Even in a great orchestra, you will only hear the bad player
To be a successful scientist, a balanced skill set is important. Overachievers in just one area will struggle in academia.
Cite as: Kamoun, S. (2022). Even in a great orchestra, you will only hear the bad player. Zenodo https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.6907577
I think I’m not good at music. I may have been traumatized in my childhood. When I was a kid, our school organized a choral. They brought a music teacher, she lined up our big group and made us sing together. We were all buzzed and excited as you can imagine. Within a minute, she interrupted the raucous chants, pointed to 3 or 4 of us and asked us to leave. I was one of them. I was hurt and I never looked back. This traumatic episode somehow anchored in me the notion that I’m not good at music and I never bothered again. We’ll never know I guess (ha ha). But we can be sure of one thing, if I ever get the honor to sit and play with the London Philarmonic Orchestra, it will be irrelevant how good they are, you will only hear me.
To be a successful scientist, it is critical to have a full set of skills. That doesn’t mean you will be amazing at everything. Nobody is. But it means that you have to make sure your weak points don’t become your Achille’s heel. You need to address your weaknesses, make them good enough so they don’t hold you back in your career.
To be a scientist, particularly an academic scientist, you somehow have to manage to do everything. You have to be creative, come up with ambitious yet credible scientific projects, you have to get these projects funded, recruit and hire students and staff, manage a lab, deal with the occasional crisis, write papers, read papers, correct papers, give talks to experts in your field, talks to other scientists, talks to the general public, you have to stay awake at other people’s talks, explain your work to journalists, network with your colleagues, patiently deal with administrators, be polite to editors, even suck up to them so they accept your papers, and occasionally you even get to write blog posts like this one. It’s overwhelming. Nobody can do it all. Nobody can do it perfectly well.
For better or worse I like sport metaphors, so let’s compare this time academic science to the sport of athletics (Track and field to our North American readers). Athletics is a series of sporting events that tend to be heavily specialized. Whereas Jamaican Usain Bolt is viewed as the greatest sprinter of all times, he will be no match to Somaliland-born British runner Mo Farah over long distances. There is a reason why the most successful track olympians, Americans Allyson Felix and Carl Lewis, have won “only” 11 and 9 olympic medals, a relatively small number of the total medals at play. And a few of those medals came from relay events.
Academic science is different. To be a research group leader, you cannot be as specialized as Usain, Mo, Allyson and Carl Lewis. You’ll have to be more like the supermen and superwomen of the combined athletic events — the decathlon and heptathlon, which consist of 10 and 7 track and field events, respectively. These athletes run, jump, throw and do it all over two full days of competition. The finale, a medium-distance run, is always a stirring sight of athletes bordering on exhaustion, making a final push for medals and records. The event is made even more poignant by the fact that combined athletes vary widely in their body shapes and strengths. There are many ways to be a successful decathlete or heptathlete. But one thing for sure, you have to be at least decent in all events.
I grew up worshipping the legendary decathlete Daley Thompson, who was born in Notting Hill to a British Nigerian father and a Scottish mother and won gold in the decathlon over two consecutive olympics. Thompson is just one figurehead of a long list of decathletes and heptathletes who are often referred to as the World’s Greatest Athletes. Another British champ Jessica Ennis dominated the heptathlon at the London Olympics, but she was recently taken over by Senegalese Belgian athlete Nafissatou Thiam. Thompson’s son recently became the British decathlon champion making his daddy burst with pride and keeping up the strong British tradition in the event. And just as I was writing this post, the joyful decathlete Kevin Mayer surged late to win the title for France at the World Champs in Eugene, Oregon. These are amazing superathletes but they all have their weak events. Just watch Daley Thompson run the 1500m or most of the combined athletes in challenging events like the shot put or high jump.
Strengths are important, but glaring weaknesses will hurt more
My point is not that you have to be a superathlete to succeed as an academic scientist. My point is that to be competitive in the combined events or in academia, you shouldn’t be hyper-specialized. This isn’t to say that you can’t be great at certain things. We all have different strengths that make us successful in a unique way. But if you have a glaring weakness — say difficulty in writing papers, giving talks, managing people, working in a team — you will struggle to have a fulfilling career unless you take actions to remedy the weak points. Focusing on improving your weaknesses is more important than polishing strengths.
