It's mailbag time, folks! This email comes from a post-doc who's just about ready to fly the coop, and when I read the question within, I absolutely had to answer it on the blog. It's one I imagine many, many of you are also thinking about, and that is SO important if you're looking to land a faculty job--how do you create a unique science identity for yourself ? Our reader writes:
Hi Dr. Becca,
I've enjoyed your blog ever since someone forwarded me a link to your
post about giving a good talk. I've appreciated your insight and
humor, and all of the advice links too (I also love cocktails so your
blog is kind of perfect). I am currently in my second post-doc
position, which isn't uncommon in my field, and plugging along -
trying to do all those things I'm supposed to (get manuscripts
published, writing grants, mentoring students). This past winter, I
had two phone interviews, one of which led to an on-site interview,
for which I am still waiting for final news. So, I feel like I am
competitive for the type of job I want (a teaching/research mix,
primarily working with undergrads). However, I feel like I am still
struggling to form a cohesive scientific "identity" for myself (I
don't know what else to call it). As I've moved from lab to lab, I've
worked in different systems, and although I can see a cohesive
theoretical framework for why I have worked on the questions that I
have, it is still hard to fit them together in a way that makes sense
sometimes. I am also not sure if I should be doing something right
now, as a post-doc, to make things be "mine" more. I feel like I am
putting my all towards the project that is paying my salary (a grant
received before I arrived), and making creative contributions to it,
but I don't know how to start my own thing without spreading myself
Anyways, is this something you've given much thought to? I don't worry
about it too much, but then someone will ask me something like "so are
you developing a model system that you will be able to bring with you
when you leave?" or "will you be bringing any grant money with you?"
(at the job interview - my answer was no) that makes me feel terribly
OK, first: my blog is kind of perfect!!!
Second: Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! You need a scientific identity. One of the things that not just faculty hiring committees, but also study sections and award selection committees are looking for is that you are an independent investigator who, if given a lab of your own, will be able to start a whole new line (or several lines) of research that is separate from the work of your mentors. Now, this doesn't necessarily mean that you can't be using the techniques that you learned during your training, or studying the same model system, or even asking related questions. But you must be able to show that you can take what you've learned and do something fresh and new with it.
But how do you go about getting that identity? My experience is that it can happen in a couple of different ways. Most commonly, you have an open and honest conversation with your PI about what ideas you can take with you. In other words, he or she may agree to let your project, or parts of your project go, and it's up to you to build a research program around that. I highly recommend having this conversation sooner rather than later--meaning, before you even start applying for faculty jobs. Your research statement will be the best it can be if it's clear you have a direction and purpose to your work that is yours and yours alone.
Alternately, it may be the case that your project has more or less been yours from the beginning. In grad school, my thesis project was a little side extension of the primary work that was going on in my lab, and my advisor kept talking about how I was carving a niche for myself, but I was so clueless I didn't really understand why she was pointing this out to me. My post-doctoral work was also a bit of a tangent, and my PI was more than happy to let me run with it. As he often liked to joke when presenting my data at a talk, if I'd known what a monstrous pain in the ass my project would be going in, I never would have done it in the first place (not true, but it really was a painful beast).
The bottom line is this: when people ask you what your research program is, it's not enough to list the projects you're on. Find a common theme in the work you've done, build it up a little, and then mold it--add a little here, trim there, fluff this bit out, etc--until it's yours. This is the fun part! You've been in science a while now, what do you love the most? What questions would you answer tomorrow if you walked into a fully equipped, staffed, and stocked lab? Who do you want to be when you grow up?