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Establishing a Professional Identity

February 2005

The period immediately following fellowship is a difficult time for many trainees seeking to build an academic career. Most are comfortable with their identity as a physician-in-training, having built this persona without too much conscious effort during medical training. Suddenly, the senior fellow or junior faculty member is challenged to quickly come up with a new identity, that of an academic, in a field with radically different values and approaches. Medical training is highly structured, with each step in the process clearly marked. In contrast, academic milestones are few and far between and the criteria for achieving them are often frustratingly vague. Establishing a professional identity is one of those topics that is critical for career success, but that no one ever seems to address directly. It's an absolute requirement of the tenure process in most universities.

When you come up for tenure, you will be evaluated by people who are not intimately familiar with your research area. They will be looking for evidence of your independence. Hence, they need to find people who can help them evaluate your research accomplishments. Publication in peer-reviewed journals is one mechanism. Promotion committees also rely on letters from senior people in your research area. For a junior faculty member who has been hard at work producing papers and getting grants, the news that s/he must obtain verification of the significance of their work from two or three senior faculty outside their home institution can be an unwelcome surprise and even a source of resentment.

Junior faculty often operate under the impression that they are entering a community of equals and look to senior faculty within their division to establish relationships. However, the research world functions more like an entrepreneurial system with alliances and collaborations. It is within this bigger outsideworld that you need to integrate yourself, by establishing a niche and defining an identity. This takes time, energy and effort. Be open-minded. Every person you meet and develop a relationship with has the potential of bringing something positive to your career. If not now, then maybe later. The relationships you build in the community outside your home turf may prove invaluable not only for promotion, but also as a source of support and advancement if you feel ignored or underappreciated (another common lament of junior faculty who stay at the institution at which they trained). If an existing institution ignores you, why not go to a new one?

The first step of establishing a distinct identity is to start a research project that is different from your advisor's. Then you need to work on developing a language of your own to explain your research agenda. It must be your view of the world or the research area in which you are working. THINK BIG. Have confidence in yourself and your ideas. Establishing your research career can be difficult in a crowded field, or one that is dominated by your advisor. Look for emerging themes in your area. There will be less competition; this increases your chances of establishing yourself as a leader. This does not mean totally ignoring the work of your advisor or collaborators. This does not mean you need to be boastful or self-aggrandizing. It is possible to share your work and acknowledge others by giving credit where credit is due.

You need to articulate how you will extend previous findings and take it in a unique direction. You must be able to clearly and concisely explain what it is you are looking for and why it is important. This requires that you develop the language to do this. In previous columns, we talked about developing and honing your communication skills. We have also stressed the importance of tailoring your presentations to your audience. The idea is to look for commonalities. This concept applies even to simple conversation. Every time you tell someone what you do, think about how you can convey your themes in a way that is tailored to what they do. For instance, say you study the role of cytokine X in regulating monocyte activation during acute lung injury. To a clinician, you might emphasize the disease-oriented aspects of your work. In contrast, when meeting a scientist who studies cytokine X induced by drinking 100-year-old tequila, you might focus on the role of this cytokine in your work.

So how does one get out and meet people?

Attending meetings
This is probably the single best way to meet new people. Everyone has to build and maintain a network. Conferences provide a venue for people to meet in one place. Electronic communication cannot replace the need for face-to-face meetings. The fundamental purpose of professional meetings such as the ATS International Conference is networking. Smaller scientific meetings are an excellent means of meeting people who are really passionate about your specific area of research. Make sure you are on the list-serv for receiving notices about upcoming seminars and lectures sponsored by, relevant departments on your campus. Networking can start in your own backyard.

Start attending meetings early in your career. The nuts and bolts of attending a large professional meeting such as the ATS International Conference were covered in previous columns, (March 2004 and August 2004). Again, attending an international meeting the size of the ATS requires energy and effort so make it as easy as possible on yourself. Pre-register and stay as close as possible to the conference site. Study the conference schedule in advance. AND PRACTICE! Whether it be for an individual poster presentation, a chance or pre-arranged meeting, practice presenting your work in different ways (see below). Basically there are three primary means of publicizing your work at a conference.

Enter the room with confidence; look for people you know or want to know. If you're a little shy, seek out people who are standing alone because they will appreciate your interest and conversation. The "OAR" method (Observe something about the other person, Ask a question and Reveal something about yourself) is a great icebreaker. Take a deep breath, smile and move in closer to join conversations already in progress. A simple "Hi, may I join you" can work wonders. Most people will create a space for you. Remember to circulate so that you can meet a variety of people. When leaving a conversation, conclude the conversation gracefully by saying "Goodbye," and visually and verbally express genuine and sincere appreciation and mention any followup if you plan to do so.

