Promotions committees have small brains, make it easy on them

Nov 25 2008 Published by under Careerism

In a recent post on 49 percent, Samia asks a tricky question:

Wouldn't it be easier to land a faculty position/eventual tenure if I operated like a state scientist and established myself as an expert in one teeny, tiny area? How do minority (racial, gender, any kind) PI's fare under the "nomad" path? Why do I cringe inwardly when my advisors tell me I need to specify my interests? I feel like if I do that, I'll be limiting my opportunities in the future. Am I crazy? Tell me I'm not crazy.

You are not crazy. Unfortunately some aspects of the system are crazy and it would be best to recognize this.


There are at least two different issues at hand here so let me deal with the easier one first. From what she writes on the blog, Samia is an undergraduate considering graduate studies. Consequently the advisors who are telling her to specify a relatively narrow interest within some -ology or other may be thinking about the graduate school application process. The statement of research interest is in many departments almost comically specific. Generic grad school application advice says to tailor the statement to each department you apply to, with a heavy nod to the research of the current faculty. In some cases one might even pick out two or three labs and wax extremely specific about their work. This is one of those convenient fictions. The positive reasons for this, in my view, are to determine if the applicant has a clue about the department and a clue in general; everybody knows the first semester or year of graduate school is to decide what you really want to work on.
The eventual career trajectory question is much trickier.
The straightforward part is that many promotions committees express a view that they are looking for evidence of an essential seminal contribution made by the junior faculty member when considered for tenure or Full Professor. Practices can vary with respect to when the "seminal contribution" is expected, and lower down the ladder the theme is "potential for a seminal contribution". Part of the analysis also tends to rest on the candidate for promotion being recognized internationally as a "top expert in their field"; in practice this means sub-sub-sub-field. This latter being the obvious way to define the scores of junior faculty in your -ology as top 5 or so experts.
This is why much advising of junior faculty urges them to focus very narrowly on a specific area of science. So that their CVs will testify to a unified program of research that is highly unique and quite clearly the assistant professor's own domain of (unique?) expertise. I have heard some rather comical extremes of this presented to colleagues under guise of career advice.
The trouble, of course, is that this can be a really constraining way to do science. Some people's interest are going to be broader than others. Some people have experimental ADD. Sometimes the most effective science follows threads that jump across techniques, models and experimental approaches over time. Unfortunately, promotions committees may not deal very well with complexity. Nor deal well with reference letters that speak to one half or one third of the research program and remain silent on the part that is out of the referee's sphere of expertise.
It is a tough balance if you are one of those folks with normal to broader interests. Because I'm here to tell you that if you can't do what you want as a junior PI, well, it may not be worth it. Yes you need to be strategic and tactical and play the games...but at some basal level you have to be able to do your stuff your way...or you are going to burn out in short order.
It is also a tough balance because some minority of the people reviewing you for a job or promotion may actually get it and appreciate breadth. Not to mention a diversity of projects makes keeping your lab funded that much easier because you can seek funding from different agencies- or at the very least different NIH ICs.
One compromise that I see working is that the PI ensures that she has a story to tell that provides that narrow-focus narrative within a greater actual scientific diversity of her program. Maintaining a core theme running through the lab that can be easily described and may even be readily apparent from a casual review of the CV. With respect to this latter, I once had a colleague relate how she was told by a mentor to include certain terms in the titles of her next few papers. The goal was to enhance the natural pop-out of the theme she decided was going form her narrow-focus narrative.
A final thought stems from my life-is-too-short perspective. Ultimately a scientist has to do the stuff that interests her and that makes the most logical sense. If that is skipping from topic to topic, well, so be it. Just keep yourself aware of the risks you run by doing so.

18 responses so far

  • One compromise that I see working is that the PI ensures that she has a story to tell that provides that narrow-focus narrative within a greater actual scientific diversity of her program.
    I agree although it depends on the field. In my area of physiology, finding a niche within the broader context is vital as funding agencies and journals all want to see novel mechanistic insights that could be potentially applicable at the clinical level. That being said though, being told to choose an area of specialization before entering grad school is a bit premature.

