Tuesday, April 7, 2020
“Keep Your Job, Ken!” Part 5: Gaining Prominence
by Professor Kenneth Hanson, Florida State University
The next post in my “Keep Your Job, Ken!" series focuses on gaining prominence and brand recognition. Having your name and independent research recognized by others is pivotal for getting speaking/journal invitations, funding, awards, and ultimately positive tenure letters. Some prominence as a graduate student and postdoc as well as having a bunch of prior co-workers in academia helps but it is still important to generate an independent identity and brand. Below are some of the strategies I employed and/or stumbled upon to develop the Hanson Research Group brand.
1) Prioritize small, topic specific conferences over large ones. Your travel funds are limited so it is important to pick and choose conferences wisely. Don’t rely exclusively on ACS, MRS, APS, or other large meetings to gain prominence. Given their size and diversity, they are very good for catching up with people you already know, but difficult to really get to know someone new. And if we are going to be honest, unless you are involved in a special/invited session or you follow a giant in your field, there are usually less than 20 people in the room for your presentation. On the other hand, smaller conferences like a Gordon conference give you no choice but to spend time with the same group of people for a week. It is amazing how many people you get to know in that span of time. Even if you are only presenting a poster you will likely get a lot of foot traffic and questions since almost everyone is in your field. And, best case scenario, at some conferences the best posters are selected for short talks later in the week which can further boost your visibility.
2) In line with the previous comment, find the appropriate community and embed yourself in it. That is, regardless of your previous research, find and attend the topic specific conferences that encompass the area of science you anticipate you will be known for. For me I went from primarily OLEDs and OPVs in grad school, to solar fuels and catalysis as a postdoc, to primarily molecular photochemistry/ photophysics at interfaces as a PI. As such, my community changed from the Solar Fuels GRC and Optical Society of America meetings to the Photochemistry GRC, Inter-American Photochemical Society meeting, and the Symposium on Singlet Fission and Photon Fusion. There is some degree of overlap in each but there is a distinct demographic change between the Solar Fuels and the Photochemistry GRC. That demographic change is important because it increases the likelihood that you will meet potential reviewers, collaborators, editors, program officers, and tenure letter writers. If you are lucky, like me, the community and a few key senior members/organizers in particular will welcome you in and support your early career aspirations. Speaking of which, I want to take a second to express special thanks to Phil, Jim, Jerry, Claudia, Jeff, Malcom, Maria, Kirk, Tehshik, Tim, Nobuo, and others.
3) Organize topic specific sessions where you decide the invitees. Instead of going to your community, organize an event that brings your community to you. I would not recommend organizing a new conference from scratch because that is an enormous amount of work. Instead, focus on organizing a specific session at an already existing conference like the ACS or MRS meetings. These larger conferences give you the opportunity to submit a proposal for topical sessions. I am not sure what the exact success rate is but based on anecdote, if you submit a solid proposal on time they are usually approved. Note that the submission deadline is typically one year before the conference, so you have to get on top of it early. For me the timing worked out such that I was able to organize a special symposium to celebrate the 75th birthday of my postdoc advisor, Thomas J. Meyer, at the Fall 2016 ACS National Meeting. I was able to invite many of his academic children and grandchildren as well as others who are giants in my field. I am confident that at least half my tenure letter writers were in that room. As a bonus, some of these invites returned the favor and invited me to their symposia.
4) Invite potential tenure letter writers to give a departmental seminar. One of the best ways to get to know the giants in your field is to invite them to give a seminar. As host of their visit you can coordinate the schedule to maximize your and your students time with them (e.g. lunch, dinner, meetings, etc.). It is also a great opportunity to raise the profile of your colleagues and the department in general. As far as I know, it is a fairly standard practice for most departments to prioritize the junior faculty invites. If not, talk to your seminar organizers to see if there is room in the budget. If not, and if it is allowed, it might be worth spending some startup funds on bringing in your own speaker. One important note: contact speakers early. I recommend one year in advance because their schedules tend to fill up quickly.
5) Find your university PR office and make friends with them. The popular science news stories we regularly see in C&EN, reddit, Scientific News, etc. are rarely due to journalists perusing primary literature. Instead they rely on university press releases to filter out interesting content. Basically, a professor contacts the university PR office and tells them about their new paper. One of the communications people will then work with the professor to write an article or do a radio/TV interview that translates the science into layman’s terms. The PR office then releases the story on a shared feed that is accessed by news agencies everywhere. Hopefully, someone picks up the story. While the press release is not a critical part of the job, it does help increase your visibility and brand recognition. This is particularly true at a university level where they love to share news with alumni and donors. Any attention you can bring will work in your favor with the upper administration in terms of future tenure decisions, cost shares, equipment requests, and more.
