Some sporadic insights into academia.
Science is Fascinating.
Scientists are slightly peculiar.
Here are the views of one of them.

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

This career will self-destruct in 5 minutes: how not to slip on your own banana skins

I spend a considerable amount of my time giving unsolicited advice to people. In fact I have so much to say that it has spilled onto the internet – to which stream of consciousness you are now the lucky recipient. One of my recurring tropes is the need to have confidence in your own ability and how best to demonstrate your abilities to others (sellyourself without selling out). Given this you might imagine I am sharp suited and fake tanned with shiny white teeth; just brimming with confidence, leaning in, owning the room, like a boss. Sadly not.

How not to conduct a phone interview when you have the whip hand

My most recent failure to practice what I preach came earlier this week. Bear with me, this isn’t just an act of catharsis, some advice will follow.  I’d been approached as an ‘expert’ in my field (NB they approached me – this is important). Theoretically, the person doing the approaching is the one who needs the service, I was in the position of power for any negotiation. And yet, even prior to the conversation I was thinking ‘why me, surely there are better qualified people out there’. There followed a disastrous phone call to discuss my availability for the role (second point to note – the phone call was to check my availability and interest: not an interview).

How not to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory

Where did I go wrong? Is there anything that I did/ didn’t do that might help me/ others in the same position in the future?

Toxic comparisons

At times, I doubt my legitimacy to be in the position I am in. At one point in the phone call I even said ‘I don’t think I am the best person for this’. I am not alone in this feeling, it even has a name: ‘imposter syndrome’. Smarter, better qualified people (see I cannot stop myself) have written longer, better pieces about how to cope with imposter syndrome. I have one favourite stolen piece of advice, that I often come back to, be careful who you compare yourself to. There is a vacuum of career management in academia. We get little feedback and often benchmark ourselves against others to try and measure success. Unless you are a Nobel laureate, such comparisons never work out favourably. I know that based on these unrealistic comparisons, I judge myself too harshly and consequently fail to sell my good sides. The solution: Don’t compare up. If you need feedback, ask your Head of Department or a mentor or a friend. And if you have to compare, remember everyone has to start somewhere; pick a superstar academic, rewind PubMed to the beginning of their career and (hopefully) you will see they are human too.

Scientific Method

I cannot possibly know all the answers, because no one can possibly know all the answers. Part of our training as scientists is to question everything, including ourselves. Not trusting anything until we have seen it at least 3 times is entirely appropriate for dealing with complex data sets and other scientists, but does not translate well into dealings with the outside world, where cautious hedging can often interpreted as doubt. The solution: Overcome your training and make sweeping statements with absolute confidence, when appropriate.

Very British Problems

Being softly-spoken, understated and British, whilst highly effective in romantic comedies, doesn’t necessarily get you ahead in the world of work. Imposter syndrome is not restricted to the British, but there are cultural characteristics that can make it worse. Years of cultural conditioning, being told not to show off and the teasing ‘banter’ between friends that picks up on any self-aggrandisement can all lead to us downselling our achievements. There are also cultural euphemisms – if I say ‘yeah I can probably do that’ I mean ‘Yes I can do that easily’ but what can be heard is ‘I cannot do this’. The Solution: Be more direct in what you say, especially when crossing continents.


In addition to downselling my achievements, I upsell my flaws. Obviously lying is wrong, but underselling yourself isn’t great either. In fact you have a moral duty to ‘big yourself up’. There are many people who entirely lack self-doubt, who will apply for everything, regardless of their actual ability to do it. Being chock full of confidence they will often get the job, especially if you, don’t apply with confidence. These alpha types, lacking self-doubt, can do more damage in any role than the quiet, questioning British scientist. If we, the modest majority, do not stand up and speak up, bad decisions will be made. It is a moral duty, because bad decisions cost money (investors, tax-payers, donors), lead to inappropriate clinical trials (with actual risk to people or animals) and wasted research effort (and the damage that can cause to people’s careers).

What have I learnt?

  1. It is much easier to give advice than to follow it.
  2. Phone conversations with potential employers are no place for self-effacement or cultural euphemisms.
  3. When approached as the expert, act like it.
  4. Being quietly awesome at something isn’t enough, you need to tell people how awesome you are!
  5. Asking whether you are the perfect person for the role is the wrong question. My fellow scientists, ask not, am I the perfect person for this role, ask is this role perfect for me


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