Monday, September 27, 2010

Blue Ocean Strategy for Scientists

In the previous post, I introduced the Blue Ocean Strategy, a business strategy that creates new market space in which the competition becomes irrelevant. In a red ocean, the competition sharks are circling; when they attack, the water turns bloody. In a blue ocean, you create a space in which you operate with little or no competition.  The sharks don't exist in that world. 

In science, we compete for external funding, for resources within our institutions, and for journal space. In this post, I'll briefly go through some of the steps required to develop a Blue Ocean Strategy.  If you are interested in getting the full story and detailed examples, the book is available on  Even if you are not interested in business books, this one is quite readable due to the many interesting examples that give the background story on some businesses/products that you may have heard of and why they have been so successful (Cirque du Soleil, [yellow tail] wine).

The strategy involves four actions to identify the changes that need to be made to create a blue ocean.  These actions are expressed as questions to get you to begin formulating the necessary changes.

1. Which of the factors that the profession takes for granted should be eliminated?
2. Which factors should be reduced well below the profession's standard?
3. Which factors should be raised well above the profession's standard?
4. Which factors should be created that the profession has never offered?

I'll use one of the examples from the book to illustrate how this works and then see how this idea might apply to science fields.

Casella Wines is an Australian based company that created [yellow tail], which differed from the typical wine profile.  By applying a blue ocean strategy, the company created a wine that became the fastest growing brand in the history of the wine industry in both Australia and the US.  First, they realized that most Americans and Australians rejected wine as their drink of choice because its complex taste was difficult to appreciate (tannins, etc.) and its reputation as an elite drink was unappealing to the masses. Beer and mixed drinks were sweeter and easier to appreciate...and were appealing to the average person. So [yellow tail] was created with a new combination of wine characteristics: uncomplicated in structure, soft in taste, and up-front fruit flavors. Buyers did not have to have years of wine experience to enjoy drinking it. So the company eliminated all the factors that the wine industry typically competes on: tannins, oaks, aging. The company next turned to the bewildering array of wines that customers usually face in the store--an intimidating choice for those unschooled in the complexities of wine.  They reduced the choices to two wines: a white (Chardonnay) and a red (Shiraz).  They removed all the technical jargon from the label, created a bright logo, and put the bottles in a striking but simple display. This move streamlined the business (reduced stocks, manufacturing, selling)--reducing their costs of production. They promoted the wine as a fun drink anyone could enjoy (i.e., you don't have to be a wine snob to drink it).  They priced it above the budget jug wines, but below the bottle wines at $6.99.  By making these moves, they reached a new set of customers that were not typical wine-drinkers.  Bottles literally flew off the shelves.

In science, we are all competing in similar ways for journal space, for funding, and for recognition--all of which have feed-back effects on each other.  Students and very naive junior scientists often seem not to recognize that there is any competition (or behave as if there is no competition).  They think that funding for their research will arrive--all they have to do is write a proposal; their papers will get published--all they have to do is write it up and submit it; they will land a great job and become well-known--all they have to do is work hard.  In other words, they have no strategy.

More savy science practitioners recognize that competition exists and attempt to best others by working harder and spending longer hours in the lab.   For example, some of us spend an enormous amount of time writing proposals (usually for only one or two years of funding).  I know some scientists who routinely submit five to ten proposals per year in order to get one or two funded.  That time could have been spent writing papers, of course.  Is there a blue ocean strategy that reduces or eliminates competition for research funding?  That may seem like a nutty question.  Of course scientists have to compete for funding.  Or do they?

One blue ocean solution that a few scientists have discovered is to self-fund their research.  I wrote about this idea in an earlier post.  These researchers essentially donate a portion of their income to keep their labs running.  Some started doing it when funding temporarily dried up and continued the practice. They set aside some of their income to cover research expenses or did a bit of consulting on the side and used that income to fund their research and that of graduate students.  The advantage is that they no longer compete with other scientists for funding, they don't suffer the indignity of having reviewers and panelists bashing (or stealing) their ideas, they don't give up part of the funds to overhead, and they can research whatever topics they fancy.  The disadvantage, of course, is using personal income and losing the "prestige" that comes with grants.  This would not work for everyone, but could be a blue ocean strategy for some.  It might be a temporary solution to get you through a difficult patch, rather than a long-term strategy.  I offer this example because it's an approach that most scientists never consider and is a perfect example of a blue ocean strategy.

Another idea is to target sources of funding in which you may be more competitive or in which the total competition is small.  This is an obvious suggestion, but one that is sometimes overlooked.  Instead of going after NSF or NIH funding (a red ocean), for example, look for other funding sources with less competition or in which your proposal stands out.  I once got a fellowship by applying to a funding source that did not get many ecologists applying--thus, my application stood out.  Smaller grants, especially those with limited eligibility, are sometimes easier to get than the usual research grant.  Career advancement fellowships for women and minorities, for example, are available from government agencies and private foundations.  To make these decisions, you must have a really good idea of your competitive profile (more about this later). 

