CNS 2018 Guest Post by CNSTA Committee
Coping with public speaking jitters, learning how to say no, and navigating the non-academic life – these were just some of the topics tackled in the 3rd annual CNSTA Professional Development Panel held last week at CNS 2018 in Boston.
Practice talking about your work, even if it’s uncomfortable
All panelists agreed on one thing: The ability to convey your research in an exciting and succinct manner is important both for reaching broad audiences and for daily interactions, whether at a poster, in the elevator, or over coffee with a potential future advisor. Those communications skills are key to landing a postdoc, faculty job, or industry job. But even for the most seasoned researcher, communicating your science is challenging.
If you caught the Young Investigator Award talk by Michael Yassa, University of California, Irvine, it may be hard to believe that there was a time Yassa had to work hard to cultivate his public speaking skills. But he admitted on the panel that the first talk he gave in grad school was “atrocious”. Yassa worked hard with his advisor who helped him get rid of his jitters. Now Yassa gives approximately 100-150 talks annually — that’s almost every other day!
Importantly, panelist Ingrid Olson made it clear that public speaking issues won’t just resolve themselves once you reach the faculty level. She described witnessing some excellent scientists leave academia because of their public speaking fears. Olson also confided that she “screwed up a lot of interviews”, but she worked hard to improve her public speaking and now she’s Director of the Brain and Cognitive Sciences Program at Temple University. She suggested signing up to give talks as early and often as you can to gain exposure to public speaking.
Indeed, Brendan Murray, VP of Global Client Enablement Services at iMotions, said it’s important to work hard at it “even if it doesn’t get easier”. Communication is important for him, as he must digest complex data for his customers, which is the case for any client-facing industry job.
Emphasize breadth and thinking big, not incrementally
We’ve all skipped out on a talk or poster session that did not seem relevant to our work. But the panel overwhelmingly agreed that “fostering breadth” is what helps us to “think big” beyond incremental science. The group concurred that going to talks and conference sessions a few steps outside of your area is crucial for connecting the broader themes that usually give rise to high-impact research.
Panelist Joshua Greene of Harvard University came to cognitive science as a philosopher and still considers himself a “recovering philosopher.” While he admitted he is not sure whether he considers himself “a role model or cautionary tale,” Greene said it is important to keep focused on the most interesting questions that you want to answer and not just how to “tweak” your experiment slightly and “turn the crank”. He suggested investing time thinking about new ideas and investing in your intellectual life as a student even if the immediate benefits are not clear.
Panelist Lindsey Drayton, editor of Trends in Cognitive Sciences, mentioned breadth as being one of the reasons why she likes being an editor: She gets to see and read about a wide range of research topics, and part of her job is to keep up on the latest research trends coming from all corners of cognitive science. She keeps up, for example, by attending 6-7 conferences per year, travelling to visit laboratories, and reviewing approximately 40-50 papers annually. To keep a pulse on expanding areas of research, Lindsey also tracks journal analytics and who is getting young investigator and career awards.
In an ever-changing research and funding climate, breadth can also allow you ramp of certain lines of your research program as funding priorities wax and wane. Yassa said “I’m still not sure what I want to be when I grow up…I reserve the right to reinvent myself at any point in the future”
Learn to say no and protect your time
It was clear from the panel that both academics and industry folks know what it is to burn the midnight oil. It’s important, the panelists said to find a balance between your professional and personal lives.
As trainees transition from the “How to Do” of graduate school and post-doc to the “What to Do” of being a faculty member, Greene asked: “What are you willing to say no to in order to make room for the things you say yes to?” Yassa added: “What you end up doing is just as much a function of what you say no to as yes to.”
Both Olson and Murray talked about sometimes having to work extra hours, but it is important to remember that it comes in waves and it will end. And taking breaks, Olson said, can make a big difference. Olson also mentioned how much she has enjoyed her flexible schedule, especially as a parent of three kids. Murray suggested setting boundaries early and transparently, so that expectations are clear between you and your advisor or boss.
Consider positions outside of academia
When considering industry jobs, most trainees seem to go straight to talking about their ability to code (or a lack thereof). And while we look forward to hearing from a data scientist at a future panel, this year we had the chance to hear from a journal editor and client services VP at a biometric research company. Both Drayton and Murray agreed that is imperative that as a graduate student you tabulate and journal your day-to-day work, which will help reveal to you the clear, transferable skills, such as writing, that you have to offer a company.
Drayton found the posting for her editor position during her 6th year of graduate school and found the application itself very transparent and straightforward. She had searched the websites of journals she found interesting, attended job recruitment fairs, and utilized her university alumni network in her quest for a job outside of the laboratory. She also simultaneously applied to postdoc and industry positions during her final year of grad school.
When Murray realized during his 5th year of graduate school that if he continued in academia he would tear his hair out, he began networking for a job outside of academia. He assumed that no one would want to hire a Ph.D. in Psychology (which he now considers an erroneous idea!) but it was hard for him to know where to get started.
Murray landed his first industry job by emailing the CEO of a company to ask if he wanted to get coffee. The CEO said yes, and Murray has “never regretted making the jump to move out of academia.” Murray had done some statistics consulting as a “side gig” during graduate school and taught consistently throughout his time at Boston College. These became clear transferrable skills for his new role in industry, as he now spends a lot of time teaching people how to collect and analyze data and using biometric research software and hardware.
Murray also added that when he interviews academics, they tend to want to start talking about their dissertation project and he tends to push them away from that topic and toward their other experiences. And while this might not hold across all companies, it seems that the ability to be yourself under the pressure of an interview, hold a natural conversation, and highlight other skills outside of your dissertation project are a plus at an industry interview. Murray advised that if you find a non-academic job of interest to apply to it: “Even if you think you don’t qualify, the worst thing that can happen is that you lose an hour of your day”.
Thank you again to the amazing panelists for their time and insights! We look forward to another stellar line-up at the 4th annual Professional Development Panel at CNS 2019 in San Francisco!
This post was written by Sarah Kark (Boston College), with contributions from Holly Bowen (Boston College), Audreyana Jagger (Southern Illinois University), Samantha Cohen (CUNY Graduate Center), Lesya Gaynor (CUNY Graduate Center), and Marty Fiati (Anglia Ruskin University) of the CNS Trainee Association (CNSTA). Check out CNSTA on Twitter at @CNS_TA and on Instagram and Facebook @CNSTrainees.