Query of the Day: Career Self-Awareness

October 24, 2016

Aptitude for different roles in academic science is a tricky business. Until a person has been serving in a particular capacity, we never really know how well they will do. Sometimes one is very surprised, on both the “more capable”and “unexpected disaster” fronts.

And yes, I am fully aware that Imposter Syndrome gets in the way of self-assessment.

I am also aware of the Peter Principle.

Nevertheless the question of the day is whether you think about those future roles that you might reasonably be considered to fill. Do you have a firm idea of your strengths and weaknesses as an academic/scientist? Are there certain roles you could never do, wouldn’t be good at? Are there other ones you just *know* are right for you if only given the chance?

I think that I do. At my stage, these next-steps are mostly leadership roles for which I am utterly unsuited. I know this about myself and there is no way I would pursue them or feel slighted if passed over for that behind-the-scenes grooming/encouraging process.

I see other people who I think are eminently suited to be leaders of larger collectives. I’ve been able to observe several people who ascended to power (ahem) from petty to very grand indeed. I think I know what sorts of people do well and I am not that. At all.

Of course this post isn’t really about me but rather about those that do not seem to be aware of themselves. I marvel at that phenotype that doesn’t seem to recognize their own skill set and the strengths and limits that they express.

This got me to pondering and of course I am now curious about your experience, Dear Reader.

Do you feel as though you have a good assessment of your suitability for various next-roles that might lie ahead of you?

39 Responses to “Query of the Day: Career Self-Awareness”

  1. Zen Faulkes Says:

    I’ve told many students, “A big part of being an academic is figuring out what you don’t suck at.”


  2. Emaderton3 Says:

    I think this is a really under-appreciated topic. I thought about this several years ago when making the transition to a PI. As a post-doc, you feel (somewhat) comfortable doing science and writing. However, there is much more than science when becoming a faculty member, such as dealing with employees/students/Chairs/vendors/classes, etc. No one prepares you to be a manager, buyer, accountant, teacher, lecturer, etc. I often feel like I have to learn on the fly and from my mistakes. So why should the next steps be any different lol?

    I do find it somewhat fascinating and amusing that just because I have a PhD and do basic science that I am “automatically qualified” to teach students paying tens of thousands of dollars for a high class education when my daughter’s kindergarten teacher had to have a specific kind of degree, license, and/or training to teach her fingerpainting and cutting . . .

    Anyway, getting to your point–I probably do not do enough self-assessment since I am just trying to keep my head above water and cannot fathom thinking that far ahead. I also think a fair question is whether you want that next position/responsibility–some will get chosen based on drive/interest regardless of skillset/talent.


  3. sweetscience Says:

    This idea is intertwined with something I’ve noticed where certain people seem to need to climb whatever ladder is there, just to get higher. The title matters more than the job itself, so people end up in positions they’re really ill-suited for. Do you think this happens less in science/academia, where presumably people started on the path because they enjoyed the research?

    And to answer your question, I definitely think I know when I am not suited for a job, though I may keep doing it anyway… but I am desperately trying to navigate toward one I am suited for!


  4. Grumble Says:

    @Emad: “However, there is much more than science when becoming a faculty member, such as dealing with employees/students/Chairs/vendors/classes, etc. No one prepares you to be a manager, buyer, accountant, teacher, lecturer, etc”

    That’s all true. In general, I think the academic system works because those who are ultimately hired as professors are highly intelligent people who are able to learn how to do all those “peripheral” aspects of the job quickly. (Or even not-so-peripheral aspects, like teaching, with which many candidates have little experience.) It’s something I’ve given a lot of thought to recently while on a couple of faculty and leadership (chair, etc) search committees. It’s really impossible to tell how well a post-doc, even one with a stellar publication record, will do at, say, lab financial management. But it IS possible to assess intelligence, personality, interest and engagement with others, lecturing style and clarity, and self-awareness. If a candidate hits on all of these (plus, of course, the obvious scientific qualifications, such as knowledge of the field, rigor of approach, broadness of thinking, ability to lay out a coherent research program, etc), it’s quite likely she’ll have what it takes not only to survive as an academic scientist, but also to learn all those additional skills to at least a minimal level of competence.

