Payoffs of wasting time

“Nothing matters but papers.”

This is the mantra of some folks in academic science, as highlighted in Doctor Zen’s post, which was sparked by a comment from an SfN10 blogger on Tideliar’s post regarding the negative reaction of some colleagues to his blog.

“Papers are the only thing that counts.”

For the benefit of any undergrads or new grad students out there, this is a bald-faced lie!!!

In the case of the most self-absorbed “mentors” (and I use this term lightly with the preceding modifier), then it could very well be true that the only important thing, in their minds, is for trainees to crank out papers that in turn get them (the PIs) grant. Note I say “for trainees” because these may be the very same people who spend a very small percentage of their time in their labs or offices because they travel so much. And they might also be the same ones who sit on papers until they’re perfect… or at least until they’re ready for their closeup in GlamourMag.

Papers are important. After all, they show that you produced results that survived the scrutiny of peer-review. But there are those advisers who seem to think that trainees should toil away in the lab 14 hours a day, 365 days of the year, for their entire time in the lab. All other things are simply distractions that take you away from time you should be generating results for the next publication.

Even setting aside things that contribute to one’s mental, social, and emotional well-being (which were taken on during the #k3rn3d fiasco), there are things outside of papers that matter to your career. There’s a dirty little secret that they’re not telling you: Good science alone isn’t enough.

If you ever encounter a PI who basically locks trainees away in the tower laboratory, run away as quickly as you can! If people in the lab never go to conferences, seminars, networking events, lunches with speakers… this is a huge problem. I have no link to back this up, but a career strategist (e.g. someone who helps people figure out what they’re doing with their careers and how to get a job) quoted Harvard Business Review as saying that 90% of jobs are found through someone the applicant knows, and she’s seen it time and again in life science industries. . Even in academia, where you have to go through search committees, interactions with applicants before they applied can influence the process. Speaking with a young PI, s/he commented that having met a search committee member had made the interview process a little more comfortable because a rapport was already established. The same person mentioned that s/he had seen applications thrown in the out pile early in the search process simply because someone had met the applicant for 5 minutes at a meeting and thought s/he was an arrogant ass. When you already have a job, meeting people is crucial. One successful PI said he underestimated the importance of attending meetings as a new PI. Why does it matter? Members of your grant review sections attend meetings, and getting your name out as an expert in your area is crucial to grant success. Plus informal interactions are, it seems, the most common way of establishing collaborations. A friend in grad school struck up a collaboration with another lab after attending a seminar and got a paper out of it. In grad school, I met with a candidate interviewing for a tenure-track position; s/he ended up taking a job elsewhere, which happens to be in my current city. We recently chatted, and I had no expectation of gaining anything beyond some discussion of the tenure-track career path; between travel and meeting time, this took about 2 hours out of my typical work day. In addition to some career and grant advice, I have a potential future collaborator who can offer just what I’m interested in and can’t get at my current locale.

Of course, this particular case-in-point above was about blogging and its “waste”. How can this possibly contribute to your career? I accept that I’m probably preaching to the choir at this point, but I’ll keep going. Science blogging and Twittering* require a time investment. And  there are many times, even a majority of times, that there is no or little tangible return on that investment. Guess what? Real-life interactions are exactly the same. But if you keep at it, and there’s a good chance that one of those interactions will pay off. Blogging can improve communication skills, and Twitter helps improve conciseness. It also provides a forum for discussing things you don’t often find in journals–like the ins and outs of applying for grants and jobs. I’m applying for a career development award next year and solicited advice from the Twitterati. Later that same day, my adviser and I were talking about the training plan section and the critiques that had come back regarding this section of another postdoc’s application. It matched exactly with what a few PIs on Twitter had told me. I may have received the same advice from both sources, but my adviser wouldn’t have had that perspective a year ago. Blogging and Twitter expand access to people who have recently and successfully competed for similar awards. That is an invaluable resource when you’re writing a grant.

Blogging is a timesink. So is talking with colleagues, meeting speakers, and attending seminars. But both things have incredible potential to provide opportunities you’d never have if you just barricaded yourself in the lab. Papers are important but publishing alone doesn’t get the job done. The careers of successful scientists (e.g. those doing what they want to do) are replete with evidence of this, regardless of their age. The digital age is simply bringing along new ways to waste time and make new connections.


* Upon request, I will have a post more specific to Twitter coming soon.

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