These are just a few ideas for creating a blue ocean strategy for a science career.  The point is to create a space for yourself to do science in which you make the competition irrelevant.  You can probably think of other ideas that would work for you and your situation.  In the next posts, we'll look at some other strategies as well as additional criteria that tell you whether your blue ocean ideas are viable.

Image Credit (modified from a still image from the film "Open Water")

Friday, September 24, 2010

Swimming in a Blue Ocean

A book that I've found to be helpful in thinking about personal career strategies is called "Blue Ocean Strategy".  It's a business book, but the idea applies to any competitive situation.  The concept that the authors promote is that "companies should break out of the red ocean of bloody competition by creating uncontested market space that makes the competition irrelevant".  Instead of trying to capture an increasingly smaller share of the market space, a company can break away from the competition by creating an entirely new market (in which there is little or no competition, at least for a while).  You can probably think of some research organizations that have done just this.  Instead of trying to compete with other research institutions for limited funding, they've focused on a specific area that other researchers have ignored (or not yet recognized) and/or developed unique expertise. 

The book, Blue Ocean Strategy, is an interesting read, since the authors use some fascinating examples to illustrate their concept.  The information and the strategy they present are based on fifteen years of research.  One of their examples is Cirque du Soleil, which started out in 1984 as a group of street performers.  They created a new market, catering to adults, rather than children (the typical market for circuses).  This group achieved revenues in only 20 years what it took Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey more than 100 years to attain.  The remarkable aspect of this example is that it took place in an industry that was in serious decline.  This latter feature is a repeating theme throughout the book: a company succeeds dramatically despite being in an unpopular or failing industry.  This point is relevant to us as scientists who have invested a great deal in our training in a particular field--changing fields is often out of the question.  However, changing how we approach our work in that field is possible.

An individual can apply the blue ocean strategy to their own career.  In a red ocean, your boundaries and rules of the game are known and accepted by everyone in science.  In this red ocean, each scientist tries to outperform rivals to get a share of the market (funding, space in journals, etc.).  As more people crowd into your specific field, your prospects of getting funding or published in top journals decline, and you have to work harder just to stay even. Weaker competitors become desperate and resort to unscrupulous behavior (stealing ideas, fabricating data, sabotaging colleagues).

In the previous post, I talked about copycat scientists.  What they are doing is the exact opposite of the blue ocean strategy.  Instead of carving out a niche for themselves, they are going head-to-head with someone in their own workplace who is already established.  It's an uphill battle.  Worse, they are duplicating work and approaches that are being used by their rival instead of developing their own.  A really poor strategy all around--but the copycats never seem to recognize this.  

In a blue ocean, the competition is irrelevant because you've gone outside the typical boundaries of your profession and created demand for what you have to offer (that no one else is offering).  At one time, automobiles, aviation, computers, and cell phones did not exist--in fact, had never been heard of.  These are now multi-billion dollar industries.  Although they exist today in a red ocean, they operated in a blue ocean in the beginning, and the innovators who took the initial risks reaped the benefits.  The risks involved in pursuing a blue ocean strategy can be large (although there are ways to minimize risk), and the outcome is not always clear.  Can you predict what products or companies will be the big winners twenty years from now?  So, embarking on a blue ocean strategy is not for the faint-hearted.

How does one apply the blue ocean strategy to a science career?  I imagine you are already thinking of some examples for your particular situation.  I may elaborate in later posts.

But for now, the concept applies to the theme of this series--self-promotion.  Scientists are competing for the most part within a strict set of boundaries.  Most scientists rely on their publication records, their citation rates, their teaching evaluations, etc. to speak for them and their success.  If you take a more active role in developing your reputation, you will be stepping outside the normal boundaries of the red ocean.  I'll give you an example.

Most of us (scientists) are expected to engage in professional service activities such as reviewing, editing, serving as officers in professional societies.  Many of us are evaluated based on service (in addition to science & teaching), but service often gets short-shrift.  I realized that this was one area that I could develop beyond the normal things scientists do--and stand out from the crowd.  There were a number of options, but I decided to focus on science communication.  One of the skills I've developed in this regard is making videos that describe aspects of my research and that of collaborators.  I've gotten some of these published online as audio-visual products of my agency. The reactions I've gotten from the general public (and from colleagues) tell me that these videos are not only providing a service but are getting me noticed in a new way.  I'm now learning animation techniques so that I can better illustrate scientific concepts.  I'm finding this activity fun, challenging, and fulfilling.  It's allowed me to combine my artistic abilities with my science training to come up with a blue ocean strategy.  You may have some particular skill or natural talent that can be tapped in a similar way. 

The above is just one example of how you can self-promote while fulfilling professional goals.  It also works as a blue ocean strategy because it replaces the typical service activity with something few other scientists do.  Service is expected by many science employers, but doesn't seem to get much emphasis during evaluations (unless you don't do it).  If you participate only in the typical service activities, no one is much impressed.  However, if you do something really unique, it can bring you recognition.  Don't think you have time to do something other than the usual?  Instead of spending two hours per week anonymously reviewing papers or sitting on yet another committee, why not invest one of those hours doing something unique that meets your service duties and makes you stand out among your peers?    

