How to benefit from internships, exchanges and scholarships

16. December 2013

Christian Reimer

Deciding where you want to conduct your graduate studies and on what kind of research are very difficult and important choices. Getting into the right program—ideally on a full scholarship—is even more challenging. Grades are certainly important, but there are other activities that can play a key role in starting your graduate studies on the right foot. Below are a few tips on how to make the most of these “extracurricular activities” to advance in your career.

Seek out new experiences

There are many ways for undergraduate students to get different kinds of experience and build a professional network, which will be helpful when applying to graduate school and other opportunities. Involvement with OSA Student Chapters, for example, offers valuable contact with other students and professionals with similar interests. Attending conferences and summer schools can broaden your scientific horizon and will help you to become more involved in your field. International exchanges are also valuable resources: a semester or year abroad will open your mind and provide new perspectives.

In my opinion, the most important activity is the acquisition of direct, firsthand research experience. Many research groups and companies offer internships for undergraduate students, which are a valuable addition to your CV and give you a glance into the academic or industrial world before you begin your graduate studies.

Apply, apply and apply

The lack of funds for research in academia is a fundamental and growing issue. It is therefore important to actively look and apply for as many scholarships and funding opportunities as possible. For example, there are many scholarships available to cover travel and other expenses for conferences, internships and exchanges. Even if these scholarships are small, there are very few reasons not to apply, and their impact can be significant for your CV. At first you may have to submit several applications to receive just one award, but after you have won a couple of scholarships and gathered some experience, you will find that success attracts more success.

Dare to ask

In my experience, there is a fundamental rule for a successful academic career: If you want something, ask for it. Being proactive and intelligently asking for what you want will help you throughout your professional life. For example, if you are interested in an internship, invest time and effort in writing a good and specific application letter, ask for help from someone who has already written successful applications, and apply even if no positions are advertised. The worst that can happen is that you do not get it.

The same applies if you want to collaborate with a research group, visit a conference or attend a summer school. If you do your homework and present legitimate reasons why you want to do it and how it will benefit your career or research, then do not be afraid to ask. You should be mentally prepared to have your request denied, but even then, the feedback and practice you receive will be valuable for the future.

While grades are certainly important, combining them with other types of experience will strengthen your CV and will help you get the right graduate position and succeed in academia. You can also take advantage of these opportunities without outstanding grades if you start small and apply often. The more you apply, the easier it will become.

Christian Reimer completed his German Diplom in Physics (equivalent to a M.Sc.) at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany. During his studies, he participated in exchanges, research projects and internships at Draeger Inc., Germany; Heriot-Watt University, Scotland; the University of St Andrews, Scotland; Surrey University, England; the University of Glasgow, Scotland; and the University of Sydney, Australia. He is currently writing his Ph.D. at the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique (INRS, http://www.uop.ca/), Canada, supported by a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship (www.vanier.gc.ca).

 

Academic Careers, Career Path, Communication Skills, Conferences, Graduate School, International Careers, Internships, Job Search , , , , , , , ,

How to Build Your Online Brand Using LinkedIn

12. November 2013

Lauren Celano

This post is based on content that has already appeared on the Propel Careers website and BioCareers.com. It is reproduced here with the author’s kind permission.
 
Your online personal brand—the way that you portray yourself on the internet and how others perceive you—is very important for networking and job searching. Even if you are not currently looking for a job, you can use social media sites like LinkedIn to your advantage. Below are a few examples of how developing your LinkedIn profile can help you progress in your career.

Networking

After meeting new colleagues at a networking event, you probably follow up with a LinkedIn request. When someone clicks on your profile, what will they see? Will they only see your job titles, or something more descriptive, like details about what you have done in each of your positions? Will they see a photograph or a blank space where your profile picture should be? Will they see organizations that you belong to and articles that you have published, or has this information been left out entirely?

When people look at a LindedIn profile, they like to see a professional profile picture (so that they can figure out if they remember you), along with details about your background, experience and education. If you have a nicely filled out profile, then it shows that you are serious about your professional persona and by extension, your career.

Informational interviews

If you ask for an informational interview, the person you ask will almost always look at your LinkedIn profile before speaking with you, even if you send them your resume. They want to learn more about you and also find out if you happen to have any connections in common. Having some background and additional details about you will help them provide the most useful and relevant information during the interview.

Job interviews

If you are actively interviewing for a new job, it’s also extremely likely that the people interviewing you will look up your LinkedIn profile. As in the previous example, if your profile does not have a lot of detail, then it isn’t helpful to the interviewer. You will have missed an opportunity to showcase yourself early on and leave a positive impression before the interview even starts.
 
Recruiter searches

Recruiters, either internal or external to a company, routinely search LinkedIn to identify individuals who could be good matches for jobs they are working to fill. They search using keywords as well as title, company, education, etc. If your profile isn’t complete, then you won't be easily picked up by their searches. Even if they do manage to find you, without important information in your profile, recruiters may not contact you since they won't be sure if your skills and experience are relevant to the position.

In today's web- based world, information is everywhere. The way people brand themselves online matters more than you might think. You can give yourself an advantage by spending some time to ensure that your LinkedIn information is complete and up-to-date. Good luck building out your profile—the effort will go a long way!

Lauren Celano (lauren@propelcareers.com) is the co-founder and CEO of Propel Careers, a life science search and career development firm focused on connecting talented individuals with entrepreneurial life sciences companies.

 

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Career Reflections: Advice from Halvar Trodahl

5. November 2013

OPN spoke with Halvar Trodahl, a senior associate at McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm, to get his perspective on working as a consultant with a Ph.D. in physics.

What is your current role, and what are your day-to-day responsibilities?

As an associate at McKinsey & Company, I do project-based work with a small team of consultants to help our clients solve their toughest challenges. These challenges can range from determining strategic direction and market response to optimizing operations and developing business technology implementation. On a day-to-day basis, this means working closely with our McKinsey team as well as the client team to help build a deep understanding of the problem, the potential solutions, and the ability of our clients to succeed in tackling this and future challenges.

We work with leading organizations across the private, public and social sectors to increase their capabilities and leadership skills at every level and every opportunity. We do this to help build internal support, get to real issues, and reach practical recommendations.

What path did you take to get to your current position?

As I worked toward my Ph.D., I explored roles outside of my academic discipline in order to understand in which direction I wanted my career to move after graduate school. These explorations included teaching in areas outside of the physical sciences and taking on leadership positions in student organizations.

How do you feel that your science background has been helpful in your career?

I like to distinguish between the content knowledge and process knowledge that I developed during graduate school. Of these, my process knowledge is something I constantly draw on in my current work. The primary example of this is problem solving. As a Ph.D. student I honed my ability to take a complex problem, break it into its constituent parts, solve these piece by piece through hypothesis formulation and data analysis, and pull these together to form a coherent and holistic story. This process is something I use on a daily basis in my work as a consultant. On the other hand, I typically don't use, or expect to use, the content knowledge that I developed in my studies (e.g., quantum mechanics, nano-fabrication).

Is there anything that you wish you had done differently in your own education or career?

I would have spent more time exploring opportunities outside of physics during graduate school. In particular, I would have worked with student and university organizations early on so as to explicitly develop my leadership capabilities. I found these types of experiences very influential and wish I had pushed myself to have them from day one.

What one piece of advice would you give to someone who wants to follow a similar career path?

Explore career and extracurricular activities broadly and as early as possible. Having a range of experiences will help develop a baseline by which you can better understand which career options you are most interested in pursuing. Additionally, these experiences will arm you with a set of valuable tools that can be applied regardless of which path you choose to follow.

Halvar Trodahl is a senior associate at McKinsey & Company. Halvar joined McKinsey in 2012 after completing a Ph.D. in physics at Harvard University. Originally from New Zealand, he completed undergraduate degrees in science and business at Victoria University of Wellington. Halvar taught in a variety of disciplines throughout his academic career, ranging from global health to management theory.

 

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How to Plan a Vacation—and Your Career

23. October 2013

Lisa Balbes

This post was adapted from content on the Career blog of the American Chemical Society (ACS) with the kind permission of ACS and the author.

