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Opinion: Success!

The astonishing secret to getting jobs, grants, papers, and happiness in biomedical research

By | December 21, 2010

I didn't notice at the time, but there was a point in my life when I more-or-less stopped asking successful scientists how they did it, and someone asked me. And while I offer neither evidence nor assertion that I am successful (indeed, I think I have a great way to go), the fact that I somehow can continue to do this, and occasionally be asked about it, might be regarded as a kind of success. There are some of us who mark success by tenure (a concept that serves as high comedy among my friends who are in business), "impact factor" (ditto), or the recognition of our peers (which is a wonderful thing, but not why I embarked on this career). But I'm going to go with the first definition: getting to do this thing we do, biomedical research, for now and for the foreseeable future.
Douglas Green

But like many of my closest colleagues, for a long time I felt like the farm boy Wesley, who was kidnapped by the Dread Pirate Roberts from the movie "The Princess Bride" (which, if you haven't seen, will be far more useful for your scientific career than anything I can offer here). Every day, Roberts would say "Goodnight, Wesley, I'll probably kill you in the morning." Wesley studied hard at swordsmanship and other piracy skills, and one day, when his captor retired, Wesley was given the ship and the title, and became the Dread Pirate Roberts himself. More or less, this is what happened to me, without the pirate part, and my mandate here is to try to tell those of you who may be looking for some success yourselves how you might do this, too. So here goes. If you are committed to this path, and want papers, grants, and employment for now and tomorrow, I can sum up in two words what it is that is asked of you, and really, everyone who works in science: Astonish us. That's it. (There is a maxim that says, "If it fits on a bumper sticker, it isn't true." While I generally ascribe to this, it does not apply in this particular case. That said, no, I do not have this on my car's bumper. It might encourage the wrong sort of driver.) Really. Look at it this way: When I have a great stack of grants to review, I know that only one in ten or so will likely be "F'ed". (On U.S. study sections, we are not allowed to say the word "Funded." Somewhat foolishly, we say "F'ed," and we know what it means. Such is the way of government. It also lightens the mood when we are reviewing grants. Of course, most proposals will be "F'ed," which in this context means "Not Funded.") But if in an astonishing proposal the data look compelling, if the approaches are sound, and if the experiments will most likely work, and in so doing possibly change my thinking about the universe (okay, my little corner of the universe) then it will move to the top of the stack. It has to. I have to do whatever I can to make sure it gets done. I hear a line of advice all the time that I can confidently tell you is nonsense. It goes like this: "In order to get your grant supported, it has to be letter perfect, with absolutely no mistakes, and every experiment you propose has to already be done." Don't believe this, it just ain't so. We get this advice from folks who don't get their grants supported (and hey, I've been there), who see nit-picky reviews that point out every little problem, no matter how trivial. Hence the advice. But this misses the subtext. A favored application has astonished the reviewers, who can be very forgiving about mistakes, chancy experiments, and the occasional missing control if they are convinced that the work has a real chance of affecting how we think about something important. So okay, you have to astonish us. And if you do this with what you propose, and if you follow through, great papers and a promising career will come in time. But how can you do this? Most likely, nothing in your training has ever prepared you for this challenge. Indeed, it sounds impossible. But here's the thing: Most of you, reading this, already know the answer. Sometime in your past, you read, saw, or heard something about the universe that astonished you, so much so that you simply needed to know more about it. And the more you learned, the more astonished you became. And this approach to knowing something amazing, which could not have been known by reason or belief or any other method, convinced you that however astonishing it all is, it is as close to "true" as we can get, in a way that satisfied you. Many people love to be astonished by all sorts of means, but this path to astonishment worked for you, and hopefully still does. It's why you became a scientist. The rest is relatively easy. The trick is for us to remember to apply this to our own research: Which avenues of investigation will lead us, not only to information that may be useful, but to something remarkable? Sure, much of what we do is not surprising, amazing, or astonishing, but has to be done anyway. But go beyond the drudgery?why do we need to spend time, energy, and resources to answer a question? Somewhere at the end of the Yellow Brick Road of your efforts there must be something wondrous you can envision. If not, follow another road. This is not salesmanship, branding, or trickery; it is not "grantsmanship." This is at the most fundamental core of what we do, as humans, following our evolutionarily selected impulses to explore our world, in this case with the technical and conceptual tools available to us as scientists. And there is a bonus as well. When we actually achieve our own moments of astonishment in our own research, however fleeting, these represent our real success. The sort of success we got into this to attain. The other kinds will follow, and we may not even notice. Douglas R. Green studies cell death and survival at the linkurl:Department of Immunology,;http://www.stjude.org/stjude/v/index.jsp?vgnextoid=cdb410e88ce70110VgnVCM1000001e0215acRCRD St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Memphis, TN. He recently wrote "Stress in biomedical research: Six impossible things," linkurl:Mol Cell,;http://www.cell.com/molecular-cell/abstract/S1097-2765%2810%2900783-5 40:176-178, 2010. He is also the author of linkurl:Means to an End: Apoptosis and Other Cell Death Mechanisms,;http://www.cshlpress.com/default.tpl?action=full&--eqskudatarq=884 available from Cold Spring Harbor Press. He is a member of the Faculty of Cell Biology at F1000. For his latest evaluations, linkurl:click here.;http://www.f1000.com/thefaculty/member/1782036998295682
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Keep it simple;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/57370/
[May 2010] *linkurl:Don't fight to be cited;http://www.the-scientist.com/2009/01/1/25/1/
[January 2009] *linkurl:NIH R01s: No longer the best science?;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/55930/
[September 2009]

