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Winning Strategies: Advice from PECASE Winners


There's no shortage of advice on the best way to establish an independent research career; just ask any experienced scientist and you'll likely get an earful. But how much of that advice should you take, and how much should you ignore? As most pontificators will gladly tell you, things were different back then.

"My best advice is to not change your question to fit your current skill set, but rather change your skill set to meet the demands of a good question." --Joy Ward

For this article, we decided to get a fresher, younger perspective--several, actually. We sought career advice from a group of scientists who, though still near the beginning of their research careers, have already proven their mettle in many ways, including by winning a major award. The perspectives of these 13 scientists--all winners of 2009 Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE)--demonstrate that although there are no fail-safe recipes for success, some basic, tried-and-true principles can still be counted on, when they're paired with a measure of talent. Below, we report their advice in their own, lightly edited words, arranged thematically.

(David Aragon)

Cecilia Aragon, Ph.D., is a computer scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab in Berkeley, California. Aragon studies how social media and computer-mediated communication are changing scientific practice. She develops and studies visual interfaces for examining large data sets.

Be tenacious

I have an impressive collection of rejection letters from funding agencies, both federal and private. Although there is not the same formal record, I would say my success rate in new research experiments is less than one in five. Overcoming these obstacles has been a matter of "try, try again." I think doing an experiment for the fourth time is exponentially harder than the second try, which is why many people quit. But I've had lots of luck on the fourth try.

--John Dabiri

I think tenacity has had more to do with any success that I've enjoyed than any other quality. I'm a big believer in the value of perseverance for overcoming the bad luck, unexpected setbacks, and unavoidable roadblocks that invariably arise. Malcolm Gladwell has recently popularized the idea that 10,000 hours or 10 years of dogged dedication are required to achieve a modicum of expertise. That sounds about right to me.

--Jeremy Reiter

Seth Bank , Ph.D., is an engineer at the University of Texas, Austin. Bank is finding ways to grow and use crystalline semiconductor nanostructures for use in new materials and devices for electronics and optoelectronics.

A lot of it is persistence, simply not giving up. There are a lot of moments of frustration in research, a lot of dead alleys. And sometimes you may think, “I’m never going to solve this problem.” But the key is just not to give up and not to get discouraged when things don’t work.

--Cecilia Aragon

Ask good questions

I think it's important to realize that it's not always the smartest or even the hardest-working scientists that are most successful; to me it seems that [it's] the ones who ask the right questions, the questions that are a couple of years ahead of the field. There’s a great quote by the hockey player Wayne Gretzky: "A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be." I think the same is true for scientists.

--John Dabiri

Elizabeth Boon , Ph.D., is a microbiologist at Stony Brook University in New York state. Boon studies bacterial biofilms, communities of bacteria that live on surfaces.

In ecology, good observational skills, a solid grasp of the literature, and a great deal of creativity are key ingredients for success. With this combination of skills in hand, an aspiring scientist can identify novel patterns in nature that challenge current dogma and employ creative experimental designs to translate such observations into new insights for the advancement of science.

--Dean Pearson

My philosophy has been to start with the best question possible in a given research area. From there, it is important to not be dissuaded by hard work, lack of current experience, or the need to learn new techniques. My best advice is to not change your question to fit your current skill set but rather change your skill set to meet the demands of a good question.

--Joy Ward

(Courtesy, Markus Buehler )

Markus Buehler, Ph.D., is the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Associate Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Buehler uses a computational materials science approach to see how biological materials such as proteins falter and fail under extreme conditions such as injury or disease.

Think big

[One] key to my success is being able to think on a large scale, on two levels. First is a systems level, to understand how biological and molecular processes are integrated and affect each other. This helps me keep the big picture of my scientific question in mind. I keep whiteboards and notebooks that help me to continually build on and extend these big-picture ideas. The second is with regard to my research program, what is the mission, where do I want to take it in 5 and 10 years, and what do we need to accomplish to get there?

--Felicia Goodrum

One of my mentors encouraged me to make long-term plans about my projects, my publications, and my grant writing. Being strategic allows me to choose collaborations that align with my interests and plan for large-scale projects that build upon the work that I have done since I became a faculty member.

--Monica Cox

(Purdue University)

Monica Cox, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, focusing on pedagogical evaluation. Cox is finding ways to improve engineering education at all levels, from K–12 classrooms to graduate-level courses and labs.

Take risks

Diversify your research program: Pursue projects that you know will work and others that are high-risk and you are not so sure will work. Make sure you are passionate about all of them. As a new faculty member, you are part grad student and part faculty. You need to generate ideas but also run your own simulations, make measurements, et cetera.

