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Despite your graduate education, brainpower, and technical prowess, your career in scientific research is far from assured. Permanent positions are scarce, science survival is rarely part of formal graduate training, and a good mentor is hard to find.

In A Ph.D. Is Not Enough!, physicist Peter J. Feibelman lays out a rational path to a fulfilling long-term research career. He offers sound advice on selecting a thesis or postdoctoral adviser; choosing among research jobs in academia, government laboratories, and industry; preparing for an employment interview; and defining a research program. The guidance offered in A Ph.D. Is Not Enough! will help you make your oral presentations more effective, your journal articles more compelling, and your grant proposals more successful.

A classic guide for recent and soon-to-be graduates, A Ph.D. Is Not Enough! remains required reading for anyone on the threshold of a career in science. This new edition includes two new chapters and is revised and updated throughout to reflect how the revolution in electronic communication has transformed the field.


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Science / Careers

scientific research is far from assured. Permanent positions are scarce, science career
prep is rarely part of formal graduate training, and a good mentor is hard to find.

In A PhD Is Not Enough!, physicist Peter J. Feibelman lays out a rational path to a fulfilling

long-term research career. He offers sound advice on selecting a thesis or postdoctoral adviser;
choosing among research jobs in academia, government laboratories, and industry; preparing



espite your graduate education, brainpower, and technical prowess, your career in

“It took me over forty years to learn from experience what can
be learned in one hour from this guide.”— C a r l D j e ra ss i

for an employment interview; and defining a research program. The guidance offered in A PhD Is
Not Enough! will help you make your oral presentations more effective, your journal articles more
compelling, and your grant proposals more successful.

reading for anyone on the threshold of a career in science. This new edition includes two new
chapters and is revised and updated throughout to reflect how the revolution in electronic
communication has transformed the field.

“Breezily written, irreverent, and filled with useful information. I wish something like it had been

Cancer Center Director, University of Virginia, Charlottesville

available when I was starting out.”

“I loved A PhD Is Not Enough! I couldn’t put it down. His writing is delightful, and he is on target

Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of Applied Mathematics,
Cornell University; Author of N o n l i n e a r D y n a m i c s a n d C h a o s

with virtually all of his advice.”		

A P h D Is Not E n o u g h !

A classic guide for recent and soon-to-be graduates, A PhD Is Not Enough! remains required

A P h D Is
Not E n o u g h !
A Guide to Survival
in Science

PETER J. FEIBELMAN received a PhD in


Physics from the University of California at San Diego, did postdoctoral research at the C.E.N.


A Senior Sci; entist at Sandia National Laboratories,

Saclay (France) and the University of Illinois (Urbana), and taught for three years at Stony Brook
University. Feibelman lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

$14.95 US / $18.95 CAN

Cover design by Alyssa Stepien

A Member of the Perseus Books Group

ISBN 978-0-465-02222-9


9 780465 022229

P e t e r J. F e i b e l m a n

5-1/2 x 8-1/4”
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Scuff Resistant
Matte Poly

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A PhD Is Not Enough!

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A Guide to Survival in Science


peter j. feibelman

a member of the perseus books group
New York

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Copyright © 2011 by Peter J. Feibelman
Published by Basic Books,
A Member of the Perseus Books Group
All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of
America. No part of this book may be reproduced in any
manner whatsoever without written permission except
in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical
articles and reviews. For information, address Basic
Books, 387 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10016–
Books published by Basic Books are available at special
discounts for bulk purchases in the United States by
corporations, institutions, and other organizations. For
more information, please contact the Special Markets
Department at the Perseus Books Group, 2300 Chestnut
Street, Suite 200, Philadelphia, PA 19103, or call (800)
810–4145, ext. 5000, or e-mail
Designed by Timm Bryson
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Feibelman, Peter J.
A PhD is not enough! : a guide to survival in science /
Peter J. Feibelman. — Rev. ed.
p. cm.
First published: Reading, Mass. : Addisson-Wesley,
Includes bibliographical references.
ISBN 978-0-465-02222-9 (alk. paper)
1. Science—Vocational guidance—Handbooks,
manuals, etc. 2. Scientists—Training of—Handbooks,
manuals, etc. 3. Mentoring in the professions—
Handbooks, manuals, etc. I. Title.
Q147.F45 2011
Ebook ISBN: 978-0-465-02533-6
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

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To Lori, Camilla, and Adam

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Preface: What This Book Is About, xi
Acknowledgements, xix


Do You See Yourself in This Picture?
A set of nonfiction vignettes illustrating some of
the ways that young scientists make their lives
more unpleasant than necessary or fail entirely
to establish themselves in a research career.


Advice from a Dinosaur?
Can you expect someone to be an effective
mentor who emerged into the scientific
marketplace in a world that looked very


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Important Choices: A Thesis Adviser,
a Postdoctoral Job
A discussion of what to consider: young adviser
versus an older one, a superstar versus a
journeyman, a small group versus a “factory.”
Understanding and attending to your interests
as a postdoc.


Giving Talks
Preparing talks that will make people want to
hire and keep you and that will make the
information you present easy to assimilate.


Writing Papers:
Publishing Without Perishing
Why it is important to write good papers. When
to write up your work, how to draw the reader
in, how to draw attention to your results.

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From Here to Tenure:
Choosing a Career Path
An unsentimental comparison of the merits of
jobs in academia, industry, and in government


Job Interviews
What will happen on your interview trip; the
questions you had better be prepared to answer.


Getting Funded
What goes into an effective grant proposal;
how and when to start writing one.


Establishing a Research Program
Tuning your research efforts to your own
capabilities and your situation in life; for
example, why not to start a five-year project
when you have a two-year postdoctoral


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A Survival Checklist
Do not attempt a takeoff before being sure the
flaps are down.

A behaviorist approach to professional success.

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preface: what this book is about

My scientific career almost never happened. I emerged
from graduate school with a PhD and excellent technical skills but with little understanding of how to survive in science. In this, I was not unusual. Survival skills
are rarely part of the graduate curriculum. Many professional scientists believe that “good” students find
their way on their own, while the remainder cannot be
helped. This justifies neglect and, perhaps not incidentally, reduces work load. There may be some sense to
the Darwinian selection process implicit in “benign neglect,” but on the whole, failing to teach science survival results in wasting a great deal of student talent
and time, and not infrequently makes a mess of students’ lives.
Because science survival skills are rarely taught in a
direct way, most young scientists need a mentor. Some
will find one in graduate school, or as a postdoctoral
researcher, or perhaps as an assistant professor. Those


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Preface: What This Book Is About

who do not have an excellent chance of moving from
graduate study to scientific retirement without passing
through a career. The unmentored can only succeed
by being considerably more astute than the naive, idealistic, and very bright young persons who generally
choose a science major.
These thoughts have been on my mind ever since I
almost had to tell Mom and Dad that their golden boy
was not good enough to find a permanent (or any!) job
in physics, a job for which his qualifications included
eight years of higher education and four more of postdoctoral work. The agony of those days is not easily
forgotten—the boy with the high IQ, who had skipped
a grade, graduated from the Bronx High School of Science at  and from Columbia summa cum laude at
, found himself in a muddle at . How do you
choose a research problem? How do you give a talk?
What do you do to persuade a university or a national
or industrial lab to hire and keep you? I hadn’t a clue
until, midway through my second postdoctoral job, I
had the good fortune to spend some months collaborating with a young professor who cared whether I
survived as a scientist. Although this mentoring relationship was brief, it helped me acquire a set of skills
that graduate education did not, skills without which
my lengthy training in physics would have been

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Preface: What This Book Is About


This book is meant for those who will not be lucky
enough to find a mentor early, for those who naively
suppose that getting through graduate school, doing a
postdoc, etc., are enough to guarantee a scientific career. I want you to see what stands between you and a
career, to help you prepare for the inevitable obstacles
before they overwhelm you. In short, I hope to enable
you to use your exceptional brainpower in the way that
you and those who put you through school have
dreamed about.
I begin with some brief case histories. This may help
to put your own early career in better perspective. At
least I hope it will give you a feeling for how important
mentoring can be.
Important or not, you are likely to wonder whether
an elder who emerged into the scientific marketplace
when times were flush, and advanced technology
looked very different from today’s, can possibly offer
you useful advice. Chapter  argues that one can.
Succeeding chapters are arranged in parallel with a
career trajectory. Please skip ahead to whichever may
be relevant to your situation. Chapter  deals with
choosing a thesis or a postdoctoral adviser. My choice
of thesis adviser was based on two criteria: Who is the
most eminent professor in the department? And
whose students finish soonest? Was this intelligent, or
did it represent a first mistake? Chapter  concerns oral

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Preface: What This Book Is About

presentation of your work. However brilliant your insights, they will be of little use if you cannot make them
appear interesting to others. If no one pays attention,
what difference does it make if your results are clever?
There are of course Nobel prize–winners whose orations are Delphic, whose visuals look as though they
were put together during a particularly turbulent
flight, and so on. But you are not one of them yet, and
if that is how your talks are prepared, you never will
be either. There is more to Chapter , though, than advice on preparing appealing slides. It contains a range
of important ideas on making your oral presentations
In Chapter , you will find a discussion of paper
writing. Through your scholarly articles, you can make
yourself known nationally and internationally. This
means that your reputation in science does not just depend on what your boss says about you but also on
documentation that is readily available on the Internet.
You should therefore view publishing as a means to attaining job security and take the task of writing compelling journal articles very seriously.
Chapter  is devoted to career choices, mainly the
merits and defects of positions in academia and in government or industrial labs. The focus is on being reflective and rational rather than naive or romantic
about key decisions in your scientific life. In Chapter