Comments

Avatar of: DENNIS HAND

DENNIS HAND

Posts: 2

December 21, 2010

...have a good idea. What wasn't stated explicitly is that the proposal not only has to be sound and ground-breaking to the writer, but has to be interpreted by others to be just as exciting. Wowing your inner-circle of colleagues can be a lot easier than astonishing someone outside your field.
Avatar of: JEANNE LORING

JEANNE LORING

Posts: 4

December 21, 2010

Good ideas!\n\nIn the review of one of my major manuscripts, a reviewer called my tone "breathless" and told me to tone it down. I was actually flattered, but, yes, I toned it down. But now I make it a point to put just a little tinge of "breathlessness" in my grants and papers- not too much or that reviewer might catch me again...but just enough to show that I really am excited about these results or these proposed experiments.\n\nHaving reviewed a thousand or so grants, I found that I appreciated the ones that tried, at least, to lighten up the tedium of reviewing. A figure on every page..subtitles.. avoiding acryonyms...and, remarkably, right in the middle- a joke! I love it when grant writers do that.\n\nIf we expect anyone to be excited about our work, we have to be excited about it- a bit of that needs to come through in our writing.
Avatar of: Mike Waldrep

Mike Waldrep

Posts: 155

December 21, 2010

Interesting!
Avatar of: Michael Holloway

Michael Holloway

Posts: 55

December 21, 2010

"Douglas R. Green studies cell death and survival at the Department of Immunology, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, Memphis, TN."\n\nOf course, it helps to be at an institution with a huge amount of money.
Avatar of: DAVID KESSEL

DAVID KESSEL

Posts: 4

December 21, 2010

Doug has it right. It is necessary to excite the reviewers' curiosity. At the end of the review session, they need to be convinced that they have to support the work so as to find out what happens next. [It also helps to make the figures large enough to be read without microscopy].
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 107

December 22, 2010

I read maybe several hundred to a thousand papers a year, nearly all grant-supported. If I'm lucky, maybe 1 in 20 contains something unexpected -- OK, astonishing, if you have a low threshhold of astonishment. The other 95+% got funded for doing so-called "ordinary" or non-paradigm-shifting science. In other words most of the money is going to incremental science.\n\nIn my experience, the granting process is conservative. Recognition trumps novelty. Reviewers all come to the table with some sense of what the important problems are in their field, and they're going to be most attracted to proposals that attack recognized problems using well-tested methods. As an applicant, you need your reviewer to be able to take a look at your project and think, Oh yeah, I've heard about this, it's important. This requires some groundwork. Go to a lot of conferences and schmooze with the opinion makers in your field. You don't have to astonish them. Just make sure they know who you are and why your work is important.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 28

December 22, 2010

In my experience, the granting process is conservative(No! IF a reveiwer have 10 grants to review and would pick up 2 for high score. two of the two are persons in the circle; HIDDEN ROLE). Recognition trumps novelty (NOT really! IF SO, a new moleucle discoved should be funded regardless of how "bad" is the written application). Reviewers all come to the table with some sense of what the important problems are in their field, and they're going to be most attracted to proposals that attack recognized problems using well-tested methods (NO! 50% of the proposal are triaged! HOW? There are 5 categories of score. THIS is great! HOWEVER, overall impact score is not concordant with the category score? WHY? severing HIDDEN ROLES). As an applicant, you need your reviewer to be able to take a look at your project and think, Oh yeah, I've heard about this, it's important (How come? irresponbile for APPLICANTS but good for friends because not all applicants have chance to know a random reviewer). This requires some groundwork. Go to a lot of conferences and schmooze with the opinion makers in your field. You don't have to astonish them. Just make sure they know who you are and why your work is important (HIDDEN ROLE: just make a friend and invite them to your institute to give a lecutre).\n\nOVERALL comments: an example of curruption of scientific community!\n\n\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 28

December 22, 2010

"A favored application has astonished the reviewers, who can be very forgiving about mistakes, chancy experiments, and the occasional missing control if they are convinced that the work has a real chance of affecting how we think about something important". \n\nIn reality, this not works.\n\n\n\n\n\n
Avatar of: Ruchira Datta

Ruchira Datta

Posts: 1

January 18, 2011

That maxim, "If it fits on a bumper sticker, it's not true," fits on a bumper sticker.

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