I recently took a big family vacation, which required a lot of planning, organization and communication. As I thought about how we prepared for and experienced the trip, it occurred to me that this process parallels the career transition process.

Have discussions with interested parties.
When we decided to take a trip, we started by gathering everyone involved and talking about where we wanted to go. Before long, we had agreed to a basic itinerary. In the same way, when you’re thinking about the next phase of your career, you want to start by discussing various options with other interested parties. You may have a general idea of where you want to go next, but it will be modified by input from others: a spouse who can’t relocate, a desire for more or less travel, etc. Eventually, you will come to an agreement about what is required in your next professional destination.

Do the research.
Once we had our list of destinations, we obtained as much information as possible about each one. As a result, we added some things to our itinerary and deleted others. Learning about our destinations, their history and current offerings let us know what to expect and allowed us to enjoy the actual visit more. Similarly, researching prospective career options will reveal hidden aspects that will make them more or less attractive to you. The more you learn about a new field or position, the better you will be able to determine if that path is right for you.

We talked to people who had recently visited these locations, as well as those who currently lived there. When researching new career options, talk to people who have been in the field for a long time, as well as individuals who have just moved into the area. Both novices and experts have useful information that cannot be found in a printed publication.

Think about what you’ll need.
Before we could leave on the trip, we had to think about what we would need for the journey. Some things we already had, but others we had to go out and find. Similarly, a new job or career path may require new skills, which you will have to acquire through education or experience.

Stay flexible.
Once on the trip, we mostly followed our itinerary. However, we had purposely left some time unscheduled. An advertisement we saw while traveling made us aware of a new attraction, and we used one of the gaps in our schedule to visit it. That detour turned out to be one of the high points of the vacation for everyone! Just like in your career path, taking advantage of an unexpected opportunity can lead you in a direction that you never knew you would love. You should always be on the lookout for new professional experiences, and don’t be afraid to take a chance and try something different.

Learn from your experience.
Now that we‘re back home, the only thing left to do is sort through the photographs and put them neatly into a scrapbook for whenever we want to revisit our adventure. The sorting and reflecting is important, as it allows us to look back at the experience and learn from it for the next time. When you move on to a new stage in your career, take time to review the highlights and lowlights of the previous stage, or even your entire career—maybe while you’re updating your resume. Reflecting on your professional journey to date can provide valuable insights and prepare you to make more informed decisions about your next destination—be it vocational or vacational.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.

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Want to be A Professional Scientist? Join the Facebook Group

9. October 2013

Marc Kuchner

This post is adapted from content that first appeared on the Nature blog with the kind permission of the author.

 Planetary scientist Heidi Hammel was at the telescope when Facebook alerted her to an important new target: a comet had just crashed into Jupiter. She said, “I learned about one of the impacts on Jupiter via Facebook, and we were able to do immediate follow-up.” It is no secret that, scientists are increasingly using social media not just for outreach or for fun, but to do real, ground breaking, earth-shattering science.
 
There are many websites devoted to science news and amateur science—but where do scientists go online to interact with their colleagues professionally? I asked my colleagues on the Marketing for Scientists Facebook group (mostly astronomers) to share their social networking advice. I think their answers point to a fascinating shift in the social fabric of the scientific community.
 
Use Facebook as a forum for scientific debate.
If you have a lot of Facebook friends, you can have professional scientific discussions right on your wall. Angela Speck told me, “Since a significant fraction of my friends are scientists they do respond to science questions. And then the ensuing wall discussion is like a chat over lunch.” Keep in mind that it takes time and effort to build that long list of followers or friends, and then more effort to keep up with them and sort through their status updates, so that tactic won’t necessarily be effective for everyone.
 
Join Professional Facebook or LinkedIn Groups.
Instead of building large contact lists themselves, more and more scientists are working with colleagues through Facebook groups. For example, Adam Burgasser told me, “Our ‘Low Mass Stars and Brown Dwarfs’ group has been a great place to post papers, promote astro apps, announce conferences, ask about pesky references etc.” Joining such a group is like instantly acquiring hundreds or thousands of high-powered new friends and followers.
 
LinkedIn groups are also a fertile home for scientific research. As Mark Eisner said, “In my field of hydrogeology, or more generally environmental consulting, I belong to 50. So much I cannot keep up.” These groups are a great forum for scientific discussion and career networking in particular.

Facebook and LinkedIn groups have become new incubators for scientific progress, providing important virtual places for scientists to work and to mingle. The trouble is that there’s no good directory of these groups of professional scientists on social networks. The most reliable way to find the professional Facebook groups for scientists seems to be to “friend” lots of colleagues whose interests overlap with yours, and look at their Facebook pages to see what groups they belong to. Then you have to ask permission to join. Otherwise, you need to start your own group and hope one doesn’t exist already for the topic you chose.

Perhaps one day, an organization like OSA or the American Association for the Advancement of Science will maintain a directory of Facebook and LinkedIn groups where active professional scientific collaborations are taking place. Such a tool would help young scientists meet established scientists, and help established scientists move into new fields where they don’t already have contacts.
 
In the meantime, the rise of this informal network of professional scientist groups makes it clearer than ever: in science, it matters who your friends are.

Marc J. Kuchner (marc@marketingforscientists.com) is an astrophysicist at NASA, a country songwriter, and the author of the book Marketing for Scientists: How To Shine In Tough Times. His website can be found at http://www.marketingforscientists.com/.

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Transitioning Between Undergraduate and Postgraduate Studies

2. October 2013

Yaseera Ismail

Life is full of transitions, and starting a career in science is no exception. One of the major shifts that I faced was moving from my undergraduate to postgraduate studies, and this period was not without its difficulties. Below, I’ll share some advice that will hopefully make the change smoother for others on the same path.


Be adaptable. I was first exposed to a research environment when I worked at the CSIR-National Laser Centre during my honors year. This was quite an eye-opening experience for me, as it was the first time I was at an institution whose primary objective was research output. As a result, I had to change my way of thinking. During my undergraduate studies, I was provided with a detailed, step- by-step syllabus. There is no such spoon-feeding as a postgrad student. This may seem daunting at first, but, as with any job, you adapt to the demands of your new situation.


Spending time in a laboratory also taught me that methodology is rarely set in stone. You try, you fail, and you come up with a new idea. Many postgrad students waste precious time fixating on a method that is not working. This is because, as undergraduates, we are conditioned to assume that our initial plan will not fail as long as it is approved by our supervisors. In graduate school, our supervisors are conducting the research alongside us, and therefore they do not already have the answers.


Manage your time. Cramming at the eleventh hour may work for undergraduates, but it won’t in graduate school. Postgraduate studies demand discipline. Procrastination is a crime that we are all guilty of, but it is critical to work diligently to finish your thesis on time. You should set short-term goals for each day so that you are never stagnant. It is difficult to keep your enthusiasm up at all times, and without a stringent supervisor to encourage you to meet deadlines, you may find yourself taking many a three-week break. Bear in mind that a Ph.D. thesis cannot be completed the week before the due date. Slow and steady wins the race!


Network. In the world of research, networking is a useful way to advance your career. Whenever attending a conference or public lecture, mingle with researchers and fellow students. Try to discover everyone's areas of interest and get their opinions on your work. A simple conversation over coffee can lead to helpful collaboration. I find it intimidating to speak to someone who is much more senior in my field, so I break the ice with a topic that is not related to my research and gradually direct the conversation towards the topic I want to discuss.


Be curious and open. Postgrad studies require initiative, determination and the desire to learn. You can choose what you want to learn and use that information to make something new. Don’t work in isolation. Instead, try to learn from everyone around you. There is a vast range of resources available, so make use of every opportunity on your way to success.


Yaseera Ismail completed her Masters at the CSIR-National Laser Centre in Pretoria, South Africa, where her research focused on novel laser beam shaping for optical trapping and tweezing. She is currently completing her Ph.D. in Quantum Communication within the Quantum Research Group based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa.

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How to Be an Effective Student Leader

24. September 2013

Benjamin Franta

Over the past few months, I have been thinking a lot about leadership. What makes for a good leader? What makes someone effective at creating change?

Leadership is similar to other skills in that we learn it through a combination of imitation, trial and error and practice. Yet it is not as easy to assess as other abilities, because leadership can be found in many forms. There is no single standard by which to judge ourselves or others.
 
However, the best leaders whom I’ve known do have a few things in common; three in particular stand out:
 
1) Conceptual creativity that is also specific and linked to reality. This is often called “vision.”
 
2) The ability to identify, obtain and create resources, whether they are human, financial, technical or of some other nature.
 
3) The interpersonal and strategic skills necessary to execute the vision by making use of those resources.
 
How can we develop vision, resources and execution skills? There are many ways, including training, seeking new experiences, observing others and so on. Personally, one of the most useful methods I’ve found to build leadership is to cultivate certain habits that lead to positive outcomes. The most important of these are to:
 
Be honest in every interaction. Some people are effusive; others are terse. Regardless of style, honesty is the bedrock of a good leader. While it may sound easy, being honest means letting go of your fear of being judged. That can be difficult, and it takes practice.
 
Keep it simple. Great accomplishments happen one step at a time. As a leader, one of your jobs is to simplify complicated processes so that the people around you are more effective. Don’t expect to be thanked for this work; if you do it right, others won’t even be aware that you’ve done it. Nevertheless, it’s crucial for any team.
 
Don’t take (or give) anything personally. Sometimes others will not be able to help you, or your interests will clash with theirs. This is normal, and there’s no need for frustration or resentment. An effective leader doesn’t begrudge others following their own interests, even when it presents obstacles. Rather, you should strive to understand the goals and desires of others without judgment, and determine what constructive outcomes can be achieved for all involved.
 
These actions cultivate trust, promote the completion of goals, and preserve and develop positive and creative relationships. It’s important to remember that these are not inborn traits; they can be developed through conscious effort. Improvement requires practice, critical self-examination, and the will to keep trying and learning from mistakes.
 
What characteristics have you found to be important for effective leadership? Share them in the comments below!
 
Benjamin Franta is a Ph.D. candidate in applied physics at Harvard University. He is the president of Harvard Photonics (Harvard’s OSA student chapter), an organizer for NanoStart (a new nanotechnology think tank at Harvard), and an executive board member of Divest Harvard (a climate activist campaign). He is also a Fellow of the Harvard Graduate School Leadership Institute.

 

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Independent Science: Beyond Academia and Industry

17. September 2013

Miriam Boer

When I finished my Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of Maryland in 2011, I graduated into one of the toughest biotech job markets in history. I applied for over 200 traditional positions within academia and industry, with no luck. As my search stalled, I turned to a pet interest I had had in low-intensity ultrasound and built a business plan around using it as a novel melanoma treatment.

I didn’t realize it right away, but my startup took me into the world of independent science, where the goal is doing your work on your terms—right now. While the science job market is tighter than ever, lab spaces are actually becoming more affordable, particularly if you are willing to work in a communal setting. From how it’s funded to the workplaces associated with it, independent science deviates from conventional expectations of scientific research. My nontraditional startup, Sonify Biosciences, LLC, is one of many that exist outside the confines of academia, big industry and government jobs.
 
Who’s involved?
The people who consider themselves independent scientists range from hobbyists without college degrees to those with postdoctoral or even professorial experience. The network is larger than just the individuals or small groups who spearhead them. For instance, my specialty lies in biochemical wet-lab work, so I contract out the engineering and physics to people whose skills and knowledge exceed mine. They’re not technically employees, but they’re vital to Sonify’s success.
 
How do you fund this?
The quick answer is any way you can. The long answer is that, because the endgame is getting to do your own work, independent scientists can be funded by one or more of the following: private investment, grants, Small Business Innovation Research money, crowdsourcing, loans, angel investment, or even their own savings. Each has pros and cons. For me, my first success was winning the Recent Alum and Best Biotech categories of the University of Maryland 2012 business plan competition. The bottom line is that you have to understand your individual situation. There’s no right way to do this, but that means there’s no wrong way either.
 
Where do you work?
I refer to Sonify Biosciences as a “gypsy” startup because I don’t have permanent lab space. I’m renting space in a shared services lab in a local teaching hospital. By contrast, building a biological research facility from scratch would run hundreds of thousands of dollars. Keeping overhead low enabled me to start at what’s referred to as stage zero—the point where you’re doing proof-of-concept research without an intellectual property portfolio (meaning you hold no patents). It’s nearly impossible to get stage zero investment, because there’s nothing in it for the investor. However, by keeping my total costs below even the value of most grants, I made the gamble worthwhile to my investors.
 
Shared workspaces already exist in many cities. These so-called high-tech “hackerspaces” are becoming more common, with even large industrial entities investing in the promise of the independent research model. For example, Janssen Labs set up a shared biological research facility on Johnson & Johnson’s R&D campus in La Jolla, and one is opening in Boston as well. Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore is developing a shared space for independent engineering efforts. Even if you don’t live in a startup hub, you can still find workspace if you get creative.
 
Should I get involved?
You have to know yourself. I enjoy the unstructured approach, and being able to work on my own ideas before I’m 30 took precedence over working towards a guaranteed lifelong job. Ultimately, you must figure out the right vehicle to do work that generates value, however you define it. For me, it’s a nontraditional startup. For you, it might be something completely different. You can start by figuring out what ideas and possibilities excite you, both as a person and a scientist.
 
Miriam Boer (mboer@sonifybio.com) is the founder and CTO of Sonify Biosciences LLC in Baltimore, Md., U.S.A. She tweets @mademoiselleMim and blogs at http://independentscience.tumblr.com/.

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Career Culture Shock

11. September 2013

 Lisa Balbes

The other day, I was talking to a college student who recently started his summer job. He had a position that was very similar to what he had done the previous summer, but in a different place. This meant he was mostly doing the same type of work, but with a new group of people. Each organization had similar numbers of staff and customers, similar tasks that needed to be done, and similar metrics for success. Yet they were very different in one key respect: their culture.

While both sites completed their tasks on time (especially the customer-facing ones), one group actively sought out ways to help each other, leading to an enhanced sense of teamwork and camaraderie. They often socialized during off hours.

The second group was not as close-knit. They were friendly while at work, but happy to go home to their “real lives” and real friends. After having worked in the former environment, the student was surprised by this more distant attitude.

But the single difference that was most striking to him was in how each group handled it when they were asked to do something they’d never done before. At the first site, if a staff member did not know how to do something, he or she would learn from someone who did and then practice until they could do it well. By contrast, when those in the second location were asked to do something they’d never done before, most would find someone else who knew how to do it and then ask them to take care of it for them.

While the latter course is certainly the most efficient in the short-term, it might not be in the long run. What happens if that person is not available at a crucial time or leaves the company altogether? Both strategies have their place, and it is the job of the manager or supervisor to guide the staff into learning which is most appropriate for a particular company.

Most people are naturally inclined to work one way or the other. Some prefer to do the same thing over and over at work, and they derive great satisfaction from being the very best at that particular task. Others are not happy unless they have variety in their jobs and are constantly challenged to learn new things.

Most scientists are naturally curious people; they want to know how and why things work and are excited by the opportunity to do something new. My friend certainly fell into this camp – his exact words about his new co-workers were: “I could have forgiven them for not knowing if they had shown any interest in wanting to learn. Instead, they just got someone else to do it for them.” In his mind, asking the expert to do the task was slacking off, not being efficient.

But another person might well have said: “It’s all about being efficient. There’s no sense wasting time figuring out how to do something if someone already knows.”

When we talk about the culture of a company, we are really talking about a collection of small differences like this. They combine to create the atmosphere in which we work. When the way you like to work matches the way your organization operates, you feel comfortable and confident in what you are doing. When they don’t match, you may be unhappy without realizing why.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.

 

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What's Your Science Maturity Level?

5. September 2013

Marc Kuchner

 This post is adapted from content that first appeared on the blog Marketing for Scientists with the kind permission of the author.

