Robert Neubecker

Being my own biggest advocate

A few months ago, one of my fellow graduate students was offered an incredible career-building opportunity. His efforts on a student-led campaign to increase federal funding for basic research had led to an invitation to speak on a conference panel about health research advocacy. He would have a prominent platform to share his work with a large audience, and he would get to meet and network with leaders in the field. It would look great on his CV. I was happy for him, of course; he deserved it. But my feelings were complicated. I had been an equal partner in the campaign. I felt that I deserved the same opportunity. Yet I hadn’t been invited, and I wasn’t sure why.

Not long ago, I wouldn’t have done anything about it. Growing up, I had been taught that the way to success was to put my head down and work hard. If my work was good enough, it would speak for itself and I would be rewarded. This, coupled with a natural shyness, meant that I rarely worked up the nerve to put myself forward.

Then last year happened. My long-term relationship was in shambles. I was in the midst of a significant health scare and battling doubts about where my career was headed. When the dust settled, I decided that I needed to take control of my life again—by becoming my own biggest advocate.

So, with my heart pounding, I asked my colleague to ask the panel organizers to include me. My mind flooded with a litany of well-practiced self-doubt. Maybe I didn’t deserve it. Maybe I was being too ambitious. But my colleague immediately contacted the organizers, who quickly agreed to add me to the panel.

I’ve come to understand that I can’t be recognized or rewarded for my work if I’m invisible. This isn’t a revolutionary idea, I know, but as an introvert this is my personal Everest. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is simply to ask for what you want. Ask to be nominated for an award. Ask to give a guest lecture. Ask for a reference letter from that person you think is beyond your reach. The worst that can happen is that the answer is no, but I’ve found that people are generally happy to oblige.

I’ve come to understand that I can’t be recognized or rewarded for my work if I’m invisible.

I am also working to get more comfortable promoting my accomplishments. A couple of years ago, when a mentor agreed to write a recommendation letter for me but asked me to provide a draft as a starting point, I agonized over it. Writing nice things about myself felt completely unnatural. With every complimentary statement I committed to paper came mounting anxiety that my mentor would disapprove of my lack of humility. I never got any feedback about that letter, so I don’t know for sure what my mentor thought of it. Nonetheless, I learned an important lesson: I can’t control what other people think, so I might as well share my accomplishments as best I can. These days, whenever I ask for a recommendation letter, I offer to provide a draft. I know best how to highlight my skills and accomplishments for a particular application, and it doesn’t hurt to offer.

I’ve also embraced social media as a way to share my accomplishments more widely. I was hesitant at first, worried that I might cross the line from self-promotion to bragging. But when I asked myself whether I was turned off by other scientists sharing their publications, awards, projects, and achievements, the answer was clear: nope. In fact, their self-promotion helped me discover amazing work and find new professional connections. Last year, for example, I was intrigued to see two young female scientists promoting their new podcast on Twitter. I commented on their post, suggesting science policy as an episode topic, and they ended up interviewing me on their show! This unique opportunity would never have materialized without a little online self-promotion on both our ends.

I think advocating for myself will always make me a little uncomfortable. But I do plenty of other uncomfortable things to ensure I’m living my best life, like getting flu shots and (ugh) going to the gym. I suppose I can do the same for my career.

Do you have an interesting career story? Send it to SciCareerEditor@aaas.org.

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