Tailoring our CAPES for a successful career in science

By Davide Valeriani (Massachusetts Eye and Ear & Harvard Medical School), Elena Torlai Triglia (Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard), and Eleonora Adami (Duke-NUS Medical School)
Published in Social Sciences
Tailoring our CAPES for a successful career in science

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Scientific publications are often seen as the currency of academia. They can be required to get a PhD, fellowships, monetary bonuses or promotions.

Having obtained our PhD and conducted research in different countries (Austria, Germany, Italy, Singapore, Spain, UK, USA) and academic environments (universities, hospitals, research centers), we experienced that publications are definitely important. Yet, we argue that publishing should not be the sole aim of a successful PhD training. PhD students represent the next-generation of researchers and, therefore, they should be trained on a variety of hard and soft skills, which are valuable in present-day research. In our view, the best research profiles should be balanced between five, equally-important components, which could also be seen as key performance indicators for research staff: Collaborations, Awards, Publications, Education, and Society (CAPES).

Collaborations- Research is often seen as a competitive field, due to the limited funding and tenure-track positions available. Instead, modern research is multidisciplinary and collaborative, both in academia and in industry. Multiple perspectives and backgrounds can make projects feasible, speed up discoveries and make findings robust and reproducible. Researchers enhance their collaborative mindset via joint projects and publications, as well as by making the models, tools or software they develop publicly available. Conferences and meetings are opportunities to network with other researchers and setup novel collaborations. Volunteering to organize a conference or symposium shows the commitment of the researcher in promoting cooperation and exchange of ideas between different scientists.

Awards- Being awarded a prize or a fellowship shows how our research stands out and is well received by the research community. Awards include both prizes at international meetings (e.g., best poster or paper awards), as well as grants that financially support our research. Receiving funding entails preparing an application, which develops grant-writing and research planning skills that are important for both academic and non-academic careers. Moreover, as Sharon Ann Holgate writes in this well-argued article, there is something to be learned in the process, even if we end up not getting the award. Assembling the documents needed to file an application for a grant, let’s say, forces you to reflect on your strengths, identify your best skills and what needs improvement. Very importantly, it also pushes you to ask for honest feedback and support from peers and mentors.

Publications-Papers are invariably the “business cards” of researchers. When we go to conferences and meet a colleague with a familiar name, the first thing we usually mention is “I have really liked your recent paper”. Publications represent the strength and scientific validity of our research, the novelty of our ideas, the rigor of our work. A good publication is generally a summary of our research skills, hence the quality of our papers is definitely of primary importance for our research profile in all fields. In addition to quality, the number of publications and our role in them (i.e., the order of the authors' list) is also important for boosting our research profile.

Education- Early in the scientific path, we benefited from the support and mentorship of senior colleagues. While advancing our career, we should therefore in turn dedicate part of our time to inspire and educate the next generation of scientists. Many academic institutions allow PhD students to be teaching assistants in academic courses, which offers students a friendly point of contact to ask questions, while enhancing the teaching skills of the researchers. Volunteering to give scientific presentations in high-school classrooms also helps trigger the interest in science in the next generations, while enhancing your oral skills. Finally, mentoring students and junior staff develop critical communication and management skills, whose importance increases dramatically with the advancement in the career stage.

Society-Much of our research is funded with taxpayers money, either directly (e.g., public grants) or indirectly (tax deduction on private donations). Therefore, scientists should have a moral obligation of giving the outcomes of their studies back to the public. Researchers can work with the media to translate their publications to non-technical language, or participate in science festivals or open laboratory tours to communicate science. These events allow rigorous science to reach wider audiences, contributing to fight misconceptions or fake news. Starting new businesses can also represent a way for scientists to significantly impact society, as these make research breakthroughs more rapidly available, beyond the academic settings.

Different researchers might end up having CAPES that are different in shape and size, with some components more developed than others, following personal predispositions, goals and future career plans. In our career we should act like tailors, refining and adding to our CAPES to find our best fit.

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