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Abstract

Keeping a visible record of your rejected applications can help others to deal with setbacks, says Melanie Stefan.
Although some young scientists embrace
media engagement (see page 365 for a profile
of one of them), many remain nervous. “I’ve
had some young postdocs in politically charged
institutions whisper to me, ‘Hey, I have to wait
until I have tenure, and then you’ll hear from
me’,” says Baron, adding that caution is some-
times warranted. In her book, Escape from
the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making Your Sci-
ence Matter (Island Press, 2010), she cites the
example of Martin Krkosek, a biologist who as
a graduate student helped to show that sea-lice
infestations linked to farmed salmon in Can-
ada were hurting wild salmon populations.
Between 2005 and 2007, he published in Science
and elsewhere, and often spoke to the media.
Controversy swirled. The salmon aquaculture
industry refuted the findings, suggesting that
the infestations were natural; but in 2008, Brit-
ish Columbia put a moratorium on fish-farm
expansion, owing in part to Krkosek’s work. He
says that his media outreach may have hurt his
cause at some departments where he applied
for positions. At others it was an asset. “Wait-
ing for tenure may be safer for career advance-
ment in some instances,” says Krkosek, now in a
tenure-track position at the University of Otago
in New Zealand. “But opportunities for com-
municating with public and policy audiences
could be lost.
Young scientists should know the cultures of
their institutions, fields and laboratories before
they speak to the media, and find out whether fre-
quent interactions are frowned on, says Dennis
Meredith, author of Explaining Research: How
to Reach Key Audiences to Advance Your Work
(Oxford Univ. Press, 2010). And frequent media
interactions can be a time sink a big downside
for graduate students trying to finish a disserta-
tion, or postdocs in the middle of a big project.
Often, young scientists will run into an adviser
who thinks every minute away from the bench
is wasted”, says Cornelia Dean, long-time sci-
ence writer at The Ne w York Time s an d au tho r of
Am I Making Myself Clear? A Scientists Guide to
Talk ing to the Pub lic (Harvard Univ. Press, 2009).
“I think the culture needs to change,” says Dean.
“You may feel you don’t have media charisma,
and dont have the energy to do it, but you can
at least support the people doing it.
Lewenstein, though, believes that inves-
tigators baulk at student and postdoc media
involvement less than they used to. Four years
ago, when he asked the graduate students and
postdocs taking his science-communication
class how many of them were worried that
their adviser would find out they were there,
about half put their hands up. But when he held
the same workshop this year, no hands were
raised. “You need to recognize that there are
consequences of working with the media,says
Lewenstein. “But in the end its good both for
you as an individual, and for our overall society
if you’re connected with the public.
Gene Russo is the Careers editor at Nature.
A
couple of months ago, I received a let-
ter informing me that my fellowship
application had failed. On the same
day, Brazil’s World Cup squad announced
that football phenomenon Ronaldinho had
not been selected. “Cool,” I thought. “I am
like Ronaldinho.” But that thought offered
only little consolation. No scientist enjoys
such failures, but too often we hide them.
In a way, a fellowship rejection is to be
expected. Most of these fellowships have
success rates of about 15%, meaning that an
applicant might be successful in only one out
of every seven tries. For every hour I’ve spent
working on a successful proposal, I’ve spent
six hours working on ones that will be rejected.
I don’t mind the extra work — after all, if I
abhorred tedious tasks with low chances of
success, I would not be in research.
Even so, this means that for every endorse-
ment, there are about six challenges to my
ability, my determination and my vision. I
find this harder to swallow. Perhaps this is
because I have generally succeeded so far.
I did well at school and later at university,
earned the PhD position of my dreams, and
have published several papers. This is the
story that my CV reveals.
But that is exactly the problem. My CV does
not reflect the bulk of my academic efforts
it does not mention the exams I failed, my
unsuccessful PhD or fellowship applications,
or the papers never accepted for publication.
At conferences, I talk about the one project
that worked, not about the many that failed.
As scientists, we construct a narrative of
success that renders our setbacks invisible
both to ourselves and to others. Often, other
scientists’ careers seem to be a constant,
streamlined series of triumphs. Therefore,
whenever we experience an individual fail-
ure, we feel alone and dejected.
Such is not the case with every profession.
Consider Ronaldinho. A football player can-
not hide his setbacks. Everything is out in the
open — every failure to be selected for a big
competition, every injury, every missed pen-
alty is on display. Maybe this is a good thing. It
shows young aspiring players what it means to
be a football player. It helps them to cope with
their own setbacks.
So here is my suggestion. Compile an alter-
native’ CV of failures. Log every unsuccess-
ful application, refused grant proposal and
rejected paper. Don’t dwell on it for hours, just
keep a running, up-to-date tally. If you dare
— and can afford to — make it public. It will
be six times as long as your normal CV. It will
probably be utterly depressing at first sight. But
it will remind you of the missing truths, some
of the essential parts of what it means to be a
scientist — and it might inspire a colleague to
shake off a rejection and start again.
Melanie Stefan kee ps a P ostdo c Jour nal at
go.nature.com/yd2cjs and is a postdoc in
neurobiology at the California Institute of
Technology in Pasadena.
ColumN
A CV of failures
Keeping a visible record of your rejected applications can
help others to deal with setbacks, says Melanie Stefan.
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18 NOVEMBER 2010 | VOL 468 | NATURE | 467
CAREERS
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