  • pinus says:

    Defining your interests when applying to grad school is helpful in getting accepted, I would assume? There are plenty of people who just go to grad school because it is the 'next logical step'. Defining even a broad interest helps ensure you are not part of that flock of sheep. I might add, at most universities you will not be tied to what you said, so you can pursue your interests when you get there. Also, you can do a postdoc in a different field...there is plenty of room for exploring early on....when you have your own lab, the rules change a bit (or so I am told) until you can prove yourself...then your interests can blossom once again.

  • Dave says:

    My advice:
    I suggest you pursue research that you truly find interesting, in places where nothing stops you from doing it, surrounded by people who help you get it done. If you do, I guarantee you will love your job and be fabulously successful.
    Where do you find that situation and how do you get yourself into it? Hell if I know. Good luck. If you expect hand-holding and specifics, you've missed the whole point of graduate education.

  • Dave says:

    As far as getting in to grad school -- that's easy. I sit on two graduate program admissions committees, and basically, it all comes down to whether it looks like a candidate will get data with little effort required on the part of the program or PI. We just want slave labor.
    So if you apply with lots of undergraduate research experience (suggesting we won't have to teach you anything in the lab), good grades & GREs (suggesting you'll be able to figure most stuff out on your own), good writing skills (suggesting you can write our papers & grants for us), and a likable personality (suggesting you'll still be fun to have around even after you figure out you're doing all the work while your PI sits in his office posting replies on blogs like this), then you'll do GREAT.

  • Odyssey says:

    Generic grad school application advice says to tailor the statement to each department you apply to, with a heavy nod to the research of the current faculty. In some cases one might even pick out two or three labs and wax extremely specific about their work.
    The key here is to pick out at least two, preferably more, labs to wax specifically about. We often get applications where the applicant implies, or even states outright, that there is only one lab they are interested in. That's great, but what if that lab doesn't have space? Or doesn't want them? Such applicants generally don't make it to the top of the pile.

  • Chris says:

    Specialist vs. Generalist is a tough one for more than just scientists.
    When I was in college (undergrad), they abolished the specialization curricula for at least electrical engineers at my school. Consequently, I took the classes that sounded closest to what I was interested in (at the time, signal processing), but I never felt like we got very deep into any one topic. When it came time to find something to do with my degree, I landed in the intellectual property field, where generalism is actually a plus.
    So I don't know if there's a point to that story, but I often wonder how things would be different if I had had a more focused background coming out of college. On the bright side, through work I've become an "expert" in a handful of fields like optical systems, x-ray phosphor screens, oil well-logging, etc.

  • I probably should have been a little more explicit when I said that specializing before entering grad school was premature ... choosing a specific, focused area of study when applying to grad school that you think you might want to pursue as a PI a gazillion years down the track is premature. I meant to say that one should have an idea of what interests them and what options/PIs are available at the schools they are looking at. As pinus pointed out, there's usually some flexibility in grad school and doing a postdoc is a great way to get further/additional training in another related/unrelated area.
    Of course, this is completely different to the British/Commonwealth grad system where you start working on your thesis topic on day 1 ...

  • qaz says:

    I'm really curious. How many people left graduate school doing what they set-out to do when they arrived? Everyone I know has made major (sometimes very major) changes.

  • juniorprof says:

    I'm really curious. How many people left graduate school doing what they set-out to do when they arrived? Everyone I know has made major (sometimes very major) changes.
    I started thinking I was going to study serotonin reuptake mechanisms and drugs and left studying pain. I'd never even thought about pain research before I had a talk with my future mentor when I was considering dropping out of the PhD program.

  • I like Samia's distinction between "state" and "nomad" science. Comrade PhysioProf has always been a nomad.
    As she put it in her post:

    It seems to me like many PI's practice a kind of myopic state science, firing the same methodologies at somewhat similar problems and hoping something sticks. This is not me. At all.

    This is not how Comrade PhysioProf's laboratory operates. At all! We employ a vast array of different methodological approaches to attack the physiological questions we are interested in. Almost every paper we publish contains data obtained with multiple highly distinct methodologies. We also devote a lot of time and effort to developing novel methodologies, and are always trying to scheme up cool new techniques.