If you develop a good blue ocean strategy and apply it consistently, you will likely enjoy swimming a lot more.

Photograph by Paolo Curto

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Copy-Cat Scientist

You've worked hard, published some important papers, and have a lot of great ideas.  Unfortunately, Julie, a new scientist in your department, has been copying your research approaches and is using them to compete with you for funding.  You realize that some overlap in research topics is inevitable, but Julie is methodically duplicating your program.  She has been busily talking up her work to the higher-ups and has managed to get resources to facilitate her move into your research territory.

Julie, whom you suspect has few original ideas of her own, is copying your research because it is so successful and has brought you a lot of attention and funding in the past.  You also discover that she has been getting detailed information about your methods from your technicians and students--without your permission.     

Competition in the scientific community is normal and necessary for the field to move forward.  However, within a research organization, too much competition and overlap in research areas can lead to a toxic, suspicious environment.  People are reluctant to talk freely about their ideas and projects with co-workers for fear of someone taking their ideas and passing them off as their own to superiors.  Such a situation often arises when science managers encourage competition among researchers (thinking that this will result in greater funding and science output).

Most scientists prefer to establish their own unique area(s) of research, but sometimes there will be one person who can only survive by copying what others do. 

Most of us have so many questions and ideas to try out, that there just aren't enough hours in the day to address them.  I thought everyone was like this until I had a conversation many years ago with a post-doc who asked me where I got all of my research ideas.  At the time, I was a master's-level research associate, but was writing papers and proposals.  I had been rattling on about some ideas I had for a study I wanted to conduct, when I noticed this post-doc staring at me with a strange look on his face.  He seemed quite mystified as to how I had thought of these research questions and then how I came up with a set of experiments (so quickly) to test the questions.  At first, I thought he was just surprised that someone without a Ph.D. could do this, but his later comments told me that he simply had difficulty thinking of new questions to ask.  I've later discovered that this lack of creative spark/curiosity is not that rare. When such people no longer have an adviser feeding them ideas, they must turn elsewhere. 

In other cases, some people are so competitive that they actively steal ideas to scoop a colleague.  I knew someone like this once.  He particularly liked to prey on graduate students who would unwittingly tell him their ideas.  This scientist would then quickly do the study and publish it before the student could finish.  He also targeted women, minorities, and visiting scientists from foreign institutions.  It was a game to him, and he even bragged about it.  Classic bully. Picking on the weak who could not fight back.

This type of situation is probably one of the most distressing that a research scientist can face.  Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but when it goes too far, you need to take action.  So what do you do?

You cannot really say much against someone like this because you will look defensive and territorial, and it's really easy for the imitator to counter with the claim that they are simply focusing on important issues of the day and their work has nothing to do with you and your research.  In fact, any complaints from you (to superiors) will likely backfire.

As I've been trying to point out in this series, self-promotion may not only be a good idea, but essential to protect yourself against just this type of situation--or combat it if it develops.  The suggestions I made in this previous post about making sure you document your ideas or only provide them in front of witnesses so that the copy-cat cannot claim them later will certainly work in this situation.  However, you may need a more comprehensive strategy.  More in the next post.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Kissing-Up Is Just Wrong

Most of us want to think that we have succeeded through our own hard work and creativity, not because someone else paved the way for us. We are even more reluctant to have others think that the reason we got that job or that award was because of who we knew instead of on our merits. Anyone with any self-respect wants to feel they deserve the recognition that comes their way. When someone else whom we feel is undeserving gets ahead, we automatically presume it's because they had some unfair advantage.

It's no wonder, then, that we resist doing anything that might be characterized as "kissing-up". In this post, I'd like to consider aversion to self-promotion a bit more closely and in particular the role of peer pressure in our reluctance to set ourselves apart from the herd. Again, let's consider a hypothetical situation:

You are attending a major conference, along with many of your fellow post-docs. You are nearing the end of your tenure in your current lab and are looking for another position. While at the mixer, you are huddled with your group in a corner surveying the room. All the major players are there--the scientists who are heads of labs, program directors of funding agencies, and other important people. Most of them have a gaggle of people hovering around them. Everyone in your group is sneering at these hangers-on, saying things like, "Look at those brown-nosers. What a disgusting display."

You haven't joined in this condemnation because you are secretly wishing you had the nerve to go up to one of the Famous Scientists and introduce yourself.

Then, you spot Professor Brandon, a top researcher in your field whose work you've admired since graduate school. She's actually sitting alone at a table with a glass of wine, looking rather lonely. She appears to have lost weight and has changed her hair style, which may explain why no one else has noticed her. You see your chance to actually meet her and possibly ask about any potential openings in her lab. But you're afraid the other post-docs will ridicule you and you'll be branded as a "kiss-up". You hesitate, thinking that it's so much easier to stay with your pack where it's comfortable and safe. Maybe you'll have an opportunity later in the meeting to talk to her without your co-workers observing.