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Preface: What This Book Is About


, I discuss job interviews. There is more to an interview than wearing your Sunday best and having a firm
handshake. Doing your homework and persuading
your potential employers that you have a sense of direction are the most important issues. Incidentally, this
is not a matter of deception—knowing who your colleagues will be and developing an idea of what you
want to know, scientifically, are keys to having a productive career. There are also a few choice words in
this chapter about negotiations, once you do get an
offer. Negotiating for what you will need when your
leverage is maximal can make a large difference to your
happiness and to your success.
In Chapter , I discuss what—to many—is the bane
of scientific life, namely, getting money. This used to
be the exclusive headache of those in academia, but
nowadays it is also a significant part of the lives of government and industrial scientists. I suggest that you
view the preparation of a proposal as an important scientific exercise. Coming to see and being able to articulate how your work fits into “the big picture” is
essential not only to winning financial support but also
to being a first-class researcher. Learning to distinguish
extravagant “pie in the sky” from promises that you
have a chance of fulfilling is also very valuable.
The most difficult problem in being a scientist is selecting what to work on, and it is even more difficult

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Preface: What This Book Is About

when you are just launching your career. Therefore, in
Chapter , I venture a few comments on establishing a
research program. Jumping into the hottest research
area may not be a very good idea, nor is taking on a
project that you have no realistic hope of completing
before your short-term employment comes to an end.
The main idea is to establish a program that simultaneously maximizes your chances of continuing employment and of scientific achievement. The focus is
on strategic thinking.
As this book is written, economic times are tough
worldwide, and funding for scientific research is contracting. I hardly need to emphasize that when resources become scarce, competition intensifies for
what remains available. To win a permanent position
in scientific research, and the funds to carry on serious
work, you will have to be exceptionally thoughtful
about your career choices. My hope is that this “pocket
mentor” will help you to become more introspective
about what it will take to succeed.
—albuquerque, nm
August 1993 (updated in January 2010)

The past seventeen years have seen revolutionary
changes in how we communicate information. Virtually all journals are available electronically. Preprints

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Preface: What This Book Is About


can be published on the Internet before or without
ever being refereed. Overhead projectors have disappeared from scientific meetings in favor of LCD projectors and laptop computers. Résumés are often
distributed electronically. This update of A PhD Is Not
Enough! comes abreast of these changes, though the
basic content of the  original remains timely. The
communications revolution cannot be ignored but has
not made it less important to be thoughtful about
choosing your career path or to respect audiences and
readers. I still attend talks that make me squirm and
struggle to read sleep-inducing scientific articles. I
hope attentive readers of this book will reap the rewards of doing better.
—albuquerque, nm
January 2010

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To make this handbook accessible to people whose
backgrounds, experiences, and scientific interests differ
from my own, I have prevailed on several friends and
colleagues for advice. I am very grateful to Professors
Michael J. Weber and Alison P. Weber of the University
of Virginia for numerous constructive criticisms of the
first draft. I also thank Dr. Ellen Stechel, my colleague
at Sandia National Laboratories, and Professor George
Luger of the University of New Mexico for their critical
readings of the manuscript. Lastly, I thank my wife,
Lori, for many editorial improvements.


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Do You See Yourself
in This Picture?

The brief stories in this chapter have a common theme:
that understanding and dealing rationally with the realities of a life in science are as important to science
survival as being bright. Once you leave graduate
school, the clock is ticking. Unlike a fine wine, you do
not have many years to mature. As a young professional, you must be able to select appropriate research
problems, you have to finish projects in a timely manner, and you ought to be giving compelling talks and
publishing noteworthy papers. When job opportunities present themselves, you should be able to assess
their value realistically. Romanticizing your prospects


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a p hd is not enough!

is a major mistake and is likely to have serious consequences, not excluding dropping out of scientific life
prematurely. The first story is an excerpt from my own
scientific beginnings. The others are also nonfiction,
though I have altered locations and personal characteristics to avoid invading the privacy of the protagonists. I have deliberately identified the various
characters with initials, rather than names, to avoid any
ethnic implications.

What Do Scientists Do?
Technique Versus Problem Orientation
Virtually all classroom work and much of what happens
in a typical thesis project is aimed at developing a student’s technical skills. But although the success of your
research efforts may depend heavily on designing a
piece of apparatus or a computer code, and on making
it work properly, no technical skill is worth more than
knowing how to select exciting research projects. Regrettably, this vital ability is almost never taught. When I
signed on with a research adviser in my first year of
graduate school, I was thrilled to be given a problem
to work in the physics of the upper atmosphere. That
I had no idea what motivated the problem did not prevent me from carrying out an analysis, on a supercomputer of the day, and publishing my first paper at the

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Peter J. Feibelman


age of . For my thesis, I consciously switched to a
project that would require learning the tools of modern
quantum physics, but again I found myself assimilating
technical skills without ever grasping the significance
of the problem, without understanding how or whether
it was at the cutting edge of science. This way of working became a habit, one that seriously threatened my
career. My first seven publications were in seven different areas of physics. In each case, I relied on a senior
scientist to tell me what would be an interesting problem to work on; then I would carry out the task. I assume it was my ability to complete projects that
impressed my superiors sufficiently to keep me employed. It certainly wasn’t my depth in any field.
Four years and two postdoctoral positions after
earning a PhD—still having little sense of what I
wanted to learn as a scientist—I was on the job market.
More than anything else, I needed good recommendations from faculty at the university where I was employed. I was asked to give the weekly solid-state
physics seminar and realized, at best dimly, that my
performance in this venue was either going to make or
break me as a scientist.
The talks I was giving at this point in my career reflected my approach to science. There was little in the
way of introductory material. Much of the presentation
was technical. I would describe a few “interesting”

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a p hd is not enough!

problems I had worked on and explain the methods I
had used but would give little idea of context because
I really didn’t know what it was. For the seminar at
hand, I prepared my usual hodgepodge of this project
and that, with no introduction, no theme, and ultimately no meaning to anyone but an expert. Fortunately, the professor supervising my research, C.,
understood what was about to happen to me, and
asked for a preview of my seminar in his office. Thank
goodness I accepted this invitation. C. expressed surprise at how poorly I had prepared my talk (though I
don’t think he was surprised at all), how little grasp I
seemed to have of the reasons that the problems we
had worked out were meaningful, and consequently
how uninterestingly I was going to present them to my
audience. But, he told me, he thought I was too good
technically to be allowed to fail in the way I was about
to, and he gave me the lesson I needed.
His most important advice was:
. There has to be a theme to your work—some
objective—something you want to know. There
has to be a story line. (Do not start with, “I have
been trying to explain the interesting wavelength
dependence of light scattering from small particles,” but rather “There is a widespread need to explain to one’s kids why the sky is blue.”)

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Peter J. Feibelman

. If you know why you have chosen to work on a
particular problem, it is easy to present an absorbing seminar. Start out by telling your story, why
the field you are working in is an important one,
and what the main problems are. Give some historical material showing where the field is, the relative advantages of different methods, and so on.
Then outline what you did, and describe your results. Conclude with a statement of how your results have advanced our understanding of nature,
and perhaps give an inkling of the new directions
that your work opens up. Do not assume that your
audience comprises experts only. There may be a
couple of them, but even experts like to hear
things that they understand and particularly to
have their colleagues hear (from someone else)
why their field is an important one.
. Lastly, rehearse your talk in front of one or two of
your peers or professional supporters. Choose listeners who will not be shy about asking questions
and offering constructive suggestions. Giving a
seminar is serious business. Your future depends
on the strong recommendations of your senior
colleagues. If your talk is a hodgepodge of techniques or experiments or equations, if you seem
to have no idea where you are headed, if you reek
of deference to the experts in the audience, you


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a p hd is not enough!

will not be perceived as a rising star, a budding scientific leader. You will fail.

The wonderful result of C.’s mentoring was that I finally learned what it means to be a scientist. In making
my work meaningful to others, I had also made it compelling to myself. No longer was I just working on
somebody else’s problems. I was part of an intellectual
enterprise with relatively well-defined goals, which
might actually make a difference to humanity. I
scrapped most of the equations I had planned to show
and refocused my talk using thematic material I had
garnered from C. I gave an excellent seminar—people
I scarcely knew complimented me afterward on my
choice of an exciting research area and remarked on
the clarity of my presentation. In science, the reinforcement doesn’t get much more positive than that. I had
learned a key lesson and was on my way.

