Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Tips for being a more effective scientist

After 13 years as some form of scientist at The Nature Conservancy (TNC), I’ve learned a lot. Here are a few of my top lessons learned that are easy to miss when you’re focused on your core responsibilities. There are many ways to be a successful applied scientist; please share your own advice in the comments about what you have learned that I left out. Also, I recognize that these all take time and can add work. So don't be afraid to say no to requests to free up time to do things like this that you may not get asked to do! 

1. Always make time to learn
Knowledge is the primary currency of scientists. If you don’t make time for learning, you’re withdrawing on an account that won’t replenish. Dedicating even a small amount of time to learning is essential to staying effective. I spend ~1-2% of my time reading scientific literature: enough to get through several papers each month and summarize them. I also spend a few percent working on diversity & inclusion issues at TNC, which has helped me learn on completely different topics. Hate reading papers? Call trusted colleagues to pick their brains, attend a webinar, or take a training on something you’re bad at. I was terrible at written and spoken communications, as well as conflict management, when I started at TNC. I’ve improved a lot by putting in effort. Don’t have time? Read papers on planes, trains, and buses (I do this on a tablet synced to Box), while eating breakfast, or when you need a break from email and talking to people. Pick a couple of your least productive standing meetings, switch from 60 to 30 minutes (or cancel), and use the time saved for learning.

      2. Don’t be afraid to speak up for science and rigor
Scientists need to advocate for the use of evidence in making decisions. That can at times mean pushing for measures, providing internal critique and suggestions to statements by colleagues who aren’t as current with the science, and in general helping to ensure your organization is well aligned with good science. That can be uncomfortable, and many of us are reluctant to speak up. But I find that most of the time, when I raise concerns thoughtfully and back them up with science, people I work with have appreciated it (even when I disagree with them). I’ve even had senior managers complain to me that people are too reluctant to push back on them sometimes!

      3. Step up to solve problems when you can
You likely sometimes run into a problem that you know has a relatively simple fix but which is not your job. Consider stepping up to fix it anyway. There have been several times when I’ve been annoyed by (and affected by) a problem and realized that I could make a big dent in it with just a few days of work. People see this as leadership, and it pays off. Examples could include working with a colleague in IT to rapidly put together a simple information system or web page; helping to organize or connect scientists on a topic who are currently not talking to each other; engaging with Employee Resource Groups on projects to improve diversity, equity or inclusion; or doing whatever else inspires you. Always thank the people who go out of their way to help you on these projects – a little recognition and appreciation goes a long way.

      4. Network (internally and externally)
At a big NGO like TNC, there are guaranteed to be several staff who can help you learn and grow in your job (as well as be fun to work with). But, especially for field scientists, it can be hard to connect with others. Find out who works on your topic in other programs, and build a network of people you can ask to collaborate on papers, review your work, help brainstorm, etc. You can do it via Connect or Workplace, or via email and phone. 

This applies outside of your organization too, especially if you’re at a smaller one. Mentoring students at universities (e.g. via NatureNet) is one great way to do this – you build connections with both the student and their academic mentor. I’ve also found that authors of scientific papers are almost always thrilled to be contacted with questions or feedback. I also have a policy of making time (15-30 minutes) for anyone who wants to connect with me; you never know how you can help them and vice versa. That includes folks in non-scientific roles (e.g. admin or operations) – they play a critical role in getting things done and are sometimes brushed off by busy scientists when they have questions. It also means being an ally for people who need it. Finally, look for ways to get to know decision-makers! Sometimes I’ve been invited to a non-scientific event to represent TNC, gone resentfully, and walked away with invaluable contacts I didn’t expect.

      5. Learn your biases and reflect on them often
We all have bias and a perspective that informs how we do science. Many of us have strong opinions backed up by considerable reading and thought, so it can be hard to acknowledge that we almost always have bias, and that there’s a lot we don’t know. Pretending you can 'cure' bias means you'll likely be blind to it - focus on understanding it and mitigating it instead. 

I try very hard to follow advice from Ray Bradbury, which is that whenever I notice myself having an emotional reaction to something I’m reading, I pause and think about why I’m reacting. For example, if I’m reading a paper that contradicts what I think I know, I work extra hard to ask “How could this be right? What assumptions am I making? How could I reconcile conflicts between this information and other information I have?” Sometimes careful science lands you in the same place as your gut. But take the time to be sure, and disclose your leanings to colleagues so they can help to bring other perspectives that balance yours. 

Talk to people in other scientific camps, and listen to them in order to gather data, understand, and reflect (not to win an argument). Seek collaborators who disagree with you. This also includes listening to non-scientists who push back on recommendations by scientists about how much time and data we need to answer a challenging question! Most scientists prefer to answer questions with “it depends,” and sometimes we need to be pushed to provide actionable information or risk missing a chance to impact a decision.

      6. Pay attention to your colleagues’ style
While it’s obvious, the fact that others think and feel very differently from you is surprisingly non-intuitive to me. I remember working with a colleague years ago who was consistently making mistakes on a process, and I added more and more detail to the guidance to try and fix it. But for him (and many others), as guidance gets longer, they read less of it. I had to understand his style and adjust accordingly. Similarly, I like to resolve issues through rapid back and forth discussion, but others don’t think that way, and instead need materials in advance and then time to think before responding. The “interaction styles” training is very helpful for this, as is the Enneagram. Learning the styles of some key colleagues who I don’t intuitively understand has been critical for me to build relationships and work effectively. 

One final note - I found the photo in this post hilarious and used it for years at work (it was taken mid-dance at my wedding). But I learned that a couple of colleagues took it as a lack of seriousness or credibility, and once I learned it undermined my work with some people, I changed it. So pay attention to how some of your non-work choices impact your work, and reflect on when to bend (e.g. pick a more professional photo or username), and when to stick to your guns (I still haven't cut my hair).

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