Two outcomes:

1. You remain with your pack and watch with dismay as another post-doc from another lab approaches Professor Brandon, who invites her to sit down with a wave of her glass. You observe their conversation as it becomes more and more animated. That could be you, you think. The opportunity to meet your idol later in the meeting never materializes.

2. Something comes over you, and you excuse yourself from your group. You go to the bar and get a glass of white wine and approach Dr. Brandon who is still sitting alone. You approach her table and ask, "Mind if I sit down? My feet are killing me." She replies that she's sitting down for that very same reason. She's hurt her foot on a recent field trip to Costa Rica and it started bothering her again. Since you once helped teach a field course in Costa Rica, you immediately jump at the chance to compare notes about the country, which then leads naturally into a discussion of mutual research interests. She says that she's just received word of a new grant from NSF to begin a large study in Costa Rica and she's looking for a post-doc. You hold your breath. She gives you her card and suggests you send her your CV.

Which one would you have done? Do you think outcome 2 qualifies as "kissing-up"? Does it really matter what your fellow post-docs think? What if you came back to your group's table and breathlessly announced that you are so excited because you've finally met your idol? Are they really going to criticize you for that? Even if they are so petty, so what?

It's understandable that people want to be liked by their co-workers and thought of as a team-player. But you don't have to sacrifice opportunities just to please the crowd. The herd wants you to follow along and not deviate from the path. If you do something that stands out, the herd reacts badly because your success emphasizes their lack of creativity and ability to think on their own.

A few pointers for those who wish to approach Famous Scientists:

1. Don't hover. If you wish to speak to someone, wait for an appropriate opportunity and go straight up and introduce yourself. If they don't seem interested in talking with you, say a few pleasantries and politely excuse yourself--and look for someone else to meet.

2. If you see a Famous Scientist you wish to meet and they appear to be in a deep conversation with another Famous Scientist, don't disturb them. They'll either ignore you or worse, tell you to get lost. Wait until you see an opening.

3. Approach people during events designed for informal mixing and conversation. They are more likely to be approachable than when they are busy and focused on work.

4. Ask someone to introduce you to Famous Scientist. However, be sure you have something to say. It's very awkward to be introduced and then stand there mute, staring helplessly at your shoes.

5. Don't leap into a litany of your background and research. Ask Famous Scientist about her work or interests or how she got started in her field. People almost always like to talk about themselves. If they don't reciprocate, wait until they mention something related to your work or interests, then say something brief. If there's interest, they'll ask you to tell them more about your work.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Everyone Knows How Important I Am

Really?  Are you sure?  You may know that your publication record is stellar and that your H-Index is the highest in your organization, but does that mean everyone else is aware of your scientific credentials and output?  Maybe not.

We've been talking in this series about self-promotion and how it is often necessary to take control of our reputations.  In doing so, we must overcome our resistance to something that feels like boasting (a no-no drilled into us by our parents).  Self-promotion is not bragging as we often think of it, i.e., shameless self- aggrandizement. Most of us can think of someone who exaggerates their accomplishments in an effort to appear more important or capable than they really are.  That is not what we are striving for.  Instead, what we are talking about is speaking up and telling others about our accomplishments in a way that is not obnoxious and that leaves people with a positive impression of us.

In this post, I'd like to talk a bit more about the notion that our work (e.g., numbers of publications, invitations to give talks, awards & honors, etc.) will speak for us--that there is really no need for us to advertise these facts.

I was disabused of the notion that my superiors were well aware of my standing in the scientific community and what benefits my research provided for the organization when my direct supervisor was overheard asking another scientist if my research was highly regarded (by the broader scientific community).  The co-worker's response was something along the lines of, "You're kidding, right?"

No, he wasn't kidding.  He really didn't know.....because he did not read the literature, did not go to major scientific conferences, could not distinguish between a paper published in the South Florida Naturalist and Nature, and generally did not know what science issues were currently other words, he was a typical science manager in my government agency. 

I was shocked at first.  Then totally mystified.  The explanation I finally settled upon (in addition to the above reasons) was that he was an interim supervisor from another department and with whom I had had no previous interactions.  He was in the position temporarily and had not had a chance to pore over my CV and those of the other scientists now under his purview.  Did he ever change his mind?  No.  The reason was that I never gave him any reason to change his perception of me.  First of all, I did not consider it to be that important and made no effort to discuss his apparent mistaken perception of me (how embarrassing would that be?).  During the one or two performance reviews that he conducted with me, I tried to emphasize my accomplishments, particularly my publication record, but this seemed to fall on deaf ears.  I had already been pigeon-holed, and nothing I said was going to matter.

I consoled myself with the thought that my scientific colleagues outside the insular world of the government thought highly of me and my science contributions.  You might be thinking about your own situation along the same lines.  Your post-doctoral adviser or other supervisor may seem unimpressed with you and ignores your accomplishments---but you assuage your disappointment by telling yourself that you are making a name for yourself in your field and will be famous one day--that'll show them.