Timing Is Everything
Having completed a respectable thesis problem and
having acquired a reputation in graduate school as an
excellent sounding board and scientific consultant, T.
accepted a postdoctoral position with a leading scientist at a first-rate government laboratory. There, he was
offered and began to work on a computational research

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Peter J. Feibelman


project that first involved arriving at a numerically
practical mathematical formulation of a problem and
then required a considerable computer programming
effort. As the months passed, and with the necessity
on the horizon of finding a permanent job, T. absorbed
himself totally in his very challenging work. Whereas
in graduate school, under little time pressure, he would
have spent a few hours each week visiting labs and contributing to projects other than his own, as a postdoc,
T. became utterly single-minded.
Working  hours a day and more, he managed to
complete his computer program soon enough to be
able to run test calculations. The results were promising but not far enough along to yield a persuasive
“story.” Accordingly, neither T. nor his audiences found
his job seminar very exciting. What is more, since he
had not taken time to meet and consult with scientists
at his lab, his only strong recommendation was from
his postdoctoral adviser. The lab itself was unwilling to
promote T. to a permanent position, which it sometimes did, because he had not made himself useful, or
even known, to a spectrum of its staff members.
On the outside, his job offers were a cut below what
his thesis adviser had expected for him. In the competition for the best positions, T. did not persuade potential employers that he would ever derive useful results
from his postdoctoral project, even though T. believed

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a p hd is not enough!

that he would have them within six months to a year.
Other job candidates whose postdoctoral work had
been far less ambitious, but had resulted in two or
three finished projects, appeared much more impressive. Moreover, they had obtained excellent recommendations from the experimental colleagues whose
data they had analyzed.
On the whole, it is hard to blame potential employers for their view of T. To them he was “a pig in a poke,”
an unknown quantity. His thesis work might just have
been done by his thesis adviser, and his postdoctoral
project, though in principle a worthy one, was unfinished. Would T. be able to complete projects on his
own? Was he a self-starter? The information simply
was not there, in the eyes of the interviewers.
To some extent, T.’s fate was the fault of his adviser.
Assigning a long-term project to a postdoctoral researcher who will be on the job market in  months
is a clear risk to the postdoc’s future. But, had T. been
as reflective about his career as he was in carrying out
his research, he himself would have realized the dangerous path he was taking. As exciting as his assigned
project seemed, he would have recognized that his
postdoctoral years were the wrong time for such a large
effort. At the very least, he would have reserved time
each day or week to establish contact with other researchers at the lab and involved himself in one or two

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Peter J. Feibelman


short-term projects with a clear chance for success.
Many a graduate student or postdoc spends time trying to understand what his adviser wants and getting
it done. In fact, it is the young scientists who define and
carry out what they want, who learn to be scientific
leaders, who find the best jobs and have the most productive and satisfying careers. Making your thesis or
postdoctoral adviser happy is sensible, and worth
doing, but not more so than acting in your own best

Know Thyself—A Sweet Job Turns Sour
B. obtained a PhD from a top-flight university in the
Midwest. He had two different thesis advisers during
the course of his four years as a graduate student. The
first was a Nobel prizewinner, a theoretician whose
name is a household word to chemists. The second was
an experimentalist, also a very widely respected scientist. Having completed his degree, and cognizant of the
scarcity of real jobs, B. accepted a “permanent” position at a major laboratory instead of a postdoctoral,
temporary slot. It did not take him long to realize that
this apparently wonderful opportunity was a trap. On
arrival at his new location, B. was presented with two
options. A senior staff member, who was involved in a
major experiment, suggested that B. begin his tenure

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a p hd is not enough!

by working in his lab. That way, B.’s knowledge of the
experimental aspects of his field would deepen, and
after a couple of years, he would be much better prepared to work on his own. Objectively, one would say
that this was a wonderful opportunity, effectively a
postdoctoral job, but at a regular staff salary and with
a reasonable approximation to regular staff job security. B.’s alternative option was to begin independent
work immediately. Talking to his younger colleagues,
he heard that, in the eyes of management, a full staff
member was supposed to run his own research program and that at the annual performance review, if he
was perceived to be working as someone else’s “assistant,” his rating, salary, and job security would suffer,
perhaps irretrievably.
One does not have to be a rocket scientist, as they
say, to appreciate that B.’s two-year stint as a graduate
student in experimental physics was inadequate preparation for him to perform at the level of his supposed
peers. Nevertheless, unmentored, B. was not willing
to risk his all-too-sweet regular staff position by
choosing the training that he badly needed. This was
a mistake. After three years of buying equipment and
setting up a lab, B. had still not established a research
program, and indeed had little idea of what he wanted
to accomplish as a scientist. Thus, despite its investment in his laboratory equipment, and despite his
nominally very impressive pedigree, B.’s employer

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Peter J. Feibelman


moved him out of basic research. In an environment
where goals were clearly defined from above, he eventually matured into a real contributor and is reasonably
happy. On the other hand, he is not doing basic research any more, and he went through several very
stressful years as a result of his bad start. Sadly, his failure at work coincided with the breakup of his marriage, an unhappy fate shared by many whose scientific
careers flounder.

The PhD Technician
L. spent two postdoctoral years at a prestigious lab,
switching into a new field. He had been hired as a postdoc there because of the technical know-how he had
acquired as a graduate student. As a postdoctoral scientist, his task was to build a piece of equipment combining technology in his new area with that of his thesis
work. The lab where he did his stint as a postdoc was
satisfied enough with him. At the end of his two years,
the desired instrument was in place, and L. had his
name on a couple of publications with his postdoctoral
adviser. Of course, it was recognized that L. had not
really learned the basics of his new field, and so his
postdoctoral employer did not offer him a permanent
A more aggressive or aware young man might have
spent a significant fraction of his two years not simply

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a p hd is not enough!

building the desired instrument but also asking questions about the direction of his new field, reading as
widely as possible in its literature, and formulating a
research direction of his own. L. did not, however, and
even at the end of his postdoc, no one had told him,
nor did he realize that becoming an expert in a field
and having an exciting research program is an essential
aspect of being a scientist. L. did manage to land a
“permanent” job after his postdoc. But as in B.’s case,
permanency was an illusion.
In his new job, L. again built an instrument. But he
never participated as an equal member in the group
that hired him. At seminars or in planning research
proposals, he had little to contribute. When he went
before his manager to explain what his research plans
were, he could say no more than that he planned to
look around for “interesting” problems. L.’s employer
was happy to possess the new instrument that he had
built and got running. But it was not long before L. was
moved from the research division of his company.
Some will argue that L. just wasn’t suited for research, that his fate was predetermined by his personality. This may be the truth. On the other hand, I have
the lingering feeling that if L. had been appropriately
mentored at some point during his decade of higher
education and as a postdoctoral researcher, he would
have succeeded in the career for which he had trained,

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or perhaps would have switched earlier to a more appropriate field of specialization. It remains to be seen
how well he will perform in his new job.

Institutionalized Conflict
Managers make many mistakes. More often than not,
these hurt the people they manage rather than themselves. Consider F.’s experience as a postdoc in R.’s lab.
R. had been hired after a two-year postdoctoral position but had the wit to appreciate that his “permanent”
position would only really be permanent if he proved
himself a capable scientist in his first two or three
years. He invested his first year building a lab around a
major piece of equipment and was ready to begin to
do science when F. appeared at his threshold. F. had
been hired to work on a project that seemed rather exciting to its managerial proponents but had failed to
get the hoped-for, and necessary, external funding. The
result was that management had to find something else
for F. to do and had decided that because his training
was similar to R.’s, F. would be a postdoc in R.’s lab. The
results were inevitable. Being a clever young man, F.
realized that his future depended on gaining recognition for a significant piece of work, work that would
have to be done in short order. R., no less clever, understood that his probationary position required him

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to complete several projects and get credit for them.
The result was not a happy collaboration but months
of bickering over who would turn knobs on the machine and who would get credit for the scientific
progress. Despite its responsibility for a bad situation,
management did not like to hear the resultant whining
from either side. F. ultimately won credit for most of
the work done in R.’s lab, with the result that R., whose
competence was felt to be more technical than scientific, was moved out of research. But management’s
distaste for F.’s complaining far exceeded its pleasure
in his scientific achievements. F. was not considered as
a candidate to replace the hapless R. He did eventually
find another position in science, though, and I hope he
will succeed.
Postmortem: Successful collaboration is possible
when one or both contributors have established reputations, or when each researcher brings a different,
identifiable skill to the collaborative project—for example, when a theorist and an experimentalist work
together. Collaboration does not work, as a rule, for
two young competitors. Neither F. nor R. was mature
enough to realize that F.’s postdoc was a predictable
nightmare, an arrangement that should have been rejected by both of them.
If F. and R. had found or had been assigned appropriate mentors early on, they might have been able to

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deal with the competitive relationship imposed on
them. If management had explained to F. at the outset
that R. was to be “the boss,” and had discussed with
both how credit for results was to be allocated, then F.
could have made an informed decision on whether to
work in R.’s lab, and he would have had little reason to
complain later. However, on their own, F. and R. spent
a miserable year and a half together, and R.’s scientific
career is just a memory.