    At least, I hope so.


  5. Anon Says:

    @Grumble: “… those who are ultimately hired as professors are highly intelligent people who are able to learn how to do all those “peripheral” aspects of the job quickly.”

    Do you think it is worthwhile to learn these soft skills as a post doc or new assistant prof? What is your estimate of the monetary and scientific value of these skills (e.g., how much is it worth to be a great vs competent vs subpar interviewer as a PI)? Is the value enough to warrant universities employing experts to teach these skills to post docs or new assistant profs?


  6. Newbie(ish) PI Says:

    Anon: There’s a really stupid article going around (linked below) suggesting that postdocs should do less science in order to start training to be PIs. I say this is stupid because the only thing that really matters when you’re applying for jobs to be a professor and lab head are your publications and grants. Nobody cares that you took a financial management course or mentored undergrads or served on a committee. If you really want to do those things in your free time, go for it, but you can learn all of it on the job when the time comes. That’s my two cents.



  7. Drugmonkey Says:

    The title matters more than the job itself, so people end up in positions they’re really ill-suited for. Do you think this happens less in science/academia, where presumably people started on the path because they enjoyed the research?

    I don’t know about more or less but it certainly appears to be the case with some people who are looking to climb the academic science ladder without any introspection about their own qualities.

    I may keep doing it anyway… but I am desperately trying to navigate toward one I am suited for!

    Now that is an interesting point. Do people sometimes have better talents for a “higher” job that requires first that candidates prove themselves excellent in something they are less well qualified for? I do have this one friends who I think would have made a great PI but was a mediocre grad student and postdoc (by own admission).


  8. Grumble Says:

    “Do you think it is worthwhile to learn these soft skills as a post doc”

    Well, as Newbie(ish) suggests, doing so might be a waste of time. For one of our searches, we got so many applicants that we ended up excluding everyone without a K99 and a Nature-level paper. (That’s an exaggeration, but not a large one.) Applicants’ time during post-doc years would therefore have been much better spent on research than on management skills and such. That said, once you’ve gotten past the dragon at the gate, I’d view it as a positive if you’ve taken an interest in these peripheral aspects and have shown some evidence of competence in them. A course on management would be irrelevant to me – who hires professors based on what courses they’ve taken? But if you’ve actually managed people successfully in some capacity (even outside of academia), I’d view that as evidence that at least that aspect of the job would go more smoothly than the next applicant who is scientifically just as good but has had no other experience.


  9. Anon Says:

    @Newbie(ish) PI: “Nobody cares that you took a financial management course or mentored undergrads or served on a committee.”

    In my opinion, it’s not (or should not be) about anyone else caring. It’s about you caring. It’s about improving your own performance as a [future] PI. That’s where the value is. Some PIs turn out to be great managers, either after many years of trial and error (to the detriment of all the error trainees) or through natural talent. Seems to me that is not always the case, however, especially for newbie PIs. Just because one is a great scientist does not mean that one will be a good (or even competent) manager of trainees/staff.

    Many so-called soft skills (or “peripheral” skills as Grumble put it) are required, and while some of those skills may be acquired over an extended career as a PI, I see value in learning them as a post doc. I think the lack of soft skill training is a major flaw in the system. Thus, I think the linked article brings up some important points about learning how to budget, mentor, etc. before you are thrown into the crucible of PI-dom.


  10. Microscientist Says:

    I think it’s a good idea to learn these skills, but a bad idea to think that listing them on your CV will get you a job.
    The best thing my post-doc advisor ever did was put me in charge of ordering all supplies for the lab. Made me very aware of what reagents cost (a real eye-opener), how much shipping can eat your budget quickly, and how to negotiate and play one company off of another. Once I started as new PI, I was actually helping another new PI in our department with ordering their lab basics, as I was much more savvy about how to do all this. But I never even thought to put this “skill” on my CV!


