Much of my time lately has been consumed with two seemingly unrelated activities: reading job applications and reviewing conference papers.
Reading job applications requires me to evaluate a person’s credentials, teaching and research experience, letters of recommendation, and countless other intangibles—all on paper—to determine whether this person might “fit” what we are looking for in a colleague.
Reviewing conference papers requires me to evaluate the validity and importance of the research question, the soundness of the science, the relevance of the results, and the correctness of the interpretation of the results, to determine whether this paper “fits” the definition of “good science” as well as the scope of the conference.
There is one key commonality between them: in both cases, it’s very important that the author tells a good story.
When I was a lowly postdoc in an industrial research lab (lo these many years ago), I had a string of bad luck in terms of paper rejections. A senior colleague in my group kindly offered to review my most recent paper. When we sat down to discuss it, the first thing he said was “the science is great, but where’s the story?” He then explained to me the importance of framing my work, and that if I connected the dots in a plausible and convincing way then my reviewers wouldn’t have to, and in fact (assuming the science was acceptable) that this would increase my chances of having my work accepted.
He was right, of course, and I’ve taken that advice to heart ever since. And indeed, the better my story/framing, the more likely my work is to be accepted.
I was reminded of this as I recently read through (virtual) piles of applications and paper submissions. The best applications, by and large, were the ones that told a plausible and convincing story about the person’s trajectory and, importantly, why that person wanted to work at our institution. This is especially important at a teaching-oriented institution—we want to make sure that people know what they’re getting into and what the expectations are, and that they not only accept this but embrace it. Similarly, the best conference paper submissions both presented good science and made me care about why the science was done in the first place.
There’s a real downside to deciding not to tell a good story, of course. In a perfect world, I’d have more than enough time to evaluate each application or paper slowly, carefully, and deliberately, while well-rested and stress-free. In reality, I’m perpetually sleep-deprived, cranky, and overcommitted, facing down a large (virtual) pile of applications and/or paper submissions and with limited time and cognitive resources to commit to each. A paper or application that tells a good story and connects the dots for me reduces my cognitive load and allows me to concentrate more fully on the science, or the credentials and experience. A paper or application that skips the story increases my cognitive load and distracts me from the science or the credentials/experience. Instead of focusing on the science, I hyper-focus on why the authors chose that particular set of measurements and left out another more suitable set, or find myself nit-picking their approach to the problem. Instead of focusing on the credentials and experience, I wonder why the person didn’t follow the traditional promotion trajectory, or what circumstances are really driving them to apply for the job, or what that off-hand sentence in that letter of recommendation really means. In the absence of a story, I provide my own, and you can bet the story I come up with probably won’t be as flattering or as charitable as the one you’d most likely tell me.
The moral of this story? Storytelling really does matter. Storytelling is a skill well worth developing and honing, and one which frankly doesn’t get enough respect or recognition. While a good story doesn’t preclude the need for good science or good credentials, it can enhance the visibility of your good science or your good credentials, leaving your reviewers and evaluators with warm, happy feelings about you and/or your work. (And happy reviewers/evaluators usually means happy results for you!)