There are a number of government-funded campaigns to promote more participation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields, with the promise that a PhD means basic discovery and improving the human condition.
Yet what is left out of expensive marketing efforts is that there are now 6 PhDs for every job in academia - just because more people want to work at a university does not mean the government will increase funding to pay for it. Instead of selling STEM careers to students, the National Science Foundation would be doing a greater service by showing students that academia is a lot like the corporate world - you will have to compete to get ahead, otherwise you will be trapped in a low-end job in a lab forever.
At the annual Society for Leukocyte Biology meeting, and described in Nature Immunology, Elizabeth J. Kovacs, PhD, of Loyola University Chicago and colleagues outline some strategies. Some are achievable, some are less easily so. Dress professionally, network during scientific meetings and be able to describe a research project in the time it takes to ride an elevator are all reasonable. Find an influential mentor is not - if someone can go to a lab where they can have an influential mentor, they will do it, but most people have to take jobs where they can get them.
Still, things are not bad for grad students who can stick it out. The percentage of PhDs who obtain tenured or tenure-track faculty positions is 26 percent, according to the National Institutes of Health, and that is down from 34 percent in 1993 but the pay has skyrocketed since then - thanks to the rising costs of tuition brought about by the government creating unlimited student loans. If 26 percent of people who stick with academia can eventually get a high-paying job for life, it is worth competing now.
Most universities will have a good mentor in a particular field, but that does not mean they want to mentor you. They may have plenty of qualified people they are helping already. That is where self-marketing comes in. Many scientists resist the idea of marketing, the desire for no corporate appearance is why they want to stay in academia, but when they are on their fourth post-doc position the value of marketing, and the ability to describe excite people about their research, will become obvious. Anyone who does not think that marketing their research is as important as the research itself is fooling themselves, unless they are part of the Academic 1% and labeled as a wunderkind early on. If you are not already a world-class researcher, market.
"In many cases, brilliant scientists with potentially groundbreaking ideas fall short because they cannot communicate their ideas or the importance of their research to the appropriate audience," the authors write.
In general, a researcher should be able to describe their work and goals in 1 to three 3 minutes – roughly the time it takes to ride an elevator.
Networking may sound like the kind of thing insurance agents do, but it doesn't have to be overt. Asking thoughtful questions after presentations - not long-winded expositions about you, your experience, or your research - gets noticed. And be a reasonable human being. It's easy to sneer at others but there are a lot of NIH committees and a lot of people on them. In 1993, the NIH budget was only $10 billion but after President George W. Bush and Republicans doubled funding to almost $30 billion a decade ago, a lot of slots in funding groups got filled by a lot of people you may never have heard of - so be nice to everyone.
'Dress well' is bound to raise some hackles as advice - a number of academics went into university life precisely so they could berate anyone who discusses appearance - but let them be stuck as a post-doc and going to protests outside The Union while you get a tenure job: "While it is true that one cannot judge a book by its cover, first impressions are lasting. Junior researchers should dress as if attending an interview because every encounter might represent an opportunity for advancement."
And a final important rule: Until you are told to use a first name, use Dr. And when in doubt about their job, use Professor.