Am I doing enough for my scientific career - title

Am I doing enough for my scientific career?

Many young scientists fear that they are not investing enough in their scientific careers. However, it is often unclear what they should do and how important different aspects are, such as publications, grants, teaching, mobility, technical skills, and just being a good scientist. Find some directions and a checklist here.

Did I reflect enough on my career? 

Scientist reflecting on her career

Systematic reflection on your career is undoubtedly most critical to developing a healthy career strategy. Below, you will find several key questions to help you to analyze whether you have done enough in several key areas critical for a career in science. 

If you have no clue whether you want an academic career or leave academia, go to the last point, “What do I want?” for an effective strategy to find out.

Key question: Did I reflect on my career and write down a career plan?

Did I generate enough data? 

Scientist and computer screens representing scientific data

If you aim to produce high-impact publications, be prepared to work hard to produce a lot of data. 

First, get a rough idea of how many figures you need for a high-class paper. Download a few publications in your target journals (e. g., Nature or Science) and count the number of figures and supplementary figures. 

Then, analyze how much data each figure shows and how many different methods are used per figure!  In many cases, you will be surprised.

A colleague of mine, who published many high-impact papers, once explained how to create Nature paper:

“Create a good basic study to address the most obvious question of your research project. Condense all data on one page. This is Figure 1.”

Typically, the higher the impact, the more alternative methods have been used. 

This might not be true in all areas of science, but it is a good rule of thumb in life sciences. This makes a lot of sense because every method has advantages and disadvantages, and the more methods you use to address the same question from different angles, the more convincing your results will be. 

Key questions: Did I address my scientific questions from several distinct angles using different techniques/methods? Did I do enough experiments to generate enough figures for my target journals? 

To inspire you, I wrote two articles about strategies to increase the impact factor of your publication and about getting more citations for your paper.

Did I publish enough? Did I publish well enough?

For an academic career, there are a few simple rules that make your life much easier (at least in life sciences and similar domains): 

With very few exceptions, it is always better to publish one or two papers with a high impact factor instead of publishing a higher number of papers with much lower impact factors.

However, for a non-academic career, demonstrating your expertise and stamina by publishing well is helpful, but you have to avoid being perceived as being lost in the “ivory tower” of academic research.

Thus, you must choose the best publication strategy based on your career goals.

Publishing is a complex process that includes designing a good project, generating enough convincing and exciting data, and writing a compelling narrative to summarize and interpret your data.

The most important skill is to get and integrate feedback for your writing from experienced scientists who have published excellent papers in previous years. 

You should definitely follow classes on scientific writing. It is also useful to get your papers edited by a competent person – especially if English is not your native language. Definitely use software like Grammarly or LanguageTool to eliminate all typographical and grammatical errors.

Make it a habit and schedule a specific time per week for writing – for example, every Friday morning. Only if it is in your agenda you will do it.

Key questions: Did I invest enough time and effort in writing my publications? How can I write my papers faster? Did I schedule it? Did I ask for enough feedback to improve my writing skills? Did I participate in classes/courses to improve my writing skills? Did I get feedback on my English (grammar and style)?

Read more here:

What is the best publication strategy in science?

How To Write Faster: 19 Efficient Ways To Finish My Publication

10 simple strategies to increase the impact factor of your publication

Do I need nature or science papers for a successful career in science?

Should I aim for co-authorships on high-impact papers?

Should I aim for multiple co-authorships to extend my publication list?

Did I raise enough funding? 

Euros representing funding

If you want an academic career (= become a professor) you must learn to raise grant money. The more   money you raise the more attractive you are as a candidate for new positions.

Without doubt the skill of raising money also makes you more attractive for industry positions. Thus, investing a substantial amount of your time in grant proposal writing is crucial.

But am I eligible for grants as a PhD student or postdoc?

Unfortunately, PhD students and postdocs are often not eligible for grants. Only rarely are there specific funding schemes for PhD students or postdocs. 

However, do not get frustrated. There are at least solutions: 

Participate in grant proposal writing of your supervisor

Ask your supervisor to participate in their grant writing. In the beginning, you will be bad anyway. Thus, you need a lot of guidance and feedback. Sooner or later, you will know your supervisor’s style, and you can efficiently deliver what is wanted. 

Write and submit grant proposals under your supervisor’s name

After participating in writing your supervisor’s grants and reaching some proficiency, you can start writing your grant proposals – even as a PhD student or postdoc. 

However, often, you are not eligible for specific grant schemes. In such cases, you might discuss with your supervisor to submit the grant under their name. In another article, I discussed in detail the dilemmas of submitting a grant under your supervisor’s name.

Did I invest enough time and effort in grant proposal writing?