Impressing Mom and Dad: Whose Life Is It Anyway?
A common theme in the minds of young scientists is
impressing Mom and Dad. This strong motivation is
to be cherished, of course, but only if it does not overwhelm one’s ability to make rational decisions. H. is the
eldest daughter of a successful professor of microbiology. Having obtained a PhD in an area of limited interest to employers, she decided to switch fields, hoping
her technical expertise would enable her to establish a
niche. However, she decided to carry out this (wise)
move as an assistant professor at a prestigious university (a questionable choice, at best).
A major factor in this decision was that she wanted
to show her father that she could succeed in the academic world, just as he had. Had she thought her
choice through, H. would have realized that when her

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dad was starting out, research funding was expanding
dramatically, making the odds of success much better.
She might also have foreseen that her next five years
were going to be a major struggle, a period when any
desires for a personal life would have to be put off. Between coming up to speed in her new field, fulfilling
her teaching assignments, writing proposals, and
building equipment—all essential before any research
results could be produced—H. found herself spending
-hour days in her office, the classroom, and her lab.
Yes, she did receive tenure after five years. So in that
sense she succeeded. But during those years, she had
no life beyond her work, and by the time she was done,
her marriage had disintegrated. Did this impress Dad?
In a national or industrial lab, H.’s plan would have
been much easier to realize. With no teaching assignments, no committee meetings, no insistent students
at the door wanting their grades explained, she could
have made her name working eight or maybe ten hours
per day. After five years of building a lab and producing
science, she would have had little difficulty landing a
tenured job at an excellent university. Meanwhile, she
would have had time for her family—maybe even time
to have the child she wanted. She would have been
earning  to  percent more and would have had better job security. She might have relaxed with a good
novel occasionally, or even taken a vacation. Things are

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working out for H. now, but she paid what I see as a
high price for the romantic notion that she needed to
move directly into academia to win her dad’s approval.

Get a Mentor
I certainly hope that reading this book will help you
recognize what is in your own interest. But no author
can be expected to foresee your own special pitfalls.
The best preparation you can make toward the goal of
having a scientific career is to find yourself a “research
aunt or uncle,” someone with little or no authority over
you, who has enough experience to act as a sounding
board and to give accurate advice. Do not be shy about
getting to know people outside your adviser’s realm.
The scientists at your lab will very likely cherish the
human contact. They spend a lot of time behind the
closed doors of lab and office, and everybody likes to
give advice.

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Advice from a Dinosaur?

By my standards, today’s world is technologically
highly evolved. Very highly! With email in its infancy
only a couple of decades ago, and long-distance phone
calls costly, we dinosaurs mainly communicated by
what is now disparaged as snail mail, if not in person.
There was no Internet. Putting your résumé on a compact disc was not an option—indeed, to “burn a disc”
had not entered the lexicon. A serious literature search
involved many mind-numbing hours in a library (I
know: “What’s a library?”). Computers were unimaginably slow.
It is not just technology that has changed. Until the
latter s, for instance, widely held memories of the


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successful Manhattan Project, and worries spawned by
the Soviet launch of Sputnik (in ), supported
many, many dollars for physics and for science more
broadly. Landing a tenure-track job, and even winning
tenure itself, was not an especially taxing project for
the fresh science PhD of that blessed era.
This perspective begs a serious question: Can you
expect to find an effective mentor among scientists
who succeeded in the technological and historical climate of two to four decades ago? The answer is yes, I
contend, provided you narrow your search from those
who are merely older to congenial researchers whose
success has not clouded their historical and personal
outlook. Notwithstanding an utter lack of interest in
maintaining a Facebook page, a scientific elder can
offer help in establishing a personal network of scientific contacts, in distinguishing an exciting research
idea from a pedestrian one, in critiquing your oral and
written expression, and so forth. That an elder researcher’s path to tenure was relatively easy need not
translate into his or her inability to distinguish good
luck in emerging into the job market at a particularly
blessed moment from having possessed superlative intellectual capacity and a clever career strategy.
Need I say that there are also plenty of scientific elders whose experience was not so different from your
own, and who don’t have to make a special effort to un-

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derstand what you are facing? I am one of them. Despite receiving a PhD when times were still good, in
December , I made the “mistake” of accepting a
postdoctoral position in Paris instead of immediately
looking for a tenure-track job. I had a wonderful stay
in France, but at the cost of then having to find a permanent research job in the hard times of the early
s instead of the easy ones of just a couple of years
before. Not a seer, I had managed to place myself on
the wrong side of a cusp in funding levels—and the
right side for gaining an understanding of what a starting scientist must do in a tough economic environment
to win a permanent place in the research community.
So, how did my quest come to a happy conclusion?
In , the U.S. economy was headed steeply downward; the Vietnam War was working toward its end
(“not with a bang but a whimper”); the Watergate scandal was just months from forcing Richard Nixon to resign the presidency; and I, at age , was looking for a
permanent job in physics. After two-plus years as a
soft-money assistant professor, I’d been informed that
when the three-year National Science Foundation
grant that paid my salary expired, funds would not be
available to move me to the tenure track. (Does this
sound at all familiar?)
There were not many suitable jobs. I recall a trip to
Texas to interview at the University of Houston, Texas

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a p hd is not enough!

A&M, and UT–Austin. At each stop, I gave my talk,
met privately with staff, felt I had done well, and was
then informed that the position in question had evaporated. “Sorry about that!” In December, I spent five
weeks on a research visit to the Stanford Applied
Physics Department. One Sunday in Palo Alto, I noticed a job ad in the newspaper* for a scientist who
would be hired to advise a mayor on the likely impact
of urban development plans. The position was once
again based on a finite-term grant. But, after two,
two-year postdoctoral positions and a three-year assistant professorship, I was inured to the nomadic life,
and so I applied. Despite my lack of credentials in
urban planning, my interview, high up in San Francisco’s stunning Transamerica building, went rather
well, I thought, until I was asked, “What would you do
if, a few weeks from now, you were offered a job in
physics? Would you take it?” I gave an honest answer—
the wrong answer, namely, “Yes.” End of interview—
back to despair.
But then, a bolt from the blue—a former postdoctoral colleague who had moved to Sandia Laboratories
in New Mexico decided to quit research and become
a medical doctor. He proposed my name as someone
to fill his position, a permanent one. By then, I knew
* That’s right—newspaper. Craigslist, need I remind you, did
not exist in .

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Peter J. Feibelman


what it takes to have a career in science. I could articulate my research direction. I understood that as a
theorist, I needed to persuade experimenters that I
would be helpful to them, and also that I grasped ideas
they did not. So, I prepared and burnished a talk. The
first two-thirds of it were introductory, pictorial, and
conceptual—deliberately designed to appeal to my
hoped-for experimental colleagues. The last third was
heavily theoretical, with equations, even, aimed at persuading listeners that in me, they would be buying expertise they themselves lacked.
These tactics worked! I was offered, and with alacrity
accepted, a position at Sandia. On arrival, I did my utmost to fulfill the promises I’d made in my interview—
and as of the year , at age , I’ve been a research
scientist there for a very rewarding  years.
What lessons reside in this autobiographical extract
and happy ending? One, not much of a surprise in a
Facebook era, is that networking is an excellent way to
gain opportunities. Responding to job ads may have
the desired effect. Knowing someone is better.
Another lesson is the importance of being serious.
Why would a hiring officer consider an applicant for
an urban planning job who at the drop of a hat is prepared to return to the physics career he really wants? I
A third notion is that even in a market where few
positions are available, the number is unlikely to be

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zero—and it is the best-prepared applicant who will
win the competition. Having a reasonably good idea of
what my Sandia interviewers would be hoping for, I
spent serious time developing an appealing job talk.
This was far from wasted effort.
Understand that the probability of landing a permanent job is the product of two factors. One is how
many suitable positions are available. The other is your
probability per job of being the successful candidate.
There is essentially nothing you can do to affect the
first factor. (Well . . . you might write your senator.
Good luck with that!) Accordingly, it is a focus on the
second factor that makes sense. Despairing over the
unavailability of jobs wins you nothing. Preparing for
an opportunity might—and in large measure, that is
what this book is about. Its basic themes are:
. Know thyself!
. Understand and respect the needs of your audience.

Since my personal saga of –, the U.S. and
world economies have seen good times and bad.
Twenty years on, with the United States once again in
recession, the first printing of this book found a receptive readership. After the subsequent Internet boom
came the Internet bust, and today we are experiencing
and—only maybe—slowly emerging from the “Great

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Peter J. Feibelman


Recession” of –. Once again, job opportunities for freshly minted scientists are scarce, and, accordingly, I am guessing you will find the advice from
this dinosaur relevant, even in a world that, since ,
has outwardly changed greatly.

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Important Choices
A Thesis Adviser, a Postdoctoral Job

As a young graduate student, I selected a thesis adviser
on the bases of his prominence in the world of physics
and his reputation as one who would not require me
to spend too much time in graduate school. As with
other aspects of my early career, I now see these criteria as reasonable but insufficient.

