

    But what I think is that people's scores bounce around a lot more than that depending on other factors (i.e., the random influences on review and the specifics of a given proposal idea). If so, it makes it hard to sustain the claim that "sales" is some unique benefit that keeps certain investigators preserved.

  • LaoSaal says:

    True words. Applies to writing papers too. If you can't communicate your ideas and results clearly, you're sunk. The same project can be written up in completely different ways; one has difficulty getting through, the other sails in. It's a another form of "salesmanship" and I don't think there's any way around it, nor is it inherently even a bad thing. Scientists that balk at the notion that this is the way it works, or that this is a skill to hone, are going to have a difficult swim.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    What I'm getting at is that you need to be invested in working on the sales side of a proposal (and yes, a manuscript) and not treat it as "just something people who wouldn't be funded otherwise need to do". Every proposal is going to be it's own entity and some will be easier to sell to a particular panel (and this week's constituents) than others. But I think some ignore this part of the process to their peril. In fact, I've read a lot of proposals that ignore this part.

  • qaz says:

    The problem is that the term "sales" implies (to an American ear) being sleazy, lying, and hiding problems. (Think used car salesman. I think most people assume sales implies that it's OK to hide errors and OK to manipulate data, because you are judged solely on whether you sold the car or not. I suppose you could argue that the sales we are doing is a mom-and-pop restaurant looking for repeat customers, but I don't think that's what most people mean when they say "you're in sales". And most of those restaurants are based on building up a customer-base slowly through quality work. [which isn't the sales side of it])

    I think sales is the wrong metaphor. I would definitely agree that communication is critical. You are trying to communicate your ideas - this is not a "sales" issue. This is a convincing/communication issue.

    I think of it as a performance. You are giving a performance. Understanding your audience matters. WBYeats used to sit in the back of the theater to watch the audience so he could determine which lines worked and which didn't. Good performers (musicians, comedians,teachers) learn to get a feel for the audience to figure out which lines work and which don't.

    What works and what doesn't is often surprising. This is why musicians and plays often start with performances outside of the main venue for a while to work up the details before going for the big time. You are not judged on whether you felt you played a good show - you are judged on whether your audience felt you played a good show. A good performer learns to tune the former by the latter.

  • Beaker says:

    Qaz has touched on why much of this discussion misses the point. Communicating your science using logic and precise English to generate excitement among reviewers/readers is essential. Nobody would argue the opposite.

    The sleazy side of sales involves practices such as omitting key information relevant to the transaction such that it mis-represents reality: this beauty over here was owned by a little old lady who kept it in a garage every night (but no mention that she drove it off-road and in drag races every day). The practice itself can be rebranded as "putting your best foot forward." In science sales, you might leave out key citations that contain strong evidence against your arguments (and hope nobody notices). In science sales, you selectively belittle the arguments that go against yours to make what you are proposing seem better than it really is. Of course nobody buys from a salesman who tells you, " I think you should buy this car, but..."

    The review process is supposed to catch sleazy salesmanship but too often it does not. When the review load increases, the chance that "style over substance" passes review also increases. We all know of crap products that succeed mainly due to marketing and branding, not quality. Selective omission and rebranding (it's not a bug, it's a feature) are the keys to this sort of selling. In the days of cigarette advertising, I recall a brand that claimed "alive with pleasure," when the reality is "dead with cancer." In political terms, it would be called "spin." We expect it from advertisers and politicians, but nowadays scientists must do it far too much. The practice goes way beyond the boilerplate health sentence on the specific aims page.

    I think that is what the professor who just quit his science career was complaining about. He's tired of writing in his grants how everything he is proposing will be rainbows and unicorns, when he knows full well it won't.

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