The only problem with this idea is that your colleagues (who think so highly of you) don't have control over your job, your salary, your promotions, and your resources.  Fortunately for me, my position (and associated salary level) is evaluated by an external panel of peers based on my scientific record.  Even so, local decisions are made regarding lab space, funding, support personnel, and other items important to one's success as a scientist--which has a feedback effect on my evaluations.

So how would you go about changing people's impression of you? Let's consider one really easy way.

Think about those lab meetings or faculty meetings that we all attend during which most everyone is moaning and groaning about the bureaucracy or lack of resources or something.  Your inclination will be to join in the whinathon--to show solidarity with your oppressed colleagues--or because it simply feels good to complain.  This won't get you anywhere.

Instead, what if you use such opportunities to tell about a success you had dealing with some difficult client or an idea you have to reduce the negative impact of a new policy on scientific output?  If you consistently apply this approach during staff meetings and in interactions with supervisors and co-workers, it's very likely that your image will gradually change.  When everyone else is looking like a bunch of whiners, you will be viewed by superiors as a leader who's able to overcome obstacles and is a valuable asset to the organization.

I know what you're thinking:  "But my lab is so screwed up, and there are so many things that drive me up the wall, I can't help but complain."  I sympathize.  Most of us find ourselves at one time or another during our careers in what seems to be an intolerable environment.  Sometimes there is not much we can do to change the situation.

However, we do have some control over how others view us.  And that is what this series is all about.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

But He's Stealing My Thunder!

You work hard, are creative and come up with great ideas.  The only problem is that someone else in your lab is getting credit for your work.  Things were fine initially.  You did your work, and the lab director seemed to recognize your contributions.  Then Boyd arrived.  He was a one-man PR machine.  Initially, you were amused at his blatant self-promotion.  Then he was assigned to head up a project, and you were told to work on his team. You soon discovered that he was taking credit for your innovative ideas and was telling the lab director how he was having to do everything to keep the project on track.  He was always in the director's office bragging about something or asking for funds to attend some conference (just him, not the rest of the team).

You finally work up your courage and go to the director to complain.  You sit there explaining how all the creative ideas and progress on the project are due to your efforts, and that Boyd is misrepresenting his role. You also complain about how Boyd is always getting to go to conferences to present the project's findings.  When you finish, you notice that the lab director is scowling.  You think, "Alright. He's displeased with Boyd stealing credit for my work!" 

However, the director says, "I find what you're saying hard to believe--I see no evidence that what you are telling me is true.  Boyd has been keeping me updated regularly on the project's progress.  He's a real go-getter and a team-player.  I've sent him to conferences to deliver papers on the project's progress--because he's the team leader. Are you questioning my decisions?  In fact, I've never heard a peep out of you about the project.  There's no room in my lab for professional jealousy.  I suggest you focus on your assigned work and spend less time worrying about what Boyd is doing."

You stumble back to your office in a daze.  What just happened?  How could the director be so blind?

The problem with dealing with people like Boyd is that you can't cancel out weeks or months of PR by simply complaining that he's stealing your thunder.  The only way to fight credit theft is to develop your own PR campaign--one that makes it difficult for others to claim credit for your work.  Here are some ideas for combating credit theft:

1. Develop a good self-promotion plan, which includes bragging points that can be trotted out instantly.  The place to start is to answer the list of questions posed in the previous post.

2. Prepare a regular update of your accomplishments and plans for the upcoming weeks and send it via email to your boss or adviser.  This way, there is a written record of your ideas and contributions.  If Boyd happens to claim credit for some idea that you've previously mentioned to the boss, s/he's more likely to question Boyd as to whose idea it really is.

3. Meet regularly with your boss or adviser to reiterate what you've stated in your regular progress reports.  You can be subtle about this.  Include some data, graphs, or models in your report that you use to point out some potentially interesting new avenue of research or a possible modification in the overall plan. The idea is that you are keeping the boss informed and are seeking his/her input as to how best to proceed.

4. During lab meetings, speak up.  Explain some new idea or insight you've had about the project.  You have to plan this ahead of time.  Be sure to begin with some statement about your long experience in your particular field or previous experience that gives you special insight into the problem.  In other words, contribute your ideas in front of witnesses so that Boyd cannot easily claim credit for them.

5. After lab meetings with the director and team members, send an email to the lab director summarizing the ideas you have mentioned....and cc everyone in attendance.  You would be amazed at how easily it is for someone like Boyd to rewrite history...if it's not documented in writing.  If anyone attributes your ideas to Boyd, you can pull out your email from the archive and use it to re-emphasize your role in the development of the idea.  You might say something like, "I agree that taking that approach is a great plan.  If you recall, I suggested it at our May lab meeting, and the entire team has been great at taking my idea and implementing it.  Good work!"

6. Work up the courage to ask for rewards for your hard work--to be sent to a conference to report your team's findings or to be the one selected to summarize the team's progress at the next client meeting.  You can justify such requests by saying that you would really appreciate the leadership experience--and that this will benefit the lab's overall expertise in dealing with clients.

7. Finally, if you can stomach it, periodically compliment Boyd in front of the boss.  Such an action will make you appear to be more of a leader and not just a jealous member of his team.

