bioinformatics, genomes, biology etc. "I don't mean to sound angry and cynical, but I am, so that's how it comes across"

How to stand out in academic scientific research

Edit 28/04/2014: alternate views here and here  (though of course I didn’t state 80 hours – I said 37.5 + 10-20 hours)

This post is aimed at young academic scientists, particularly post-docs.  Please note, I am a biologist, so some of my recommendations may be specific to this field.

A huge number of tweets appear in my feed about the lack of opportunities/jobs for young students in academic science, and there is an excellent piece in Nature Biotechnology that addresses the problem.  The paper contains this scary graph:

nbt.2706-F1The scary graph is accompanied by the scary text:

Since 1982, almost 800,000 PhDs were awarded in science and engineering (S&E) fields, whereas only about 100,000 academic faculty positions were created in those fields within the same time frame

This looks terrible.  This is clearly competition in academic science, and with way more PhDs being awarded than faculty positions being created, there is a problem.  Rather than add to the noise of people calling for change, I thought I’d try and produce some recommendations for what to do in the current system – and I’m certainly not alone in doing this.


DISCLAIMER 1: these are my views and in no way do they represent the views of my current employer, any of my past employers, or any of my future employers

DISCLAIMER 2: this post does not mean that I endorse the current “system”.

DISCLAIMER 3: I work in bioinformatics, and I know many bioinformaticians work in “support” or “service” based bioinformatics.  The recommendations for you guys are different, and the post below is not for you; read it, by all means, there is some useful advice for you in there; but the piece below is aimed for those who want a career in research.

How to stand out as a post-doc

These are recommendations on how to get noticed based on my 11 years’ experience as a PI in academic science in the UK.

1. Learn to write papers

You may be suffering under the illusion that something else in your career matters, but you’d be wrong.  Nothing else matters, other than publications.  Not your skills, not your experience, nothing.  Having your name on peer-reviewed publications is the major, if not the only, aspect of your career that you will be judged on.  It’s what will get you your next post-doc; it’s what will get you promoted; and a lack of it is what will get you ignored.

When I mean “write papers”, I mean when the results are in and no other work needs to be done, going from those results to a first draft that other authors can comment on and change.  I’ll break this down into sections:

Introduction: as a post-doc, you may not have the encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject area that your PI does, so the intro will be tough, but at the very least you should be able to identify relevant related papers from the literature, write a few sentences about each, and explain why you did the research

Methods: If you are the senior post-doc author on the paper, this should be simple and quick.  It’s what you did.  Write it up.  If you’re a great post-doc, you already have a perfect record of it in your lab notebook.

Results: Again, if you are the person who produced the results, you should be able to write these up too, without much difficulty.  If you need inspiration on presentation style, look at how other papers have presented similar results (it’s not OK to plagiarise, but it is OK to be inspired by).

Discussion: This might be the toughest section of all, but you should be able to have a stab at a few paragraphs.  Your PI may rip these to shreds, but you should have enough knowledge about the subject area to say how your results enhance knowledge in the area, what the implications are and how they relate to previously published work

References: Possibly the biggest source of frustration.  You cannot make any factual statement in a paper without backing it up with a reference (or results).  As a post-doc, you should know about referencing; and you should know about referencing the correct paper (e.g. reference the original work, not a review)

2. Write fast

OK, so you know how to write papers (see point 1 above).  Now, here’s the thing – to really stand out, you need to learn how to do it quickly.  Most areas of science move very quickly, and therefore your PI probably spends most of their time in fear of being scooped.  You are no use to your PI if you take 6 months to go from results to a first draft of a paper.

I’ll try and give some benchmarks: last year, I wrote a grant application in 3 days, totally 4808 words.  So that’s 1800 words of properly referenced and formatted, structured and edited scientific text per day.  At that rate, a 35000 word thesis would have taken me less than 3 weeks to write.  I’d say most PIs can write a first draft paper in 2-3 days.  You’re not a PI, so you can take longer, but we’re talking 1-2 weeks maximum here.  Here’s some rough ideas of what I would expect from a good post-doc:

  • Time from results to a first draft paper: 1-2 weeks
  • Time taken to write 30 minute powerpoint presentation: 1-2 hours
  • Time taken to write conference poster: 1 hour

There are always going to be cases where the above expectations are too high – but remember, the point of this post is that I’m telling you how to stand out from everyone else.