  11. Newbie(ish) PI Says:

    Anon: I was talking about getting a faculty job. These skills are not required to GET the job. Papers and grants are what is required. If you’re spending time learning how to manage trainees and balance budgets INSTEAD OF doing research, that is a mistake. If you’ve got your Nature papers and K99, then sure, shift some focus to the soft skills. The other thing that is hinted at in Drugmonkey’s post is that you may only be able to improve your soft skills a certain amount beyond your natural abilities. I could read management books all day, and it still wouldn’t make it any easier for me to have uncomfortable talks with my trainees, or want to be a dean who spends her days giving speeches.


  12. Luminiferous Aether Says:

    “I marvel at that phenotype that doesn’t seem to recognize their own skill set and the strengths and limits that they express.”

    Does it so happen that that phenotype has an extra dose of ambition, thereby abrogating their capability of objective self-evaluation?


  13. becca Says:

    What you mean you’re not supposed to just apply to be college president on your first year on the job as a faculty member?


  14. sweetscience Says:

    @Drugmonkey: “Do people sometimes have better talents for a “higher” job that requires first that candidates prove themselves excellent in something they are less well qualified for? I do have this one friends who I think would have made a great PI but was a mediocre grad student and postdoc (by own admission).”

    Definitely! I know I’d be a way better grad program coordinator or dean than a PI, for example, due to both skill and interest. But I’ve got to be a PI first to think about getting there.


  15. JC Says:

    I think the main quality of those that aspire to, and reach, ever higher positions is that they never think they are not suited for them. So what is to be gained by self-selecting yourself out ahead of time? Assuming you aren’t eschewing other, more probable opportunities that is.


  16. Emaderton3 Says:


    I see this a lot in academic medicine where it seems like people need to move up by amassing additional responsibilities/titles. Often such activities may be required to show your value/expertise/uniqueness in an area that is valued for promotion, particularly for those on the educator track (non-tenure track, primarily physicians not doing basic/translational research). That being said, it is also an issue for PIs since we often need some activities that serve as resume builders for our contributions to the institution for tenure. But, as you and DM said, in some cases it can be a necessary evil in order for a person to get to the position/job that they truly want.

    @ Grumble

    Yeah, I agree with you that if you get this far, you are probably smart enough to figure out some of this stuff on the fly. However, we all know those people that did not spend enough of their startup or focused too much on teaching or did not focus on a particular project enough that led to low productivity and denial of tenure. In general, I just felt like there was so much no one ever told me about once I made the transition. But yes, I figured it out (mostly), now I just don’t know if I can catch up in time!


  17. Mikki Says:

    I am trying to do everything a PI is supposed to do but it looks like I never have enough time to do all of them. I applied every year to the national grant agency (in a medium-sized European country I am not native of) but was turned down 4 times so far. I was requested to teach a course in the spring but this being a first for me, took up a lot of my time. I quite enjoyed teaching and made the students laugh occasionally (that is the greatest honour for me as a lecturer as humour is essential to my personality.)

    My startup package supported two postdocs only until the end of last year so this year I have only an undergrad student (most of them were useless, anyway). In June I applied for an American grant (for foreigners), so that took again several weeks of my time. Finally, in the summer I had some precious time to do research. I went into postdoc mode, doing only research and writing a paper. I nearly managed to have it reviewed at Science (because one editor liked it so much) but then not. Still, it is going to be published in a good journal. I might have a PhD student next year. Last year I published two papers in journals with IF ~ 5. (This country values publications with a good impact factor mostly. It never was an issue during my postdoc years I spent in the US.)

    I am almost happy with my situation because I am fairly introverted and cannot handle a large number of people but now there is a new rule here that requires for a group to have min. 3 FTEs (full time equivalent) and a PhD student counts only as 0.5 FTE. As I am a seasoned bioinformatician I can function pretty well even as a one-man show. In addition, I have no grant money (although I have 3 pending grants). The institute wants people to be self-sufficient so they might want to get rid of me in the long run. They might want to incorporate me into another group for now and let me go in the long run. I really find it very unjust as I consider myself a good scientist but somehow the circumstances are never right to get everything right. Do you have any advice for me?


  18. enginoob Says:

    I didn’t think I was particularly well suited to be a PI, yet here I am. For me it was some mix of ambition and job market realities (other research institutions weren’t hiring). Now that I’m here I now think I have no desire to be an administrator…but, who knows, gotta make the tenure hurdle first. Doing this job that is outside of my comfort zone has made me grow in a lot of good ways.


