Wednesday, November 26, 2008

How to get ahead in academia

After years of bitter struggle, I finally have a toe--nay, a nailhold on terra firma (i.e., I've been in a tenure-track job for about three months), so naturally the ego-bubble has risen straight to the cranial vacuity and I now feel secure enough to rotate 180 and shower my opinions on the masses of grad students, postdocs, and adjuncts who are still dragging their intestines up the jagged slopes of Mount Employable. So listen up.

5. Give good, memorable talks.
I have given, lessee, eight posters at SVP. I reckon that each one ate up about four times as much time and effort as any talk I've ever given, including my hour-long job talk. And I still get the occasional compliment for talks I gave years ago. If you're just trying to convey data then posters are probably just as good or better than talks, but this post isn't about conveying data. It's about getting ahead, and that means not just conveying data but getting yourself recognized as a competent, confident conveyor of results. Give a poster or two to get your feet wet but then switch over to talks and don't look back. Use the time you save to write more papers.

I won't waste your time with a lot of specifics about what makes a good talk. Go see a few and you'll quickly figure it out. The best talks make you feel smarter by helping you figure out something that you didn't know before, or possibly that no one knew before the talk started. They are packed with content and arresting images. I don't have tons of data in the numbers-and-statistics sense; I'm a morphologist. So my talks are crammed with anatomy, pictures of real animals and their parts, as much as I think I can get away with. Not horribly complicated stuff that looks like wiring diagrams, mostly gee-whiz stuff that does double duty by both (a) telling the necessary story and (b) hopefully blowing people's minds just a little. Whatever you've got, deploy it to maximum effect: hopefully just one and never more than four big, easy-to-read images (per slide) that fill the available space. Now is not the time for your avant-garde experiment in the esthetics of negative space. Beat 'em to death with pictures. Just not too many at one time.

Also, don't waste any of your finite space with some cool-looking PowerPoint theme or school emblem or research group logo on every slide. That's your space that you're using to basically brand your talk as someone else's. If you are hell-bent on using that Nike crap at all, put it on the title slide and never bring it up again.

4. Write papers that people want to read.
You probably think that's about subject matter, but it's not. It's about presentation. Richard Fortey got me to choke down several chapters on Precambrian algal slime mats and like it (in the book Life) because he made me care. The bottom line is, if you can make your audience care, you can tell them about whatever you want, no matter how esoteric or superficially uninteresting. And if you can't, all of the venomous feathered coelocanths in Liaoning won't save you.

Easy, right? But how do you make people care about worm tracks or the third principal component of variation in embryonic rat skulls? The answer is two-pronged: harness your own enthusiasm (and if there's none to harness, work on something else), and explain how your results are relevant to something that others care about. I know I theoretically have an advantage here because I work on a sexy system in sexy animals, but I have seen loads of sauropod talks and megatons of dinosaur talks and they suck about as much as all other talks, on average. And I have myself given talks that sucked, talks where I know I lost half the audience because they got up and left before I was halfway through (not at SVP, thankfully, but it was no less painful when it happened). I may tell that whole sordid tale here another time, but the upshot was that I forgot my guiding principles and led the audience into a swamp of irrelevant detail, and they promptly marched back out--right out the damn door. The fulcrum here is 'irrelevant', as in to whom? That swamp of detail looked like a garden of delights to me, but I was the one giving the talk, not an audience member suffering through it, and I got the perspective exactly wrong. Put yourself in your audience's shoes and act accordingly (or get used to failure).

3. Produce a lot.
Give lots of talks and write a lot. I didn't say "write lots of papers" because other kinds of writing can be just as useful for developing your abilities.