A Prominent Scientist as a Thesis Adviser
Choosing a prominent thesis adviser makes a lot of
sense, but not because brilliance is transferable. It is not,
as I have witnessed more than once. Trying to be another Linus Pauling, Roald Hoffmann, James Watson,


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or P. W. Anderson is a common road to failure. What
a prominent adviser can offer is: . being part of the “oldboy network” (he or she can help you survive if times
are tough, sometimes even if you don’t deserve to); and
. not competing with you. Point  is self-evident upon
a moment’s thought. Point  is not so obvious to the
A young adviser, only recently on the road to a permanent research position, has a lot to prove, is understandably leery of being shown up by a student or
postdoc, and is correspondingly unlikely to be generous with credit for ideas or progress. By contrast, advisers who have already made their mark view the
accomplishments of their students, in effect their research “children,” with pride, even joy. Thus, other
things being equal, an established (tenured) professor
is a superior choice for an adviser. This recommendation is a simple corollary of the way universities are
organized. It is not an indictment of young professors
to recognize that they are likely to view their own scientific survival as more important than that of their
A more senior adviser also offers you better prospects
of finishing the thesis project that you start and of
spending your entire graduate career at one university.
Many assistant professors fail to win promotion to
tenure. If this happens to your adviser, he or she will
either have to move to another university or may drop

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out of academic science entirely. In either case, you will
face unwanted, difficult choices: whether or not to
move with your adviser, or whom to choose as a new
one; whether to select a new dissertation topic or to
try to find another professor who is willing and able to
help you proceed in your initial direction.
Although a senior professor may also move to another job while you are a student, the probability is
lower. One reason is that the bother involved in moving an established, large group is substantial. Another
is that universities will offer what it takes, if the money
is available, to retain their top staff. If your senior professorial adviser does decide to move, the consequences for your thesis project are unlikely to be dire.
A senior scientist relocates by choice, usually because
the funding situation in the new location is, or perhaps
other aspects of scientific life are, better. Moving with
your adviser is thus likely to be both financially possible
and scientifically desirable. And if you do decide to
move, the delay in your progress toward a PhD should
be minimal.
Obviously, an older professor has a better chance of
becoming seriously ill or dying while you are a student.
Otherwise, the chances of a senior scientist’s dropping
out of research entirely are rather remote.
Tenure and prominence are not enough: Although signing on as the student of an established scientist has

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many clear advantages, choosing a good adviser is not
as easy as finding out who has won the most important
prizes, gives the most invited talks, or brings in the
largest research grants. Is the professor you are considering available to consult with students on a reasonably frequent basis and able to convey real guidance?
Is your intended adviser comfortable talking to people
who are not scientific peers (i.e., beginners such as
yourself )? Does the group you wish to join have a sense
of purpose? Do its members interact with each other?
And does Professor Eminent teach survival skills?
These are important questions. Making a mistake in
choosing your adviser can mean years of frustration. If
you can learn the answers to the important questions
in advance, by talking to current or former students,
you may save yourself a lot of grief.
Do group members see the big picture? Prof. E. was obsessive. He was obnoxious. I have heard it said that he
didn’t know quantum mechanics. But his contributions
to materials science were manifold—and his students
have done wonderfully well. They knew what they
wanted to learn, and they learned from each other.
Thus, even if E. was often away consulting at industrial
labs, his students thrived.
How do you find out in advance whether the group
you are considering will be like E.’s? Visit the members.

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Ask them what they are doing. See if they can explain
the big picture. If they cannot, find a different adviser.
Often a prominent scientist will lead a big group
with, say,  or  experimental systems, enabling an
equal number of graduate students to study trends.
These students are guaranteed to finish their degrees
in a reasonable period of time. In total contrast to my
own graduate student experience, they are assigned
very specific problems. They take their data, report
their results, and get their degrees. It all seems so easy.
Should you be part of this kind of group? Again, the
issue is whether the students have an inkling of the big
picture. Is it only the adviser who knows what trend is
being studied, while student A. is looking at rhodium,
B. has a sample of ruthenium, and C. has some palladium? If the students cannot tell a good story, move on.

Choosing a Postdoctoral Position
How should you be rational about the choice of a postdoctoral position? It is essential to understand what
your interests are and how they differ from the employer’s. To begin, you should realize that what you actually achieved in your thesis is not especially
important to your postdoctoral adviser. If you are one
of the few whose thesis represents a major breakthrough, you will probably be much in demand, and

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will likely have few problems finding a permanent job.
You probably won’t ever have a postdoctoral position.
Your problem may be that you will spend the next several years trying to show that your initial triumph was
not a fluke. This kind of thinking has paralyzed more
than a few young “geniuses” but is not an important
consideration for the majority, for whom this chapter
is written.
If your thesis, as is more likely, has not attracted
much interest, despite your worries, you will probably
find a postdoctoral slot. Employers generally feel that
a postdoctoral employee is not a big risk. Unlike a
graduate student, who has to be shown the ropes and
whose education may absorb so much time that his or
her net contribution to the progress of a project may
be slight, or negative, a postdoc is a trained researcher
who can be expected to be reasonably competent and
not terribly demanding of supervision.
For the typical employer, a postdoc is cheap labor.
At the laboratory where I work, and this is common, a
postdoctoral employee receives minimal benefits. The
lab pays for medical insurance but makes no contributions to a pension plan. Paid vacation is only two weeks
per year, and a postdoc salary is not loaded with substantial overhead or indirect costs.
A postdoc will also be gone in two to four years. A
helpful and productive one will be a blessing, no doubt,

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and a postdoctoral sojourn leading to a successful career can be counted a noteworthy success. But a failure
by those standards is only assessed as unfortunate—
not unusual, and not disastrous. Acquiring a postdoc,
in short, is much like buying a piece of laboratory
equipment. One assumes it will work for a while, helping to produce results. Then it will be replaced with a
newer model. From the postdoctoral employer’s viewpoint, signs of a candidate’s viability are, accordingly:
. an excellent thesis-research presentation—this implies that the candidate will be a good spokesperson
for the supervisor’s research program; . not having
taken overly long to finish the PhD—supporting the
hope that after a sojourn lasting no more than a few
years, the postdoc will have produced several publications; and . seriousness, knowledge, engagement, and
interactivity—indications that the new hire will make
for a livelier, more productive, and collaborative research group.
If a postdoc candidate wants to change fields, that is
not a problem but a common practice. If the candidate’s thesis work did not produce a major piece of new
knowledge, that is not a problem either because a postdoc is hired fundamentally to further the supervisor’s
research program. If a postdoc breaks new ground or
does something important during his postdoctoral
period, he may be offered a permanent job. If not, he

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will go away, and not much will have been lost. This is
the employer’s perspective. What should yours be?
You have three important tasks in your postdoctoral
years: You must decide in what area of science to make
your name. You must finish at least one significant
project. And, you must establish your identity in the
research community sufficiently to land an assistant
professorship or a junior position in an industrial or
government laboratory. You have little time to waste
because it will not be long after you begin your postdoctoral work that you will be back on the job market.
These considerations imply that: . you do not want
a position where your field of research is undefined.
You want to get to work on a significant research project on arrival or shortly thereafter; . you do not want
a position in which a complex technique is being perfected (which means that your chance of producing results in time for your job hunt is minimal). You want
to be involved in one or several short-term projects.
If you are changing fields, you want to start your
reading and learning before you arrive at your postdoc
site. The clock starts ticking when you get to your new
location. Whatever you do before you leave the nest of
graduate school doesn’t count, for all practical purposes. Generally, it would be wise to find a mature scientist for a postdoctoral supervisor rather than a
relative novice. The reasons are the same as for a thesis
professor. You do not want to be in competition for re-

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sources or credit for results. If there is only one experimental apparatus in the laboratory, or if the group
computer budget is relatively thin, do you think you
will be allowed to use whichever resource as much as
you need? Will an adviser who has less than six years
before tenure review be capable of recognizing the importance of your achieving recognition after only a
year or so? There is more than a little chance not, logic
dictates. Thus, unless you can find an assistant professor or junior industrial researcher who is a superstar, or at the very least, unless you can satisfy yourself
that the young scientist you want to work with understands and agrees to accommodate your needs, you
would probably be better off working with someone
Keys to success as a postdoc: Once you do take a postdoctoral position, the keys to success are: . finish
something; and . make yourself known and useful.
Your first priority as a postdoc is to have something
to talk about when you go job hunting. No employer
wants to hire a person who starts but cannot finish
projects. Even if you have put a year and a half into
developing a very promising method, you will lose out
in the job market to your competitor whose methods
may be less adventurous but who has produced a kernel of new knowledge, who has written it up and published it.

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I do not recommend that you be careless in your research endeavors. Nevertheless, you should be aware
that it is possible and may be desirable to publish an
exciting result before the last i’s are dotted and t’s are
crossed. It is possible, and relatively risk-free, if you are
honest in your manuscript about the work that remains to be done. It may be desirable because someone
who has a provocative story to tell, even if it is only
supported by admittedly plausible evidence, will win
out in the job market over someone whose very thorough effort is not far enough along to allow conclusions to be drawn. Although attention to detail is
important, and publishing results that later turn out to
be incorrect is anything but desirable, finishing projects
and having a story to tell are essential. As a postdoc,
under time pressure, you may have to sacrifice your desire for perfection, you may have to live with the fear
that you haven’t got everything just right, in order to
develop a story that you can use to sell yourself. This
is not cynicism but realism, and worth remembering
for your entire career. The famous physicist Wolfgang
Pauli is remembered for complaining ironically that the
work of a young colleague “isn’t even wrong.” Think
about that!
Do not be a slave to your postdoctoral adviser: If you
just sit in your office working, while you are a postdoc,

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your supervisor will know you, but no one else will.
You will get one good recommendation letter, assuming you have performed well, and that is all. If you
chose a thesis adviser with good connections, he may
still be able to help you find a real job after your postdoc. But what you accomplished as a graduate student
does not count for much in later life, unless it is very
exceptional. If your thesis adviser helps you find a job
via his connections, it may be looked on as being despite your performance as a postdoc, and the burden
on you to prove yourself in a junior, continuing position may be greater than otherwise.
What you really want to achieve as a postdoctoral
researcher is to gain the respect of three or four staff
members where you work who will write you good recommendations. If you are a theorist, plan on spending
two or three hours weekly talking to experimentalists,
and vice versa. Barge into people’s labs, politely, and
find out what kind of work is going on. Discover
whether there are other research programs to which
you can contribute. Get copies of your lab’s preprints.
Read them, and if you have criticisms, questions, or
contributions, make them known. Every lab is eager to
employ and to recommend interactive people.
If you are congenitally shy, you have a real problem,
one that it would be helpful to overcome. Try to focus
on the idea that positive feedback from the people you

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help will help you psychologically, and the recognition
that their positive comments to others will advance
your career.
Above all, during your postdoc years, work hard.
You have only a short time to prove yourself. Do not
slack off now. There is no time to waste. Your postdoctoral years represent the most intensely important
period in determining whether you will have a career.