On a professional front, while some of your contemporaries may have seen the manuscript, others may not have. If they randomly come across and read a press release about your article it can only help to increase the manuscript’s (and your) visibility. It also gives you another excuse to tweet, link, post, and share your science. While it may not make a huge difference, there is something to be said about attrition in the name-brand recognition game. McDonalds does not spend millions on advertising because there is a concern that no one knows who they are. Instead, they spend the money to keep their brand at the forefront of people’s minds. On the funding front, program officers generally like press releases too. If the story gets attention it indicates that the area of research is popular even among the general public. While the program officer may pull the local purse strings, they ultimately must answer to their bosses who are most likely politicians or business people who are the target audience of these types of press releases. It makes their lives easier when popular media helps justify why their program funding choices are important.
While we have not made it onto CNN yet, our group has been relatively successful with a few of our press releases (Thanks Kathleen!). With that said I have no hard evidence that any of this really matters. But what I can say is that at least one person I have not talked to since my undergrad 15 years ago contacted me because of a press release, which was a fun surprise. One caveat with the press release game is that you must be careful with what you say and how you say it. We have all seen how bastardized some science news can be (i.e. “We cured cancer again!”). Sometimes it is our fault but often it comes down to the difficulty of balancing between selling and overselling an innovation. If you work closely with the communications person, and insist on approving the final release, you can do your best to combat over-sensationalism. However, as we unfortunately learned, sometimes it is out of your control. We did a press release on our metal ion linked, upconversion solar cell. In it we worked closely with Kathleen to make it clear that this was not an efficient solar cell but a new solar energy harvesting mechanism. It didn’t matter. One day later Paul Buckley from the eeNews proudly proclaimed that a “Light Trapping Innovation Lifts Solar Cell Efficiency To 45 Percent.” That title was ~6 orders of magnitude off of the real efficiency numbers. On the plus side, it did get us some additional visibility and made for a great joke during my seminar presentations.
6) Figure out if your university or department offers any additional travel funds. Obviously, the more conferences you go to the greater your visibility. However, the cost of flights, hotels, and registration fees can add up very quickly, so it doesn’t hurt to search for additional funding opportunities. Even if it is only a small amount any non-zero support is worth it. Your university and/or department may have formal or informal mechanisms for supporting travel to conferences, national labs, or even Washington, DC to talk with program officers. Regarding the latter, I have heard mixed opinions about traveling to meet with program officers. I have visited program officers twice in the last 6 years, once as the intended trip and once as a side trip during a conference in DC. I honestly don’t know if it “worked” any better than a phone call. In fact, some of the people I met with were no longer program officers by the time I applied the next cycle. With that said, I want to imagine that an in-person visit is more memorable than a phone call and, at the very least, they have a face to picture when writing the rejection email.
On a related note, take advantage of graduate and postdoc travel awards provided by the university, department, or conference. It helps increase both your and the students visibility and every bit of funding/recognition helps.
7) Don’t be shy about asking for invites. I have heard mixed opinions about ‘tenure tours’ or the accumulation of invitations to give seminars at various universities prior to submitting a tenure package. Many universities like FSU offer a semester of teaching release for these types of travels, typically shortly before going up for tenure. Some senior colleagues insist that the tenure tour is important while others don’t really care. As usual the best answer is probably somewhere in between. I liked it because it gave me the opportunity to visit universities that I had never been to before. At the very least I would try to visit institutions with potential tenure letter writers for the same reasons described in point 4.
If you need or would like to get a bunch of invites on your CV, don’t be afraid to ask for them. Reach out to people you know and ask “Is there any chance you are willing to host a visit for my tenure tour?” The responses I received were overwhelmingly ‘yes’ with some even offering to set me up with additional local universities. The costs were also almost always covered by the host institutions. The key to getting a positive response, I think, is to contact everyone a year early when their schedule is still open. Starting early will also help when seeking to schedule multiple universities in one visit. For example, I visited UCLA, USC, UC-Riverside, and Caltech all in the same week which helped to consolidate time and flight costs to the institutions. The multi-institution trips were exhausting and also prompted flashbacks to the intensive two-day interview process but I have zero regrets.
Based on a number of tenure tours I have seen pass through FSU I have two major pieces of advice for the actual presentation. The first is to wait until you have enough results to fill 50 minutes. There is usually an obvious difference between 2nd-3rd year and 4th-5th year assistant professors’ presentations with the former focused primarily on methods and data and the latter talking about results and their implications. The former is reminiscent of a grad student or postdoc presentation and the latter is what you would expect from a professor. Since you only have one chance to make a first impression, I think it is very much worth waiting until you have a solid research foundation before giving a 50 min presentation. The second piece of advice is to tell a good story. Too often I see assistant professors insist on sharing everything they have done in their labs over the past 5 years. I think they’re seeking to show how productive they are but it often comes across as a forgettable scattershot of results followed by an uncomfortable lack of questions because no one knows what is going on. By far the best and most memorable presentations I have seen are those that take the audience on a journey through the research by providing a solid background, a rationale for the research, an explanation of experiments, and insightful conclusions. One way to develop this type of talk is by targeting, not the experts in the room, but those who will need more of the foundational aspects rather than the details you would give at a specialized conference.