Saturday, September 7, 2013

What do you have to do to get noticed?

A friend forwarded a recent Harvard Business Review article about why incompetent men get promoted and competent women remain unnoticed, which has been doing the rounds this week. The argument is that men display enough arrogance and bravado to get the to the top by the sheer force of their charm and self-promotion, until they are found out to be incompetent....leaving many competent and qualified women in the rubble because women do not display similar behaviors. Though this may ring true sometimes, there are multiple layers to discuss and I recommend a great blog post from Athene Donald, a physicist in Cambridge and women's champion.

What struck me more than anything in the article is trying to figure out what you need to do to get noticed in your field. Through the years I have had numerous conversations with friends and colleagues on how to best "spin stories" for papers and grant proposals. How much of a claim are you willing to make based on the data you have to increase the appeal of your work? How do you promote yourself and get invited to meetings and seminars? What is the best attitude? There are people who are well recognized in their field and very well published and funded, yet there is chatter at meetings on how their work is derivative, how they jump from cool project to cool project without really getting to the bottom of anything and how their talks are all hot air and overblown hypotheses. Yet, if you strive to do transformative science and fail a lot in the process, but 50% of what you produce is true, is that enough?

And then there are the rare people who are humble and shrewdly present their work simply. "We think this could be interesting, what do you think?" and the talks they give just blow your mind with how amazing the data is. But, these are the minority. Maybe because they are so brilliant, they don't need the puffed out feather and peacock tail in full display.

Nowadays, sadly or maybe just like everything else, your success in science depends on self-promotion. You have to give talks and then be invited to give more talks where you have to explain to a wide audience why what you do is cool. In your grants you have to rope people who may know very little about what you do into choosing you above other hundreds of applicants and giving you money. Even in hiring people you have to present you new lab in a light that will make it appealing for a top applicant to come work for you. The purists hate this and complain to no end about how your science should speak for itself. But to be fair the level of specialization is such that maybe 4-5 people in the world will really intimately understand what you do and these often will not be reviewers for your grants and papers.

It is a constant struggle in my mind on when to shake those back feathers and fan that tail. Do I tout my own horn at every little accomplishment in my department? Should I remind people who invited me for talks in passing that I was invited? Do I walk up to important people at meetings and just introduce myself pitching my "awesome" research? How much can I comfortably spin a story to make it more appealing still feeling that I am true to the findings?

Is it a female thing? After all female peacocks don't need that tail, they have other priorities. But while it may be more common in women to be humble and matter-of-fact, I'm not sure this is just a gender issue. It's more your natural inclination and your training, since as a scientist you must trust in the data above all. This is going to be a very interesting learning experience about human nature more than anything. Meeting season is starting soon, so I better start getting ready.

Photo credit:  Jebulon (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons