The Moscow Rules - Science Edition: Part 6

May 07 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Why did I pick today’s Cold War music? Just Cos’.

And because those spies had one of the best cover stories in the genre.

Moscow Rules number 6:

Vary your pattern and stay within your cover.

There is a fine line to walk in developing a science career.

On the one hand, you want people to know you and your research. You want to have a personal brand. Way easier to get speaking invitations, grants, that sort of thing.

We take our tennis very seriously.

This is easier if you have a “thing,” a schtick, or, if you insist on formality, a clearly defined research program. That is, when someone asks, “What do you work on?” - the one you always get at conferences - you have a snappy answer you can deliver in an elevator ride. (The movie Losing Control pokes fun at this question in its preview.)

Some early career scientists try to do this is to make one big seminal finding, use it to land a “glamour mag” publication that gets the press releases and media attention, then spend the rest of a career mining that rich vein of possibility opened up by that initial discovery. This is a high-stakes play (see arsenic life).

But... you do not want to be so committed to a single finding that you do not have opportunity to change and grow. Anyone who’s been in science for a while can probably think of senior researchers who have been working the same set of ideas for years and are unwilling to admit that the field has moved on.

Likewise, you don’t want to be known as a one-trick pony. And this is an easy, easy trap to fall into.

There can be external lures into this pitfall. Sometimes, a set of labs forms a very tightly coordinated and communicative network around a particularly research topic. It becomes very easy for a student to do grad school in one lab, then do a post-doc with the lab down the street (so to speak), while the master’s student from that lab goes to do their doctorate in the lab you’re just leaving.

It can be a bit cliquish. The supervisors from labs might be actively recruiting from each other, and sets of labs like this can end up be very productive and well-funded.

This means that the temptation to just keep working your established preparation is strong. Once you get good at something, there is a tendency to milk it for all its worth.

It's easier to change direction earlier in a career, but that doesn't mean it's easy. I switched disciplines between my undergraduate and graduate careers. I didn't make the transition at all gracefully, but I managed to persist.

More recently, I've had the good fortune to do new kinds of things by working with collaborators.

The important thing is to remember that most of the things you do as a scientist are skills. And skills can be learned. Your abilities are not fixed,

Check this post on science identities at Scientopian Becca’s blog, Fumbling Towards Tenure.

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