Which institutions request external review for tenure files?

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Today, I’m submitting my file for promotion. It’s crazy to think I submitted my most recent tenure file five years ago, it feels closer to yesterday. Unless I get surprised (and it wouldn’t be the first time), I’ll be a full Professor if I’m here next year. And yet, throughout this entire process, there has been zero external validation of tenure and promotion. I think this is really odd. Continue reading

The elevator pitch: more harm than good?

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There’s lots of advice out there that scientists need an elevator pitch.

What are the properties of a good elevator pitch, other than its brevity? It shows:

  • focus without appearing myopic
  • prospects for cool discoveries
  • specific and broadly applicable relevance beyond your study system

So, do all scientists really need one? Do I really have to have one? Several years ago I lost it. I haven’t been able to find it. I’ve unsuccessfully tried to come up with a good one.

The best I’ve got is: Ants are really cool. Even if you’re crazy and you don’t think they’re cool, then by looking carefully at ants in one incredibly diverse patch of forest, I am figuring out a whole bunch of new stuff about ecology. And behavior.

Clearly, that’s a sucky elevator pitch.

It’s especially sucky because then my listener will ask, “what new stuff?” I have several different answers, each of which is a pitch unto itself. If I narrow it down, though, then it doesn’t represent what I do. Does this mean that I’m a failure because I’m unfocused? Or because I can’t communicate it effectively in a couple sentences? If my lab isn’t a failure, then am I failing at marketing? One or more of those statements are probably true.

Let’s put this in context.

You might first think of a certain person when asked to name an accomplished ant biologist. In case you didn’t know, the myrmecologists’ myrmecologist is Bert Hölldobler. I haven’t asked him what his elevator talk would be. (When I’ve crossed paths with him at meetings, I have been reluctant to disturb him. Even when he’s two chairs down from me having a beer. I had a similar feeling when I walked past John C. Reilly when I was out to lunch last month. I wouldn’t want to disturb his pleasant lunch by getting all excited that I saw him, though it’s moderately exciting, like finding a bird far outside its range or or stumbling on a Leptogenys colony in your field site. I might have friends who collaborate with him or work in his lab, but still, he’s frickin’ Bert Hölldobler. I’m pleased to retain some awe in his presence.)

By all accounts, Bert is great. I bet he has a cracking elevator speech, but if he does, could it encompass all of his main questions and goals? If so, that’s got to be an amazing speech. I would think it’d be hard to get beyond “cool stuff about ants” if I were in his shoes. Then again, nobody can fill Bert’s shoes. Still, take at look at what he’s done and try to construct a good elevator speech that fits the characteristics of a model elevator pitch. Can you do better than, [assuming Bert’s German accent] “I am discovering everything cool about ants that is known to humanity.” I think cell/molecular types would have the same trouble with Sydney Brenner, though that’s far from my realm.

Of course, in scientific contexts Bert Hölldobler doesn’t need an elevator speech, because he’s Bert Hölldobler. He just has to bust it out when visiting the National Academies, hobnobbing with folks in very different disciplines. Perhaps he could use it backstage with Ringo Starr, dancing with Michelle Obama, or at a baccarat table with a Jonathan Goldsmith.

Perhaps anybody who doesn’t attain Hölldobler-like status needs to have an elevator pitch. If you don’t aggregate a crowd of politely fawning admirers when you walk around a conference, then it’s your duty.

Clearly, grad students, postdocs and junior faculty members need to have an elevator talk. I apparently do have one too, because I’m called on task to produce it on a regular basis. Its characteristics do not fit the model elevator speech. On the spot, I do one of two things: I mention the one very specific thing I’m doing right now, which is exciting to me at the moment. Or, I say I work on all kinds of ecological questions involving litter-dwelling ants in this one rainforest in Costa Rica. These are both horrible, but it’s what I do.

And you know what: I embrace the lack of an elevator pitch. The broadness of the pitch itself defines my approach to science, in both its positives and negatives.

If you work on too many things, then people will say that you can’t get stuff done for lack of focus, that if you’re a jack of all trades then you can be a master of none. Go ahead and say that about Charles Darwin, Dan Janzen, or Bert Hölldobler. Did Leonardo DaVinci have an elevator speech?  Would it be wrong to model one’s approach to science after these folks?

These scientists had the goal of solving the problems that were in their paths, which resulted in sinuous journeys far from their starting points. Some problems were more persistent, and more fertile, than others. They probably were working on a variety of questions at the same time.

Are we training new scientists to use the elevator speech to define their research trajectories? Or are we just using it as a marketing tool? I hope it’s the latter. Use your elevator pitch with caution, because if you repeat something long enough, it becomes a part of you.

While playing around with ants, I’ve seen plenty weird stuff. Many things don’t make any sense to me at all, and defy any overt explanation. Such things usually are distant from what I am working on at the time, and all of them are out of sight from my dissertation elevator pitch. But, if I am equipped to tackle it, I’m all over it. If I’m not equipped, I might try anyway.

As a scientist at a teaching institution, I’ve had the freedom to work on whatever I want. Any worries about quantity or quality of research, or funding, are those that I impose on myself. So, I have the latitude to figure out weird stuff. Once I got over the notion that I didn’t have to run a unified research “program,” but could just do any ol’ research that I felt like doing, things got fun, and I’ve been doing better science. While working on weird stuff, I stumble on another weird thing and I get to work on that.

Weird stuff about ants isn’t an elevator pitch, but it is what propels my research program.

If I can encapsulate all of the major questions that I have in my brain at a moment, what does that say about my vision of the world and what I am trying to learn? We have enough scientists who spend their careers mining small corners of existence to increase the pool of knowledge. If you’re trying to describe and cure a disease, that’s probably a good idea.

If you’re doing basic research to explain how the world works, doing research that fits the model elevator pitch can be a trap. I suggest that the biggest discoveries happen when scientists go out of the prescribed lines of their elevator pitch and do something different. I do suppose if you’re funding a big lab, this approach makes it harder to keep the money train rolling.

Especially when communication becomes limited to 140 characters, or a few sentences, I often see junior scientists confusing their specific aims with a statement of research goals or a statement of purpose.

By all means, have an elevator pitch. But, please, let it describe what you’re doing right now, not your professional identity. You are more than a brand.

Build your elevator pitch, but don’t be limited by your own hype.