3. Know more than your PI 

This can be split into i) knowledge, and ii) skills.  Let’s tackle the first one, knowledge:

Picture the scene.  You open up your e-mail software, and sat in your inbox is an e-mail from your PI.  They’ve found a paper, very recently published, it’s relevant to your project, they’re excited about it and they think you should read it.  Good.  This happens in labs all the time throughout the World.

Now reverse the scenario – your PI is opening their e-mail software, and the e-mail is from you, the post-doc, about a hot-off-the-press paper that you think is relevant.  You’re excited about it and you think they should read it.  That.  That’s what you need to do to stand out.

Now, onto skills.  The very, very best way to ensure you are employed constantly is to have skills that are in demand; to be able to do something that people need.  I can’t really say much more than that – just figure out the one skill that your PI needs above anything else and learn it; become irreplaceable.  You’d be amazed how quickly PIs will find funding to keep you on if your skills are i) rare, and ii) essential for their future research.  (HINT: from my own experience, bioinformatics skills are a good bet)

4. Finish stuff

I’m going to invoke “Watson’s 90:10” rule here (others may have coined this already; please tell me if so!).  Basically, the rule states that:

90% of the work will take 10% of the time; the remaining 10% of the work will take 90% of the time

I invoke this in many different scenarios, so don’t get confused, but in this scenario I mean that, often, the published paper is the 10%.  Don’t underestimate how much work it is, or how long it will take.  Be the person who can do the 90% and the 10%.

You may not be aware of it, but there are many theories of roles within teams, and you can read about some of those roles here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Team_Role_Inventories. In particular, look at the “Finisher” role, which I replicate here:

The Finisher is a perfectionist and will often go the extra mile to make sure everything is “just right,” and the things he or she delivers can be trusted to have been double-checked and then checked again. The Completer Finisher has a strong inward sense of the need for accuracy, and sets his or her own high standards rather than working on the encouragement of others. They may frustrate their teammates by worrying excessively about minor details and by refusing to delegate tasks that they do not trust anyone else to perform.

Everything but the last sentence is very good advice for how to stand out as a post-doc.  Be a finisher.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that ideas are easy – many people have them, and it’s rare that you find an original idea anyway.  Don’t rely on being the “ideas person”; far more valuable is the person who takes ideas and turns them into a finished product (in academic circles: the paper).

And just to add to that, point 2 is relevant here.  Yes, double-check and check again – but make sure that this doesn’t take months to do; time is hugely important in scientific research.  Do it, but do it quickly!

So in summary, my recommendations are: learn to turn your research outputs into papers, and learn how to produce research outputs in a short space of time; learn skills that are rare and in high demand; and learn how to take projects to completion.

Now a few opinions on the next step – becoming a PI

Making the transition from post-doc to PI

Your opportunities to do this will be limited by only one thing: publications. What counts is the number you have, whether or not you are first author, and the perceived impact of the research.  There it is.  That’s the current system.  At the very least, you will need lots of first author papers before anyone will consider you for a PI position; and at worst, you will need some of those publications to be in high impact journals.

Another thing to consider is that there is attrition in every area.  Not every estate agent will become branch manager; not every salesperson will become area manager; not every post-doc will become a PI.  Some people inevitably will never go beyond post-doc level in academic science.  That’s expected.

Before you decide you want to become a PI, let’s look at the species in all their glory (?!).  For some people, science is a job, for others it is a way of life;  for some, reading and writing about scientific research is a chore, for others it is a pleasure.  Are you the person who will spend their evenings and weekends reading papers, not because they are paid to do it, but because that’s what they enjoy doing?  In all cases, I’d say that PIs are enriched for the second set of characteristics.  They live and breath their science.  They do what they do for love, not money.

Ask yourself: are you that person?

