Your science identity

May 02 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

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
too thin.

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?


18 responses so far

  • drugmonkey says:

    This advice is not just for postdocs. The process of having an identity (or several) continues throughout your career. It morphs. As you go on, you should have the past-5yr identity, the past-10yrs identity and (maybe) a career identity.

  • sciwo says:

    If you work it carefully, having a "cohesive theoretical framework" for your identity can work. I've worked on really diverse topics (model systems?) between my PhD and now, but I've found that I can unite them by bringing them under an umbrella question when I need to. On a day to day basis, I still feel quite scattered, and some people know only one part of my work while others know me entirely from another part. But for the purposes of job applications/tenure documentation/etc., I can show how these fit an overarching theme of research. And it seems to be working for me. Good luck!

  • Namnezia says:

    You could always be the "dude that wears the big cowboy hat to meetings".

  • odyssey says:

    What DM said. Yes, it's important to have a science identity. Very important. You want to be recognized for something (hopefully in a good way). But it's also important to realize that your science identity will, and should, evolve. Mine is now very different to the one I started TT with.

  • Bashir says:

    My problem is that my work isnt firmly in one area or another. It could pitch it three or four ways by changing the emphasis. The good thing is that i can fit in a lot of places. The bad thing is i might not fit perfectly in any one area. X departments think i am too Y, Y departments think I am too X. I feel like i have a strong identity but have to do a little extra work in conveying that.

  • EarlyToBed says:

    Definitely my science ID is organic and evolving. Sometimes I just work on things that I think are interesting, and then worry later about how they fit in to a bigger picture. Sometimes I have a big question, and try to do a small part of it. I try not to be too rigid about my scientific identity. But I do try to spend a lot of time explaining what I do and why I think it's interesting and important and developing connections among ideas and people.

  • Matt Shipman says:

    Not to sound overly public-relationsy, but it is often about "branding" yourself and your work. These are general guidelines, and may not work for everyone, but it's a conversational jumping-off point.

    Step 1: What is interesting/important/different about your work, and/or the way you approach your work? E.g., if you are a materials scientist who works on nitride semiconductors, what makes you different from other materials scientists who work on nitride semiconductors? If you can answer these questions for yourself, you are more than halfway home.

    As has already been said, this will likely change over time -- because the work that you do will change over time. Your understanding of the subject will (one hopes) evolve as you learn more. Over the course of a career, new findings from many quarters may well emerge that will change the landscape of the field itself. So, you change, your brand (or identity) changes with it. That's okay. Being static often means being left behind.

    And Bashir is also correct: how you choose to present yourself does affect the way that you are perceived. This means that it is important to ask yourself what you want. Creating an "identity" (as you are perceived, not self-identity, which a whole other issue) is about communication. And the first step towards successful communication is...

    Step 2: figuring out what your communication goals are. E.g., your communication goal for a journal article is (presumably) to clearly explain your research and findings to an educated audience that is already interested in the subject matter.

    Your professional identity, on the other hand, is more complicated -- so you have to answer lots of questions: What will help me land a job (that I want)? What will help me get funding? What will help me draw grad students? What will help me get tenure? Etc. The number of questions, and how you weight their importance, will vary from individual to individual. But asking yourself those questions is a good start.

    Step 3: How can you begin taking steps to establish this identity once you figure out what you want it to be (short of printing business cards that say: [NAME], intellectual badass)? Alas, there are no fixed rules for this, and a lot of it is a mixture of common sense and taking advantage of opportunities as they present themselves. E.g., if you want to focus on a relatively specific niche within a given research community, it would make sense to inject yourself into the community in any way possible: conferences, online dialogue, publishing in relevant journals, reaching out to leaders in the field (assuming they're not complete jerkfaces), etc.

    Social media can also help you broadcast your identity. If done well, it's a useful tool. If done poorly, it might actually hurt you (e.g., posting rambling, misspelled diatribes=not awesome). I wrote a little bit about that here:

    And...this comment is ridiculously long, so I'm cutting myself off.

  • I've never sought to establish an identity - as said in previous comments, it evolves from the research that is conducted, and also the manner in which it is conducted (technically and socially). But as well as thinking about where gaps in research intersect with personal interests, perhaps think about how your particular skills and interests can help address those gaps and interests efficiently and differently from others. I think this will help establish a scientific identity.

  • doctorzen says:

    This is an awesome question. I say this as someone who struggles with my "science identity" all the time. (Am I a neuroscientist? An ethologist? An ecologist? A crustacean biologist?)

    1. I think the strategy of many people is to create their science identity by getting working on one big sexy project, and getting it in a glamour magazine.

    Felisa Wolfe-Simon tried this. She has an science identity all right, but it may not be the one she was looking for.

    2. Previously, your science identity was almost exclusively a function of your papers.
    One of the great things about social media is that they allow you to establish a professional identity that is complimentary to your identity in the primary literature.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I was hired as an invertebrate zoologist. I have a background in invertebrate paleontology, a number of invertebrate courses, and have TA'ed invertebrate labs. I am really an ichthyologist. My major professor called and established that it was OK for me to do fish research before he would write me a letter of reference. It all worked out fine.

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  • Phil K. says:

    I don't know how I stumbled onto this blog, but this idea of "science identity" intrigued me!

    After reading it, it can actually apply to anybody who has a career and love what they do. Not so much for those whose work is disjointed from who they are and their passions.

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