March 13, 2014

Marc Mangel's Scientific Career Advice

Marc Mangel visited Simon Fraser University as this year’s Biology Graduate Student Society hosted speaker. He gave a career-advice workshop to about 15 lucky grad students. Each attendee submitted a question before, and Marc spent about 2 hours discussing his answers. My notes on the discussion are below. Thanks to Chris Mull, Jen Scholefield, Mike Beakes, and various others I’m sure, for their help organizing. Big thanks to Marc for taking the time to share his invaluable wisdom.

On things to think about as an independent contractor

Be generous with your time estimates.

Bill like a lawyer.

On setting rates: think of about 2000 hrs a year, take an equivalent position, and figure out an hourly rate. Double it because of the lack of benefits and because it’s not a 40 hour/week job.

On succeeding in academia with reasonable time and energy

Develop a writing habit. E.g. 1 hr per day, 1 page, everyday. This is very hard, but important.

Work on speeding up transitions between activities. E.g. maybe you go into a class less prepared to teach to avoid eating up time on the transition.

Learn what is important to be done well, and what just needs to be done.

Be proud of how hard you’re not working — only James Watson wants to talk about how hard he’s not working.

In terms of effort, things asymptote. E.g quality vs. effort when writing. Don’t get caught up near the asymptote.

On academia vs. other career options

If you feel you have to teach (i.e. teach classes formally) and your life will be missing something if you don’t, then academia might be for you… if you don’t feel that, then you should look much more broadly.

Think about what are the things that you really value and re-evaluate your expectations. “Expectations are for old men.”

This idea of academic intellectual freedom… it’s a falsehood once you get ingrained in grants and supervising. There can be lots of freedom outside of academia.

Your skills are transferable, you need to remember that skills like problem solving, creativity, programming, writing, speaking… these skills are applicable anywhere.

Within any university, department, even research group, there are multiple roads to success.

Different sectors “pay the piper” in different ways academic: teaching and committee work; industry: mundane report writing; government: policy work. Decide how you want to pay the piper.

On research impact

Look out for papers in Science or Nature that aren’t followed up on with a substantial paper on the methods in a less-public journal.

Research impact is not unidimensional.

On CVs

The most important thing about a CV — the first page should make you want to turn to the second page.

2nd most important thing (especially for those early in their career) is list of honours and awards — they demonstrate you’ve been vetted by other people.

Science and Nature are nice, but you want the bulk of your papers in the cadre of serious scientific journals.

Don’t add fluff to your CV; people will see through it. E.g. career goals on academic CVs, list of courses on academic CVs, hobbies.

On Marc’s most important career lesson

The most important thing Marc has learned professionally: don’t work with people you don’t enjoy working with no matter how good they are. “We don’t get paid enough.”

One way to manage this: don’t commit at the first meeting.

“There’s great virtue in quitting.” E.g. Bob Dylan quitting folk music.

On scientific activism

It’s important to stay on the environmental science side and not the environmental activism side.

Science: you know the question and seek the answer.

Activism: you know the answer and seek a question.

Science deals with could questions; activism deals with should questions.

On interviewing for jobs

When applying for jobs — there’s a fine line between enthusiasm and arrogance.

As colleagues, people want others who are “interesting” and also “interested in what I do”. Be able to walk into somebody’s office and say “tell me what you’re working on” and then ask an intelligent question.