Tuesday, March 17, 2020
“Keep Your Job, Ken!” Part 2: Research
by Professor Kenneth Hanson, Florida State University
In my last post, I focused on the transition between being a postdoc and professor. In this post—the second in the “Keep Your Job, Ken!” series—I share my thoughts on choosing a research direction and advice for short- and long-term success.
1) While it helped you get the job, you don’t have to pursue the research you proposed. Maybe between the interview and the start date you get scooped, or learn why your proposal won’t work, or become interested in a new area of research. Either way, you have a lot of flexibility. Once your startup account is set up the funds are largely unrestricted and no one is keeping track of what you spend it on (at least within reason. i.e. don’t try to buy a trampoline). You were also likely hired based on who you are as a person and the general area you work/teach in. Very few of your colleagues will remember your proposals and those that do will most likely have no strong opinions regarding whether you pursue them or not.
2) Make sure to clearly differentiate yourself from your graduate and postdoc advisors. We spend several years of our graduate and postdoc careers becoming an expert in a particular area. It can therefore be exceptionally easy to stay in that groove and continue on. However, I strongly recommend avoiding the trap of postdoc 2.0. That is, if your first pursuit as an independent researcher is a natural continuation of your postdoc work (i.e the first paper you publish independently could also have been the next paper in your post doc), don’t do it. It would technically be an independent publication but the community at large will very likely not consider it to be original work. You need to carve out your own research identity. In fact, many of the young investigator grants (i.e. NSF-CAREER, ACS-PRF NDI, and others) ask reviewers to comment on how the proposed work relates to a candidate’s previous advisor. Even for some non-young investigator grants that didn’t ask this specific question I’ve seen reviewers’ comment on the relationship of the work to my postdoc and grad advisors. This question is clearly on people’s minds and if your work is too similar then it can be a death knell for your proposal. Ask yourself, if I was going to fund a project or invite a speaker, why wouldn’t I go with the person who started the work rather than the person continuing it? I completely understand the appeal of low hanging fruit and easy papers but this time and effort could be better invested in producing preliminary results for a unique pursuit and fundable proposal. There is a blurry line between being too similar, being independent, and deviating too far (see point 4). Here’s an activity you can do to help assess your own trajectory towards differentiation: list the titles of your postdoc papers and then, next to it, the title of your proposed paper(s). If a member of your field could not differentiate your paper from those produced under your previous advisor they are too similar.
3) Work to define your niche in the community at large. While minimizing your overlap with previous advisors, you also want to make sure you’re not mirroring someone else in your field. Ideally, your work should be unique enough to be cited in another person’s paper as a notable step forward (i.e. Dr. Doe et al. showed that…) and not just in the list of publications. When you write a proposal you want reviewers to see you as uniquely positioned to pursue the project. Also, when your tenure letters come in, you want them to read “Dr. Jane Doe is the world’s foremost expert at X.” The more encompassing X is, the more impactful the statement is. You don’t want it to say, “Prof. Jane Doe expanded/improved on the work of person Z.”
4) Balance high risk, high reward projects with guaranteed projects. We all dream of, and sometimes get, those coveted Science and Nature papers. But they are hard to come by. In addition to impact, the total number of papers also matters for grants, awards, and tenure. Therefore, it is risky to put all your eggs in one or two precarious baskets. Those projects/ideas are worth pursuing but should be supplemented by projects that are basically guaranteed to result in a publication. Studies that systematical vary one or two parameters (e.g. solvent, sterics, instrument setting/components, etc.) can be a bit tedious but can also provide a foundation for yours and others’ future work. These manuscripts will typically not land in JACS or Chem. Sci., but they are guaranteed a publication in more specialized journals. Also, depending on the topic, it may accidentally be one of your higher cited papers. For example, my postdoctoral JACS article on a new bisphosphonate decomposition mechanism has 8 citations but my JPC C article that systematically varies surface bound phosphonated dyes has over 100 citations. As a side bonus, these projects can serve as rigorous and systematic training for your graduate and undergraduate students and boost their proficiency at a particular set of measurements, procedures, and/or reactions.
5) Try not to wear yourself too thin. You no doubt have many good ideas and projects that are worth pursuing. That is part of the reason we chose this job: We are in love with our own ideas and want the flexibility and freedom to pursue them. However, time and resources are limited. Just like in warfare, a concerted front may be better than a diffused attack. Focused research helps produce a solid foundation of preliminary results necessary for a proposal. It also helps carves out a niche that can get you invited talks at specialized conferences. As a bonus, a focused effort gives you a good story rather than a gathering of factoids to tell during your tenure tour and departmental seminar. With all of that said, I am a bit of a hypocrite for advocating for focused research because we have published work in controlling interfacial electron transfer, photon upconversion, photochemical separations, and enantioselective excited state proton transfer. Not exactly the most focused of research efforts. I wouldn’t say I regret any of our work but it might have been more effective to narrow our focus a little bit. I think the take home message I’m trying to get at is that there has to be a balance between putting all your eggs in one basket and becoming too diversified.
6) Collaborate…or don’t. I have received mixed feedback on the subject of collaborations before tenure. Some are strongly opposed to it. Others don’t care. The best path is probably somewhere in between. The advice I ended up following was to collaborate as much as I wanted as long as I had an independent research pursuit and/or it was easy for an external viewer to delineate my contributions. For our photon upconversion and excited state proton transfer work, for example, we had almost no collaborators prior to tenure. But I also had a number of collaborative papers where my contribution—providing photophysical support—was obvious.
7) Make the transition out of lab as quickly as possible. For the first year or so there is no question that you will be the best postdoc you could ever ask for. Given your experience and expertise you can hammer out a few papers very quickly and with minimal effort. However, this is a short-term strategy. It is only a matter of time, usually around year 3, before other responsibilities (i.e. committee duties, proposal writing, teaching, etc.) will force you to significantly cut down or eliminate lab time. Therefore, it is important to spend that initial lab time training students and making them self-sufficient as quickly as possible. In line with the proverb "If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together." This is hard to do because it requires us to step back and watch our students struggle and make mistakes as they learn. Progress will start slow, but it will be worth it in the long run, especially considering the students you train will then go on to train the next generation of graduate students. Also, the sooner you trust your students and let go of lab work, the sooner you can dedicate yourself to writing proposals.