You can probably think of some other techniques along these lines to counteract credit thieves.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What On Earth Was I Thinking?

So there you are sitting in the conference room on the first day of your new job.  It's an "all-hands meeting" of the organization, and the Director announces that there is a new employee.  She looks at you and says, "Jane, how about introducing yourself to the group and telling us a bit about what you bring to our lab?"

Gulp.  You hadn't counted on this.  You thought you would have a chance to get your bearings and a feel for your co-workers before being put on the spot like this.  You stumble through a litany of your educational background and some other things.  You finally sit down, thinking, "What on earth did I say? Did it sound as ridiculous as I think it did?" After the meeting breaks up, you slink out, trying to avoid eye contact with anyone.

This wouldn't have happened if you had been prepared beforehand (long before) with your brag sheet.  I'm not talking about boasts of how great you are.  I'm talking about a description of yourself based on your understanding of what makes you unique and why people should pay attention to what you have to say.  Of course we know our history, our accomplishments, and our special skills.  But it takes planning and practice to develop an effective spiel that can be produced at a moment's notice and that sounds spontaneous and honest.

How do you start to develop your bragging talking points?  A good place to begin is to write out detailed answers to common questions asked during interviews or upon meeting new people.

1. Why did you go into science and how did you end up in your specific field?
2. What are you working on right now (and why should I care about it)?
3. What was the most important thing you learned in your last position and why do you consider it to be important?
4. What early experiences did you have growing up that have proved helpful in your career?
5. Have you any special skills or hobbies--that others would find interesting or might also be involved in (mountaineering, scuba-diving, fossil-collecting)?
6. What do you love most about a career in science?
7. Can you tell me about an experience you had working as part of a team or leading a team?
8. What professional service activities or volunteer work are you involved in (be specific about your contributions--e.g., volunteering for the "Make It Right" foundation to rebuild the 9th Ward in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina)?
9. Do you have any examples of problems you've solved or innovative methods you've developed?
10. What are the five most interesting places you've ever visited?

These are just a few suggestions to get you started.  You can tailor these 10 or create additional questions to develop a full spectrum of information that you can draw upon.  You may think that this exercise is unnecessary, but give it a try.  You might be surprised at what you think of when you actually write down the answers to these questions.

What you are looking to accomplish is a unique picture of yourself and what makes you tick.  Don't just write down the facts, provide examples. Tell a story.  Bring in the human-interest details that bring your story to life.

OK, so now you have a collection of interesting anecdotes about how you helped eliminate the Guinea Worm in Niger volunteering with the Carter Center; had a new species of insect named after you by a taxonomist you assisted as an undergraduate student; or during your dissertation fieldwork, had Colombian guerrillas help you break into your car after locking your keys inside.

Maybe you don't have anything as extraordinary as these examples.  No problem.  You might explain that you are a plant biochemist, and that your field trips are to the local grocery store to buy spinach, which you use to study plant membranes.  Or you might explain how you started out wanting to be a doctor, but after working in a hospital during college realized that you could not stand being around sick people--and went into botany.  Everyone has an interesting or funny story to tell about their education or jobs.

Don't overdo it, though.  Formulate sets of facts and stories for different situations: interviews, conference mixers, introductions, etc.  You need only one extraordinary, interesting, or funny story per conversation to illustrate your work ethic, perseverance, honesty, creativity, or whatever might be called for in each situation.  The key point is that these stories celebrate your uniqueness, and people will tend to remember you because of them.

Next post considers situations in which you might use your brag list.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Bragging by Proxy

This is the next installment in a series on self-promotion, aka bragging.  People who are reluctant to brag about themselves may feel OK when others do their bragging for them.

Most of us have/had proud parents who took every opportunity to tell anyone who would listen about how clever, cute, wonderful their little Jimmy or Cathy was.  They even continue doing this after we reach adulthood: "My daughter's a famous scientist who's working on a cure for cancer!" No one questions the right of parents to be proud of their children, and everyone listens patiently while people extol the virtues of their little geniuses.  We, the children, may feel a little embarrassed at times when Mom announces for the zillionth time to a total stranger how her daughter is doing research that may save the planet.  But we don't try to stop her because we are secretly thrilled that someone thinks so highly of us and is announcing to the world what we, without social constraints, would do ourselves.

Young children who have not yet learned to restrain their self-adoration will often announce things like, "My family is richer than yours!" or "I'm getting a pony for my birthday....and you're not!" A common theme of this bragging is to announce the child's superiority over others.  Most children quickly learn from their parents, however, that this self-aggrandizement is not socially acceptable: "Heather, don't say that! People won't like you if you brag about yourself."  Our parents take up the baton and do our bragging for us, however, so we soon learn that we can still get the attention we crave by letting someone else do the dirty work for us.

I never realized how important my own parent's unqualified cheerleading was until they were gone.  I remember thinking at my father's funeral a few months after my mother's, "Who's going tell me how great I am now?" My parents were not excessively vocal about me and my accomplishments, although they were clearly proud of me (later in life at least--they weren't so sure in the early years when I was keeping snakes and spiders in my bedroom).  I never anticipated how much I would miss having someone who thought so highly of me--no matter what.