Forget for a moment about whether it is right, or moral, or ethical.  We are where we are, the system might change, but that’s not what this post is about.  The majority of PIs I know work long hours, and they do it willingly; their employer doesn’t even have to ask.  It’s just what they do.

Are you like this?  Do you want to be like this?  Do you have what it takes to be like this?

Sure, it should be possible for someone to work 37.5 hours per week and still get senior positions in academic science;  it should be the case.  However, I fear it is not.  And what incentive does the academic science have to change?  What universities have are a workforce who happily work their 37.5 hours per week and then stick an extra 10-20 hours per week on top voluntarily.  A workforce who don’t take their entire annual leave allowance.  A workforce who work when they are sick and rarely take time off.

If that’s to change, then there is a lot of work to be done; until then, that’s what you have to do to go from being a post-doc to a PI – be willing to work, live and breath your scientific discipline.

Ask yourself: Is it really what you want?  If so, good luck to you; if not, there is no shame in that, and good luck in your alternative science career!


  1. Most of this is true – learnign to be efficient and productive is a research skill. Preparing good figures as you go means slides are very quick to prepare. Practice storytelling and flow, rehearse in your head before you even sit down to write.
    Every minute is an investment. After a certain point that investment is a lost opportunity for a higher value task. Do lab meeting talks need to be fully polished (my former colleagues will know my opinion on that – but they were clear and carried the points over).
    What matters is delivering papers, and presentations which are just good enough to get the job done aid that – polishing to fantastic is a conceit that takes time away from the primary function.

  2. A lot of truth in this blog. And once you have tenure it does not get easier all of a sudden.
    I find that I spend a lot of my ‘overtime’ on doing my ‘scientific duties’. All the things that get you very little merit but you need to do them to keep the academic machine rolling: paper reviews, grant reviews, editorial work, committee membership of a learned society. All these things are important. They help your CV a tiny little bit but if you invested all that energy in writing papers and grants you would certainly do your career a favour. But then again: we need to keep the academic machinery rolling.

  3. wow. This may be ‘good’ advice for wanting to get ahead in academia, but I just can’t get behind it as advice I’d actually give anyone, either for their life or for their science. Its telling that the word ‘think’ appears three times in the post – all in context of what your PI thinks of you and not once in the context of actually thinking about your science, taking the time to really think and mull over a problem. Being meticulous, careful. I know its not really the fashion in science these days, but I think that those things are more important and trying to stand out, than worrying about getting scooped.

    And I don’t know a single scientist who write *good* talks in 2-3 hours, or *good* posters in an hour, or writes a *good* first draft in 1-2 weeks.

    Sorry Mick, I’m just not with you on this one.

  4. At the end of the day, there are no silver bullets. You can follow this or any other advice, work your ass off and still end up with no job, no grants, no access to facilities because there are too many qualified people (many following this kind of advice) and not enough jobs.
    Work hard and work smart you will increase your chance of succeeding, but have a backup plan because luck is a HUGE factor-and that’s true inside and outside of academia whether people like to think about it or not.

  5. I like this post. Actually I love it. I’ve already RTd the shit out of it. And yet, there’s a key piece of information that the author, Dr. Angrypants, did not include. “Just HOW do I get myself to the point where I can write a manuscript in thirty-five minutes?” you may be asking yourself. The answer (and there is an answer) is Practice. Practice, practice, practice and practice some more and then practice way more. I daresay the author took a little longer to draft his first paper than he did his most recent one. Set a goddam egg timer, and force yourself to write a page about your research topic in twenty minutes. Then try over set for fifteen. And so on. I’m serious. This WORKS.

    I also disagree that you should ASK YOURSELF shit over and over again. I do this to myself all the time and it doesn’t do me any damn good, probably because I never give myself the same answer twice. “I love this shit and I was born for nothing else!” I screamed into the mirror this morning, and yet my day will end with me on my knees begging my technician to shoot me so I don’t have to go to a faculty meeting. You can love and hate this business at the same time, it’s perfectly acceptable. Also, it’s actually quite optional for you to believe that you are cut out for this business, as the business has a tendency to decide these things for itself.

