Columns Opinion

Making yourself valuable

Ron Vale

We work hard doing science because we enjoy it (if this is not true, it time for a career change). However, as in any profession, we also work hard for professional advancement — getting into graduate school, a postdoc, a job, and so on. We have discussed the role of publications and the types of scientific publications in the process of advancement. However, is your life, your net worth as a scientist entirely wrapped in your 2 page CV? I (and hopefully you) would find this to be a sad situation indeed. Fortunately, I do not believe that this is true. There are other ways in which you can create value, which will add tremendously to your enjoyment of the scientific profession as well as to your own advancement.

As many of you how are reading this are young people advancing in your careers, let me provide you with a perspective from the other side of a person who is hiring”. As a head of a laboratory, I offer positions to postdoctoral fellows to work in my lab (and receive a lot of applications) and in my prior role as chair of my department or on faculty search committees, I was involved in hiring junior faculty (again, many applications). Naturally, in both situations, I/​we ask the first question — is this person a good scientist?”. However, there are still many people who might fall into that bin. The second question that I/​we ask is — will this person be a good colleague and bring additional value to our environment?”. The second question is very important and should not be underestimated in the psychology of hiring, even though it is not quantifiable” and certainly opinion based. What do I mean? Good colleague — friendly, interactive, team player, willing to be helpful. Bringing additional value — willing to improve the environment by organizing activities, building infrastructure that is useful to many people, education/​mentoring of others. The anti-thesis of the above — insular, focused exclusively on their own work/​own publications, not willing to add extra energy if it does provide direct benefit to him/​herself.

Evaluating two people in the above categories who both have equally good CVs — who would you rather have in your work environment? Would I/​my department reject someone with an amazing CV but who might be a difficult, self-centered person? Yes.

How do you judge these elements in an individual? Fairly simple — 1) letters of recommendation, 2) direct evidence of community activities, and 3) the interview process and good judgment. First, letters of recommendation are EXTREMELY important, much more important than most young people might think. A bland letter of recommendation can be deadly as a bad” one. A detailed letter of recommendation that describes not only the science but also how wonderful the individual is and how he/​she has contributed as a team player and to the work environment is very effective. Second, I often look for evidence in the letters and CV of activities. As some examples, has this person organized journal clubs, volunteered to teach, mentored research activities of students, etc.? Being a good citizen does not trump being a good scientist, unfortunately. However, it is a tangible part of the overall equation. 

Most importantly, be a good citizen and active in your community, not for reasons of promotion, but for yourself! If you are just working for the almighty paper, another number added onto your CV, you are missing a bigger part of life. If you somehow touch and improve the lives of your colleagues and students, you generate value, have a purpose, and make an impact beyond your experimental results. The energy that you put into your community also can provide daily satisfaction which can fuel your energy in ways that complement the joy of a great experimental result, which are often few and far between and require a great deal of patience. In addition, how people will remember you will outlive the memory” of your scientific papers, which might be born with fan fare, make an impression for a few years, and then burn out like a supernova. Think about your impact factor” in new ways.