Science Careers Blog

Editor's Blog: May 2009

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.
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."

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.
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, 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.