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Giving Talks
Tourist to New York passerby: “How do you
get to Carnegie Hall?” Passerby to tourist:
“Practice, practice, practice!”

On a job interview trip, your task is to persuade a significant fraction of the professionals who see you that
they would be excited to have you as a colleague. The
seminar you present is your best opportunity to convey
the message that you are the person to hire. The same
applies when you report on your progress after a year
or two in a new position. The colleagues who know
you best may already think very highly of you. But they
have only a few votes. By giving a good seminar, you


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can add to the base of support you will need to be kept
on or promoted.
Remember that few professional scientists have
much time for reading. The way they learn of new and
interesting work is by going to meetings and listening
to seminars. If you present your work well in these venues, you will be much better able to attract a following.
Having a following is an excellent form of job security.
Because oral presentations will play a vital role in
your career advancement, you must take their preparation very seriously. Learning from scientists who
present their talks well is a good idea. In this chapter, I
hope to impart some of the basic concepts.

The Scientist as Showman
Although a seminar is not a theater piece, there are
common elements. As the speaker, you are putting on
a one-person show. Your listeners are investing an hour
of their valuable time. Of course they want to learn
something from you, but like theater goers, they expect
to hear a good story, with a beginning, a middle, and
an end. They don’t want to squirm when you explain
something poorly or wrongly, when you show a slide
containing an egregious misspelling, or when the end
of the hour is approaching and you obviously have a
lot left to tell. Disappoint your listeners at your peril.

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They might not throw tomatoes or rotten eggs, but
they might dismiss you, might be unwilling to find out
how good a researcher you really are—just because you
put on a bad show.

The Introduction
A fundamental principle in preparing a talk is never
overestimate your audience. No matter how gray their
beards, no matter how many papers a few might have
published in your field, those frightening-looking
people in the audience want a complete performance.
They want you to say what is important in the area of
interest, particularly if what is important happens to
be their own work! They don’t mind hearing things
they already understand—it makes people feel good to
understand something.
The opening lines of a talk set the tone, make a first
impression. The main impressions you want to make
are that: . you know your field; . you are possessed
of the scientific curiosity that will make you a valuable
colleague; . you enjoy doing research; and . you plan
to convey some useful and interesting information.
Tell the audience what the theme of your presentation
is; or tell them that your work was undertaken to resolve a particular controversy, and why it is an important one; or tell them that you have demonstrated a

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novel technique, which permits access to new and useful information.
Do not simply launch into a discussion of the experiment or calculations that you did. Establish the context
of your research to the degree that time will permit;
give an overview of the novel technique, ideas, or shortcuts you have employed; and possibly, intimate what
the most important conclusions are. (“These measurements, as you will see, confirm the long-standing, but
until now unproven, predictions in Feibelman’s early,
brilliant paper.”)
This done, you can go on to discuss the specifics. If
you are giving an hour’s talk, you will want to expand
on your introductory remarks before launching into
the details of your own work. In a ten-minute paper at
a large meeting, a one- or two-slide introduction may
be enough.

Be aware of the importance of your demeanor, particularly your air of self-confidence. If you speak almost
inaudibly, it will be assumed that you lack confidence
in, or do not understand, what you are saying. If your
presentation is too low-key, you may convey the idea
that you are not enthusiastic about your work, or perhaps about research in general. Scientists are like ter-

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riers, trained to chase down and pick apart reasoning
that is not rigorous. If you appear confident, your presentation is more likely to be accepted at face value. If
not, you can expect to be fielding insistent questions
early on and may never get to finish your talk. Alternatively, you may see people walking out of the seminar room. If you are interviewing for a job, that could
be rather disconcerting.
Time is of the essence when you are giving a talk.
You must plan your presentations and rehearse them,
to ensure that you will be able to finish before your
time is up, or at least to be sure you will have conveyed
the main ideas by the time the bell rings. You can easily
determine in practice sessions how long it takes you to
present an average slide. This will make it easy to fix
an upper limit on the number of slides to prepare for a
given time slot. Personally, I can discuss six or at most
seven slides in ten minutes. If I prepare more than that,
I know that my talk will be breathless and that my audience will absorb little. They may well respond to a
talk too crammed with information as a “snow job,” an
attempt to disguise the flaws in your work by overwhelming your listeners with words and figures. Designing a modular talk is a good idea. After your
introductory module, you present several complete information packages in sequence. That way, if you see
your time running low, you can excuse yourself for

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leaving out the last module and skip ahead to your

Don’t Try Their Patience
One of the first lessons students learn about giving a
talk is to “prepare an outline.” Many of them are also
apparently taught to begin with a slide that gives “an
outline of my talk.” I often find these slides a waste of
time, if not downright silly, and would like to dwell
here on the structure of a talk, not just to help you, but
hoping that I will have to sit through fewer outline
slides in the future.
Have you read a novel recently, or seen a play that
started with an outline of the plot? When a political
candidate gives a speech, does he put his outline on a
chart? Of course not, and in general, neither should
you. You certainly should outline your presentation in
the privacy of your office. But in giving your talk, you
should just tell a story. Its structure should be organic,
invisible. Your listeners should be propelled from idea
to idea with the same sense of inevitability they feel on
hearing a Bach fugue.
At meetings of the American Physical Society (large
meetings), contributed papers are allotted ten minutes
plus two for questions and discussion. Thus, I can
present six or at most seven slides in such a talk. What

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message do I convey if Slide  is “The title of my talk,”
and “these are the names of my collaborators, and I
want to thank the Department of Energy for my funding,” and then Slide  continues with “I will begin my
talk with a brief introduction. Then I’ll discuss our experimental apparatus. Following that, I’ll present my
results for system X, and finally, I’ll end with some conclusions.” All right, this is something of an exaggeration, but it is not an enormous one. What it conveys is
that “I don’t have much to say, so I’ll throw away most
of my time telling you how I planned my talk and who
my friends are, leaving little time for any discussion of
what I have learned.” If you have nothing to say, you
would be better off not giving a talk. If you do opt to
speak, you do yourself an injustice not using virtually
all your time to present your ideas and results.
One of the wonderful abilities people have is to take
in different information with their eyes and ears, simultaneously. If you have collaborators not announced
as coauthors and a funding agency, do acknowledge
them on your title slide (Fig. ), but do not waste time
reading their names. Someday, when you are a professor and are trying to place your students, then you can
mention their names and good qualities (usually at the
end of your seminar). Now, however, you are the person you are trying to sell. Acknowledging your coworkers is important but should not be overdone.

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What you want to convey in your introduction, while
your title slide is on the screen, is what got you interested in the material you are about to present, or perhaps why researchers in your field are interested, or why
the community as a whole should pay attention. What
you actually say should be geared not just to the subject
of your work but also to the nature of your audience.
Clearly, if you are giving a ten-minute presentation to
experts in your field, you should dispense with remarks
of too general and introductory a nature. On the other
hand, if you are giving a colloquium to an audience including professionals expert in areas other than yours
and students, then a long introduction is essential.
Stimulative Properties of Elixir X
I. M. Balding
Prof. A. Barber
Sam Son (dendrite growth)
D. Lila (cutting tools)
Nat’l Hair Council
figure 

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Peter J. Feibelman


Technical Matters
Attention to the technical aspects of talk preparation
can make the difference between a good seminar and
an excellent one. Experimental solid-state physicists always seem to show a slide featuring a schematic or,
God help us, a photograph of their apparatus. Occasionally, there is good reason for such a slide. More
often than not, it is a waste of time. “Get to the ideas!”
I think in these cases. In putting together the body of
your talk, try to recognize digressions for what they
are. If there is a good reason for showing an equipment
slide, if it explains a novel technique, then do it. If the
measurement method is standard, if the slide only
proves that your lab isn’t empty, that you didn’t make
up your “results,” forget it. Nobody minds a short, informative talk. Don’t pad your presentation by design
or by inattention to preparation.
Theoretical physicists, particularly inexperienced
ones, often show slides covered with equations. (Molecular biologists show DNA sequences.) Except in very
special cases, such as meetings of specialists devoted
to technical advances, this is a bad idea. The audience
cannot assimilate more than a small amount of information in an hour, to say nothing of ten minutes. A talk
comprising detailed, technical slides is likely to be received as a deliberate attempt to persuade the listeners
that because the material being presented is so complex

