Schmoozing for your peers

September 12, 2007

Had a recent interaction with a BigCheez type recently that reminded me I wanted to discuss altruistic schmoozing. Networking on behalf of someone else, that is. This applies all up and down the career ranks if you think about it. But it is most focused on my usual targets, the transitioning and recently-transitioned scientists.

You should already be familiar with the concept. After all an essential part of good mentoring is basically altruistic schmoozing. Introducing your postdocs or other trainees to the members of your scientific community in person at meetings is obvious. It is also done by referring to their contributions as frequently as possible in your own presentations. And don’t forget to mention to the editor that s/he helped on that review.

In my recent interaction with the BigCheez though, I realized we have broader generational responsibility. It will come as no surprise to readers that I believe we need to think about the delayed and disappearing careers of a whole “next generation” of scientists in our respective areas. Most of you know the drill but with increased concentration of research dollars in the hands of the same aging population of boomer and pre-boomer scientists we are eventually facing a big retire/die off. The lack of transition for the next generation means that we will not have a properly experienced group to take up the reins of big laboratories and projects. It follows that we need to do what we can to foster those careers.

Just because I happen to know who I think the 5-10 most promising scientists-in-transition in my subfield are, doesn’t mean everyone knows them. In this recent case, I was more than a little startled that the BC didn’t know Dr. Youngster who I mentioned in passing. Dr. Y is by most objective criteria I can think of and the usual subjective benefits of training relationships a clear PI in waiting. Which is why I was a little startled the BC didn’t know the name. After expanding on Dr. Y’s virtues briefly the conversation moved on but I came back to this later and realized I’d just done some altruistic schmoozing.

So think on it. Many of us know a BC type or two quite well, either because we trained with them or work in departments with them. We also have, at least in the back of our minds, the recognition that we could stand to be better known in the field, particularly by the Luminary class. A classic case for self-interested altruistic behavior. If we all remember to give our transitioning scientists (and lateral rank peers) the props they deserve in conversation with our local Luminary types, we all gain.

6 Responses to “Schmoozing for your peers”

  1. PhysioProf Says:

    I have been the beneficiary of exactly the kind of altruistic behavior you describe. For example, several BigCheezDoodles in my field have (1) written letters of reference for me submitted as part of applications for junior faculty scholar awards and foundation grants and (2) gotten me invited to attend and give talks at small conferences. These are BigCheezDoodles who were never either mentors or collaborators.

    Needless to say, I agree wholeheartedly with your advocacy of this kind of altruism.

    “The lack of transition for the next generation means that we will not have a properly experienced group to take up the reins of big laboratories and projects.”

    I am a little confused by this statement. In my field, no one “takes up the reins” of existing big laboratories. The only way anyone becomes the head of a big laboratory is to start a small laboratory from scratch and then grow it into a big one. If the head of a big laboratory retires or dies, the laboratory ceases to exist.

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  2. drugmonkey Says:

    You have stated it perhaps even more clearly than I although both cases obtain on reflection. What I originally meant to convey was your construction. That if careers are delayed or kept constrained in the next generation, individual PIs will not have the opportunity to grow into big operations to seamlessly substitute for the laboratories that disappear. I wasn’t trying to say it has to be the exact same research program. Merely that if we look at current large-lab, highly productive PIs and look back at their career trajectories (as a generation) they appeared to be cranking away with more stable jobs/funding and larger groups at a good 8-10 years earlier than is the average now.

    Now, taking the direct-replacement interpretation of what I wrote, this is also somewhat important. I work in a subfield in which our luminaries always seem to have not just long-running R01s (or three) but also frequently have long-running Centers or Program Projects. Particularly on the clinical research side of mental disorders, drug abuse and the like but also on the preclinical side of things. Many of these operations are on their second generation of 60ish PIs, believe it or not. It is time for them to start thinking about who is going to take over primary leadership, maybe not for the next 5 years but certainly for the renewals after that. Now in this case there is a little more direct grooming going on but this doesn’t always work. I know of one situation where a lack of someone to really take up the reins of a big mechanism led to it splintering away. It isn’t quite dead yet but from the outside things look grim. All the pieces were still there to create the next version of the project but they never seemed to get the right driving force in place. Another situation I heard of where an explicit plan for transition to the younger PIs over the next competing interval or two nearly blew up in their faces on review.

    sure there are going to be some individuals that are already on the pace of those luminary PIs of the past three decades. But on a generational scale I’m concerned.

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  3. Piled Higher, Deeper Says:

    But I thought we had “too many scientists being trained” for the available NIH $$. Which is it?

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  4. PhysioProf Says:

    And this article is describing a supposed shortage of science faculty that is going to occur in the next decade, and the things universities are doing to stave off this shortage:

    http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_development/previous_issues/articles/2007_09_14/10_1126_science_opms_r0700038/(parent)/

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  5. whimple Says:

    Hoo-boy, how long have they been singing this song for? This is a fairytale they tell the undergrads to convince them to go to graduate school. It also gives the administrators some “important planning for the future we’re doing right now!” Emperor’s-new-clothes that administators love to parade around in.

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  6. PhysioProf Says:

    “This is a fairytale they tell the undergrads to convince them to go to graduate school.”

    Shhh…

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