But this is not some b.s. peptalk about how writing and speaking a lot will help you pick out what works and incorporate those golden devices into some special personal toolbox that floats in the Realm of Ideas and is lined with the down of unborn swans. When I give a talk that I know works, I go have a beer and rarely give it another thought (seriously, and for reasons that will shortly be explained). The point of giving lots of talks and writing for others is to increase your n, which will increase your number of failures. If it doesn't, it doesn't mean you aren't failing--either your friends are too chicken to tell you that you sucked, or you are too dim to perceive it. And if you have the courage and humility to poke through the wreckage and figure out why you failed, you will actually learn something useful. Mostly more humility, but also real nuts-and-bolts stuff that will make your future efforts better. It's not that success can't teach you, it just isn't a very good motivator (hence my post-victory beer and forgetting). You will learn a lot more from a punch in the nuts than from a pat on the back. Mostly, you'll learn how to avoid getting punched in the nuts. If it happens enough times, you'll either get better or quit.

2. Consume a lot.
Watch lots of talks, and read lots of papers. I would say "especially bad ones" but the world being what it is, you'll get more of those than the good stuff anyway. Every time you find yourself staving off slumber in a talk or wishing the author would jettison the circumlocution, jargon, and superfluous adverbs and get to the damn point, you are learning what not to do in your own work. And every time you bounce out of a talk or put down a paper with a little edifice of understanding newly erected in your head, you are learning how to grab your audience and actually teach them something meaningful and useful. Talks outside your subject area are especially helpful because they help you dissociate the good and bad habits from your enthusiasm for whatever it is you work on. As for papers outside your subject area--I'm assuming that you, like me, don't have time to read the papers within your subject area, so let's not fool around. But all of the reading that you do--novels, comics, monthly progress reports--has the potential to teach you what to do and what to avoid. He who has ears, let him hear.

1. Teach.
This the meta-advice hiding behind everything else. Teach. Teach a lot. Teach your ass off. Every time you get up to give a lecture or a demonstration, that's a little talk. Every time you write an outline or lab handout, that's a little paper. Nothing else will pump up your n the same way, and give you so many exhilarating successes and crushing failures from which to learn.

Even in the classes closest to your heart you will have to teach about stuff that you don't particularly care about or like, and once you've gotten a room full of freshmen to pay attention through DNA methylation, getting a lecture hall full of your peers to care about your research will be easier. Not easy. But easier.

Other than maybe collecting and cranking your data (and sometimes even then), everything you do in academia (and in lots of other aspects of life) boils down to effective communication. That means empathizing with your audience, meeting them on their level (whever that may be), figuring out how to make what you have to say relevant and interesting to them, and never wasting their time. It does not mean dumbing down your message, pandering to their expectations, or especially deciding that "you don't need to know that" when the slide is already up on the screen. It doesn't mean meeting them halfway. Frequently it means going all the way over to them--and then slamming a hook through their mouths and dragging them all the way back to your side, so you can teach them. I'm guessing that you've been hooked that way at least once in your life, so you know it can be done.

It is conceivable that there is a better way to learn how to communicate effectively than to teach a lot, but I don't know what that might be. It would have to involve talking and writing for lots of groups of people and offer lots of opportunities for both success and failure, so whatever you called it, it would probably look and smell a lot like teaching. From what I've seen, the people who teach early and often give better talks, write better papers, do better on their qualifying exams, produce better theses and defend them more successfully, and score better positions than those who don't. All too often the people who are looking to give you an award, grant, or job just look at your research and publication record and assume that teaching will handle itself. What you had better realize is that teaching will not handle itself, but if you can get a handle on it, you can elevate your entire game--and get ahead.

Realize I am not speaking from any position of sinlessness here. There are talks that I would ungive, and papers that I would not just rewrite but unwrite. Evolution is a process of killing off the unfit, science is a process of falsifying hypotheses, and presenting is an attempt to avoid failure. Hewing to a progressive ideal sounds nice but avoiding the Reaper is more profitable in the long run.

That may sound overly grim, or pessimistic, or like a glass-is-half-empty matter of taste. It's not. If you don't allow at least some part of your brain to consider the possibility that all of your work sucks and then let it do triage to find and remove the suckiest parts, you won't push yourself hard enough to be as good as you could be.