I went to a scientific talk the other day that seemed to leave half the audience inspired and the other half frustrated. My frustrated colleagues insisted that the speaker did not present any true “results.” However, he did make some fascinating predictions about what would be discovered 10 or 20 years from now—forecasts that may be crucial for marketing exercises and expensive experiments.

Was this a good talk or a bad talk? Science or marketing?

Maybe it’s just a matter of taste. Some of us will never be satisfied by a talk unless we see a hypothesis confidently confirmed or discarded. Others may find the realm of topics subject to such clear decisions too limiting and yearn for a glimpse into the more distant future.

Still, we often argue over the quality of our colleagues’ presentations. When it is hiring time, for example, and faculty candidates are parading through your department, no doubt a common topic of conversation is who gave the best talk. And the maturity level of the research is often a contentious point.

With these conversations in mind, I’d like to suggest a numerical scale we can use to describe scientific talks. This scale is not meant to weigh the overall quality of a talk, but rather to resolve some of the tension between those who prefer solid conclusions and those who enjoy more nebulous forecasting. The first steps are about development of an idea by an individual scientist or research group; the last about the acceptance of the idea by the community.

Science Maturity Level (SML)

1. This talk presents a path that might one day lead to a testable new hypothesis or new data. An SML1 talk does not even strive to present scientific conclusions. Nonetheless, it can surprise and delight by illuminating a new research avenue that has become within arm’s reach, and it can shape the future of the field by its creativity and prescience.

2. The speaker presents a testable hypothesis with no constraining data or data whose interpretation is beyond the reach of state-of-the-art theoretical calculations. Such a talk can be boring, or it can be trendsetting, pointing the community to a fruitful direction for new work.

3. An SML 3 talk applies the full scientific method to the problem at hand, in whatever form the method is customarily used in the field. It compares a hypothesis to a data set and derives an unambiguous interpretation. However, so far the conclusion has garnered only limited attention from the scientific community, perhaps because it mainly confirms or reproduces previous work—or perhaps because it is new and thrilling.

4. This talk compares a hypothesis to a data set and appears to derive an unambiguous interpretation. Crucially, other researchers have confirmed or disputed this result in their talks and publications.

5. The speaker describes data and calculations that the community recognizes as part of its culture and history. Perhaps it describes the roots of a research paradigm that continues to spawn textbooks and doctoral theses. Perhaps it is about an old paradigm that has since been superseded. Attending such a talk can provide new insights, or it could be more about the pleasure of simply meeting a scientific celebrity.

It’s tempting to say that talks in the 1-2 range are more about marketing than science, but I’m not sure that’s the case. It seems to me that science is the process of moving from 1 to 5—and that this progress emerges from the community as a whole, not from any one scientist. So you can’t really describe a single talk as more “scientific” than another.

Also, I believe that talks at all points on the scale can be engaging and full of useful information, or dull and tiresome. The “marketing” is ultimately about whether the talk meets the needs of the audience—whether the needs are for information about the natural world or inspiration about future projects. So a talk on any research at any stage can be good or bad marketing.

Curiously, I’ve found that different scientific institutions seem to prefer different kinds of talks. Perhaps academic departments gravitate towards talks with higher SMLs, while government labs tend to prefer lower ones. Maybe that’s because government labs often focus on big projects that require lots of planning. That seems to be something to keep in mind when you are applying for jobs.

Ultimately, I think there is a place for all kinds of talks in our scientific universe. Perhaps the 4s and 5s belong at the beginning of a conference session, while the 1s, and 2s belong at the end. Talks about String Theory are often 1s, while review talks are 4s or 5s.

What do you think? Should your department focus on 1s and 2s, or 4s and 5s? Or should it aim to hire scientists who operate at both ends of the spectrum. What is the SML of your scientific talks?

Marc J. Kuchner (marc@marketingforscientists.com) is an astrophysicist at NASA, a country songwriter, and the author of the book Marketing for Scientists: How To Shine In Tough Times. His website can be found at http://www.marketingforscientists.com/.

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