At the beginning of your career (late phase PhD and postdoc), I would suggest investing at least 25% of your time in grant proposal writing. Like writing your papers, you should make it a habit and reserve some time during your week to write grant proposals. Only if it is in your agenda will you do it.

Key questions: Did I invest enough time and effort in grant proposal writing? How much time do I want to invest? Did I schedule it?

However, it is easy to waste time writing proposals without proper feedback.

Did I learn to write excellent grant proposals?

In order to develop grant writing skills, you need lots of feedback from experienced grant writers and members of grant selection committees. The feedback you get from funding bodies can be misleading because the comments may be “cleaned up” to avoid legal actions by the applicants.

It is more efficient to give your grant proposal to an experienced and successful colleague who has been part of selection committees and ask for thorough feedback.

This will improve your grant writing skills dramatically because your expectations of how selection committees work are probably wrong.

Key question: Did I invest enough effort and time in getting feedback for my grant proposals?

Did I write enough grant proposals?

Raising grant money requires expertise, persistence, and luck. If you have learned the basic skills of how to write a proposal, if you have received enough constructive criticism and learned from it, the next step is to develop persistence.

You have to make it a habit to write grant proposals regularly and optimize the process: You can recycle parts of old grant proposals (for example, the introduction and the materials + methods sections). You can resubmit an optimized proposal. You can divide the work with co-applicants.

Key questions: Did I write grant proposals on a regular basis? Did I optimize the process?

Read more about funding: Research funding – Should I submit grant proposals under my supervisor’s name?

Did I learn enough technical skills?

Independent of your career goals, it is a good rule of thumb to learn at least three different techniques by heart. If you know only one technique (e.g., immunohistochemistry), your research depends on other experts, and as a job applicant, you appear one-dimensional.

Become an expert in applying the techniques – especially in troubleshooting. Try to be diverse and select at least one fancy technique which is not a standard technique that nearly everybody uses. 

Being an expert in 3 techniques makes you a valuable lab member, gives you a lot of positive feedback (especially if you help people with these techniques), and makes you attractive for academic and industry positions that rely on one or all of these techniques.

Key questions: Did I focus on three different technical skills? Did I practice them enough to be a good trouble-shooter? Did I help others with these techniques?

Did I learn enough to be an expert in my field?

Becoming an expert seems easy because research is so broad that focusing on one specific field automatically increases your specific expertise. However, you need a systematic strategy to become an expert in your field. 

Key questions: In which field am I (or will be) an expert? Do my colleagues know what my expertise is? What should I do to become an expert?

Did I read enough field-specific literature?

It is good advice to develop a reading plan and a reading habit. You should reserve at least 1h per week to read the milestone papers in your field and to stay updated on new publications. To find the milestone papers, you should ask your supervisor and senior colleagues in the field.

It also helps to read a few major reviews published recently in high-impact journals in your field to find out which studies get cited again and again. One very efficient way is to write a review about your subject with your specific perspective.

Key questions: Do I know the 10 most important publications (and their authors) in my field by heart? 

Did I write enough reviews?

Writing reviews has a lot of advantages. You get to know the literature and the names of the most influential scientists in your field. You may be able to publish your review with a high impact factor, and you may gain much more visibility in your field.

Key questions: Did I write a high-class review in my field every year with my specific perspective? Do I have a writing plan?

Did I teach enough?

The value of teaching for your scientific career depends a lot on your career goals (see below “What do I want?”). 

If you are planning a career in teaching, you may use your time to get to know all modern teaching strategies, teaching tools such as smart boards, online communication systems such as Blackboard and curriculum development.

For an industry career, teaching is typically only a nice add-on. However, you can sell it as people skills, which are always an advantage. 

Teaching has a certain value for an academic career, but take care not to overestimate the value of teaching experience compared to other important areas to make you an attractive candidate.

Key questions: Do I know how important (or not) teaching is for my future career? Did I follow courses on teaching? Do I know at least one modern teaching tool?

Read more here: Is teaching expertise really necessary for an academic career?

Was I mobile enough?

Scientist with many flags representing working abroad

There are many good reasons to go abroad but also many difficulties to handle. Briefly, when you pursue an academic career (= becoming a professor), you are nearly obliged to work abroad

There are professors who never left their country for more than a few weeks (for vacation!), but the vast majority have substantial international experiences.

International experiences are always a plus for any other job because you broaden your horizon, become more mature, and better organized. 

How long should you go? 

The longer, the better.

If your international experience is limited to a few weeks or months, it will be considered a vacation rather than an international experience. 

As a rule of thumb, I would suggest living abroad for 2 to 4 years.