To deal with weaknesses, you first have to identify them. I highly recommend the list of competencies developed by the National Postdoc Association. Compare your self-assessment to feedback from colleagues who know you and work with you. Develop an action plan to address these weaknesses. You don’t like writing, join workshops and talk to your colleagues who are good at it. You’re not good at giving talks, same thing. You have issues with management, there is plenty of good advice out there. Point is, identify your weaknesses and do something about them.
Here again, I insist that the message isn’t that we have to be superheroes to be successful. When I tweeted about the topic a while ago, one tweep took it as a call that only “overachiever clones can be successful or even accepted”. That’s not a fair interpretation of my message. I insist that we need to be “at least OK” in all major areas. But to me, this doesn’t mean we have to be overachievers in everything. Just bring your weaknesses to a workable level (at least OK). It’s a reasonable advice to say work on your weaknesses, don’t just ignore them.
Develop a holistic approach to your career development (in other words, don’t obsess with glam-mags and journal impact factors)
My message is that balance is important. Overachievers in just one area will struggle. What saddens me the most is to see early career scientists become obsessed with publishing in glam-mags — notably the infamous triad of Cell, Nature and Science and neglect other areas of career and personal development. It’s a fallacy to believe that all you need is a paper in these journals for your career to be made. Of course, a solid publication record is important but I have seen many prospective faculty candidates falter despite a publication list that includes several papers in these glamorous journals. I recall an interviewee for a faculty position who first-authored three (Yes. Three!) Science papers but couldn’t articulate a reasonable response to valid probing questions from the committee. Many years later, I can tell you that those papers have had little impact in the field and sit there among a big pile of literature that is essentially uninfluential. Needless to say, that interviewee didn’t get the job.
My advice to early career scientists is not to negelect publishing papers. You need to be fully aware that publishing your work is important. This is our main currency in science. I’m not arguing against publishing paper, I’m just arguing against obsesssion with certain journals and the toxic environment this has generated. My overall advice is spelled out here in a presentation about what makes world class science. Aim high (whatever that means to you). But be reasonable. And don’t lose the plot. Your job is to produce solid science that stands the test of time, not to squeeze a wishy-washy paper through reviewers and editors. Trust me, the community knows. Flawed papers get scorned on Twitter and other platforms. Flawed papers will get you far in certain academic environments, but is this who you want to be?
I got my amazing Group Leader job as Senior Scientist at The Sainsbury Lab without any Science or Nature papers, and I was not the only one. This says a lot about the institution and how it values its scientists. Fortunately, there is an increasingly larger number of academic institutions that are truly embracing The Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) and its progressive principles. The culture is changing! For that we have to thank the many scientists who are evaluating their younger colleagues based on the quality of their science and ideas, their potential to become successful in the broader sense of the term, not by bean counting the number of papers or scrutinizing meaningless metrics.
Beyond glam-mags and journal impact factors: Let’s celebrate a balanced skill sets
At the end of the olympic combined events, after the two grueling days of running, jumping and throwing, the penthathletes and decathletes have this wonderful tradition of congratulating each other, hugging and kissing despite the intense competition. Then they line up for a group photo where you couldn’t tell who the winner is. Indeed, finishing a combined event is a feat in itself. In my book, they all deserve the gold medal. Let’s apply that spirit to our scientific and academic communities and recognize that a balanced skill set is what will have the widest and most lasting impact.
Notes and further thoughts
Parts of this post were adapted from a 2018 interview to OpenPlantPathology (OPP).
Thanks to all for the wonderful feedback via Twitter and other means. In particular, thanks to my John Innes Centre colleague Clare Stevenson for reminding us of the importance of TEAM. Here is an older post on the topic.
This Tweet by Dundee @potatodoctor colleague Glenn Bryan made me smile.