  19. drugmonkey Says:


    I have felt that the circumstances didn’t let me get everything right at the same time for over 90% of my independent career to date. I have no advice on how to change this.


  20. Grumble Says:

    “Do you feel as though you have a good assessment of your suitability for various next-roles that might lie ahead of you?”

    Yes. I couldn’t administer my way out of a paper bag. Guess I am stuck in my this-role forever. Or, more likely, until I fail to renew my grants and the bridge funding runs out.


  21. Mikki Says:

    Drugmonkey: thanks for your input. So I wonder what people do if they fail at becoming a PI? If they tried and didn’t succeed? What is the next best option? There must be a considerable number of people in tenure track positions who do not get tenured. What do they do, I wonder? I guess, if someone fails at getting tenured at Harvard still does have a lot of options to move to a less prestigious place. But what about those who failed at a place from which no school would want to to take them? I hope someone will tell us stories of failure. Just as a cautionary tale, if nothing else.


  22. Grumble Says:

    Mikki –

    I personally know three people who didn’t get tenure and/or were forced to leave the tenure track due to inability to get their grants funded (or, in one case, the person got the grant renewed but decided not to play the game anymore). Two ended up teaching at small colleges. One is an engineer at a company that makes research instruments (this person had a background in engineering, so it wasn’t a big stretch to transition to that position).


  23. Emaderton3 Says:

    @ Grumble

    I was always under the impression that lack of grant funding was the number one reason PIs did not get promoted with tenure. However, in a career seminar I recently attended, an Associate Dean said that the number one reason she has seen people leave academia was for personal financial reasons. I would be curious if there are any studies out there looking at the different reasons while people either leave or do not achieve tenure.


  24. Mikki Says:

    @Emaderton3 and others: I found a relevant blog/website. The person who left such a situation is coaching others now as to what to do: http://theprofessorisin.com/its-ok-to-quit/


  25. The Other Dave Says:

    I’ve thought about this sort of thing a lot. I’m full professor at an R1 institution with all but my summer salary guaranteed. I could totally glide until retirement, easy.

    But what got me into this profession was my passion for solving problems. They don’t have to be scientific mysteries. I just like figuring things out.

    I am increasingly bored with the stuff we’re doing in the lab. I think it’s useful but it’s certainly not Nobel prize-winning stuff. I am tried of writing grant proposals to be read by 4 people, and papers that are maybe read by 10 people (except for the abstract, which will get read by thousands and maybe cited by hundreds of lazy people just looking for something to bolster the argument in their discussion).

    Getting a grant is too much like winning the lottery to make me feel like it’s particularly meaningful feedback on our work. There’s too much good stuff proposed and not funded. And when we do get funded it’s always for too much so we have no cost extensions or burn money for stupid reasons before the grant ends.

    So, yea, I think a lot about doing something else. But what stops me is that I can always think of people who would be so much better than me.

    I think you, DM, have what it takes for a leadership role. You seem empathic. You seem reasonably well-informed. I like the way you listen to and engage your readers. You are aware of and talk a lot about inefficiencies and unfairness. Maybe it’s time to leverage those attributes. Things get fixed when people like you fix them.

    What do you want to do, DM? Publish more minutia and suck more evenings out of the life of grant reviewers? Or do you want to make the world a better place?


  26. Mikki Says:

    @The Other Dave

    So what is the boring field that you feel to be stuck in? I started a totally new field when I started my independent research a few years ago. It is not even one field but several interconnected fields. It is borderline Nobel (not saying I am going to win it but the field is certainly open) and so exciting and engaging that I spend almost every waking moment thinking about it. If you want, I can help you get introduced to it and help you spend your grant in a more meaningful way. Deal? 😉

    There is an article in Nature about our plight: http://www.nature.com/news/young-talented-and-fed-up-scientists-tell-their-stories-1.20872 There is a query at the end about what you think is the biggest challenge for early career scientists, it is worthwhile to click and see the results.


