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Category: Careers

The Right Stuff for Scientists: Courage and Property

Posted in Careers, Coaching, and Leadership

One little secret, for young scientists who haven’t discovered it yet: the most accomplished scientists are not necessarily the brightest people in the field. Creativity and dogged determination are important, but two qualities also distinguish great researchers — courage, and the ability to claim ownership of one’s domain of expertise.

The courage to fail, and the acknowledgment that public failure is a possibility, is critical for a highly successful career. You need to be willing to promote your theories, even though they may be wrong or may be misunderstood. As an extreme version of this, see Richard Feynman’s wonderfully titled book: What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character. Before you stick your neck out at a conference or in a publication, you need to get informal feedback from colleagues. Once you feel confident about your work, however, you need to take the risk that you may make a fool of yourself — even if you are right.

In order to gain this confidence, and to have earned it, you must be able to claim some turf in your scientific territory. Care enough about what you have observed and understand its scientific value well enough that you can claim it as your own. There’s a tricky balance here: you must feel so confident of your work that you can defend it, yet you must be flexible enough to yield if you are proven wrong with good reason. Too many well-known scientists have repeated their disproven theories at conferences long after their closest colleagues have quietly written them off.

Are you a genius whose work nobody understands, or are you a stubborn, intractable person who won’t admit that you are wrong? Your closest associates can help here, if you let them. Listen to their logic, trusting that at least they don’t intend to shipwreck your career for the sake of their own success.

Once you can properly own your accomplishments, courage will come more easily. Junior scientists should look to their seniors for examples and inspiration. Find people who have persevered despite repeated rejections and eventually remade their fields. And don’t be afraid to be afraid. The only way to build your courage is to acknowledge and then ignore the fear.

If Journalists Wrote Like Scientists

Posted in Tenure and Promotion

Writing about scientific issues has improved dramatically in print and electronic media over the past decade. Part of this may be due to sustained efforts by scientists to insist upon accuracy and to complain when journalists get the science wrong. In addition, more and more people with scientific backgrounds are choosing to become journalists.

It’s striking that this trend towards greater critical thinking in science reporting has not spread into other subjects of coverage. I’m reminded of this particularly in the coverage of politics. This morning I heard a journalist interview a Clinton campaign member who argued that Clinton is the best choice because polls say she can beat McCain more decisively. An Obama supporter countered that he is in the best position to beat McCain because he has more support among Democrats. What would a trained natural or social scientist say in response to these claims? Like so many areas that journalists cover with a straight face, these arguments have so little weight to them that they are meaningless. There’s no basis for having any sense of probability that either assertion is true.

Some people may chafe at my complaint, claiming that you can’t apply experimental methods or probability theory to test the viability of a candidate who isn’t even facing off with their opponent from the other party. That’s right. So why not challenge the supporters’ claims as mere puffery or, better yet, ignore them and move on to more substantial matters?

Reporters put up daily with pseudoscientific interpretations of poll data, which are about as reliable as weather predictions — pay attention to the forecast for the next three days, but bring your umbrella just in case. If journalists took a hard look at what they are reporting, it would be a very short news day. Which would leave more time to play good music instead. I’m all for that.
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The Sorry State of Coaching

Posted in Tenure and Promotion

Sadly, there is no science of coaching. Professional coaching at its best is largely based on rules of thumb, heuristics, trial and error, a limited amount of psychology, a bit of wisdom and a dash of hope.

Coaching is the proper domain of empirical psychology. The field must move towards relying on empirically validated methods for helping people identify goals, motivating them to achieve those goals, and supplying the training and support they need to get there.

When universities fully invest in the study of coaching as an applied, interdisciplinary profession, things will dramatically change. You will see a shakeout in the coaching world, and clients will be able to more reliably evaluate and choose good coaches.

Most coaching training currently takes place in private institutes, using methods inherited from self-help movements, new age philosophy, and psychological techniques that were popular in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The only qualification for enrolling in coaching training is a credit card. I expect that most of these schools, and the methods they use, will vanish when coaching is established on empirical foundations. I can’t wait.

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