--Anthony Grbic

Creating impact and breaking scientific barriers requires one to do what is unconventional--so don’t be afraid to think and pursue what is “different”! I am excited when my research stirs strong discussions, as it is important to push the boundaries of what is currently accepted in order to advance our scientific understanding.

--Markus Buehler

(California Institute of Technology)

John O. Dabiri, Ph.D., is at an Associate Professor of Aeronautics and Bioengineering at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Dabiri studies the propulsion systems of biological systems, including jellyfish and squid. He was tenured this year, just 4 years after earning his Ph.D.

Take what comes

I came upon my current career path by accident. When encouraged to attend college, I sat with the college adviser and we went down the list: Accounting? No. Business? No. Economics? Journalism? Mathematics? No, No, No. Finally, we hit the end of the list: wildlife biology. Well, I like to hunt and fish, and there was nothing else on the list after "W."

So it was. I took this major to the University of Montana where I eventually decided I was much more interested in how communities worked rather than focusing on any one particular species or population. After completing my B.S. in wildlife, I explored zoology in graduate school and finally found my niche in studying community ecology.

--Dean Pearson

Love the process

You have to love the process of scientific research, not just science subjects as learned in classes and textbooks. If you are entering a graduate program, you have to have specific career goals that require a Ph.D. In other words, you have to know why you are earning your degree. Otherwise, when you face the inevitable challenges that come with the Ph.D. process, you will have a hard time finding the motivation to tackle each challenge because you lack a long-term focus. You have to figure out how to be patient with the seemingly slow pace of research while also being aggressive about bringing your research to the next level as quickly as possible.

--Elizabeth Boon

(University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

Lynford Goddard, Ph.D., is an electrical and computer engineer at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Goddard studies ways that light, and lasers in particular, can be used for sensing and measurement, communications, and data processing.

Learn to juggle

Being a professor feels like having about three full-time jobs. Having perfectionist tendencies, I have a very difficult time not making sure everything I do is done to the best of my ability. But I have had to learn that I simply do not have time to complete each and every task to perfection. For high-priority items, such as mentoring my graduate students and writing grants, I budget enough time to allow myself to do as good a job as possible. If something is not a high priority, I have had to learn to accept that I will do a good job with that task but not my best job.

--Elizabeth Boon

[A key to success is] evenhanded neglect. It is impossible to finish everything that “needs” to get done; the key is to not let any one area slide disproportionately.

--Seth Bank

(Courtesy, University of Arizona)

Felicia Goodrum, Ph.D., is a virologist at the University of Arizona, Tucson. Goodrum seeks to uncover the mechanisms by which human cytomegalovirus--a herpesvirus that infects many people--establishes its lifelong latent infection.

Prove yourself to yourself

I always knew I wanted to be a professor, but for a long time I was not sure if I had the ability or confidence required to direct someone's Ph.D. thesis. I had a relatively successful graduate career, but I was unsure of how much of my success to attribute to my own talent as opposed to a good adviser, a good project, and simple good luck.

I decided to try something completely new as a postdoctoral fellow in an attempt to wipe the slate clean and start over. I reasoned that if I were successful doing completely different work in a completely different environment, then at least some of my success was likely to be due to my abilities as a research scientist. I had a wonderful postdoctoral experience, which gave me the confidence I needed to start my own research group.

--Elizabeth Boon

Find mentors

Finding a mentor with whom you can talk is important. You do not learn how to be a faculty member in graduate school, so identifying someone who can provide guidance as you navigate the process is essential. If you cannot find a mentor in your department, identify someone who might be a possible mentor on another campus or in another field. Some places to find mentors are at disciplinary or professional conferences or meetings. It is your responsibility to initiate and to develop this relationship.

--Monica Cox

(Dept. of EECS, University of Michigan)

Anthony Grbic, Ph.D., is an electrical engineer and computer scientist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Grbic pursues research in electromagnetics and microwave circuits.

Be a mentor

The career accomplishment I’m most proud of is, without doubt, the impending graduation of my first student. Veena's an extremely intelligent and driven scientist. As my first graduate student, she was also a bit of a guinea pig for my experiments on how to become a scientific mentor. Her success and accomplishments allow me to think that I've learned something about becoming an adviser.

--Jeremy Reiter

I have a passion for encouraging underrepresented minorities to continue in science. Part of that is my own story. My parents are immigrants, so mine was one of the few Hispanic families in my small town, and I remember walking into stores with my mother and having people turn away and refuse to serve us. I was fortunate that my parents were always very supportive, and they gave me that inner strength. But having seen discrimination throughout my life, I can’t help but think about other kids who run into discrimination and perhaps don’t have that support.

