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Science Careers Blog

May 2009

The blog Career Hub this week highlights a few new services posting job announcements using the mini-blogging service Twitter as a platform.

TwitHire is a simple listing of job announcements in reverse chronological order, with links to the announcements online. It has separate tabs for design and computer programming jobs. The listings give the job's geographic location with varying specificity, from names of cities to "north of the Equator". There's no charge to employers for posting job announcements.

TwitterJobSearch aggregates job announcements posted on Twitter, and lets visitors search its collection or browse through categories, with links going to the online announcements. Searching on the term "science" returned some 16,000 results. A more targeted search using the term "Toxicology" returned 53 entries. Another targeted search, "materials science California", provided 62 results. Signing in with your Twitter account can let you save or retweet (forward) the announcements.

TweetMyJobs operates more like a job board using Twitter as its engine. Job seekers create an account, enter their employment criteria and preferences, and receive Twitter messages when jobs are posted in TweetMyJobs match these  factors. The service charges employers for posting their announcements: $0.99 for one day to $9.99 for 30 days.

Career Hub reminds Twittering job seekers that recruiters and hiring managers also use Twitter, thus it pays keeping your tweets in good taste. And, of course, you can follow Science Careers on Twitter.

Designer Geoffrey Beene LLC is leveraging its iconic status in the men's fashion world to help elevate the status of science among students. The Smart Set blog points out that Geoffrey Beene's philanthropic arm unveiled a new ad campaign in the June issue of GQ magazine featuring photos of high-profile rock stars getting down with leading scientific authorities.

The campaign, called Rock Stars of Science, aims to increase support for public research funding, particularly for Alzheimer's research, a continuing concern of the Geoffrey Beene Gives Back philanthropy. But the campaign also promotes awareness of research issues and seeks to improve the image of science among students. The Rock Stars of Science site plans to add an online petition and allow visitors to nominate future Rock Stars of Science.

The spread in GQ leads off with Francis S. Collins, former director of the Human Genome Project at NIH and Harvard neurology/genetics professor Rudy Tanzi (both in shades), along with Aerosmith's lead guitarist Joe Perry. And don't miss the Black Eyed Peas' Will.I.Am getting rhythmic with Ron Petersen of the Mayo Clinic, Steven Dekosky of University of Virginia, and Sam Gandy of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.

My favorite: Harold Varmus, president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, accompanied on guitar by Grammy Award winner Sheryl Crow.

Combining a high profile in the fashion world with the cause of science is nothing new. L'Oréal Paris has joined with UNESCO since 1998 to highlight the contributions of women scientists and encourage other women to join their ranks. Disclosure: The company sponsors a booklet on young women in science now on the Science Careers Web site.

Hat tip: Ric Weibl, AAAS.

[Updated 29 May 2009]


Federal agencies with science-related missions scored high on the latest biannual report of employee satisfaction released this week. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission received the highest overall rating among large agencies (more than 2,000 employees), with NASA, the intelligence community (individual agencies not broken out), and the Environmental Protection Agency in the top 10. The National Science Foundation also scored high--no. 5 of 32--among the smaller agencies.

The "Best Places to Work in the Federal Government" report is issued every two years, with the first publication in 2003. The non-profit organization Partnership for Public Service and American University's Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation prepare the report. They draw the data from the Federal Human Capital Survey conducted by Office of Personnel Management, with the last survey in August and September 2008. The survey is sent to 417,000 executive branch employees, with 212,000 responses (51% return rate).

