Sunday, May 27, 2007

Not The Sharpest Knife

In many (most?) cases I let rude comments to this blog appear along with the others. Exceptions include obscene comments (who are these people?) and what I will characterize as the boring rude comments. There were some excellent examples of boring rude comments on my last post about blondeness: a number of these commenters pointed out that my post was proof that I am a dumb blonde. Perhaps I am too dumb to follow their reasoning? I just laughed and rejected the comments.

In any case, these comments did inspire me to revisit the topic of What It Takes To Succeed in the research aspects of academia. I think I am a good example of someone who has succeeded without being brilliant (or stupid, I might add). Being a successful Science Professor at a research university requires more than just intelligence. I've seen plenty of very smart/brilliant people wash out because they lacked some necessary elements for succeeding in today's academic environment. (note: there are of course many reasons why people leave academia, and many of these reasons do not involve failure to succeed).

Two examples of these necessary elements are

(1) being able to finish a project (this is in many cases directly connected to being able to write/communicate).

The ability to finish a project -- or, what is more likely, to finish different stages of a project and publish results from those stages -- is clearly important for demonstrating productivity. Some people can do this easily, some people can do it with difficulty but still get it done, and some just can't do it. Those in the latter category include some very smart people. The two main obstacles are an inability to write and an inability to focus.

(2) having new ideas, or at least new versions of a very good initial idea

Some people do well with their Ph.D. thesis and perhaps also a postdoc if it involves a defined project, but when they are out on their own, they don't have any new ideas. Their proposals get rejected and their research program never goes anywhere.

I think I've gotten as far as I have as a medium-sharp knife in large part by being productive in terms of research results and publications, as well as by letting my research evolve in new directions. The fact that I like to write and that it comes easily to me has been a huge help to me in my academic career. I wouldn't trade my writing abilities for more IQ points.

The continuing success of my research also owes a lot to having excellent collaborators. It's important that such collaborations be sub-equal and complementary -- you each bring something useful and interesting to the collaboration, and you find a good balance in terms of who is leading various aspects of the collaborative research. This is a way of getting involved in many new projects (increasing productivity..) and having lots of fun doing the research. This is easier to do once you become more senior. When you are more junior, you have to worry about getting enough credit for your research.

So, even if you're not brilliant: if you are smart, can get things done, and can think of new things to do, you've got most of what it takes to be a science professor.


Anonymous said...

Alas, what will become of those who are smart and frequently have good new ideas, but are deficient in the "getting things done" department? Pulling all this stuff together, dotting every "i" and crossing every "t" is a perpetual agony. And it's boring, kind of like paying bills on time and filing all the stuff on my desk.

Collaborative projects, maybe? Work with a bunch of "good finishers" to pick up the slack? Or going into some aspect of science that demands smart people with new ideas involved in work that is easier to finish? Are there such jobs?

Anonymous said...

I do not think academia should overapply the element "getting things done" as it currently does.

To most theoretical research projects, it isn't good to make a result without ultimately explaining and solving them. Did Einstein submit a paper saying E is related to m and write another paper a year later arguing E is also related to c before he published E=mc2? Would he has the right attitude and judgement to figure out E=mc2 if he had to publish some partial results as those?

It is sad that many researchers today use "getting things done" as an excuse to saying yes to research in some low quality.

Anonymous said...

Smart people should engage in the think- tank prosesses! Bring them in where they are at use -- too bad letting them go :-(

One can acheive a lot by hard work also. Many people are clever enough- they just don`t have the patience it often takes! Nicely written text- as usual. I have noticed your writing- abilites..;)
Thanks for sharing this!


CSS said...

Thank you for revealing what really made you good at your job. Quite frankly, up until now I thought you were just naturally brilliant and everything came easy to you :) I find that the two elements of success you are talking about also apply to the job of a research scientist in industry.

So if one wanted to improve one's writing skills what would you recommend to do?

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for saying this today.

I'm a female assistant prof in a similar field, and just this week I've been feeling like I am not "brilliant" enough to do this job. I know that I'm adequate, but lately I have been awake at night wondering if that is enough. I do have ideas and follow-through, and it is a relief to hear that a successful someone thinks that can be enough.

Thanks for your encouragement (albeit unknowing). And thanks for putting your experience out there on this blog - your posts are always concise, thoughtful, and thought-provoking. Untenured female faculty like me really appreciate it.

Janet Jeyapaul said...

