So What Do You Do?

Kieran Healy has dusted off and re-posted some very good advice about attending academic conferences. It’s the advice you really need — who to go to dinner with, how not to embarrass yourself when introducing people to each other — rather than boring stuff like how to give a good talk. The spirit of the approach is captured by this quote:

As with teenagers, conference attendees secretly and falsely believe that other groups are having a much better time… Your conference strategies should therefore be geared towards counteracting the tendency to re-live your teenage years.

It’s surprising to realize how much “smart ways to behave at conferences” are really just “smart ways to behave in life.” (Though probably it shouldn’t be that surprising — academics aren’t the special flowers we like to think we are.) This bit of advice in particular struck me as useful:

[If] you worry someone will ask you what you work on, have something to say that’s three sentences long and takes fifteen seconds to get through. Write it down and practice it if you like.

I think every person should do that all the time. As you go through life, there will be multiple occasions on which people ask you “What do you do?” (If you’re in academia or an otherwise creative field, it will be “What are you working on?”) A high percentage of the time, questions like that elicit an awkwardly long pause, or something deflecting like “Oh, you know, lots of things.”

It makes sense. In your mind, “what you do” or “what you’re working on” is this incredibly rich, diverse, tightly interconnected set of things, and here is someone you don’t know asking you to instantly distill it down to a pithy phrase. Outrageous! And what’s worse, if you actually give a substantive answer, you’ll inevitably be leaving something out. You think, “Well I could mention this one thing that I’m mostly thinking about, but it’s not really representative of what I’m usually doing, so maybe I should mention this other thing…”

It’s not really a good look. Think about your own feelings when you ask someone what they do, and they respond with “Oh, I don’t know” or “Oh, lots of things.” Really? You don’t know what you do? Are you a spy whose memories are wiped at the conclusion of each mission? I’m sure you do many things, but perhaps picking out one would provide me with more useful information? At a conference in particular, it’s not the best first impression.

It’s important to come to terms with the fact that there are no perfect answers to the whatdoyoudo/whatareyouworkingon kinds of questions — and yet, we should have answers ready. Ones that are confident, short, and convey just a bit of the necessary flavor, so that more detail can emerge over the course of further conversation, which after all is the point of these well-meaning interrogations. This is especially true if you’re going to academic meetings, but it holds for life more generally. As adults, we should be better at these everyday skills than we were as teenagers.

Unsolicited Advice: Becoming a Science Communicator

Everyone who does science inevitably has “communicating” as part of their job description, even if they’re only communicating with their students and professional colleagues. But many people start down a trajectory of becoming a research scientist, only to discover that it’s the communicating that they are most passionate about. And some of those people might want to take the dramatic step of earning a living doing such communication, whether it’s traditional journalism or something more new-media focused.

So: how does one make the transition from researcher to professional science communicator? Heck if I know. I do a lot of communicating, but it’s not my primary job. You’d be better off looking at this thread from Ed Yong, where he coaxed an impressive number of science writers into telling their origin stories. But lack of expertise has never stopped me from offering advice!

First piece of advice: don’t make the tragic mistake of looking at science communication as a comfortable safety net if academia doesn’t work out. Not only is it an extremely demanding career, but it’s one that is at least as hard as research in terms of actually finding reliable employment — and the career trajectories are far more chancy and unpredictable. There is no tenure for science communicators, and there’s not even a structured path of the form student → postdoc → faculty. Academia’s “up or out” system can be soul-crushing, but so can the “not today, but who knows? Maybe tomorrow!” path to success of the professional writer. It’s great to aspire to being Neil deGrasse Tyson or Mary Roach, but most science communicators don’t reach that level of success, just as most scientists don’t become Marie Curie or Albert Einstein.

Having said all that, here are some tips that might be worth sharing. Continue reading

Last-Minute Shopping List

I’ve been meaning for a while to do a post on “Books You Should Read,” but I put it off until the last minute (of 2011), so now it’s a shopping list. I’m sticking to books that came out in the last year or two, on subjects vaguely related to what we often talk about here on the blog, since I know people get grumpy when we deviate from the prescribed topics of conversation. And I’m trying to highlight books that aren’t already bestsellers, but deserve to be; I’m assuming you don’t need me to tell you about recent books by Lisa Randall, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, or Brian Greene. (Or me, or my lovely wife.) Note for late shoppers: Amazon will get you all of these in plenty of time for Christmas. And pre-emptive apologies to anyone whose book I didn’t include — probably because I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.