Respondents rate their agencies on 10 main dimensions:
  • Match between their skills and the agency's mission: the extent to which employees feel that their skills and talents are used effectively
  • Strategic management: the extent to which employees believe that management ensures they have the necessary skills and abilities to do their jobs
  • Teamwork: the extent to which employees believe they communicate effectively both inside and outside of their team organizations, creating a friendly work atmosphere and producing high quality work products.
  • Effective leadership, with further ratings of empowerment, fairness, respect for leaders, and respect for their immediate supervisors
  • Performance-based awards and advancement
  • Training and development
  • Support for diversity
  • Family-friendly culture: telecommuting and alternative work scheduling, along with personal support benefits like child care subsidies and wellness programs
  • Pay and benefits
  • Work/life balance: extent to which employees consider their workloads reasonable and feasible, and mangers support a balance between work and life.
The report also breaks out employee satisfaction at 216 subdivisions within agencies, some of which employ large numbers of scientists. Several NASA space flight centers and EPA regional offices scored high among these operations, reflecting their overall agency ratings. National Institute of Standards and Technology in the Commerce Department ranked 19 of 216 components overall, while National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, also in the Commerce Department, ranked 35th. NIH came in at no. 72, USDA's Agricultural Research Service ranked 77th.

Other agencies and departments employing scientists received mediocre or lower scores. The Department of Energy ranked 19 of 30 larger agencies. (None of the subdivisions in DoE or national labs were broken out separately.) The Food and Drug Administration in HHS came in at no. 86 of 216 components, Interior's U.S. Geological Survey, ranked 108, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in HHS ranked 143.

Rated dead last among the larger agencies was the Department of Transportation; among smaller agencies it was the Federal Labor Relations Authority.

The European Space Agency (ESA) today announced the winners of its latest recruitment competition for the European Astronaut Corps--the first such competition since 1992. Among the 6 new astronauts who will now join ESA are two Italians, one German, one Danish, one British, and one French. The group includes one woman and five men. You may read their short biographies on the ESA Web site.

"We are now entering a new phase of utilisation of the unique capabilities offered by the ISS [International Space Station] and preparation for international exploration of the Moon and beyond," ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain stated in a press release. "This new phase required the recruitment of young talent...able to become, step by step, the representatives of Europe in space who, together with their international colleagues, will live, work, explore and bring back to planet Earth and its citizens their unique experience, their accomplishments and their confidence in the future. They all represent the generation that will move from low earth orbit to the Moon."

ESA received more than 8,400 valid applications from all over Europe and the selection process--which involved psychological, medical, and aptitude tests--took a little less than a year. The six new astronauts are now to start training at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne in Germany.  

 

If this year's college graduates needed a reminder of the severity of the job market they're entering, a recent (9 May) Wall Street Journal article provided it, and then some. Sara Murray's "The Curse of the Class of 2009" cites economic studies and anecdotal evidence showing that bachelor's degree recipients during recession years generally get lower starting salaries than those who get their degrees during boom years, and tend to earn less for some time after they graduate.

The smidgen of good news in this report is for science and engineering graduates: Their immediate prospects may stink, but if they can land a job in their fields, their earnings bounce back quicker than their non-science and non-engineering counterparts.

Murray cites Yale economist Lisa Kahn, who mined the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a government database, to find pay trends for white males who graduated from college during the deep recession in the early 1980s. Kahn found that those getting bachelor's degrees during those recession years earned 7-8% less than similar graduates from non-recession years in their first year out of school.

And to compound the problems faced by recession-era grads, it took many years for their pay to approach the pay of their non-recession colleagues. After 12 years, Kahn reports, recession-year graduates earned 4-5% less than those who graduated during economic-growth years. Even 18 years following graduation they still earned 2% less than those who graduated during better times.

Many grads during recession years, Murray says, must make hard choices between taking lower-level, lower-paying jobs outside their fields and continued unemployment. Grads interviewed by Murray said they are working as bartenders, models, and in part-time or temporary jobs, to make ends meet. And while they work in these non-professional and lower-paying jobs, they are not keeping their professional skills sharp, which will hurt their chances of getting better jobs when times improve.

A key factor in future wage growth seems to be the ability to land a job in your field. Murray cites Till Marco von Wachter, a Columbia University economist, who studied wage data of Canadians graduating from 1976 through 1995. He found that those who took jobs in the fields that they studied for, even lower-paying jobs, were able to land better jobs with more comparable pay to their colleagues when economic times improved.