  • bsci says:

    For the initial advice to undergrads looking for grad schools that being focused on a specialty doesn't mean studying only one thing. If your dream is neuroscience grad school and you take significant detours into signal processing and computational models or even formal logic because they are relevant to what you want to do, that can be a good thing. They want to see coursework that makes sense together and fits your research plans. This doesn't happen by taking a scattershot of introductory courses, but advanced courses in paired fields could be a good thing.
    Similarly, I've seen people get into top grad schools where their undergrad research had nothing to do with their grad school interests. The key is that they stayed in a lab long enough to make relevant contributions and make clear that you understand the pace of research.
    As for choosing schools, it's vital to figure out where people do what you want and apply to the correct schools. Some departments are plain better than others, but if a top 5 dept doesn't have people doing what you want and a 6-15 school does, those schools can be better. I definitely agree that its worthwhile to find places where a community of faculty do things that interest you.
    As for qaz's question, my grad school application was shockingly similar to what I ended up doing. As for the specifics, my qualifying exam proposal was quite different from what was actually completed in the following 2.5 years, but it was with the same goals and theme.

  • notis says:

    Samia, be as specific as you can be in your apps. People who review your application are interested in seeing where you fit into the existing program and what kinds of things you would like to do.
    Certainly, you may be interested in a shitload of things. However, at a certain point in time you will have to pick a lab, choose a thesis topic, and basically be very specific about what you want to study. Those kinds of decisions come later in grad school, so for now, make an informed judgment. In reality, (once you get your foot in the door), you are only limited to what you want to do, not by what you said you were interested in way back when.

  • Samia says:

    Yeah, I'm not really stupid enough to scribble "BRING ON DA KNOWLEDGE" all over my grad applications and fire them off to prospective schools. I will definitely tailor everything to the advisors/projects I'm looking at. I just see what my teachers are working on, read their CVs, talk to their lab hands, and it saddens me to imagine that may be my future. I know, I know, it's all wide open, I have choices, blah blah.
    I *am* lucky in that I'll be going back to a certain dude's lab in our pharmaceutical/biomedical sci dept, and he's about as multidisciplinary as they get when it comes to collaborations. His grad students are also crazy genius Vulcans who go on to do crazy genius Vulcan stuff, which is a good sign. And he wants to give me a job after I graduate, so I will have some time to think and get folks' advice before taking any leaps. I also know a dude in our biochem dept who's all about my wanting to become faculty for some reason. I don't get it, but I ain't complaining.
    Anyway, thanks for the post. Guess I should start reading again.

  • Re qaz and the thread as a whole: I had some difficulty picking a grad program because I was specifically looking for a PI with some breadth of research. In the end, although there were many PIs I thought I could enjoy working with, there were only one or two labs with the research breadth that I sought.
    I joined one of them, and while the details of my thesis were different than I thought they would be when I was a first (or second, or even third) year, the goals and focus remained the same.

  • pinus says:

    I knew a grad student that had the idea for their 1st R01 before they ever defended. This person was convinced that this was going to be there plan and their calling. 3 post-docs later said person isn't nearly as sure about 'the plan'. I think that it is nice to plan ahead, but the most important thing to do is remain mentally flexible and focus on doing the best at the job at hand. I guess the rub is that you have to devote enough energy to planning your future or you will shoot yourself in the foot.

  • Samia says:

    pinus, that's my thing. I'm trying to figure out a happy medium between 'nice shiny plan that sounds good to other people' and 'flexible.'

  • It is important to remember also that what you present to other people as a "Research Plan" or "Training Plan" is not necessarily the same as your actual plan for research and/or training. In fact, the two have very different purposes.
    The purpose of the former is to convince those who control the resources you need to pursue your research and/or training to allocate it to you. The purpose of the latter is to guide your research and/or training once you have secured those resources.
    True Story: Comrade PhysioProf has not done a single fucking one of the things he proposed in his Research Plan used during his successful tenure-track faculty job search. And no one gives a single flying fuck about that fact.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    CPP's ideas about securing a job and publish unexpected results in scientific journals:
    1. When hunting for a job, tell the search committee about a research plan that sounds the best to secure the job, not about your real plan.
    2. When submitting a manuscript for publication with unexpected results, present them in a way that never hints that they were unexpected.
    In summary, lie to the search committee and lie to the editor, the reviewers and the readers of your paper. That's science at its naked best.

Leave a Reply