“Doctor Carter, to the best of my knowledge, no one in Logan knows that we left. Having lived many years in the buzzing gossip of Academe, I have learned to keep my life as private as possible.”
“The Number of the Beast” by Robert A. Heinlein
Continuing yesterday’s posting, how do you get into the community — and more importantly, how do you get into it the right way?
It matters how you appear
In my experience, while Academia is not exactly forthright and above the board, information — true or not — spreads. So, if you interact with a colleague, it’s not only between you two, it’s also at the same time with the whole community. In short, it matters how you act, how you appear, how you are perceived. (Not to mention that there are moral/ethical reasons not to act like an …) There are also informal rules in Academia, which are hard to see if you were not socialized this way, but rub people the wrong way if you break them.
Personally, I highly recommend Sternberg’s “Psychology 101 1/2. The Unspoken Rules for Success in Academia.” Don’t be fooled by the title, it is applicable to other disciplines as well. It’s an interesting and easily readable book. Much of it is common sense, but it is helpful to make it explicit.
Going by that book, personal experience and other sources, I think the following issues are important:
Trust is a big issue — you usually deal with complex topics or analyses, and often other people do not have the time to check the data for themselves. Thus, they need to trust you and you must be trustworthy. This does not mean faking it, but being open about your possible contributions and possible problems. It also means keeping your integrity. If people cannot trust your words you are more or less finished.
Especially if you are working with other people, they must know they can depend on you. If you promised to deliver something by a specific date, make sure you keep it. Do not start more projects than you can deal with, otherwise you will only have to quit them.
Given the high-risk activity of research (you can easily sink months or years of research) and the high pressure, loyalty is very important. However, loyalty is not slavish obedience, but a bi-directional concept. If it does not go both ways, then no matter how important this person might appear to be, it’s not a person to spend time/work with.
- Openness, Honesty, & Respect
A colleague once said that you can say anything, as long as you do it with respect. There is something to it. People who react negatively to honest, respectful criticism are people to avoid. After all, you cannot work with a person if you have to walk on eggshells and cannot have a lively discussion about the topic.
- Positive Feedback
Positive feedback is something that is severely missing in Academia. Thus, whenever you can, give positive feedback. Don’t only recognize the mistakes, also point of when people did something well. As long as you can do so honestly it will open doors.
- Own Agenda/Limits
Make sure you follow your own agenda and set clear limits if others want to use you for their own ends. There are a lot of very exploitative people in Academia — on all levels. Keep in mind that you have to make a career yourself and pursue it. Don’t let yourself get used.
While you need to communicate your results and make yourself known for high quality work and your expertise in the topics you focus on, nobody likes a braggart. So don’t brag — do good work and surround yourself with people who do the bragging for you.
- Dealing with Mistakes
Mistakes are a touchy subject. While many people would agree that you learn from them and you show integrity if you deal with them openly, mistakes are usually seen very negatively. However, if you make mistakes, correct them. Don’t try to hide them, even if it means showing that you did make a mistake.
Getting into the Community
Suppose a scientist did a study, but did not publish it, did s/he really do science?
Nope, I don’t think so. Publications (or conference presentations/proceedings) are crucial in science to communicate your findings. If you don’t do this, you could have saved yourself the trouble of doing the study. However, publishing something is not easy, especially as a young scientist. You need to find out where the discussion about the topic you work on takes place, in which way this discussion is conducted, and how you can contribute to it.
This means, among others, learning the language. Each community has a particular jargon (here: specialized words that provide the necessary accuracy when talking about specific concepts). This can be daunting, but after hitting the literature for a while, you get used to it. It’s actually an incredibly powerful moment when you begin to understand the language of a particular community, when you read an article and it just makes sense. (Yup, learning can be fun :-)).
However, getting into the community by yourself is very difficult. Ideally, you have the topic, the supervisors, and the colleagues on your side and you make good use of some opportunities like conferences to establish contacts.
I’ve already written about the importance of a good research topic — esp. the need for interest and passion. The audience is also relevant — you need a topic that is warm (not cold = nobody is interested in; no hot = too many people are jumping on that bandwagon and it’s burned out when you make a contribution). Ideally, the topic is in the center of a clearly defined community. As interesting as interdisciplinary topics are, it’s very hard to deal with different disciplines (= different scientific communities) at the same time. Especially when you are not even integrated in a scientific community of your own scientific discipline. Another aspect is the ability to quickly produce results, which usually means having manageable, easily accessible data sources, leading to interesting results which can be published quickly.