Von Wachter found this pattern particularly with science and engineering graduates. Recession-era graduates with degrees in biology, chemistry, physics, and engineering who got jobs in their fields tended to catch up to their peers quicker than those who studied in other fields.

What can you do when even low-pay jobs in your scientific or technical field aren't available? Murray says more graduates are taking public-service positions in programs such as AmeriCorps or Teach for America. A teaching job in math or science, for example, may not be the research position you really want, but it may keep you close to developments in these fields.

Or, if you can swing it, get a graduate degree. Murray says more college grads are pursuing this option. She cites Council of Graduate Schools statistics that applications for the 2007-2008 were up 8% over the previous year.

When hunting for a job or evaluating a job offer, a nagging question is, "Will I fit in with this employer?" In order to fit in, you must share your employer's values--or at least have compatible values--because an organization's values are embodied in its corporate culture. And finding out what those values are is not easy.

Organizations of all sizes and types, not just corporations, have corporate cultures.  Writing this week for our colleagues in the Science Careers business office, Emma Hitt has outlined some of the factors you need to take into account in a corporate culture, including the emphasis on job security, encouragement of risk-taking, and respect for work-life balance. To discover these values, Hitt encourages networking with recruiters and industry associations, and reviewing financial reports, if the organization makes them public.

Our Tooling Up columnist Dave Jensen, wrote articles in February and March 2007 on employment due diligence, with the March segment devoted almost entirely to corporate culture. Jensen gives prospective hires clues to look for when visiting an employer, including for example, how office space is allocated and what's on display in the company break room. (I once visited a major business publisher that had a stunning corporate board room, but the workers toiled in the junkiest cubicles I've ever seen.)

Yesterday, Rusty Weston, on his blog My Global Career, suggested a more high-tech tool for investigating corporate culture: your online social networks. Weston urged mining contacts on the more business-oriented networks such as LinkedIn or Xing. Using those networks, you may be able to find current or former employees of companies or institutions within your own network or connected to your immediate contacts. And once you've found them you can talk to them.

Even, or especially, in tough times, doing your homework--due diligence, as Dave Jensen put it--can prevent a career move that you will regret.

Our colleagues at the ScienceInsider blog (like Science Careers, also published by AAAS) note that on Friday, NIH requested comments from the public to help write new conflict of interest rules.

Contained in a Federal Register notice, the request for comments covers the scope and definition of conflicts of interest and ways institutions report and manage conflicts. The subject has received increasing attention from Congress (subscription required) and from the Institute of Medicine, which issued a report on the subject last month.

A Science Careers article in November 2008 offers advice to researchers and looks at the response by professional and academic organizations to the conflict-of-interest issue.

Comments are due to NIH by 7 July.


May 8, 2009

Goodbye Columbus

The 2010 fiscal year begins on 1 October--and among the cuts the federal government's 2010 budget, announced on Thursday, is $1 million the Obama Administration decided not to spend on the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation (CCFF), an organization established to recognize the accomplishments of researchers and science students and educators.

This foundation started in 1992 with a mission defined by Congress to "encourage and support research, study, and labor designed to produce new discoveries in all fields of endeavor for the benefit of mankind." CCFF's 2008 annual report refined its mission as "to raise awareness and honor the 'cutting edge' research being conducted by Americans around the country, whether in schools, universities, companies or government labs and to encourage community service."

Somewhere along the line, says the Obama Office of Management and Budget (OMB), CCFF decided to spend far more money on itself than on researchers, students, and educators. OMB noted ...

This Foundation has not demonstrated clear outcomes from its awards and has high overhead costs. Because of its high overhead rates, the Foundation would spend only 20 percent of its 2010 appropriation on awards. Several other Federal agencies offer fellowships for those who are producing new discoveries in science, security, and other fields of endeavor. For example, the National Science Foundation spends more than $90 million per year through its Graduate Research Fellowship Program, with much lower overhead and more measurable outcomes.