    I love the part about find an important paper your PI hasn’t read and send it to her. You can totally distinguish yourself that way, he’s right. It’s the little things in life that make all the difference …

  6. Two quick thoughts:
    1 – Major point missing from the postdoc-to-PI transition is teaching skills. I taught a course as a contract instructor alongside my final postdoc, and that gave me enormous help in generating a teaching portfolio that otherwise would have been only TA work.
    2 – Postdocs have to allow themselves to get distracted to give themselves breadth. A project that you design or are hired to carry out might sound great at the outset, but you don’t want to tie your career to the results of that project. Get out and collaborate, help people with the skills you bring to the table, chip in with grad students and faculty. My most interesting work has always been the side projects, and those have then developed into full research programmes of their own.

  7. Hi Nick, thanks for the comment and thanks for reading! Not everyone will agree with me, of course, and I think most debate has been about the timings I have set out. I don’t want this to detract from the overall message, though, which is that post-docs need to turn their work into a product/impact (most often, papers); that they should learn how to do this quickly; that they should learn skills that are unique and valuable; and that they should learn how to finish projects. I disagree with you that I have not dealt with being “meticulous” – I emphasize a definition of a “finisher” who is a “perfectionist” who gets things “just right” is “double-checked”. These qualities are important and I do emphasize them in the post – it’s just that I think they need to be done quickly 🙂

    My favourite tweet about this post was this: https://twitter.com/Fish_Genomics/status/460679332999204864 and the statement “finished is better than excellent”. I think this is particularly true when dealing with large datasets – if you take the time to iron out all of the problems in a large dataset, then you will never publish it.

    I know PIs who set their post-docs a target of 3 papers per year, at least one of which should be in a “high impact” journal. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, but it certainly “is”. To be able to do that, they need to be able to write, and write fast 🙂

  8. So I think one of the reasons UK PhD students are asked to write 35,000 – 50,000 word theses for their project is to give them exactly that – practice at writing. Starting a blog can help to a small extent, and young post-docs may find it easier to start writing small papers such as a Gigascience data note or a Genome report. It’s also worth reading other papers – to learn about structure and presentations. As I said above, it is NOT OK to plagiarise, but it IS OK to be inspired by. Good papers will have a flow, a story, and learning this from published papers helps.

  9. Yes, I agree about the teaching, certainly in a University setting, though of course there are other academic careers.

    What’s best for the post-doc – well that’s not what the post is about 😉

  10. I noticed ‘help out your teammates’ and ‘do research and innovate’ is not on here. That’s why I left for industry despite some options in academia. While still imperfect as any work environment inevitably is, I have found it way more results and team-oriented than any experience I had (or any of my peers have described) in academia.
    That’s not to say I wouldn’t love the idealized version of academia, just that the system, set up as it is, does not appeal to me.

  11. Going forward, we expect the state-dependent systems to collapse on their own weights and the mobile creative or anti-fragile way of living life to take over. Therefore, we ask you to read BioMickWatson’s “How to stand out in academic scientific research” with a grain of salt.

  12. nice advices. but it would have been perfect if you have left out those unrealistic and dishonest suggestions targeting only publication and PI. what about science and useful findings?

  13. Well it’s all science, and useful findings are in fact useless unless you publish them.

    (ignoring the niche cases that generate IP and go down a different route to impact)