I agree with you - all the points you mentioned are very important. i recently finished writing 3 grants in 4monts,getting collaborators and contractors was much fun after a very on bench type of postdocing..i think with age ..collaboration,communication and scientific diplomacy gets better..and more fun ..JJ (

Anonymous said...


There is no longer room for those people. We have one in my department who is about to not get tenure despite being brilliant -- far more so than myself. In this day and age there are 10 good applicants for every job, at least four of whom are described as 'great'. When one of those hasn't published much but everyone says they are great, well, so what? We just move on to another applicant.

Part of this is accountability. How can we convince the dean that Dr No Pubblish is really a serious academic? Having tons of great ideas and not using them isn't very, well, useful. You need to contribute to the acadamic community in a way which is transparent to outsiders.

When I look around my field I would say that the top 1/5 are very sharp and can get things done. The next 1/5 are sharp but are very good at getting ideas fleshed out and out the door. The rest are a mixture of less good and less organized -- there may be some geniuses near the bottom but no one down there is truly organized and efficient.

Drnjbmd said...

I have been refering my medicial students, both male and female, to your blog. You are totally correct in your assessment that many careers "sputter" when ideas are not produced and projects are not "followed through".

I used to tease my PI when I said that just because you had one idea doesn't mean that you won't ever have another one. When I am out in my daily run, I let my mind wander to new and different ways to aim at my projects. Works better than my MP-3 player!

Again, your blog is a link on my blog.

Anonymous said...

It's hard to get a good mix of these skills, isn't it? But I feel that whereas you can't force the generation of ideas, you can learn to get things done by experience.

I have a sister who is amazing at "getting things done" - she's a very efficient manager (with a great job at a commercial company) but she always follows established patterns, it's not in her character to try something really original.

In contrast, I'm the loony little sister, great with ideas but not so great on the follow-through. I like writing research papers well enough, but managing a project is not something I would ever have thought I'd be any good at. I do recognize the importance of getting things done, but it doesn't come naturally - I have to fight myself every inch of the way.

In spite of this weakness of mine, two years ago my thesis advisor gave me a major responsibility in writing a big grant application, then when we got it he entrusted me with the management of the scientific strategy, reporting and coordination of the various collaborating labs. It was really hard at first - and it's still not 'easy' - but I've learnt a lot as I went along, and now I feel I can "get things done", maybe not as smoothly as my dear sis would, but well enough that, if I keep at it and develop those skills further, I have a fighting chance of becoming a Science Professor myself someday :-)

Anonymous said...

So, what's easier to improve? Writing, or getting new ideas?

I personally find my mental blocks are lately all about lab-work. I just can't force myself to do it as efficiently as back in the day. Which I assume would be a good thing for a PI since not many of them do it anyways. Writing and making figures, I can do. Getting the last bit of data? It's always easier to push someone else than yourself.

And it's not always a guarantee that if you have ideas, that they are going to be good ones. That's always the dilemma here. There are plenty of ideas in my field. Most of them are great time wasters.

Anonymous said...

I'm definitely higher on the 2 than the 1. I only get things written through deadlines and by pretending I am writing drafts not anything that has to be submitted. Sending a manuscript off brings me none of the joy and relief other people talk about. It is painful and causes me great anxiety.

Has anyone got over it? I have heard about people who were terrible teachers becoming award-winning good, and about people who did not seem to have original ideas coming to carry productive research programs, if not earth-shattering ones, but I have never heard of someone getting over pathological self-handicapping masking as crippling perfectionism.

any wise words of advice?

Female Science Professor said...

If you're early in your career, I think there's hope that things will get easier for you with time. If you're more senior.. that's harder, but I still think there is hope.

Some of my students and postdocs have or had the same 'symptoms' you describe and it is definitely a struggle. I try to convince them that the first draft (or even the second or third) doesn't have to be perfect. It sounds like you are already doing that, with some success.

Do you have colleagues or others who can help you?

With my students and non-student colleagues who have trouble writing, we work as a team. We talk about the work, and this leads to an outline, and then to some text, and so on. Sometimes I type directly into a computer during our discussions, and then I read back what I've typed, and we work on it from there.

I have some colleagues/students who cannot sit alone in a room and write -- they are paralyzed by being alone with their word processing program. In these cases, we work in different locations -- lab, cafe, office -- alternating conversation and writing, and bit by bit the manuscripts get done.

I wish I could say that after a few of these experiences, these students/colleagues develop confidence, lose their crippling perfectionism, and become totally independent, but it isn't that easy or quick a process.