The group's original endowment came from the sale of commemorative coins beginning in 1992, the 500th anniversary of Columbus's discovery. The OMB report says CCFF, based in Auburn, New York, has largely burned through that endowment and now depends on government funds and private donations.

CCFF's funding programs cover a wide range of targets. The group's Web site describes four different categories of awards that recognize what they call Columbus Scholars for achievement in the life sciences, homeland security innovation, middle-school science projects, and honoring a teacher with disabilities. The amount of the annual awards on the Web site come to $96,000. However, the group's 2008 annual report reported a net cost of operations that year of just under $583,000. In other words, only 16.5% of its operating budget was spent on the awards that are ostensibly the group's main mission.

Judith Shellenberger, CCFF's executive director, told the nearby Elmira, New York Star-Gazette that the OMB budget cutters did not take into account other activities, such as trips to Disney World and leadership training provided to the middle-school science students, and other contributions made by the foundation. "I think everything we do is what the Obama administration is promoting," Sellenberger told the newspaper. "Since Obama's staff is new, they are just looking for places to cut. But it's more than dollars and cents. It's the lives that it touches around America. We are talking about scientists, schoolteachers and students. It's who America is."

Chronicle Careers has a nice piece by Anne Gallagher and Kathy Trower in which they take on the issue of balance and flexibility in academic careers. This is the fourth installment in a multi-part series. The other parts, too, are worth a read. Those earlier articles are:

A Call for Clarity
Why Collegiality Matters
The Demand for Diversity.

Trower, by the way, wrote the excellent "Women Without Tenure" series on Science Careers:

Part I
Part II: The Gender Sieve
Part III: Why They Leave
Part IV: Why It Matters; What to Do.
Tomorrow (Friday, May 8), Science Careers and the Cambridge Research Institute are putting on a day-long workshop, "Broadening Your Scientific Career Horizons," here in Cambridge (the U.K. one). Topics will include industry career paths, bioentrepreneurship, making the most of your postdoc, and networking.

If you don't happen to be in Cambridge, never fear: I'll be live-Twittering the event on @mysciencecareer and with #sciencecareers, doing my best to extract the key messages in 140 characters or less. (If that sentence made no sense to you, just go to http://twitter.com/mysciencecareer some time tomorrow to read short, hopefully useful tidbits and tips from the workshop.)

And if you're in the mood for even more career advice, check out the archived Webinar, "Nontraditional Careers: Opportunities Away from the Bench," which was recorded April 28 in Washington, D.C.

AND, don't forget to become a fan of Science Careers on Facebook, where you'll find links to recent blog posts, articles, and upcoming events.

In Miami, aspiring CSI technicians can now get bachelors degrees at Miami-Dade College, one of 10 formerly 2-year institutions in Florida that now offer 4-year degrees. The New York Times on Saturday described how a handful of schools like Miami-Dade College (which used to be called Miami-Dade Community College) are challenging the traditional 4-year colleges,  many offering science- and technology-based curricula leading to bachelor's degrees.

According to an online index provided by the Community College Baccalaureate Association, 34 community colleges in the United States and 23 community colleges in Canada are now offering 4-year degrees. The Times article says that these community colleges are training candidates for high-skilled positions, including positions in science and technology, that the traditional 4-year colleges don't fill, or at least not quickly.

For example, in Florida, all 10 community colleges offering bachelors degrees have programs to train math and science teachers for middle schools or secondary schools. Six of the 10 also offer degrees in health-related fields such as nursing and veterinary technologies.  Forensics courses are offered by four Florida schools with degrees in public-safety or fire-science management.

Other examples: Great Basin College in Nevada offers bachelors degrees in digital information technology, instrumentation, land surveying/geomatics, and management in technology. Bellevue Community College in Washington State has bachelors degrees in radiologic and imaging sciences.   