  14. Parkour queen

    17th May 2014 at 2:41 pm

    It is with a heavy heart that I have to agree with some of the advice Mick gives. When I rule the world, the career path for a post-doc will be different, but until then you may have to try and achieve the above things in order to standout. I really want to write a post about work/life balance or raising a family whilst being a post doc but I feel offering some advice on maintaining your mental health in order to achieve what Mick set out is more relevant here. If you are already dripping in self confidence and have no problem with the expectations above, then don’t read on. Well done and good luck. If you are like the rest of us and find the reality of the life as a researcher daunting and overwhelming but want to do it anyway, read on. It is very easy to loose focus when things are not going your way. Once self doubt has crept in, procrastination, guilt and fear will all combine to prevent you from being able to have a poo within a two hour time frame never mind write a paper or a talk.
    If you really want to stand out at as a post-doc, you will need to keep these demons out of your head. If you can follow Mick’s advice with dignity, grace and calm this will certainly be noticed. I have seen people loose it under the pressure. I know someone who was escorted from a departmental talk ranting about pickled onions and spent the next week in a mental health institute. I also know someone who was caught sabotaging their colleagues work and ended up with a criminal record. It happens. Please don’t let it happen to you. Here are 10 top tips to keep your mind brilliant and focused and may prevent you from crying into a large glass of red wine every night.

    1) Keep an outside interest.
    We all know this is good for us but we rarely make sure we do it. Try yoga, skydiving, running, blogging, juggling, reading, cross stitch, mountain biking, knitting, baking or urban freerunning. Just do something else as well as science, even if it is only once a week. It’s ok, science won’t think you’re cheating on it. Letting your brain have some science ‘time out’ will improve your powers of scientific interpretation and general focus.

    2) Get used to the disappointments.
    There will be good lab times and bad lab times. Learn to deal with it, or this will destroy you. If you are driven and love science, experiments not working might well tear your soul apart. Try a personal mantra, “I am a good post-doc and I will have a nature paper within the next year”, or something more personal to your project like “Galanin neurons are super cool, and Galanin neurons in the medial preoptic area do govern parental behaviour and I will prove it before the year is out”.
    Maybe try mindful meditation (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-courage-be-present/201001/how-practice-mindfulness-meditation).
    This will help you appreciate the here and now. There is nothing quite like the joy of a successful experiment or the euphoria of a paper being accepted into a high impact journal. Appreciate the good times and ride them for as long as you can.

    3) You may have to do things you don’t agree with.
    I don’t mean sleeping with your boss/PI. This may make you stand out, but for all the wrong reasons.
    So you are clever and opinionated and consider yourself above selling out. Unfortunately you are going to have to do things you don’t like as a post doc. Whether it is writing that paragraph at the end of your fellowship application where you state that the rare cricket virus you work on will eventually solve world famine or slanting your research to match the current publishing trends, you will have to whore yourself just a little bit. We all know there are “sexy topics” and bandwagons to be jumped on. The sad truth is if you follow the publishing trends you are more likely to get published. Just keep in mind that once you have the high impact publications, people will know and respect you, and you will be able to write papers on the things you really believe in and then you will be the one setting the trends.

    4) Get a good mentor.
    This should be someone you respect, who is not in your lab. You can go to this person for career advice and perhaps a none specialist scientific perspective on your research. Learn to take criticism well. (Sleeping with your mentor isn’t as bad as sleeping with your boss/PI as long as neither of you are married, but still it is not recommended)

    5) Banish the green-eyed monster.
    Good morning everyone, I’d like to introduce you to the new lab post-doc, Stella. She got three Nature papers from her PhD, she has three children, including a set of twins, she breast fed them all, she is funny, kind and she gets a science paper within three months of joining the lab even though she appears to only spend five hours a day there. Believe me, these people exist. The best thing to do is befriend them and hope their successes rub off on you, or keep a professional relationship with them but keep a voodoo dolly version of them under your pillow.

    Do not show them or anyone else you are in the least bit intimidated by them. This will make you look self conscious and desperate. You are not them, but that is fine. You are still going to succeed! Wondering how they do it will waste valuable energy and time. Do not put cyclohexomide in their cell cultures in the middle of the night. You will not feel good about this and you may end up in prison.

    6) Drop the dead donkey.
    There are some projects that you need to let go of. This may be because the project subject matter in no longer trendy and will not get published even though the experiments are working well. There are those other projects, the ones you keep going at, even though they are just not working. It is a skill to recognise you are flogging a dead horse. In the words of my favourite disney princess “let it go”. These projects will rob you of vital energy for the other worthwhile projects. Kill them before they kill your career and suck away all your self-worth.