  27. The Other Dave Says:

    Hi Mikki,

    Thanks for the link. I’m not really a young talented and fed up scientist. I’m more of an older mediocre and desensitized scientist.

    I think the problem is that I want to make a difference. As the years go on, I see more and more talented people enter my field with better background than I had. I see people with great ideas and more time to pursue them than I have. I still love science. I still love learning new things. But now more and more I start to see the larger picture. In what ways can the funding system be made more efficient? What should get funded? Can science itself be made more efficient?

    I keep reading editorials in Science and Nature and Cell Press where people talk about problems that I think were solved long ago, if only people actually paid attention. That makes me wonder whether there are better ways to disseminate scientific information.

    I see papers written more to impress than enlighten. We’re so obsessed with novelty that we forget that reliable results are most often the least novel. But journals are competitive magazines and we love to read exciting new results. So what’s the fix?

    And I think more about students. Maybe no one will care who I was in a few decades, but every great scientific figure had someone somewhere who helped them find their talent and succeed. But what’s the best way to discover and nurture scientific talent? What makes a great scientist anyway? The ability to get grant money and publish lots of high-profile papers? Apparently.

    I don’t know. My questions have expanded but not my answers. That’s the problem. What is the job for someone like me? I think that’s maybe what DM was getting at.


  28. Grumble Says:

    @Emad: “an Associate Dean said that the number one reason she has seen people leave academia was for personal financial reasons”

    The number one reason I have seen has to do with grants – the inability to get them at all, or the constant frustration and uncertainty involved with keeping them consistently. Sure, there are lots of adjunct types, and of course post-docs, who decide to leave because the money is better elsewhere (“personal financial reasons”). But once you hit the tenure track, the pay is very good. I very much doubt that the reason why people jump off the tenure track is typically “personal financial reasons”.

    @TOD: “So, yea, I think a lot about doing something else…”

    Me, too… and I’m barely mid-career. Partly it’s because my particular brand of green-groceries has fairly quickly fallen out of favor as new methods have taken over my field, and I don’t really feel too inclined to try to keep up. That’s a big mistake, but I tire of the constant need to keep up with the Jones’s and their insane new neurotechnology. While the whole world gawks at the latest opto-schmopto, I find myself drumming my fingers and saying, “yeah, I’ve already seen this episode of Star Trek – the one where they get the firomactal drive unit to control the central ramistat core while keeping the ontarian manifold within forty thousand KRG, which allows them just enough warp power to escape from the Borg…” Cheap thrills, but I’m not Captain Kirk. Or even Picard.

    So, yeah, instead of that, I’d like to find some next career stage in which I can sagely advise young people using my vast knowledge, apply my superior critical thinking and synthesis skills, and do a lot of writing…




  29. xykademiqz Says:

    @TOD: I am increasingly bored with the stuff we’re doing in the lab. I think it’s useful

    Ditto. There are new things I want to learn properly, but there is no time because I have to write grants and papers non-stop. We are picking up new techniques and moving into new areas, but without enough time for me to learn things properly and think deeply, I feel constantly underinformed, like a layperson. And it all feels like I am forced and rushed… reactive rather than proactive in choosing what we do. Because when I am proactive, it’s hard to get the money for it because it’s not in fashion (you can do offbeat stuff if you are a BSD, not as a commoner). And the things that I do get money for I am already bored with.

    But I can’t imagine that any other careers I am qualified for would be less boring.

    Maybe I need to start skydiving or lion taming or something.


  30. Emaderton3 Says:

    @ Grumble

    The pay is not always really good on TT. I was kept at the same salary when I transitioned from nonTT and had to fight to get a small bump recently. From doing grants and seeing other people’s salaries, I am definitely near the bottom. But, I will admit that this is a result of me staying at the same place that I did my last post-doc, so I was not recruited and had to work my way up. Not to mention that I am also in a clinical department but have all of my degrees in engineering which pays even more typically. In contrast, if I went to industry, I would easily be making more. And even the physicians at my top tier medical center would make substantially more if they worked privately. People leaving good engineering schools with only a BS are making almost as much as some freshly appointed TT faculty with PhDs.