But also, if you don't allow some other part of your brain to exult in your successes and recognize your own awesomeness without any contamination from false modesty, you will be miserable and you'll never dare enough to be as good as you could be.

Now, go forth and rock.

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Blogger Mike Taylor said...

Oh, really? So which papers would you unwrite?

7:42 AM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

Instead of answering your question, I'd like to take this opportunity to talk straight to the American public:

Turkey is good, isn't it? My favorite part is the skin. I've often wondered if we could get some Shar Pei genes into poultry so we could have more tasty, crispy skin per bird. That ought to be goal numero dos for geneticists, right after cloning a mammoth.

Hat tip to Sarah Palin.

9:07 AM  
Blogger 220mya said...

Amen, brother.

Two comments:

1) I think the best way to see a bunch of talks that span the range from hide-your-head bad to blindingly awesome is to get your butt up early and sit through the entire Romer Prize session at SVP. This is the best 4 hours you'll spend watching talks at SVP. I've consistently seen the best talks of the conference at the Romer Prize session, and I've also seen all the classic miss-steps that you mention.

2. Don't just give lots of talks - give lots of talks to different audiences. For my job interview, I had to give a technical talk and a talk geared to a general public audience. It was really hard to write the general talk because although I'd given tons of talks to my scientific peers, I hadn't given many talks to the public, and didn't know how to craft such a talk.

11:55 AM  
Blogger Sarah Werning said...

I would like to chat about the papers you would unwrite, but unlike Mike, I would sweeten the deal with beers.

10:36 AM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

Geez, I write this whole thing on how to be brilliant, and all anyone wants to talk about are my alleged failures.

Bribing me with beer will get you a lot farther than a tart, "Oh, really?", though. Shame Mike didn't think of that, since beer makes up about 97% of his caloric intake. Normally that would make someone a drunk, but not him. He loathes drunkenness, in himself or anyone else, and hasn't been really sloshed in living memory. He just likes beer.

Does that answer your question?

10:59 AM  
Blogger Mike Taylor said...

So, Randy and Sarah -- since Matt won't comment, I think the only rational way for us to proceed is to discuss among ourselves which of his publications are mistakes. So ... the bunch of crap in Acta Palaontogogia Polonica would be the first candidate. Any more offers?

5:48 AM  
Blogger Zachary Miller said...

Good stuff here, Matt. Thanks for the tips. Now here's a question for you: does all this also apply to non-academic enthusiasts?

12:22 PM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

Yep. Everyone, everywhere, benefits from becoming a better communicator. Doesn't matter if you are a teacher, sculptor, plumber, accountant, defense analyst, carpenter, electrician, auto mechanic, farmer, fighter pilot, er wot. The biggest difference is that for some occupations better communication skills merely help a lot, whereas for others they are a matter of life and death.

So the specific advice--about how to structure talks, for example--may not be useful for everyone, but the general point ought to be.

Last summer our air conditioner broke down. The repairman who fixed it was a marvel. He not only got the machine running, he took me through the whole house and explained how the ventilation system worked, how opening and shutting doors affected airflow through the system, how filters help or don't, how the system works under different temperatures.... It was amazing. It was like getting a one hour crash course in how to manage home ventilation. The dude was just a good teacher, period. Fortunately for me we had to wait for the coils to thaw out anyway, so he had the time to tell me all that stuff.

If I can teach anatomy to my students as effectively as that dude taught me about air conditioning, I will be happy indeed.

Now, learning how a ventilation system works may sound like the least interesting thing on the planet. I certainly wouldn't have rated it very high before that evening. But that's the point I hammer in the post: ANY subject can be made interesting by someone with knowledge and enthusiasm. The flip side is that any subject can be made boring by someone who either doesn't know the material or doesn't know how to present it (or both). The battle is to become a better communicator, to gain the ability to transmit understanding, and there is always room for improvement.

12:35 PM  

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