Anonymous said...

This is great. Maybe also good to note that making the new ideas come to fruition requires writing skills, grant writing skills, like janet said? Because the best ideas are feasible ones. I am about to complete my dissertation, so early in the game yet, and also have the curse of being a self-overprotective perfectionist especially when writing "real" papers. But I have found writing grant proposals to sharpen my skills and increase my enjoyment in scientific writing. Of course it helps when the reviewers approve of the idea, which did happen to me with a big proposal, a huge confidence booster. Now after a little practice, including a painful first 1st author pub and a few substantial proposals, I am finding writing and publishing the rest of the diss to be, well I'll say-- easier. Still room for improvement of course, but no longer painful and even sometimes fun (!).

It does seem that these skills (creativity, communication, finishing) are essential to most any occupation with responsibility, not just academia. If you know where your weaknesses lie it seems wiser to work on those skills rather than to wait for someone to complement them. And people in all sorts of settings have to write reports to show their productivity. I guess you can recognize 'roles' within academia or anywere else (eg. theoretician v data-producer v synthetic etc), all essential for achieving an ultimate goal (*advancing the science* or making a profit or any successful collaboration). But I think FSP is right, those individuals will be successful only if productive and creative within their role/niche, whether or not they're brilliant. Being relatively close to the student-taking-courses experience: kind of like that kid who you hated because he got straight A's without trying, but he graduated and now lives in his parents' basement?

Anonymous said...

So, even if you're not brilliant: if you are smart, can get things done, and can think of new things to do, you've got most of what it takes to be...

...successful in most any field of endeavor.

Outside of highly structured environments, intelligence and success only have a moderate correlation. In any case where you need to be self-directed to succeed, hard work will trump brains almost every time.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for your response. I'd hug you but that'd be girly ;)

I am very lucky I do have people who like me a lot and are willing to go out of their way to see me succeed, in ways that floor me a lot of the time. My advisor is a firm believer that everyone can change if they do the work it takes to bring change about, even though it may take a long time. She is always willing to read my drafts (even though I graduated over five years ago!) and is always there when I need her for anything you could possibly imagine. aw, now I want to hug her too!

I had forgotten about the place-of-writing issue. I wrote my disertation and turned it into a Very Long Paper in one of the main journals in my field, by changing locations every few weeks. I would literally get sweaty palms and do this weird thing where I would sit down, type two sentences, then get up, get some water/coffee/bathroom break/reference/etc, come back again, edit one of the sentences I had written and get up again. Repeat. So then I started working all around the place, the public library, the park, the lake, sometimes on my laptop, sometimes on notebooks or printouts. It was pretty torturous, but at least that way I was able to make progress.

Nowadays I get things done by staying up all night and writing when I'm tired enough to not care too much. It's not healthy or sustainable though.

I know, I'm a nutcase. I'd gladly give a few IQ points for the ability to read through galleys without having an anxiety attack!

gs said...

Diversification tends to reduce overall risk.

"A man's gotta know his limitations."

An intelligent investor should have the prudence to diversify her positions. A brilliant speculator may appropriately take a concentrated risk to obtain a big gain.

Brilliant speculators sometimes get wiped out. Intelligent investors rarely do.

(Most wipeouts are caused by overreaching, but only a small fraction involves brilliant overreaching.)

musafiremes said...

Female Science Professor,

You wrote about "getting things done" in research.

Sometimes, I feel that I'm never going to get my research project done as so many problems pop up in the interim. The light at the end of the tunnel seems to be receding further and further away. So, at such times, I believe setting up milestones can be beneficial (for non-brilliant ppl like me, hehe) - milestones on which one can publish some intermediate results.

It's also rather hard if one has several research projects at hand. Advice from you, if you'd like to bestow some, would be greatly appreciated, especially on the prospects of working on a different field on the sidelines during one's PhD program just in case one cannot find a job in the future within one's one field.

The prose beneath the title of your blog really does sound sobering to me...but it's good to hear about experiences from a female who has been through it all and has succeeded, and thus is able to be a contribution to her academic community in a substantial way.

Thanks in advance.

Anonymous said...

What about the class barrier?

I went to grad school in the Ivy League; the son of a carpenter. Almost all of the professors had parents that were professors. I just didn't fit in.

Maybe it's not so severe at a state school or public college, but it's a real issue.

The professoriat is looking for people like "themselves". People who are smart, able to get things done, and think about new ideas but who don't have the same class background just won't make it.