  31. The Other Dave Says:

    Grumble, xykademiqz: Exactly! You guys nailed what I am feeling. No time to do the things that made me want to be a scientist, or what I think is necessary for great science. Grumble, your Star Trek analogy made me laugh out loud… So perfect.

    As for pay… These were my TT faculty job offers a decade and a half ago:

    1) Decent med school building a great new department, 50% salary guaranteed.
    2) Super-prestigious ultra name-brand med school, 5% salary guaranteed.
    3) State school academic department, 75% salary (all but summer) guaranteed.

    Grant money was a lot easier to come by then, and I was one of the new young hotshots, but still… Is #2 even really a job? Sorry, I am not that much of a sucker. #1 was tempting. It really came down to that and #3, which I only applied to because an old friend here encouraged me to and I didn’t want to be rude.

    Do I regret my decision? Certainly it’s been nice to have friendly less-stressed colleagues and guaranteed salary. When I visit more prestigious places and hear about the pain there, I am thankful that I passed up that horror. But it’s also true that my institution doesn’t have the intensity and resources that maybe would have helped me keep up better. Maybe my longing for something new is just me subconsciously trying to rationalize my growing failure as a competitive researcher.

    In any case, I can totally understand why someone with 50% (or less) guaranteed salary would leave for financial reasons. That’s not a scientist job. It’s a part-time gig as a professional grant writer for the institution. Tenure or not… if you don’t get paid then you don’t really have a job.

    In fact, that’s really the problem: The positions that used to be reserved for academic scientists are now filled by people whose job is institutional fund-raising. No one really cares what you do as long as you are earning overhead for your bosses.

    Can that be fixed? Does it need to be? Does NIH do a good job of recognizing and funding the best science? Even though competition is hard on individual researchers, is intense competition good for science and the nation in general? Can we compare scientific productivity between institutions and countries, and in doing so determine characteristics shared by highly productive places? Can we measure scientific efficiency? Can we engineer our system to be more efficient? These are all fascinating things. But of course the people with power to change things are also most invested in the current system.


  32. jmz4 Says:

    ^We need a new NIH institution that is all just meta-analysis of scientific funding and productivity schemes. We can also build in an IRS-like unit that just audits the 6th figure of CNS papers.


  33. Grumble Says:

    @Emad – if you’ve been consistently grant-funded, you should ask for a raise. I’ve also found that a threat to leave (in the form of informing your chair that you have a job interview elsewhere) can work wonders in shaking down manna from the salary tree — IF your chair views you as an asset. YMMV, but seriously – if you are underpaid relative to your peers, it would make sense to start sniffing around the job market and sending out a few exploratory applications.


  34. Emaderton3 Says:

    @ Grumble

    Not that easy on multiple fronts. I have the two-body problem, so any threat of leaving can easily be sniffed out . . . As far as an asset, I think I still have more to prove, although now they have an investment in me since the grants led to independent lab space (finally) that needed to be stocked and equipped.


  35. […] DrugMonkey had a post on a similar theme: Career Self-Awareness. I’ve been thinking about this lately in terms of service, and trying to work more on making sure […]


  36. Grumble, xykademiqz, The Other Dave,
    I completely agree. The best thing about my sabbatical is that I had time to sit and think and just wander through the literature in a way I hadn’t since I was a postdoc. It was also wonderful to spend time learning a new technique that we recently got interested in for our research. My sabbatical was much more how I thought I would spend my time as a PI in my naive days. It is very sad that I will have to wait years for the opportunity to do so again. If only I could swap out some proposal writing time, rather than teaching!

    I am starting to feel a bit out of touch with some of the newer techniques we do in the lab, because like xyk, I don’t have the time to spend learning all the ins and outs of these new methods the way I know the things I actually used in the lab. Many of my colleagues seem to be in the same boat. I don’t think this is very good for research going forward, and may be one of the causes with the reproducibility problems that are becoming more prevalent.


  37. The Other Dave Says:


    I think the system right now is set up so that instead of allowing us old farts to keep up, there will always be new grist for the mill.


  38. The Other Dave:

    You are probably right about that. Kind of sad that 8ish years in a TT position makes you an old fart, but there it is.


  39. […] Query of the Day: Career Self-Awareness […]


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