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Out of the Shadows: A Primer for Quiet Scientists

Do you fit the stereotype of the "quiet" scientist? Shy, reserved, timid, and only really comfortable in a group when discussing your own research? You're not alone. Although I am certain that there is a great deal of personality diversity in the scientific community, I've met many introverted scientists in my time.

Take my friend Sharon, for instance. Sharon decided when she was 14 that she liked science and that she wanted to go to the university and become a scientist. "Science seemed to me to be the perfect career for a person who enjoyed solitary challenges. While I had wonderful friendships--friendships I still maintain--I am just not very good at getting myself out there and developing new relationships. I am a rather shy sort of person, and quite frankly my life is perfectly fine that way," she says.

But then, after an introspective pause, she adds: "Except when it comes to job seeking. I'm in real trouble there."

Do you, like my friend Sharon, shy away from getting out there and beating the job-search drums? If so, this column is for you. I hope in this brief overview to show you what skills you will need and how you can acquire them without being untrue to your nature.

Unnatural Acts

Many quiet scientists get their first job-search jolt when they meet their competition for positions in industry. In Sharon's case, this jolt came at a career fair sponsored by Science. She was still at least 8 months away from finishing her Ph.D. but--wisely--she wanted to get an early look at industry postdoc options. The hotel ballroom was filled with booths from interviewing companies, and hundreds of hopefuls milled among the tables. Sharon stood in line behind scientists from other institutes in the area, some of whom were already in industry and were out scouting for a change. What most distressed her was the tone of the interviews:

"I was prepared to discuss my work and the progress that I have been making on my thesis project. I've already participated in two very good publications, and yet these companies didn't ask about that. Many of the other people in line, particularly those with some industry experience, seemed to be more comfortable talking about themselves in a general sense than I was. For me, it was quite unnatural to be discussing something other than my research," Sharon admitted.

After meeting many others like Sharon over the years, I have concluded that this fear of talking about oneself is at the core of their problems in the job market.

What Matters Most

You've probably heard from your adviser that what matters most is doing good science, from which all else will follow. But what Sharon and other quiet scientists have found over the years is that the "all else will follow" part just isn't true. Not only do you have to do good science to get the best job opportunities, you also have to tout it as well. That's right--good science alone is not going to land you a job. To get hiring managers interested in you and your abilities, you will have to find a way to add some spark--by talking positively about yourself.

This is often a foreign concept to the quiet scientist. If you fall into this camp, here are some self-promotion tips that you might find helpful:

  • You do not have to change your inner beliefs to promote yourself in the job-seeking world. The key is to simply know yourself better than you do now, and in particular to know how your science has molded you. Think of yourself as a whole person instead of just a pair of hands performing techniques at the bench. What critical thinking faculties have you added? Why have your science and all the other skills you've picked up along the Ph.D. road made you an excellent fit for the opportunity you are considering?

    Practice Makes Perfect: Six Exercises That Will Help You Move Out of the Shadows

    • Make a list of five people whom you haven't spoken with in some time, all of whom are in your professional sphere. Contact them by phone or in person and renew the acquaintance. Don't have an agenda. Make it a friendly chat simply to catch up.

    • Respond to three e-mails each day with a personal phone call instead of a return e-mail. Things happen serendipitously in "live" communication that can't occur in electronic correspondence.

    • Make it a point to attend the social events and networking opportunities at the next scientific congress you attend. Better yet, become a part of the organizing committee for these events.

    • Attend a job fair and gain experience in talking about yourself succinctly. In particular develop a brief, rehearsed presentation you can use to respond to the "Tell me about yourself" prompt that comes up often in interviews and networking conversations.

    • Look for workshops and seminars in your area that are not science-related but that may introduce you to new concepts in the area of interpersonal chemistry.

    • Ask your adviser and colleagues for the names of individuals who have gone into industry from your department over the years. Use this as the start of a networking database to call upon when the time comes to job search.

  • Speaking well of yourself is a skill that you can learn (see the sidebar for some practice exercises). It isn't anything like selling used cars, and you won't have to take a shower after doing it. If you've spent some time thinking about all the skills you bring to the interview, you should be able to relate the things that you do well to the needs of the person you are talking to.

Just Be Likeable

Clarence Darrow, the famous attorney, once said, "The main work of a trial attorney is to make the jury like his client." This is as true today as when Darrow spoke these words in the late 1800s. Interestingly enough, the same principle also holds during interviews, except that you have to do your own job of making yourself likeable. This is absolutely critical. Managers will hire people they like, but they find it difficult to hire people who make them uncomfortable--even if those people are excellently matched for the job.

As a quiet scientist, you must recognize that it isn't your science that will land you a job. Instead, it is a variety of factors, some very subtle. A 1990 study of hiring managers showed that certain appearance traits seemed to be even more important than job qualifications. (For example, "good grooming" accounted for more favorable hiring decisions than did job skills.*) My point is that because you must be liked before you will be hired, you'll need to offer each interviewer much more than a thesis project and a few publications!

Here are some of those keys to likeability:

  • A smile--when appropriate--indicates that a person is warm, human, and genuinely interested. So, when greeting others in a networking environment, despite how reticent you may feel about striking up a conversation, give them a friendly smile.

  • Eye contact is also critical. When people don't get sufficient eye contact during a conversation, they develop a subconscious mistrust of the person they are talking with. If you want to be liked, and who doesn't, use your eye contact to show that you have an interest in the other person.

  • Robert Cialdini of Arizona State University is an expert on what influences others positively. He states in his book Influence--Science and Practice, that "We tend to like people who are similar to us, whether it is in the area of opinions, personality, background, or lifestyle." So, look for similarities that you might have with your networking contacts. It will be easiest for you to talk about things that you might have in common with these people, whether those things are in the world of science or in your personal lives. Building rapport through similarities is easy to do without trying to become someone you are not.

  • Focus on making the other person comfortable and it will ease your own discomfort. In all social or networking situations, people fall into one of two different behavior styles--they are either "hosts" or "guests." "Hosts" are those who are concerned about others and their comfort level, while "guests" will stand around the edges of an event, waiting for someone to rescue them. I think that this party analogy works well for many of the situations that you will encounter while job seeking. Always try to be a "host" wherever possible. If you take the discomfort out of the interaction for that other person, whether at a social gathering or an interview, you will be seen as a likeable (and employable) person!

As I think back upon my conversations with Sharon, I remember her concern about the "manipulations" that she had to undertake in order to start making progress in the job market. That discomfort faded, however, as she found that these were skills that could be acquired like any other. And the potential rewards are so much greater than just another lab technique!


* Robert Cialdini, Influence--Science and Practice (Allyn and Bacon Publishers, Boston, 2001)

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