According to the Times, some 4-year colleges aren't happy. Lobbying by the four-year colleges has stalled legislation in Michigan, for example.  The Times quotes Mike Boulus, an executive of the State Universities of Michigan organization, who called these degrees "a solution in search of a problem." Boulus adds, "Community colleges should stick with the important work they do extremely well, offering 2-year degrees and preparing students for transfer to 4-year schools."

But community college officials say they're helping to fill gaps in needed skills, and offering access to college to students seeking a more vocational approach, or who can't afford to attend traditional, 4-year institutions, which are typically more expensive. Eduardo J. Padrón, president of Miami-Dade, tells the Times that community colleges are complementing, not competing with, 4-year colleges. "You won't see us starting a B.A. in sociology," says Padrón. "We're offering degrees in things the universities don't want to do."

Besides, Padrón says, Miami-Dade serves a population that the 4-year schools ignore. He notes that 80% of its students work, and that 58% come from low-income households. "The universities that handpick their students based on SATs and grades get three times the funding we do," says  Padrón. "We are the underfunded overachiever."

Science Careers editor Jim Austin reported on this blog on 29 April about the struggle Grants.gov faces from the sharp increase in grant applications to NIH and other agencies, because of the 2009 stimulus bill (officially: American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009). That same day the U.S. General Accountability Office (GAO), Congress's watchdog agency, published a report critical of agencies and Grants.gov for issuing a confusing set of submission policies and procedures, which could lead to differing treatment of applications for grants issued under the stimulus bill.

Grants.gov serves as the central U.S. government portal for funding announcements, registrar for people and organizations seeking government grants, and the initial recipient of the electronic grant applications. This vital service to agencies giving grants and people or organizations seeking grants is an unusual government entity. While ostensibly under the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), it operates as a consortium of 26 grant-making agencies and is funded by contributions from those agencies. Its staff consists of people detailed for short periods of time from federal agencies. The Department of Health and Human Services hosts Grants.gov on its computers.

As Austin pointed out, Grants.gov's systems were not engineered for the high volume of applications expected from the large funding increases in the stimulus bill. GAO's report noted that on 9 March, OMB warned federal agencies that the volume of traffic on Grants.gov was exceeding its capacity to such an extent that it posed a serious risk to implementation of the stimulus bill. OMB authorized agencies, from April through August 2009, to accept grant applications outside of Grants.gov, through their own electronic systems, fax, e-mail, and postal mail.

GAO found that as a result of this flexibility, the various agencies enacted widely different application procedures, often varying from one grant program to another even within the same agency.  Environmental Protection Agency, for example, generally allows hard-copy or e-mail grant applications. NIH, however, which invested heavily in all-electronic application systems (see our article What You Need to Know about Electronic R01 Submissions), told GAO that accepting hard-copy or even e-mail applications would be "incredibly impractical."

The GAO found a number of practices, some not directly related to the stimulus bill, that confuse rather than simplify the application process:

  • Grants.gov sometimes accepts grant applications after agencies close their applications.  NIH, for example, has a 5:00 pm deadline, but Grants.gov continues to accept those applications until midnight, putting applicants in a position where they can receive a confirmation of on-time submission to Grants.gov, but a late notice from NIH.
  • Agencies have varying definitions of "meeting the deadline." Most of the agencies responding to GAO's survey consider a timely submission as one that is accepted by Grants.gov.  However, 1 in 6 agencies say Grants.gov has to first validate the submission--i.e., make sure it meets initial technical requirements, a process that can take up to 48 hours--before considering it an on-time application. E-mail and hard-copy applications are not subject to Grants.gov validation, and would thus have one less hurdle than those sent through Grants.gov.
  • Agencies have different ways of notifying applicants about whether their submissions are late or on-time. About half of the agencies say they let applicants know soon after the deadline if their applications are late, but some 13 percent wait until the grant is awarded or don't bother notifying late applicants. E-mail and hard copy submissions have no-built-in methods for acknowledging successful receipt of applications.
  • Agencies have different criteria and methods for handling appeals of applications deemed late.
GAO found one of the biggest problems causing delays is the complex Grants.gov registration procedure, which can take up to two weeks, as opposed to the 3-5 business days  advertised on the Grants.gov site. Another problem is the need for a case number to appeal a late submission for technical issues on Grants.gov; but what do you do if one of those issues is that you aren't given a case number?

