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Tooling Up: Six Classic Lines of Bull

While browsing a newsstand in the airport recently, I noticed a headline on a women's magazine: "Top 10 Lines to Attract Men." I wondered if those lines were as much nonsense as the stereotypical pickup lines men use on women. My guess is that they were, but, of course, it's all in the delivery.

Later, while sitting in the plane, I started thinking about the "BS lines" I've heard throughout my career, including a few that others have told me about their experiences on the science career track. I'm sure these lines started as common misstatements and exaggerations, and maybe they were harmless at the time, but then they got repeated and became entrenched. The fact that they don't have much truth to them doesn't seem to matter.

'My major weakness? I guess it must be that I sometimes work too hard.' Translation: 'I've just finished reading all the books that I could find on interview preparation, and I've got a really snappy answer for you.'

So here's a list of some of the lines I've heard or heard about. If you think of others, please send them to me!

"My major weakness? I guess it must be that I sometimes work too hard. I've got to learn to spend more time on other aspects of my life."

Translation: "I've just finished reading all the books that I could find on interview preparation, and I've got a really snappy answer for you. I hope you're impressed with my ability to memorize my lines."

Interviewers have been hearing this classic line of BS for decades. Despite the fact that most experts say not to regurgitate answers on demand, interviewers continue to hear this response and others similar to it. Perhaps it is the proliferation of books with titles such as 101 Great Answers to Tough Interview Questions that make applicants believe the response lies in someone else's snappy answers.

Many interviewees don't realize it, but candidates who read books for their canned interview responses are as easy to spot as the applicant wearing his father's dated, ill-fitting suit. Instead of parroting another's responses, you're far better off preparing by thinking in general terms about the questions you're obviously going to be asked. Know what your general answers are, but don't memorize lines. And always use a "thinking pause" after being asked a question, even if you immediately know the answer.

The goal isn't pat and clever interview responses. Smooth, well-considered responses that come from the real you go a lot further.

"Just concentrate on doing good science, not on getting a job. Good science sells itself; they'll come to you."

Translation: "Get back there in the lab and don't stick your head out again until that next publication is in hand."

Doing good science--great science for that matter--is critical no matter what type of job you're targeting. But one thing is for sure: Anyone who thinks that they can simply be good at something--and that this will get them noticed--has a rough road ahead. That's because finding a job requires skills that have nothing to do with science.

What it takes to succeed is not really hard-core sales, and yet it's more than just laying out your science. You need to use your network to find a job (which, of course, requires having a network to begin with), and you need to be able to stand up and take credit for what you do well. This is a skill that isn't usually taught, especially by a principal investigator who would prefer that you stay focused on the work in his or her lab.

"Don't worry about the size of the base salary. Our offer includes stock options. We could end up being another Amgen."

Translation: "We're trying to lure you in as cheaply as possible and hope that you'll give up your need to pay rent in favor of a long-term roll of the dice."

I don't want to diminish the value of stock options. They are an important part of company team-building and an integral part of the culture of the start-up. But some companies wield them as though they were a substitute for food and housing. They're not. Long-term incentives have their place, but they are not a replacement for a competitive salary offer.

Always do your due diligence long before you begin to negotiate salary. And that doesn't mean just looking at an online salary checker--those are notorious for being off in one direction or the other, often by a lot. Salary research is best handled person-to-person by asking your networking contacts what is fair, what a company has a history of doing, and what other people with experience similar to yours are being paid. Only by really digging will you know whether the salary is in line with the other elements of a job offer.

"Your staff scientist position on the scientific ladder is the equivalent of the senior manager level on the management ladder."

Translation: "We like to say that scientists get the same recognition and rewards as our managers. If you stay focused on your science, perhaps you won't notice all the bonuses and attention that managers get."

If you love science but don't see yourself taking on a management job that requires you to also juggle budgets and personnel reviews, it's easy to be romanced by companies that have separate "career ladders" for scientists and managers. The usual path is for experienced corporate scientists to move into management--but the companies lose a lot of good scientists in the lab that way. So the idea is to allow scientists to advance without leaving the lab, by setting up separate career tracks for scientists and managers. At companies with this structure, a principal scientist is supposedly equivalent to a director, a senior scientist on the same level as a manager, and so on. The "dual-ladder" concept makes sense; not every industry scientist wants to, or needs to, become a manager.

Unfortunately, the companies at which these career ladders have parity are in the minority. In many companies, the term is just a sales pitch: The people getting the promotions and salary increases are all on the management ladder. Often, a move to management is required if you want your paycheck, and company status, to increase, even if it doesn't look that way on paper.

Ask human resources about the number of scientists on the scientific ladder. Pick a spot at the high end of both ladders and compare numbers. Are there as many principal scientists as there are senior directors or vice presidents?

"I'm so surprised and disappointed to hear of your resignation. Just last week, the department head and I were speaking about you. If you decide to stay, I'm sure we can work out a promotion."

Translation: "Wow, am I embarrassed. I hadn't planned for your departure, and it is going to be really difficult when I try to explain to my boss why I have no Plan B. I'll give you an offer you can't refuse and then deal with this problem later."

If you've had a mostly collegial relationship with your employer, your boss will be surprised when you turn in your notice. Don't be shocked when that supervisor comes back at you with a very attractive offer to stay. The problem is that most of the time, that offer is not sincere. Your relationship with that person has been strained; your loyalty has been tested, and you've shown your stripes. Many bosses would love to get even, and some may even sabotage your career if you stay.

Academia has much more of a counteroffer culture; in fact, competing job offers are often used as leverage to get a counteroffer--a dangerous game for young scientists to play. But in industry, most people find that if they do stay, seeds of dissatisfaction will still be present months later. It's best to follow your short-, medium-, and long-term plans and stick with your guns when you resign. Most counteroffers are not successful in the long run.

"Once we get this project out of the lab, we'll all rest easy and perhaps get into a regular 40-to-45-hour workweek."

Translation: "Come in early, stay late. On Friday, we'll celebrate."

Do you know how hard it is to find a 40-hour workweek in a salaried job? I'd say that it is nearly impossible, especially in science. Whether in the lab, the manufacturing plant, or the executive office, employers value you for your hard work and your ability to work as many hours as it takes to get the job done. If you have the goal of someday having a "real job with real hours," you are in the wrong business!

Photo (top):Glenn Harper

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