Why aspiring academics should do less science


When one of us—John—started as an assistant professor, he was surprised at how much his day-to-day work differed from when he had been a trainee. He had known it would change, of course, but suddenly he found himself drawing on a totally different set of skills. He was no longer a researcher, but rather a project manager. Peering into a microscope, pipetting, and dissecting were replaced with grant writing, budgeting, and managing students.

This experience is common. Many who make that transition to principal investigator (PI) find themselves utterly unprepared for their new duties. Their training failed them in preparing for their real job! But it doesn’t have to be that way. Trainees can seek out opportunities to expand their skills and render themselves better prepared to lead a research program down the line. It means taking a little time away from research to develop additional expertise, but it’s a trade-off that’s well worth it. Here are our tips for getting started down that path.

Participate in grant writing. Another way to hone your grant-writing skills is to ask your supervisor whether you can help with their funding applications. Frame your request as both a learning exercise for you and as an offer to help them by taking some of the work off their plate. Although it may feel intimidating to contribute to your PI’s very important grant application, remember that there’s lots you can do that would be helpful, and that you may actually be the best person for the job because you are closest to the results. For example, if your supervisor asks you to provide data to support a funding application, offer to write a figure legend and contribute to the literature review relevant to those results. Regardless of the size of your contribution, it can be mutually beneficial.

Learn how money works. Funding crucially dictates the direction of research, but some trainees work on a project for years without knowing how it is funded, or how much funding is planned or available for the work. Don’t let that be you. Ask to help with—or at least see—how your PI keeps track of grant dollars. Look at budgets for research grants. Create a budget for your own research project. The more you learn about keeping track of grant dollars and navigating the details of inventory, ordering, shipping, and payment, the better off you’ll be when you start running your own research program.

Publish throughout your training. Publishing regularly not only builds your CV, but also improves your writing skills (necessary for grantsmanship, among other things). What many don’t realize is that you can start building your publication record even if you aren’t ready to submit your big paper. Consider publishing systematic reviews, narrative reviews, letters to the editor, and other commentaries as a way to work on your writing chops and expand your expertise. Doing so will also familiarize you with the journal submission process, which can be complicated—formatting for a specific journal, writing a cover letter, suggesting reviewers, and navigating the journal’s online submission system—but the more you do it, the easier it will get.

When serving as a supervisor, extend your mentorship beyond the basics. In addition to teaching your trainee how to perform techniques in the lab, provide rationale and background reading for their project, help them manage their time in the lab, and edit their work. Look for opportunities for them to present at a departmental or institutional research day, or—even better—at a conference in the field. Acting as a good mentor will serve both of you: They will have an enriching training experience, and their achievements will provide a valuable example of your ability to help coach someone to success. 

Gaining early experience in these important arenas will better prepare you for a career in academia, so if you are considering such a career, it’s important to take a little time away from research to develop these other skills as well. And as an added benefit, doing so can also provide a little variety to break up the monotony of doing lab work all day!

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