GAO said this report, provided in a letter to a senator and three members of Congress, focused on providing the office's initial observations on the problem. GAO expects to issue a more detailed and systemic report in June.

On 16 March C&E News ran Who's Next?, an excellent article on getting laid off that included interviews with several recently laid-off scientists. Their conclusion: Times are tough. Josh Albert, managing partner of Klein Hersh International, an executive search firm, says that while the top laid-off pharma employees will get jobs quickly, often with multiple offers, the rest will struggle. "The middle 50% will find a job, but it's going to take them a year," he says. "Everyone else is going to have to look into different career paths."

Just a few weeks later, ACS, the publisher of C&E News, announced 56 layoffs--3% of their workforce--including 40 in publishing side of ACS, and 9 at C&E News.


Saturday's Globe and Mail, from Montreal, included an article that while it was putatively about the poor state of science's reputation in Canada, might as well have been focused on the United States and the rest of the West.

Is Canada Losing the Lab Rat Race?, by Erin Anderssen and Anne McIlroy, describes the attitudes towards scientific careers of students in the International Baccalaureate Program, an elite, science-focused program for high school students. "These are students who spend half of their time in labs," the authors write, "working through experiments, not dozing off during lectures - the kind of education most scientists wish they had had. If any group should be producing lab-coat keeners, it should be this one." The students their love science, but few of them plan to pursue a scientific career:

Julia Dutaud, 16, sitting in the back in her school-rugby T-shirt, would like to study environmental science - a field growing as rapidly as any - but she wonders if she could make a good living at it: "Going into science would be a nice thing to do," she says. "But we aren't sure how much opportunity we would get after university."
Later:

A study released this week found that in Canada and many other Western countries, few of the best high-school science students are interested in trading their A's for electron microscopes and brain scanners. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development reported that on average 60 per cent of the highest-achieving, 15-year-old science students were uninterested in careers in advanced research.
Our educational systems often gets the blame for the lack of interest in scientific careers among young people, but this shows that that's not the only, and probably not the main, problem. Clearly, science is not an attractive career option. It's pretty obvious what the problem is--too few good jobs for far too many bright young people. It's far less obvious what the answer is. The more science we do, of course, the more scientists we'll need. And the more scientists we need, the more opportunities there will be for scientists. But right now, young, smart Americans--on both sides of the border--know that there are more dependable career options: clinical medicine, say, or law, or business.


A "Career Tools" article in the 27 April C&E News delivers practical guidance on delivering an effective oral presentation. It's a nice piece emphasizing preparation, and a worthwhile read.

My favorite part: Nobel Laureate Peter Agre of Johns Hopkins University admitting that, "Oftentimes, I get lost in the first 10 minutes." And you thought you were the only one. The implication of course is that it's their fault, not yours.

By the way, Science Careers has taken on this topic several times over the years. Here are a few articles from our archives on this theme, or related themes:

The All-Important Research Talk

Mastering Your PhD: Giving a Great Presentation

Transferrably Yours: Powerful Presentations

Academic Scientists at Work: The Job Talk

Tooling Up: Job-Talk Jitters


Update: One research administrator has reported, on a listserv, that the number of Challenge Grant proposals received by NIH could be as high as 30,000.
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On Wednesday, this blog reported that, despite the high volume of NIH Challenge Grants, things seem to have gone reasonably well for the research administrators charged with submitting those grants electronically--in defiance of predictions that Grants.gov, the governments electronic grant-submission system, would crash and burn.

In investigating that piece, I asked NIH how many applications NIH had received for the Challenge Grant program. Demonstrating their superior investigative reporting skills, our colleagues in Science's news department have tracked down an approximate answer in just 2 days, not the 2 weeks NIH told me to check back in. The answer: NIH received more than 10,000 applications for just 200 available grants.