Be prepared to answer questions about your work. You need to be able to answer spontaneously, to anyone, at anytime, at any length. This is your chance! Be enthusiastic. If you aren't excited about your work, how can you expect anyone else to be? Remember, these are people not familiar with what you've been doing so practice the 10- second sound bite, 1- minute summary, 5- minute overview and 10- minute in-depth explanation. If you've prepared for the conference by "introducing" yourself to a particular person by email or writing, now is your chance to make face contact. If you're in a group, take the initiative, act like a host and introduce people to each other.

One useful strategy if talking to a complete stranger is to get him/her to present their work too. This gives you a chance to find common ground. For instance, your areas of interest may differ, but you may use similar techniques or approaches. Then you can tailor your explanation to highlight those items that you share. Think about how to efficiently share information in a way that benefits both parties and establishes relationships.

Abstracts/poster presentations
As discussed, presenting a poster at a large abstract session can make you feel like a salesperson waiting for customers. But it is a great opportunity to discuss your work with a variety of people.

Symposia and minisymposia
Organizing conferences and workshops can be a great way to meet new people who are passionate about your cause or research area. In addition to individual poster presentations and abstract sessions, most broad general conferences such as the ATS, highlight certain areas of research through organized panels in which certain papers or abstracts focused on a single timely topic are discussed as a group. For the ATS, programming of symposia and minisymposia is handled by the programming committees of the various assemblies. We'll discuss how to propose and organize a symposium in a future column. As you attend sessions, take notes of presenters' speaking styles, how the session is organized, what you like/dislike about it and what you would do differently.

Getting published
We are told over and over again, "publish or perish." But nobody seems to talk about where or how much? Quantity versus quality? Chapters versus original manuscripts? There isn't room in this column to address all these questions in detail. Just remember, when you are preparing your research for publication, it will be a public record of you. For some, your publications will be the first and perhaps only means through which you will get known. Publications are your ticket into the research community at large. You are joining the ranks of all the people you cite in your reference list as a colleague. One of the most important parts of any manuscript is the discussion. Here is where you tie your work to that of others. By reading and preparing to write this manuscript, you have been learning the language of the field, absorbing phrases and terminology, learning who is who and their views. In the discussion, you present your view of what has been done, what it means and how your work relates, in your voice. This is always the hardest part of the paper to write. Especially when you are starting out and everything is new. It may take several drafts to be able to say what you want to say in the way you want to say it using this new language.

Like learning any new language, practicing with a native speaker is critical. Asking someone to comment/review a draft can be enormously important and helpful. Make sure you include them in the acknowledgements and realize that you are also obligated to reciprocate.

As we mentioned last month, figuring out who you want to meet may be as simple as starting with the reference list for your most current manuscript or grant proposal. You may be lucky enough that some of these people are on your own campus. But even if not, email and other forms of electronic communication make networking easier by opening up vast new information vistas and making it possible for relationships to be established over great geographic distances. Electronic databases, PDAs make keeping in touch simple. In preparing for upcoming conferences, for instance, email can be critical in arranging meetings with people that you've identified as being "relevant" to your cause. But don't be seduced by the ease of electronic communication. As already mentioned, email is no substitute for direct face-to-face meetings.

Most professional organizations, whether it be ATS or your university, depend on the contributions of its members or faculty. As discussed in a previous column, committee service can be a vital part of academic success. Committee service is also a means of meeting people who may not be directly involved in your area of research, but may be involved in institutional activities important for your career. For instance, participating in peer review may be the single best way to learn important nuances critical for successful grant writing. Committee members can be a valuable resource when it comes time to look for a job.

Follow up
Now that you have invested all this time and effort in getting to know people, be sure to follow up and maintain the relationships! Remember the "48- hour" rule. Send an email, write a note or telephone within 48 hours of meeting someone. After that, it is important to keep your network of contacts informed periodically about your activities and achievements. Send each one an email every now and then just to let them know what you're up to. One easy way to go about this is to think about calling one person each day just to catch up. Past mentors, bosses and distant colleagues can all play important roles for people pursuing careers in academic medicine and research. Another good way of letting people such as old mentors know what's happening in your professional life is to send out reprints of your articles along with a quick note. If you've got your database set up, then constructing a mailing list is easy.

Remember the golden rule. Do unto others…. If you want people to take you seriously, then be sure to respond to people's emails and phone messages promptly. Even if you're busy and don't have the time to give the matter its due consideration, at least reassure the person that you did receive their message and let them know when you'll be able to give a more complete response. Otherwise, people might wonder if they have the right contact information for you or feel that they are not being taken seriously.

This may seem like a lot. It takes discipline and time to follow up. This is obviously a long-term endeavor. But what you invest in time, effort and postage will have great professional and personal rewards.