In our professional world, our bosses, teachers, mentors, and advisers take on the role of proud parents.  Sort of.  These people don't give their unqualified approval just because we work for them.  We have to earn their respect, which is not always easy.  In some cases, it proves impossible.  No matter how good we are, our adviser or boss never seems to be impressed.  How do we react to this failure to recognize our greatness?  Usually, we feel rejected and resentful and begin behaving badly.

Is there some other way to deal with this situation?

One alternative is self-promotion.  You can find ways to convey your worth to your superiors, coworkers, and others in the workplace.  Continue to exude enthusiasm for your work and tell anyone who'll listen about how excited you are about your recent breakthrough or an invitation to speak in a special symposium.  The key is to be genuinely excited about it.

Don't be a pest about it, though.  And reciprocate.  Ask your co-workers or fellow students about their accomplishments.  Tell them how happy you are about their successes.  Then it's easier for you to say, "I know exactly how you feel.  I was so excited about getting my first NSF grant that I couldn't sleep!"

Some people think that if they brag about others or nominate them for awards, that they will reciprocate.  Don't count on it.  Even if they do, it may backfire.  And be especially careful about mutual arrangements designed to advance your career.  I remember, many years ago, helping my boss assess applicants for membership in a prestigious scientific academy.  He was on the selection panel and had 50 to 60 applicants to evaluate.  I had the idea to collate various data about each applicant--on their publications, etc. into a table to make it a bit easier to compare everyone.  One item I included in the table was the name of the person who nominated each applicant.  Lo and behold, there were two guys who had nominated each other.  Their resumes were respectable and both had had a chance to be inducted--before I uncovered their plan.  My boss, upon seeing this, immediately disqualified them both. 

I've had colleagues ask me to nominate them for some award or other honor.  My experience is, however, that when you have to solicit someone to put you up for an award, it is likely that you don't have the credentials to succeed (otherwise, people would nominate you without any nudging).  And if you ask a colleague or friend who is reluctant to nominate you, they may feel put upon to write a recommendation that they do not wholeheartedly believe in.  They may do their best, but will still be limited by your resume--they are not going to exaggerate on your behalf.  So, if you do ask such a favor, be certain that you qualify and that your nominator is just as enthusiastic about you as you feel you deserve.  If they hesitate at all, you should withdraw your request.

In the long-run, however, it's best to manage your reputation primarily through self-promotion.  There may be occasions in which others will sing your praises.  If these come your way, accept the compliment, possibly keeping a record of their statement.  For example, if you are a scientific consultant and a client makes glowing statements about your work, you might use their words in your next performance review.  When asked by your boss to summarize your projects for the preceding year, you might say something like, "My work for Company X was highly regarded.  The CEO personally said, 'Mary's design was critical to the successful outcome of the project.  I'll definitely call upon her in the future to help with similar problems.'"

In the next post, I'll cover some ways to get started building an effective "brag sheet".

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.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

To Brag or Not to Brag

You just got word that you've landed a prestigious grant.  Do you:

a) keep the news to yourself and only reluctantly admit your good fortune when pressed?


b) shout the news from the rooftops?

This is a trick question.  Most people think that these two extreme options are the only choices, but they don't have to be.

My previous post got me thinking (again) about self-promotion--the pros and cons.  If you remain quiet, hoping that people will notice your accomplishments, you risk being overlooked when plum assignments or jobs come along.  On the other hand, if you talk about your successes and put yourself in the spotlight, you may alienate colleagues.

Women are particularly sensitive (in general) to the criticism of being a bragger.  My generation was taught that it was not "lady-like" to talk about yourself.  A lot of this revolved around not "up-staging" your brothers, boyfriends or husbands.  Women were more likely to attribute their successes to other people and to smile modestly when complimented.  Men seemed to be natural at self-promotion.  They strutted around (peacocks come to mind) with chests puffed out.  I was somewhat mystified as to how they managed to get away with this behavior, but had no real desire to emulate them.  I was content to let my accomplishments speak for me.

Only in the past few years have I begun to question this viewpoint.  Actually, an event triggered my change of mind.  I was chastised by a male superior for submitting an announcement of a prestigious award I had just received to our public relations office--because I "might make co-workers jealous".  I was flabbergasted.  After recovering from the initial shock, I told him that his statement was a classic put-down designed to keep women out of the spotlight.  I pointedly asked why he had not similarly criticized male co-workers for announcing less important accomplishments.  Then I offered to send him literature on gender inequality in the workplace.  I've subsequently proceeded to file other newsworthy items whenever I could (and encouraged other females to do the same).

I think there is a middle-ground when it comes to self-promotion.  However, since such behavior does not come naturally to me, I'm still struggling to refine my skills in this area.  Fortunately, I have a good role model.  My husband is one of those self-promoters who sneaks up and wins you over without your ever realizing what he's doing.  He doesn't go around bragging about himself, but instead knows how to connect with people and to convey an air of trustworthiness and confidence.  When he talks, he comes across as honest and authentic.  So when he mentions some recent accomplishment, it seems to be a natural part of the conversation, and not a brag bomb dropped onto the listener.