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as to be incomprehensible, it should be looked on as
important. Save this for after your Nobel prize. Then,
most of your audience will be afraid to reveal that they
have no clue as to what you have done, or that they despise your snow job. For now, you need to please your
audience, not beat them into submission. Put yourself
in the place of an experimentalist among your listeners. Why would he want to hire you? There is an outside chance he would act in your favor because a
colleague who actually understood your equations
told him that they are important. More likely, he
would prefer someone he thought he could talk to. To
communicate with him, you need to convey not the
details of your math but the basic concepts, the approximations, the results, and the predictions. Think
about that. Then throw away that slide cluttered with
superscripts and subscripts.
Slides: A few ideas on laptop presentations are certainly in order. When I see a beautifully prepared, multicolored slide, what first goes through my mind is,
“this guy obviously doesn’t have enough to do.”
Granted, modern technology makes the preparation of
professional-looking presentations relatively easy. Nevertheless, you do not want to give the impression that
thinking about how your slides look is more important
to you than what they say. If you are preparing a talk

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for a group of laymen—e.g., upper management or an
army general—by all means make your visual material
spiffy. But for your fellow scientists, go easy on the
“professional” look. Remember that many of them have
been driving a beloved old car for years, and the same
reverse snobbism that keeps them in their clunkers
probably also affects their impression of your slides.
This, I hasten to add, does not mean that your slides
should be prepared thoughtlessly. For the most part,
they should contain a figure or two, a “cartoon,” and
simple text. Showing slide after slide of bullet points
risks inducing yawns, and is not recommended.
Go easy on animation. It is disconcerting to see
words fly onto the screen from every which direction.
Animation also incurs a risk: Should you have to back
up to mention something you forgot to say, your words
will be flying out again and then, possibly to giggles,
back in. In a similar vein, do not overdo the use of fonts
and colored text, which tend to tax the viewer’s eye.
Do try to leave a reasonable amount of white space on
each slide; that tends to be relaxing.
Use large fonts! This has two advantages. One is that
people in the back of the room, close enough to the
door that they can escape inconspicuously, can read
what you’ve written and might be persuaded to stay.
The other is that it limits the amount of material you
can fit on a page. You don’t want a lot.

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You might be wondering how large is large enough.
To decide, take your laptop and a projector to a seminar room. Look at your slides from the back. Can you
read them? While you are there, notice whether your
color scheme provides sufficient contrast. Can you
read your light blue letters against a white background?
Black might be better.

By now, I hope you have realized that this chapter is
organized as a seminar on seminars, and I would like
to reiterate the main ideas:
. Your seminar is a performance. It needs to be
carefully planned and thoroughly rehearsed.
. Present yourself confidently. Act as though you
have enjoyed doing your research and that your
results are exciting to you.
. Respect your audience. They are spending an hour
to hear you. They want to understand what you
have to say, even if your specialty is not theirs.
They do not want to be “snowed,” nor do they
want to be treated as experts in a field where they
really are not.

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Peter J. Feibelman


. Do not waste your time with filler. Make sure each
slide pushes your story forward. If your talk is a
bit too short, no one will object.
. Make your visual aids pleasing to the eye without
too much of a Madison Avenue look.

Thanks for your attention!
additional reading
Garland, J. C. “Advice to Beginning Physics Speakers.”
Physics Today ,  ().
Booth, Vernon. Writing a Scientific Paper and Speaking at
Scientific Meetings. nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, .
Alley, Michael. The Craft of Scientific Presentations: Critical Steps to Succeed and Critical Errors to Avoid. New
York: Springer-Verlag, .

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Writing Papers
Publishing Without Perishing

The negative connotation of the cliché publish or perish is seriously misplaced. Publication is a key component of your research efforts. It is widely accepted that
a scientific endeavor is not complete until it has been
written up. The exercise of putting your reasoning
down on paper will frequently lead you to refine your
thoughts, to detect flaws in your arguments, and perhaps to realize that your work has wider significance
than you had originally imagined. Publication also has
strategic significance. As a beginning scientist, not only
do you work long hours for low pay, but your job security is anything but assured. To succeed, you must
make your talents well known and widely appreciated.


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Publishing provides you with an important way to accomplish that. Your papers, on public view around the
world, represent not only your product but also your
résumé. Compelling, thoughtful, well-written articles
are timeless advertisements for yourself. You can imagine that a sloppy résumé is not worth preparing. A premature or slapdash publication is far worse. It will
remain available to readers indefinitely. These thoughts
raise the two basic questions addressed in the present
chapter: When should one write a paper, and how
should one write it?

Generally, articles are written too soon in response to
the fear that one’s competitors will publish first or as
a result of intellectual laziness (i.e., inattention to important details). Papers are written too late because of
the fear of publishing a blunder or because of writer’s
block. Overcoming these fears and frailties is necessary for everyone in science. At the very least, the
knowledge that they are not yours alone may help you
deal with them. (Read Carl Djerassi’s novel Cantor’s
Dilemma [New York: Penguin Books, ] for a
poignant exposition of the problem of when and what
to publish.)
Planning your research as a series of relatively
short, complete projects (cf. Chapter ) is the best

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way to achieve a disciplined publication schedule, one
that serves your interests in scientific priority, selfadvertisement, and job security. Even though you are
working toward an important long-term goal, you report each project as an independent piece of work that
has produced a new kernel of knowledge (only halfjokingly a “publon,” a quantum of publication*). In the
introduction to each paper of a series, you place the
work reported in the context of the long-term goal, to
which you thereby lay claim, and you explain how the
present results take you a step closer. If your project
turns out to be as significant as you had hoped, after
you have published several papers in the series, no
doubt you will be asked to write a review. This will provide you with an appropriate forum for a long, definitive article, one that will be widely referred to and will
help to make your name in science.
There are many advantages to writing up your work
as a series of short papers. Managers and funding agencies need concrete evidence that they have hired personnel and spent money wisely. Nothing is more helpful
in this regard than the list of publications their wisdom
has fostered. Of course, they will be pleased if you
eventually realize a long-term research goal. However,

* The concept of the “publon” emerged from the graduate student minds of M. J. Weber, now at the University of Virginia, and
W. Eckhart, now at the Salk Institute.

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funding cycles are typically two or three years (cf. Chapter ), and renewal of junior scientific positions occurs
on a similar time scale. Therefore, deans, research directors, and contract managers cannot wait for your
long-term dreams to come true. They need published
evidence of your progress on an ongoing basis.
By writing numerous, relatively short articles, you can
keep your name in the spotlight. The titles, abstracts,
and authorship of your new papers will show up in electronic databases, generally updated weekly. Such search
engines as,,
and will readily lead the community to
manuscripts you have posted on, precedings, or any of a host of other preprint servers.
The number of citations of a long publication list increases more rapidly than that of a short list.
You mustn’t be overly cynical about these facts of scientific life. If you attempt to achieve name-recognition
by padding your publication list with repetitive papers,
your efforts will soon reap scorn rather than admiration. Still, the little admiration you gain for publishing
an awesome magnum opus in a single paper is surely
not worth the risk that this publication strategy poses
to your job security.
If you publish frequently, you are less likely to be
“scooped.” The longer you hold back reporting your results, particularly if they are important, the greater the

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chance some other group will beat you into print. You
do need to develop an appreciation for when a piece
of work is complete enough to be written up. If the
logic of a manuscript is clearly missing an important
piece of confirmatory evidence, submitting it to a journal is likely to cause you endless, painful interactions
with referees. This is the time to hold back. (Among
other problems, the referees may very well be your
competitors. Their own publication strategy is likely to
be affected by their appreciation of where your incomplete work stands.) On the other hand, if you have
completed a project, the sooner you get it into the
hands of a journal, the better the chances are that you
will get credit for your accomplishment.
Writing a paper that presents one new idea or result
is much easier than writing a long, complex article.
This is a reasonable way to address the problem of
writer’s block. Much of the introduction to a shorter
paper can be prepared, at least mentally, when the
long-term research project is originally proposed. The
organization of a paper is simpler if there is not so
much material to present, and it is also relatively easy
to explain the conclusions in that case.
Referees are generally busy people and prefer to review short papers. You are likely to receive a more
thoughtful and positive report on a short manuscript
than on a long one. Shorter papers are of course not

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only easier on referees. They also can be read and assimilated more easily by the scientific community at
Writing up individual kernels of new research
should have some appeal for the perfectionist. It is easier to get everything right when one is dealing with a
small project than when publishing the results of a
major, complex effort.
Eventually, of course, all the significant details of a
research project need to be reported in an archival
journal so that others may repeat and confirm the validity of the new science. Writing such technical papers
is an important exercise, and one that will win you
credit from your peers if you do it well. On the other
hand, in most cases the writing of such papers can be
carried out at leisure.

Writing Compelling Papers
A journal article should present a careful and relatively
complete account of your research. However, it is all
too easy to write an accurate description of your work
that attracts no attention and that adds little to your
scientific reputation, even when your results are significant. Learning to write articles that people will
read and remember will make you a more effective scientist. It will also enhance your chances for survival as
a researcher.