However, when you decide on a topic, make sure you have someone who can function as a bridge into the community. Someone who knows the people who are working on these topics and knows how they think and what is important for them. Note that this has nothing to do with insider deals or flattery — it just means being able to learn quickly how to speak the language of the community, enter the current discussion, and contribute to it.
I cannot stress the importance of a good supervisor enough. Someone who knows the community and is an active participant in it. This means, among others, that this person should have published journal articles as first author within the last two years (and not by screwing his PhD students/Post-Docs). This person also needs to be interested in mentoring the next generation of scientists. Unfortunately, a lot of people are more interested in their own career or their status than in doing good advisory, and some can be outright damaging. What’s more, some professors are managers or lobbyists, not scientists, and far removed from any scientific community.
Personally, I highly recommend looking at prior PhD/Post-Docs of the supervisor. Find out who they were (e.g., by looking at cached webpages of that department in the Internet Archive to find previous PhD students/Post-Docs, or by looking at conference proceedings where the supervisor appears with PhD students/Post-Docs) and where they ended up. Did they stay in science? Did they get tenure? Note that not all PhD students or even Post-Docs want to end up with tenure, but if none of them did, there is something seriously wrong. Mistrust claims about good research environments, look at the results. The PhD students/Post-Docs of today is what you will end up to be in the future.
I don’t think that you have a good chance without a supervisor who is well integrated in the community and can and will show you the ropes — especially when it comes to publications.
The rest of the department is important as well. Ideally, you have colleagues who work on similar topics, but who are not in direct competition to you. Synergy is extremely helpful here. Personally, I cannot recommend departments which are heterogeneous. While you do not compete with your colleagues, they also cannot give you relevant feedback. General issues, yes, but not feedback on how the community will react.
Ideally, you have colleagues whose skills complement your own and with whom you can collaborate to do studies that are better than what you could achieve on your own.
I’d be extremely suspicious when it comes to feuds. They exist in Academia — competitions that become way too serious. And if you hear that everyone else does shitty work, I’d run. That kind of arrogance isolates you and makes it hard to find another position if you decide to leave (and seriously, nobody is that good that they can say that everyone else delivers shitty work).
An important opportunity to learn more about your scientific community, and enter it, are conferences. The most useful ones are usually the specialized ones. It’s not the amount of participants that count, it’s the quality. Like written in the posting on networking, prepare your conference trip, for example, ask yourself:
- Who participates?
- What did they write?
- Which questions do you have?
- What do you want to get out of this conference trip?
This allows you to seek out the relevant members of the community with well-prepared questions (and find a photo on their department website to identify them). Note that you do not need to do it all during the conference. Talk to them if possible, then contact them later via eMail, LinkedIn, Xing or the like. Also note that if there’s a professor and a PhD student, it’s the PhD student who is interesting (and more accessible), not the professor. After all, you need contacts to peers in the future.
Some comments on personal contacts
Personal contacts are crucial, but not because they are a shortcuts to success. After all, they are no replacement for substantial contributions to the domain/field. But like Sternberg wrote (IIRC), they are needed so that your substantial contributions are recognized and used by the community.
So, you need to communicate with others, get known — positively — for your expertise, skills, knowledge. This allows you to suggest others for positions and prizes, and get suggested by others. Make sure that you bring something to the table, that you differentiate yourself from others positively. Seek collaborations which are more than the sum of their parts, where your expertise and the expertise of others complement each other. Visit the labs of other organizations and departments as visiting scholar/researcher, join professional associations and special interest groups. Of course, the more people you know the higher the likelihood that some of them are parasites who want to use you for their own ends. But your contacts will also make it easier to hear about them if you do not recognize them yourself — and avoid them.
Like written, it matters how you appear in the community and entering the community is much, much easier if you have supervisors and colleagues who are already active parts of it. If not … personally, I think it’s highly unlikely that you can enter the respective scientific community on your own. But perhaps I’m too pessimistic. However, it would require that you see the importance of the community for your work, esp. when it comes to making your work known — no matter how good it is, and knowing what you can do to enter it.
I hope this posting did shed some light on these issues. In the next one we look at way to find out more about the community if you have to do it on your own.
Sternberg, R. J. (2003). Psychology 101 1/2. The Unspoken Rules for Success in Academia. Washington, D.C.: APA.