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Perspective: How to Succeed in Big Science and Still Get Tenure

Science is increasingly collaborative, but individual performance is the key to getting tenure. You need a track record demonstrating that you, not a group that frequently includes you, are the intellectual driver of a serious body of work.

Traditionally, you would demonstrate this by important quantitative measures, especially how many independent publications you write and how many competitive grants you attract to support your work. These quantitative measures support the qualitative questions at the heart of the tenure decision: Does this person fit within our institution and fill an important set of our needs as a colleague? Is this person a leader of his or her own field?

The key to avoiding problems is to begin the faculty job with a detailed and documented understanding of what your institution expects from you and what you, in turn, can anticipate from the institution at each step of the tenure and promotion process.

Collaborative science blurs these tried-and-true quantitative measures. Your collaborative work may be original and individual, but by its nature, it will overlap with the work of others, who are each looking for credit just as you are. Perceptions about whether you're doing your fair share in bringing in resources, publishing papers, training your department's students, and advancing the shared goals of your institution will be critical in determining your future.

For scientists following a fairly traditional academic career path, a tenure packet that reflects those fundamental tasks in addition to collaborative projects will usually be very well received. In fields in which collaborative work is the centerpiece--think mathematical biology, bioinformatics, chemical biology, or other interdisciplinary fields--the risks of having a tenure committee completely misunderstand one's accomplishments are far greater. If few of your future publications will be authored just by you and scientists directed by you, you may face a bumpy road to tenure.

The rule book for advancement and promotion will certainly change as collaborative science grows more important in coming years. Although traditional rules are still in place, the good news is that institutions, funders, journals, and professional societies all recognize the system's growing pains. Meanwhile, you need to understand how your institution views collaboration in general and your collaboration in particular. Below are several points to ponder and questions to ask yourself, your department, and your institution as you consider your career in collaborative science.

Shared expectations

The key to avoiding problems is to begin your faculty job with a detailed and documented understanding of what your institution expects from you and what you, in turn, can anticipate from the institution at each step of the tenure and promotion process.

This is especially important for researchers whose faculty appointments will bridge two or more departments. Belonging to two departments may leave you with no true home. Although you may have good friends in both, you may discover that you have no allies who are willing to spend their political capital on protecting you if you find yourself serving as the rope in a tug of war between the competing interests of the departments that share you.

Getting buy-in for your collaborative or multidisciplinary career isn't just a departmental issue. You may still face difficulties when your case is considered by a broader, institutionwide tenure committee. Therefore, pay attention to how collaborative or interdisciplinary faculty members are appreciated and promoted in substantially different departments across the campus. If top-notch, productive assistant professors whose work and teaching cross traditional disciplines within the humanities or engineering are being turned down for tenure, then what does it mean for your own case? Alternatively, if they are being promoted faster than average, explore whether they know things that you need to learn about how to navigate the process.

Questions to ask about collaborative science and tenure

The factors for your success on the tenure track are diverse and specific to your research and your institution. But some will be fairly common. For instance, you will need to spend time, energy, and money early in your career to make connections and begin work with your collaborators. How will this affect your publication rate in your first 3 years? If your postdoctoral adviser will remain a part of your collaborative network, how will you demonstrate your independence?

If you haven't gotten answers to these questions before you agree to take a job, you can still communicate with your chair and any formal departmental, college, or university-level advisers who may be able to help you get a clearer understanding of what the institution expects from you and how you can address any differences between your more collaborative approach and the more traditional approach taken by most people going up for tenure.

More questions to ask:

- How will your collaborative work affect your claim to space, departmental funds, and other institutional resources, especially if you have a split appointment with more than one department? What if you collaborate relatively little with those in your department but need more resources because of large collaborations with researchers off campus? Are you likely to get what you need?

- If you expect that most of your publications will come as part of large research consortia or from long-term partnerships with a few experimental groups, how will your publications be counted? When evaluating interdisciplinary and collaborative work, will they look beyond the old measures--first and last authorship--to see leadership in your papers?

- Beyond publications, what benchmarks will officially demonstrate your emergence as a leader and driver of your collaborations? If you are part of a very large consortium, what are your institution's expectations of your progress within it? How do those expectations jibe with the plans of the more senior members of the consortium?

- What are the department's and institution's expectation for you in terms of bringing in individual grants, center grants, or sections of larger grants? At tenure time, how will shared grants be viewed? Is there some ratio of individual-to-shared funding beyond which you may be seen as underperforming? Is there an implicit penalty for shared grants?

- What is the expected balance between local collaborations and more distant collaborations that may be more in line with your scientific interests?

- If teaching is part of your job, what, how much, when, and in what department will you teach? If your work is part of an exciting new approach that interests entering students, will you be expected to create and run a new course? Will you be given release time for it? Would writing the first textbook for a new field be seen as a scholarly contribution or a distraction?

It may seem like a long list of questions, and some of the answers may seem obvious to you. But it is important to make sure that you and your institution know what to expect. Once it's clear what benchmarks you have to meet for successful promotion, you can stop wondering if you're on track and focus even more on your science.

Get by with a little help from your friends

When you are involved in collaborations--especially large-scale ones--you should look to the scientific community for help in building a successful early career.

Within your collaborative projects and within the larger circle of scientists who closely follow the collaborative work, it is fair and useful to frankly discuss your career development. Strong letters from researchers who know your work well are a key part of the tenure process, and the senior scientists who pay attention to your work know it. Seeing you tenured will benefit your collaborators and those who value your collaboration. It's worth it to occasionally (meaning "more than once but not often enough to be annoying") talk with your collaborators about your progress toward tenure. One suggestion to start the conversation is to ask them to look at your CV and tell you whether you'd be seen as on track at their institution. When they write you letters of support, your collaborators can help you by pointing out what you need to thrive and can highlight the value of your disciplinary and interdisciplinary contributions.

Journals that clarify the roles of authors and include clear statements of who did what help advance interdisciplinary science. Your collaborative group should make a policy of publishing, whenever possible, in these journals over others that have not adapted to better serve research teams. It's also helpful to become a reviewer. By offering to review papers for the journals you publish in, you will build relationships with the editors there and establish yourself in your field. Once you have a good understanding of a journal's priorities and have a relationship with its editors, you can suggest policy changes that would make authorship statements the norm and that would benefit collaborative science.

Some of the needed changes are cultural, which means that they are best facilitated by established scientists. Once your career is well under way, you can work to change things for the better. Work through your professional societies: They often own journals, convene scientists, and lay out policies that help define the culture of their fields. Like the journals, professional societies need active scientists who will step up and take seats on committees and leadership bodies. When you are part of a society's leadership, whether through committee service or elected office, you are in a position to help guide your field as it comes to embrace collaborative science.

Funders can help by devoting more dollars to mechanisms such as the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) "Glue Grants" which allow currently funded researchers to come together in collaborative teams to take on questions whose scope is beyond an individual investigator's reach. NIH has begun to recognize that multiple principal investigators can lead a project. Career development grants that bet on an individual scientist, whether his or her work is done alone or collaboratively, can help. How do you get influence with funders? Same way: Offer to serve as a reviewer for the organizations that support your work and appropriately value collaborative and interdisciplinary approaches when you see them in the proposals you review.

For a collaborative scientist, the best way to make the system better is to use your natural skills for bringing ideas together: Just jump in and start helping. After all, science itself is just one elegantly chaotic and vast collaboration striving to understand the world and how it works--and it's led from within.

Photo (top): byrne7214

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