Friday, September 10, 2010

Is Bragging Necessary to Succeed in Science?

Women are usually reluctant to brag about themselves and look askance at men who are natural self-promoters.

This post is part of a series about self-promotion, why it may be important to your career, and how to go about it in a way that is not obnoxious.  You may be thinking that bragging is unseemly and unnecessary.  You may be thinking that if you are good at your job, people will take notice.  Let's examine these ideas.

Envision your workplace and those people who stand out from the crowd and whose work is always mentioned when the head of the lab, department, or agency describes your organization's strengths and accomplishments.  Do you think the stand-outs are recognized simply because they do good work and everyone just "knows" about it?

I doubt it. The more likely explanation is that they are good self-promoters who have carefully crafted their reputations.

Is self-promotion necessary to succeed in science?  Well, no, but it probably helps.

Consider a hypothetical scenario:

Mary is a post-doctoral researcher working in a large lab alongside many other talented, ambitious scientists.  She is quietly confident in her abilities and goes about her work with an assured air.  Indeed, Mary is a promising young scientist with a bright future and who believes that her hard work and accomplishments are recognized by everyone in the department.  She rarely talks about herself, preferring to let others sing her praises.  One day, the director of the lab shows up with an important visitor (a program director from a major funding agency).  

They stop in front of Mary who's working at her lab bench, and the director says, "This is Dr. Whitcomb. She's working on a very interesting problem." 

She looks expectantly at Mary and says, "How's the experiment going?"

Mary hesitates, then humbly says, "Oh, it's going slowly, but we're making progress. Rick helped me with a difficult extraction, and Sally's going to show me a shortcut that should speed things up." Mary's voice trails off as she notices the lab director frowning.  The visitor is looking around the room, clearly not paying attention.  

Wordlessly, they move on to one of Mary's lab mates, Rick, who begins to enthusiastically describe his project.  He starts by explaining the goal of his work and its relevance to the lab's overall research program.  He then explains how just that day he solved a particularly difficult methodological problem--which, by the way, may have broader application.  His tone is sincere and confident and he's clearly excited about his work.  Rick is genuinely proud of his accomplishments, and his enthusiasm is contagious.  

What did Rick manage to do in his brief conversation?  He demonstrated that he's enthusiastic about his work, is a problem-solver and innovator, knows how his research fits into the overall scheme of the lab's program, and is understandably proud of his accomplishments.  Did it sound like bragging? Probably not.

Now, when the lab director later discusses her grant application with her visitor, who among the lab's post-docs do you think will be mentioned as a likely candidate to head up the proposed project?

Not Mary.  Furthermore, when Mary eventually sends in a grant proposal of her own and it lands on the desk of the visitor from the funding agency, do you think he'll remember her in positive terms, if at all?

In this post, we've taken a brief look at two hypothetical scientists, equally talented in their field.  One, however, is more skilled at self-promotion.  It's easy to see how Rick's self-promotion, consistently and subtly applied, will build a positive image for him that will lead to career opportunities.  Mary, on the other hand, may find that she is more often than not overlooked--especially when the competition is someone like Rick.

In the next post, I'll talk a bit about having others do our bragging for us--and whether or not this is a sound approach.


GMP said...

Nice post.

Anonymous said...

So true.
I'm learning that whenever possible, even in emails, cite my work when it's relevant. If I'm explaining something I've done before in a paper, then cite it in the email, attach the pdf. I keep doing this with the *same* paper with my boss, maybe he'll actually read the damn thing once. Just like not being heard because my boobs are voice interference, I have to keep referencing my own damn stuff over and over to get it read once. I'm gonna staple it to his forehead next.