--Cecilia Aragon

(Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center)

Harmit Malik, Ph.D., is a principal investigator at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington, and studies the causes and consequences of genetic conflicts that take place between different genomes (e.g., host-virus interactions) or within components of the same genome.

Build a great team

Invest lots of time in recruiting a great research team--this is time well spent. This is something I learned from my wife--a human resources manager. She even convinced me to adopt a behavioral interview guide for graduate recruiting! Talk to potential grad students at length on the phone. It is amazing how much you can learn about a person in just 1 hour. I talk to candidates at least twice, an hour each time, before deciding to take them on. You want to make sure they are a great fit. These people will be crucial to your success.

Don’t rely on transcripts and references. Establish a personal connection with the potential candidate. It may determine whether he/she joins your research group as opposed to another.

--Anthony Grbic

Trust your instincts when it comes to hiring people. Some people make mistakes with hiring, thinking they need to "fill up" the lab. But poor employees take up more time and ultimately can badly affect the lab morale. It's best to stick to your standards, even if it means a smaller lab in the beginning.

--Harmit Malik

(Kathryn Socie)

Dean Pearson, Ph.D., is a research ecologist at the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula, Montana. Pearson studies biological invasions as a means for testing ecological theory. His goal is to integrate community and invasive ecology.

Stay small

I've focused on keeping the size of my research group small. For me, the magic number of grad students is five. Now, in some fields this isn't realistic, but in every field there is usually a sense of what is large. I recommend avoiding "large." For me, this has been especially important because I like to experience the science, not just manage it.

--John Dabiri

Address your weaknesses

Working on my weaknesses is one secret to my success. Science and math have always been my favorite subjects because I like to figure out problems. Vocabulary and verbal communication were another story. On the practice college entrance exams, I did very well in math but scored below average in the verbal and writing sections. For 2 years, I memorized five new words a day and read newspapers, especially the boring stories because, as you know, the boring topics are always the ones that appear on tests. When I finally walked into the real test, I was ready to tackle the whole thing because I had worked on my weakness and turned it into a strength.

--Lynford Goddard

(Christine Ma)

Jeremy Reiter, M.D., Ph.D., is at the Diabetes Center at the University of California, San Francisco. Reiter is interested in how cells communicate with each other during vertebrate embryonic development and how this communication goes awry in disease.


Hands down, the primary secret to my success is being a strong writer. Writing started for me in high school when I attended a magnet program for writing. With every new step I take in science, writing becomes a more and more important part of what I do. It is really not enough to just do great science; you have to be able to communicate your ideas and findings clearly and effectively to be successful in publishing your work and winning grants.

--Felicia Goodrum

I think that my communications skills have got me where I am today. I believe that good communication skills are the key to success in science. This is because good writing skills are necessary for writing grants and manuscripts, verbal skills are needed to conduct excellent scientific seminars, and interpersonal communication skills are critical for effective lab management and for conveying ideas to other members of the scientific community.

--Joy Ward

(Robert E. Ward IV)

Joy Ward, Ph.D., studies ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas, Lawrence. Ward is working to determine how plants have evolved in response to changing carbon dioxide levels over geologic and contemporary time scales.

Keep writing

Keep writing those dreaded proposals. This is something I was told by a colleague when I just joined the University of Michigan. Honestly, you will always find time to do the things you enjoy, like research and teaching. The ideas will come, but remember to leave time for the not-so-fun part of the job: proposal writing. Without adequate funding, it is difficult to maintain a solid research program.

--Anthony Grbic

Step out

Embrace every opportunity to talk about your science and listen to what other scientists have to say. You really have to be visible, and it is your job to do that. Integrate yourself and be a presence both at your local institution and in your field.

--Felicia Goodrum

Share your work and foster discussions. Be able to explain your work, briefly and concisely, to audiences with different levels of scientific background for purposes of publishing, fund raising, and presentations. It is most important to be able to explain to people from outside your field the intellectual and technical challenges and the impact of your work. Do not be afraid of sharing results and carrying out open discussions.

--Markus Buehler

Don’t forget what inspires you

Although I don't currently practice medicine, I deeply value having had the privilege of helping [to] care for patients. Although most of my current research addresses basic questions, the M.D. part of me thinks about human health and the possibility of our research contributing to new insights into disease or therapies.

--Jeremy Reiter

I have always been fascinated by biology in general, but more specifically ancient animals and plants. As a child, I always dreamed of visiting the tar pits in California. Thus, it is a treat for me to work with ancient samples on a daily basis. It truly is like a childhood dream come true.

--Joy Ward

Susan Gaidos is based near Portland, Maine.