Thursday, January 27, 2011

On Self-Promotion

There's been some buzz around the blogosphere lately about the Science Online '11 panel on "Perils of blogging as a woman under a real name." Especially interesting to me (and a lot of other people!) was Ed Yong's comment that while he receives lots of inquiries from male bloggers asking him to promote their work, he has never received a single message of the sort from a woman. Prof. Kate Clancy wrote about this at her blog, and there's some great discussion in the comments, too. Dr. Becca spun off from the discussion to talk about her own self-promotion tour, which sounds pretty awesome.

These posts got me thinking about ways in which I promote myself and my work, or fail to. For example: Back in 2008, when I was applying to graduate schools, I was still working as a technician at Children's Hospital Boston. Because of the hospital's affiliation with Harvard Medical School, all kinds of fabulous scientists came to visit and give seminars on a regular basis. It's standard for students and postdocs to have lunch with visiting speakers at most institutions, including Children's. Technicians are less likely to be invited, though. Then one day, a Famous Guy from a Really Good University came to give a talk. I was really excited, because I had decided to apply to Really Good University's Neuroscience Graduate Program, and I was interested in Famous Guy's lab. So my PI said that I should go to the student/postdoc lunch with Famous Guy and introduce myself.

Well. The time came for lunch, and I sat there with my sandwich and cookie at a huge conference room table with like 15 trainees and Famous Guy. I had never been to one of these lunches before and I felt very intimidated. I thought the grad students and postdocs were much smarter than me, and that they probably had cooler projects, and were more successful, and I had no idea what to say to Famous Guy about my own project, or my graduate school dreams. And, forget about asking a question about his research -- I was sure that any question I had would do nothing but reveal how ignorant I was about his field.

At one point, Famous Guy asked everyone at the table to go around in a circle to introduce themselves and summarize their research (also fairly standard at these lunches). As I listened to everyone else, I started to feel more comfortable -- I might have been clueless about Famous Guy's work, but at least I could describe what I'd been doing for the past 18 months and sound halfway intelligent. I waited for my turn, thinking about a punchy elevator pitch for my coolest result.

So, the person on my left finished talking, and then there was a bit of discussion around the table as Famous Guy asked questions and other people jumped in to answer them or ask their own questions. I waited for a lull so that I could get back to the introduction game and have my say. And then, the woman on my right took the opportunity to jump into the discussion. She said "I want to ask you about something, because my project is focused on [stuff], and I think it really relates to your work on [other stuff], so what do you think of [idea]?"

Famous Guy was really interested in her idea, and they started this rapid conversation about her project and stuff related to her project that lasted for the last remaining minutes of the lunch. She totally skipped me! I was so flummoxed; I had no idea what to do. Everyone else had talked about their science while I just ate a sandwich.

At the time, I projected all of my resentment onto the trainee sitting to my right, who had seized the moment and gotten Famous Guy's attention. I felt like this had to be an intentional slight against me, and that she was being rude by not giving me a perfect moment of silence in which I could give my spiel. But now I realize that being heard at a group discussion requires that kind of assertiveness, and I know she wasn't trying to steamroll me. She had to kind of steamroll everybody, or else she wouldn't get a chance to share her idea. (Looking back, I also think that they had way too many trainees in the room for that lunch -- things are much more pleasant when there like five trainees, and everyone has time to gab about the weather or whatever in addition to the science talk.)

Anyway, I didn't get into Really Good Graduate Program. I didn't even get an interview. But I got interviews at five other graduate programs, and was accepted to all of them. During one-on-one interviews, I felt very comfortable talking about my project at Children's and my other accomplishments. I was able to get over my shyness, and people responded positively to what I had to say, which increased my confidence.

I've continued to get better at the game. This week I had lunch with two different seminar speakers at Emory. Now that I've had more training, I'm able to see how my work relates to the speaker's work, most of the time, and ask intelligent questions. I'm also no longer afraid to say, "I hadn't even heard of [thing you study] until I looked it up on PubMed yesterday, but is it possible that [insert wacky idea related to my project]...?" And, I no longer resent it when another student or postdoc monopolizes the speaker's attention. Instead, I wait for a pause, and then say something like, "Well, I guess I should introduce myself: I'm Laura..." (Or, if I've already had my turn, I'll say, "Hey, I don't think [other person at lunch] talked about her work yet... did I miss it?")

I really enjoy these opportunities to meet visiting scientists and talk about my research with them. The trainee lunches are nice because they give me a chance to ask my stupid questions in front of a smaller group, since I'm still usually too scared to raise my hand at seminars in the big auditorium. Obviously I need to get over this. I also need to work on putting myself out there at conferences, where the Famous Guy types tend to walk around surrounded by a herd of admirers. I have not yet mastered the technique of getting their attention in a crowd, so if they don't visit my poster, I'm kinda out of luck.

My blog is another story. What's the equivalent of the trainee lunch (i.e., self-promotion training wheels) for science bloggers?


  1. this was a perfect post to read while i sit in the airport waiting to board the flight to my first graduate school interviews.

  2. Good luck at your interviews! I just looked at your blog (again... how did I fail to add you to my blogroll after your previous comments here? consider that amended) -- I hope all goes well for you, health-wise. But even if it doesn't, your hosts should understand if they are at all decent people.

    You may have seen my post about having to leave dinner during my Emory interview because they took me out to a seafood restaurant (I am deathly allergic to shellfish) and I couldn't stand to sit at a table with people passing crab cakes back and forth under my nose. Everyone bent over backwards to help once I explained the problem, and the head of the admissions committee gave me his personal apology the next day. And I got in.