It was that time of the year again. I went to class, intent on my coursework as usual, but there was something else waiting for us at the end, the thing I dreaded all year*…
Catalogs and order forms. It was time for the school fundraiser.
Every year I was in elementary school, I had to sell something for the school. Christmas paper, donuts, chocolates, stationary… What we sold was different each year, but all students (and by proxy, all the parents and guardians) were expected to participate. We were supposed to be excited about the opportunity to pawn off overpriced trinkets and candies on our families and families’ friends. As added incentive, there were prizes for the top sellers of each class and grade.
I absolutely hated it. I would sheepishly hand the stuff over to the parents and grandparents, wait quietly, and dutifully return the forms to my teachers. I was never in competition for those prizes, and I never tried to be.
I am not a salesperson. I never have been. I would do most anything else for a club or school, but don’t ask me to go out and convince people to give me money…
Why, yes, I am pursuing a career in research.
Yes, as an independent investigator – if I can make it. What are you getting at?
Uh oh. Wait just a minute…
I’m chasing after a career that involves me asking people to give me money!
But this time I’m not selling keepsake boxes, M&Ms, or gift bags.
No, this time I’m selling myself and my ideas… Son of a biscuit eater!
You see, if there’s something that makes me near as uncomfortable as sales, it’s probably bragging about myself. Why? I don’t know. Maybe it’s a cultural thing. Maybe it’s a personality thing. Whatever it is, I. Don’t. Like. It.
Yet that’s what I’ve signed up for. Multiple times a year, I am to try to convince a group of people that I am brilliant. That I have clever ideas. That my work will provide some crucial and needed insight.
And this time the stakes are higher. I won’t be missing out on a party. I’ll be missing out on my dream.
I’m starting to pay attention to how I talk about my work and myself and how my adviser and other investigators talk about themselves, their work, and their trainees. And I’ve realized that a big part of this business is the art of the sale.
The art of the sale is about more than simply knowing what you have to offer. Presenting a list of facts, figures, and achievements isn’t enough.
The art is about telling a story. You lead people through the plot, connecting the facts while sparking an interest. There has to be a clear focus and a unique perspective but one to which your audience can connect.
The art is learning to brag – but with subtlety. You must be confident in the cards you hold but without being overbearing. You have to sell your talents without alienating those listening.
The art is about recognizing and creating opportunities. It’s not just about getting the grant. It’s about planting seeds without complete certainty that you will ever benefit. It’s about connecting with people at seminars and conferences. It’s about negotiating with vendors and company reps to get access to materials and instruments. It’s about collaborating with people near and far to push your and their research forward.
The art is knowing which ideas, avenues, and opportunities to pursue. And which to leave behind.
The art is going out and trying. And trying. And trying again. And never giving up.