How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, by Mike Brown. My Caltech colleague Mike Brown is the person most responsible for getting Pluto demoted from planetary status, by discovering Eris and other Kuiper-belt objects. For a long time I thought it was silly to go to such trouble to re-classify a celestical body, but this book convinced me otherwise. Part of the reason is that Brown (or plutokiller on the Twitter) is an enormously engaging writer; few quasi-autographical science books have managed to mix the personal side with the science so effectively.
Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed, by Carl Zimmer. My sleeper pick for book of the year, Carl Zimmer’s compendium of science tattoos is a real delight. I’m not especially fascinated by tattoos or their own sake, but the beautiful photography here is matched by Carl’s fascinating descriptions of the science behind each one. This would make a great gift for just about anyone.
The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized, by Owen Flanagan. Western atheist/naturalists are occasionally criticized because we speak disapprovingly about traditional Western religions, while not paying attention to Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies. Here’s the book that redresses the balance, but in a very sympathetic mode. Flanagan is a thoroughgoing naturalist, but appreciates some of the insights into human nature that Buddhism has to offer. In this book he offers a careful philosophical examination of Buddhist beliefs and practices, in the light of modern scientific understanding of humanity and our universe.
The Infinity Puzzle: Quantum Field Theory and the Hunt for an Orderly Universe, by
Frank Close
. “Quantum Field Theory” is the scientific concept that, in my opinion, features the largest ratio of “people should be familiar with” to “people are familiar with.” Frank Close looks at the historical development of the subject, one of the great intellectual triumphs of the 20th century. I could nitpick (Ken Wilson isn’t even mentioned once?), but this book is full of great insights.

Continue reading

Unsolicited Advice: Non-Academic Careers

Since I know nothing very useful about the job market outside academia, I solicited suggestions for specific pointers and helpful websites. A bushel of useful advice and thought-provoking comments resulted.

My original idea was to summarize what I thought was the best advice, and turn it into a single post. This idea has been undermined by (1) me not knowing which advice is best, and (2) a wide variety of occasionally-contradictory advice, presumably all applicable in different circumstances.

So instead here I’m just going to link to some of the most promising-looking resources that were mentioned. I encourage you to read the comments on the original post to get more ideas, and chime in here to keep the conversation going.

Collections of Online Resources

Soliciting Advice: Non-Academic Careers for Ph.D.’s

While the previous post bemoans the lack of simple world-changing ways to make the career path for aspiring academics more pleasant (other than bushels of money falling from the sky, of which I would approve), there is one feasible thing that everyone agrees would be good: better career counseling for Ph.D. students, both on the realistic prospects for advancement within academia, and concerning opportunities outside.

I always try to be honest with my own students about the prospects for ultimately landing a faculty job. But like most faculty members, I’m not that much help when it comes to outside opportunities, having spent practically all my life within academia. I’m happy to give advice, but you’d be crazy to take it, since I have no idea what I am talking about.

But that’s a correctable state of affairs. So: I’m hereby soliciting good, specific career advice and/or resources for students who are on the track to get a Ph.D. (or already have one) and are interested in pursuing non-academic jobs. This might be particular jobs that are Ph.D.-friendly, or websites with good information, or relevant fellowships or employment agencies, or just pointers to other resources. (For example: do you know the difference between a CV and a resume?) The more specific the better, and including useful links is best of all. General griping and expressions of bitterness should be kept in the previous thread; let’s try to be productive. And there’s no reason to limit it to physics, all fields are welcome. Advice that is useful for only a tiny number of people, but extremely useful for them, is certainly sought. We’re looking for things that have a nontrivial chance of actually helping some specific person at a future date.

Most of all it would be great to have input from people who actually got a Ph.D. and then went on to do something else. But it’s the internet, everyone can chime in.

I will take what look like the most helpful suggestions and collate them into a separate post. Spread the word, let’s get as much input from different sectors as we can.