?Lab Cred?


I have just had a revelation. I finally got the feeling that I might actually manage to find, and squeeze into, a permanent niche in the increasingly crowded house party that is 21st century science. I could see myself as a member of my research community who has credibility: that is, my own lab, my own funding, and at least some control over my own future.

During my few years in science I have been fortunate and pushy enough to speak with lots of different principal investigators (PIs). Ask the right questions and you will soon discover that few, if any of these people, were ever certain that they would 'make it'. So take heart. Despite the ongoing lack of guaranteed employment, the still mostly unpublished data, and your wish list of unfunded ideas, any doubts you are experiencing are nothing unusual.

I have decided that this elusive ?credibility? comes largely from having something that the other members of your research community do not. This could be the result of a discovery or invention on your part--it matters not which. The reality of this credibility hits home when the PIs in your community start seeing the advantage of having you join their club. How do they first get to see this advantage? Well, if they are in the dark about your potential benefits, you have to go out and tell them!

To make your mark on the world stage you need to be an expert communicator. And to be a successful expert communicator you need a nice big juicy message to communicate; something that will make them sit up in their seats and take notice of you. But exactly how, what, and when you tell them is all important.

To maximise your ?juiciness factor? you may well have to stick your neck out and talk about your results before they are accepted for publication. This is often an inevitable consequence of 'early-career syndrome': your struggle to get your work published. But you can make these results work for you years before they reach the printed page. They are the fuel for your grant applications and for your reputation.

Getting your name 'out there' is the single most important thing you can do early in your career. If you want to stake a claim to being a valid member of the scientific community by giving presentations don't be so deadpan in your delivery that you give your audience the impression that you don't fully realise what your results mean. Unless they can see you are a bit of a ?player? they won't even let you into their game.

So, to achieve this player status, when you present your work play it right down the line, but still, make sure you don't give too much away. As the saying goes, 'Be as innocent as a lamb, and as wily as a fox'. Shrewdness is a valuable attribute in this cutthroat world of competitive science. Tell them just enough to show that you realise exactly how important your results are: important enough not to be too open about them until the acceptance letter arrives from that nice journal editor. But don't annoy people by touting yourself as some new big shot. Humility and full deference to all your collaborators will make you look even more like a successful networker. There?s a surprisingly fine line between doffing your cap and appearing obnoxious.

I realised recently that I must have impressed the right people when an eminent PI came up to me soon after one of my presentations and offered to collaborate. 'Now this is more like it', I thought to myself. Like I said, I must have something they want.

The way science works really is very simple when you consider its befuddling array of unspoken rules through the right mental lens. The ability to read this hidden code may be a sign that you have what it takes to enter deeper into your community. The hidden simplicity is this: PIs want success. Success, to all intents and purposes, equates directly with high-impact publications. Unless their field?s horizons are widened by new groups staking their claim and injecting new ideas, existing PIs will gradually see their papers and citations start to dry up.

Each PI is dependent on the growth, or at least maintenance, of their field to provide more data to grease the scientific wheels in their mind, and possibly, put their name on more papers through collaboration. The paradox is that they are simultaneously dependent upon and, at least in principle, in competition with other PIs in their field.

With time you?ll speak to enough different people to realise that they?ve also been talking to each other about you, and hopefully what they are saying is complimentary. A key indicator of your ?lab cred? is whether people you?ve never met know who you are when you first meet them. When this fateful day arrives you know that you are well on the way to success.

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