    7) Help other lab members.
    This may eat into your paper writing time, but helping others makes you feel good about yourself. And you never know, you might even learn something from the person you are helping.

    8) Learn to ask questions at conferences.
    This sounds like practical advice to help you stand out, but it isn’t. Recognising that the professors and lab heads around you don’t know everything will help you realise that it is ok not to know everything. This will help you avoid the self doubt onset. Asking questions in front of your peers is the first step to removing the shackles of self consciousness and becoming one of them. Start by asking simple questions about the methods they used. This will help you get used to the sound of your own voice echoing around a large auditorium. As you get more confident start to ask questions relating to the bigger picture of people’s research. Most experimental designs are based on at least one assumption. People will remember you and come and chat to you. This will make you feel clever and confident. Always ask your questions in a polite and respectful manner. You are aiming for an air of self confidence not the ‘Biggest twat in your field’ award.

    9) Don’t be too hard on yourself.
    Even though you eat, breath and sleep science there will be times when you will have other things going on. That’s OK, that’s life. Sometimes other things are more important than science. A new romance, a family death, a new baby or a new pet guinea pig called George can all be a distraction and you may take your eye off the prize momentarily. It is no secret that the post-doc years for most people coincide with the procreative period of their life. I could not possibly write a talk in two hours when I have only had 3 hours sleep in the last 72, I am covered in solidified weetabix, my nipples are sore and leaking milk and I have just discovered my eldest has given me headlice again. It is OK to have a few months when you are not performing at your best. Don’t beat yourself up about it. These things come in waves. In a few month’s time your nipples will be back to normal, you will be sleeping well and the novelty of George will have worn off. A productive period is always around the corner. Who said your three yearly papers have to be equally spread out? You can write them all in one productive month if you choose.

    10) Maintain a level of perspective.
    So you have worked your arse off and the papers still haven’t come. So what? At least nobody is dead, which is possible in some jobs. The sad truth is that the work you do as a researcher isn’t going to impact the world tomorrow. It might be time to accept that although you think that ladybird spot development is the coolest subject in the world and deserves to be on the front cover of Science, it is possible that nobody else really gives a shit. Maintain a good sense of humour about it all and you will get through the hard times. Try not to worry, I hear Starbucks are recruiting……

    I didn’t mean for this reply to be so long. I just started typing and couldn’t stop. Sorry. Also, I don’t mean to sound like I am poking fun at the power of stress. It is a serious issue.

  15. Really great blog. I am a PhD student and glad I have read this. The graph is scary and we all need tips on how to stand out, even as a first year PhD student, these are things to think about!

  16. I love your tips. I love your humor even more! The mental health issue in research is huge!
    As a lucky person who had a Science paper during her PhD years, I had a slow-evolved depression when I learned that the expected funding could not be realized and I am running out of fellowship term and money. The research project goes very well, but I felt a failure – I should have carried it into greatness if I had the exta money. Hence, the self doubt totally crepted in. I doubt if I could even get positions in academia; I doubt if I am too amibitous to aim for a faculty/lab head job; I even doubt if I could ever have a family. I almost used the career advice office as a cousulting service. Now I started to recover, knowing that no one is going to die and the world will not burst into dust when my fellowship term ends, and my only paper during first post-doc will be submitted and evenually published. It won’t be a Science paper again, but that is alright. Most importantly, my science life will continue – if I am good enough, whatever will be will be.

  17. Great work. You have laid out your tips clearly and in a very easy way for anyone to understand.

  18. Mesut Erzurumluoglu

    10th January 2017 at 4:02 pm

    Hi Mick; although I also agree with some of the comments above (from others) regarding the time it should take to write a paper etc, still thanks for this very informative post!
    As a young postdoc (currently aged 28) in a similar field as yourself (just with a better sounding title i.e. computational biologist), I struggle to see how I can get a permanent post at a research-intensive university without many years of experience and/or many lucky breaks with regards to results/publications. If I become 40, I’m scared that I then run the risk of losing my current enthusiasm and energy 🙁 We’ll see how it pans out 🙂
    Keep up the good work as there are many who need advice from the ones who’ve been there and done it.

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