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The structure of a news article is a good model to
follow in preparing a scientific publication. Newspaper
readers, like your research colleagues, rarely have
much time for acquiring new information. This is just
the reason that news articles present a story several
times, in increasing levels of detail. Their headlines,
equivalent to the titles of your scientific papers, are
there to draw readers in by providing a succinct description of what is noteworthy. Scientists attempting
to keep up in a world of information overload often do
no more than skim the tables of contents of the leading
journals in their field or conduct electronic keyword
searches. You can help direct them to your new paper
by taking the time to prepare an accurate and compelling title, concise yet incorporating the most important keywords. (“Cute” should be avoided, as a rule.)
The abstract of a paper corresponds to the first paragraph of a news item. It summarizes the main information, what the important results are, and what
methods you used to obtain them. Numerous journals
place a word limit (e.g.,  words) on the abstract. It is
a good idea to impose such a limit on yourself whether
or not the journal does. An abstract that is brief and to
the point has a better chance of being read. A wordy
one, which reads like the introduction to or the body
of a paper, will lose readers.
As in the case of titles, it is worth remembering that
abstracts circulate more widely than the papers they

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summarize. They are the first item to pop up when one
searches journal content and are generally available
without charge, even when seeing a full article requires
a subscription. A well-written abstract may thus make
the difference between someone’s downloading your
full text or emailing you for a copy, rather than just
moving on.
The introduction to a paper is where you tell your
story, possibly illustrating the text with an important
figure or some key results, but without going into great
detail. Here is where you want to explain why your
project was an important one to undertake and how
your results make a difference to the way we understand the world. Many busy scientists read only the introduction and conclusion sections of papers, leaving
the technical details for another time. Therefore, it is a
good idea to highlight your results—for example, by
placing your most important figure in the introduction.
Even if your readers never take the time to plow
through the complete description of your work in the
body of your paper, they may think enough of the information in your introduction to make sure to catch
your talk at the next scientific meeting.
Virtually everyone finds that writing the introduction to a paper is the most difficult task. It is easy to report the procedures you followed and to describe the
data you obtained. The hard part of paper writing is

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drawing the reader in. My solution to this problem is
to start thinking about the first paragraph of an article
when I begin a project rather than when I complete it. I
would not embark on a scientific effort if I didn’t think
it was important and that my work would answer a
question of rather wide interest. The reasons that I
found the project in question interesting enough to
work on provide half the material I need for my introduction. The remainder is a summary of my key results. The decision to start writing a paper is generally
based on recognizing that a kernel of knowledge has
been produced. In my introduction, I want to let my
reader know what this new information is, in a nutshell, and why it is worth reading about. Sitting at the
word processor, I imagine I am on the phone with a
scientist friend whom I haven’t spoken to in some time.
He asks me what I have been doing recently. I write
down my imagined response. If, when you try this, you
feel an attack of writer’s block coming on, turn on a
recording device and actually call a friend. It works.
Incidentally, if you know why you have carried out
a scientific project and what makes your results interesting, there is no reason that your paper should start
with an inane cliché, such as, “Recently there has been
a resurgence of interest in . . . (whatever the topic),”
which bothers me every time I see it. If you have been
working on a project for several months or a year solely

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because other people are interested in it, you have a lot
to learn about problem selection. (In this case, see
Chapter  for some help. Do not pass go. Do not collect
your next paycheck.) Before you start on a research effort, you must understand why it is important, and in
the introduction to your publication on the subject,
this is just what you need to explain.
In writing your introduction, as well as the body of
your paper, it is essential to place your work in context,
not only by explaining what you did and why but also
by citing the relevant literature. This is important, not
only to provide your readers with a way of understanding your area of research, but also because your scientific colleagues are very eager to get credit for their
achievements. (This is not just vanity. Scientists’ careers are built on the perceived importance or usefulness of their research results.) You have much to gain
and little to lose by scrupulously citing your competitors’ work. I said above that many busy scientists read
only the introduction and conclusion sections of papers. Even more move directly from the title and abstract to the references, to see if their work is cited. If
someone’s papers are not mentioned there but should
be, you risk losing a potential friend or at least some
I would add that an excellent way to keep up with
developments in your field is to check, from time to

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time, who is citing your own papers. A “citations
index,” such as is available on the ISI Web of ScienceSM,
makes this an easy task. Bear in mind as you do this
that if checking citations is how people in your field
keep up, an article you have written that fails to cite
their work is more likely to go unnoticed.
In revising and editing your article before submitting it, you should constantly be asking yourself if you
have dealt with all the loose ends in your logic. Are
there arguments you have thought about and used but
not written into your text? Are you wishy-washy
about inferences you have drawn, instead of forceful,
because there are missing links in the logic? If so, you
either need to work a little longer before writing your
paper, or be forthright about what is conjecture and
what has actually been proven. Even if the referee does
not catch the weak points of your manuscript, you
must not forget that your paper will be on public view
for a long time. Intellectual honesty is accordingly a
very good policy. This is not to say you should be such
a perfectionist that you never feel comfortable declaring a project done and ready to be published, but
rather that you should own up, in print, to what you
think might be weak links in your reasoning. This is a
service to the community, in that it points to further
research directions. It shows the world that you are a
thoughtful and forthright individual. Importantly, it

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also provides you an out if your reasoning is later
shown to be incorrect.
The format of the body of a paper is often dictated
by the journal where it will be submitted. Within the
journal’s constraints, however, the key to organizing
your work is to make your text read like a story. Often
it is a good idea to relegate detailed discussion of a
technical aspect of the work to an appendix. That way,
experts or interested parties can try to understand your
arguments in full detail, whereas others do not have to
guess how much of the text to skip to move on to the
next idea.
Keep in mind that the function of a journal article
is to communicate, not simply to indicate how wonderful your results are. In principle, a paper should provide enough information that an interested reader
would be able to reproduce your work. It is your responsibility to ensure that the necessary information
is made available, at the same time as you try to make
your paper as snappy and readable as you can.

Snappy Papers
In archaic times, say  years ago, you generally had to
write your papers as though the work had actually been
done by someone else. You were discouraged from
using the personal pronoun ‘‘I’’ in favor of “we” or, even
worse, “one.” Journals seemed to require writing papers

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in the passive mood, as in “the data were obtained using
the following novel method” rather than “I developed
the following novel method to obtain the data.” More
recently, it has become possible to drop the phoniness
of this style and to reveal in your writing that you actually did the work you are reporting. I greatly prefer
the more straightforward style and recommend that
you use it.
People of a mathematical bent often connect the
sentences in their papers with such words as now, then,
thus, however, therefore, whence, hence, and so forth. If
you want your text to be readable to the non-pedantic,
you should be very sparing in using them. Go over
your first draft and challenge yourself to see how many
of these connectives you can remove without undermining the logic of your argument.
In this era of speedy desktop computers and fullfeatured graphics programs, there are few excuses for
omitting evocative figures from a paper. A picture may
be worth more than a thousand words in a scientific
article, particularly if the thousand words are not read,
but the thoughtfully prepared figure is examined and
the information it reports absorbed. This does mean it
is important not to prepare figures that are too cluttered. If they offend the eye, they may be ignored along
with the thousands of words.
Some journals restrict the length of articles. This typically forces one to go back through the first draft of a

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manuscript to rewrite more economically. In preparing
the first draft, it is a good idea to be as generous as possible with words. You should write down everything
that comes to mind as relevant. This may not be easy
but helps get all the logic on paper. (Again, get out the
voice recorder if you tend to be stingy with words.) If
you have written a copious text, the exercise of cutting
back may be more difficult but is less likely to lead to a
paper whose flow is compromised by the absence of
something important. I recommend the approach of
writing generously and then editing severely in all cases
—that is, whether or not the journal in question imposes restrictions on manuscript length. The exercise
of rewriting as concisely as possible leads to more readable text and thus to text that is read more widely.
As in the preparation of a seminar, the last section
of a paper should provide not just a summary of the
results reported but also some idea of how they might
affect the direction of future research. The goal of the
conclusions section is to leave your reader thinking
about how your work affects his or her own research
plans. Good science opens new doors.

Last, because arguments with journal referees can take
many months to settle, and can be very frustrating, it
is a good idea to forestall them by having your manu-

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scripts reviewed locally, by one or two of your colleagues, before submission. If you have chosen your
local reviewer well, you may discover the weak points
in your article in a matter of days rather than months.
If English is not your mother tongue (and if you are
writing for an English-language journal) it is even more
important to have your paper reviewed and edited by
a colleague, one whose English is near perfect. Your
readers, including your journal’s referees, are human
and thus impatient to some degree. The easier you can
make their task, the better will be their response to
your efforts.
Incidentally, as one who referees many papers, I
much prefer receiving a cogent, well-written manuscript that I can learn from than the other kind. A
paper that I enjoy reading disposes me favorably toward the author. Your referee may be your paper’s most
careful reader ever. Making a good impression on this
anonymous potential employer is not a bad idea!
If your referee does have serious complaints about
your article, getting angry is not a productive response. A better idea is to consider why this thoughtful expert did not follow your argument and agree
with it. If on reflection you believe that your results
are correct and that the referee has simply misunderstood them, it is likely that spending some time revising your text will not only persuade the referee to
recommend that your paper be published but will also

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ultimately make your ideas less confusing to your journal’s general readership.
additional reading
Carter, Sylvester P. Writing for Your Peers: The Primary
Journal Paper. New York: Praeger, .
Alley, Michael. The Craft of Scientific Writing. rd ed. New
York: Springer Science and Business Media, .
Booth, Vernon. Communicating in Science: Writing a Scientific Paper and Speaking at Scientific Meetings. nd
ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, .

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From Here to Tenure
Choosing a Career Path

As a scientist, your goals are to make exciting discoveries, to change the way your colleagues and maybe
even the public at large view the world, and generally
to improve people’s lives. However, need I remind you,
you will remain a human being, with human ne