One year is a very short period to produce any substantial output. However, if you stay away for more than five years, potential employers may wonder whether you are motivated to return. 

A good move may be to do a 4-year PhD or a 3-4 year postdoc in another country.

Read more here:

Did I have enough industry exposure?

Independent of your career goals (see below “What do I want?”), industry exposure is crucial for several reasons. 

Firstly, you learn the difference between academic thinking (publish or perish, raising grant money) and industry thinking (producing a product and revenue). Academics characteristically have no or only a few industry experiences, and typically, professors can not train you in the non-academic job market.

Secondly, you broaden your horizons and see more career possibilities. You may see more clearly whether you should become a professor and whether it is worth it to pursue an academic career.

Thirdly, you make many contacts, which may either open the door to an industry career or lucrative academia-industry collaborations in the later stages of your career.

Key questions: Did I get in contact with colleagues who work(ed) in the industry sector to ask about their experiences? Did I work in the industry sector, or did I work with industry partners?

Do I have enough national and international connections?

You should work abroad for many reasons. However, be aware that there are multiple downsides to living abroad

As mentioned above, contacts and connections are important to build a network that may help you find a future job or productive collaborations. 

You may collaborate with international colleagues who are experts in their field and may contribute technology and expertise to your papers (or vice versa).

It also increases your national and international visibility. Especially for academic careers, developing and demonstrating scientific independence is essential.

Key questions: Do I have a plan to build connections and my network? Do I search for national and international collaboration partners?

Did I participate in enough academic committees?

Young scientists are often invited to participate in the academic administration. Such as being a member of biosafety or ethical committees, selection committees (technicians, PhD students), or reviewer committees for bachelor’s or master’s theses.

Postdocs can waste a lot of time on committees without ever seeing a convincing return on investment. In particular, well-intentioned gender policy can be a trap for young female scientists and adversely affect their careers.

Therefore, these activities should be carefully selected to avoid negatively impacting more relevant activities (generating data, publishing high, and raising grant money).

Key questions: Did I participate in committees to learn how they work? Did I waste a lot of time in useless committee meetings?

What do I want?

Most young scientists do not have a clue what they should do after finishing their PhD. 

Many continue as postdocs because they like research and simply have no better idea. Even postdocs often have no precise idea of whether they want to stay in academia or find a job in the industry sector, public policy, politics, NGOs, etc.

You might even realize that you can not reach your career goals in your current appointment job. You might even consider quitting your job and finding a better position

Key question: Am I clear enough about my career goals? If not – did I invest enough time and effort in defining my career goals?

How do I find out what I want?

Most career books, courses, and seminars I have seen in the last 20 years start with “What do you want from your career?” followed by personality tests like the Big Five personality traits or Strengthfinder. When you take the test, they are interesting for self-reflection – and help you describe your personality better.

Do personality tests help you to define your career goals? 

Normally not. 

The next piece of advice is typically to investigate your passions. However, this usually is lousy advice. Scott Galloway once summarized it nicely: “All people who advise you to follow your passion are rich.” 

I think there is a lot of truth in there. *After* you have had many experiences (including many mistakes) and *after* you have reached a certain level of financial stability, it makes sense to pivot your lifestyle towards more ‘passion.’

Whenever I ask a big group of young scientists, “Who knows what their passions are?” only 1 or 2 persons show their hand, while 99% of the others have no clue what their passions are.

Does analyzing your passions help you to define your career goals?

Normally not. 

Most people discover their passions during a long journey, including multiple pleasant and unpleasant experiences in many different contexts, finally giving them some idea of what they like and dislike.

I did not know many activities I enjoy nowadays when I was 20. I had to get to know new contexts, learn new skills, and make lots of mistakes to learn from. In addition, I enjoyed some great successes and victories and experienced epic failures.

Did I search for enough information about five potential careers?

The best strategy to identify your ideal career(s) I found in one of my favorite books: Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life (affiliate link) by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. 

The concept is complex but can be simplified to “Try on a few hats and look what fits best.” 

To do that you have to make a list of 5 potential careers and contact at least 3 to 5 people who can give you expert advice on these careers.

If you want to be guided in finding your ideal career, check whether my courses on”Finding your dream job in science” and “How to become a professor” are still available (I might shut them down sooner or later).

Key question:  Did I explore at least five different potential careers via Google and LinkedIn? Did I contact and chat with at least 3-5 persons per career to get more background information on these career paths?

Acknowledgments

I have used AI systems, including Grammarly, Google Gemini, Groq, and ChatGPT, to enhance the English and comprehensiveness of this article. This post may contain affiliate links, meaning I get a small commission if you decide to purchase through my link. Thus, you support smartsciencecareer at no cost to you!

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