Our world is a competitive place and is constantly undergoing change.  If people in your university or department don't know who you are and what your accomplishments are, you could find yourself left out of important meetings, passed over for promotion, or on the list of people who wouldn't be missed in the event of layoffs.  You may feel safe because you keep your adviser or immediate supervisor updated regularly, but they could leave the organization.  Would other decision-makers in your organization have the same high opinion of you?  

In the upcoming posts, I'd like to explore this topic, trying to work through some of the ways in which women can promote themselves--without seeming to be obnoxious or self-serving.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Librarian Version of Angelina Jolie?

Why, oh why is it necessary to spruce up the image of a scientist by analogy to a celebrity known primarily for her beautiful, sexy image?

I read the above description of a colleague in an article written by a reporter for CNN. He was describing an interview with this colleague, who is at the forefront of research on the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The article is accompanied by a photograph of my colleague on a ship during a research cruise to track the oil plume emanating from the Deepwater Horizon drill site.

Here we have a scientist who is doing important, interesting, relevant research on the worst environmental disaster in US history. She is chasing the underwater oil plume and questioning whether all the oil released by the damaged Deepwater Horizon rig has actually disappeared. She has testified before Congress in recent weeks about the oil spill. She is a scientist who also does research in the deep ocean and other extreme environments to learn, among other things, what it can tell us about alien life on other planets.

And this is not enough to get readers' attention and interest in reading about this scientist?

Apparently not.

Here's the actual quote (you can Google it and find the original article): "Four months after the BP oil spill, the wiry 45-year-old -- who looks like the librarian version of Angelina Jolie -- has been thrust into the uncomfortable position of defending this battered ocean against the perception that the environmental disaster is over."

I understand what the reporter was trying to do with his celebrity analogy. He probably thought that readers (especially male readers) would perk up and read the rest of the article if they thought it was about a sexy female scientist who looks like a movie star, albeit a bookish version.

As I read this statement, I tried to imagine a similar article written about a male scientist, say, Jim Hansen, the well-known and outspoken climate scientist. I Googled the many online articles and reports on the internet--for one in which he is described as a nerdy version of an aging celebrity hunk (e.g., Bruce Willis, Russell Crowe, Clive Owen, Viggo Mortensen)--to no avail.  The closest I could find was a comment on a blog along the lines of (I'm paraphrasing).."The eminent scientist James Hansen would likely be portrayed by Harrison Ford in a film entitled 'Cap and Trade: The Temple of Doom'".

Well, my point is that the need for such portrayals of scientists as nerdy versions of celebrities to boost interest in what these scientists are discovering about our world is...unsettling. The juxtaposition of scientists (who are making important contributions) and celebrities (who are not) sets up a subliminal comparison between the two in the readers' minds. I could understand if the article was not accompanied by a photograph of the scientist, that it might be of interest to describe what the scientist looks like....maybe. But that was not the case here. There was a prominent photo of my colleague as she looks when doing fieldwork. The reader can see for themselves what she looks like.

Instead, the reporter felt it necessary to "guide" the readers' impression. The article also contains a lot of other "fluff" that add further to the overall Hollywood tone of the piece.

A few of the reader comments to this article jumped at the chance to comment on her physical appearance:

InTheKnow9: "I really appreciate the important work that she's doing, but... can't she manage to put on a little makeup?"

taxfly: "That reporter is either blind, or has just insulted all librarians!"

Duckburner: "Librarian version of Angelina Jolie.......I don't think so. The southern end of a north bound moose - yes."

YYZinDFW: "The librarian version of... Gollum right? Not Angelina Jolie..."

However, a number of readers were not taken in...

Jester2you: "who looks like the librarian version of Angelina Jolie"....That's where I stopped."

jrm03063L: "Rather pathetic that someone with good science credentials gets a CNN write up like it came from "Hollywood Tonight" - and we wonder why science gets handled so badly by the media....:("

Thinks4self: "Do you think that the reporter talked about her appearance and all the bio BS maybe because there is no other story to tell here."

ApeHanger: "I see. Wearing makeup makes a woman more competent. Apparently she's more concerned with her work than with trying to impress shallow people who judge a woman on looks."

Unit34AHunt: "Where does CNN hire idiot reporters like this? "Looks like a librarian version of Angelina Jolie" ... yep, that's really material to the story. "Hopelessly nerdy and wiry as a tube worm." Oh yes, realy germane. "

ChePalle: "What a terribly-written article. And what's with that Angelina Jolie analogy?"

Seadancer: "It seems there a lot of people on here judging a person on looks. Everyone is not a reed thin drop dead gorgeous model. Take a look at the people around you. Everyone does not wear makeup in their jobs. Also, people do not get hired on how they look."

Maybe the media will eventually get the message that people who bother reading such articles are not impressed by shallow allusions to movie stars.