It's possible that the individual institutions will throw in some additional funds so that more than 200 grants can be funded. But if NIH funds just 200 grants as it had planned, the funding rate for the competition will be less than 2%.

We wish all applicants good luck. You're going to need it.
 

May 1, 2009

The Nature of Genius

I've been traveling a lot lately, attending an alphabet soup of scientific meetings in Washington, D.C., (ACRT, AFMR, CRF) and Chicago (AAP, ASCI, APSA). And in those travels I repeatedly encountered an idea I had not seen before: the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert or genius at something. That idea seems to have entered the zeitgeist, popularized perhaps by Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, "Outliers."

It's an appealing idea in that it places nurture before nature, giving most of us a shot at becoming very good at something, even if we're not naturally gifted. The idea that talent is in-born--some god-like quality certain rare people possess--at once seems to limit the possibilities of those of us who are not so blessed and to forgive us for our laziness or lack of drive. The new theory: Just practice some 10,000 hours, in the right way, over some period of time and you're good to go, as long as you've got the basic ability. And a lot of people do. 

David Brooks writes about these new theories in an op-ed piece in this morning's New York Times. In "Genius: The Modern View," Brooks writes:

In the view that is now dominant, even Mozart's early abilities were not the product of some innate spiritual gift. His early compositions were nothing special. They were pastiches of other people's work. Mozart was a good musician at an early age, but he would not stand out among today's top child-performers.

What Mozart had, we now believe, was the same thing Tiger Woods had--the ability to focus for long periods of time and a father intent on improving his skills. Mozart played a lot of piano at a very young age, so he got his 10,000 hours of practice in early and then he built from there."
According to the modern theory, the key to success, Brooks writes, is "deliberate practice"--with the emphasis on "deliberate." Brooks points readers towards "two enjoyable new books: 'The Talent Code' by Daniel Coyle; and 'Talent is Overrated' by Geoff Colvin."

To me, one of the most interesting things about the theories--at least as Brooks describes them--is the implication for mentorship. Read this:

If you wanted to picture how a typical genius might develop, you'd take a girl who possessed a slightly above average verbal ability. It wouldn't have to be a big talent, just enough so that she might gain some sense of distinction. Then you would want her to meet, say, a novelist, who coincidentally shared some similar biographical traits. Maybe the writer was from the same town, had the same ethnic background, or shared the same birthday--anything to create a sense of affinity.
The idea is that the shared traits would help the girl to visualize what she could become. Later, Brooks mentions another role a mentor can play: providing detailed feedback and correction. It need not be the same mentor.

The next key ingredient is drive; the girl spends years reading voraciously, for example. Then, let's say she starts to write. The process is "slow, painstaking, and error-focused." The idea is to focus meticulously on technique.

The idea, Brooks says, is to "delay the automatizing process. The mind wants to turn deliberate, newly learned skills into unconscious, automatically performed skills. But the mind is sloppy and will settle for good enough." You need to resist your mind's sloppiness so that you can internalize "a better pattern of performance."

I remember observing, during my own graduate training, that the the keys to success include drive and endurance. I was partly right, but I missed two other keys: I never found a mentor I could related to--there was never a model of a life I wanted to live in science--and I didn't practice well. Instead of focusing on the fundamentals, meticulously, I rushed things. I raced to start doing real, high-level work. I did OK with that--I published quickly and often--but I lacked the capability to do really penetrating work. Even today, in my work as an editor, I have that tendency, but I've learned to resist it and to focus on fundamentals. Maybe some day I will have put in my 10,000 hours and be a masterful editor.

This may be nothing but the latest pop theory--Gladwell, certainly, is a great popularizer--but I'm reassured by the fact that its message runs counter to most popular self-help recipes. It emphasizes years of dedication and hard work instead of some easily attainable psychological adjustment. Work hard and long, find a model to emulate--or several. And practice well. I think that's good advice, pop theory or not.