Marc J. Kuchner’s book, “Marketing for Scientists,” should be an essential read for every student dreaming of a dream in academia, and most current academics as well. There’s a good review of the book up on Profhacker, so I’m going to let them do most of the talking and promoting of the book itself, and instead focus on one of Kuchner’s core tenets, the Signature Research Idea.
Think about your favourite “big name” internationally recognized professor. Chances are you can summarize what they do in a single phrase. Here’s a few examples, in case you’re having a bit of trouble.
Phil Baran – Protecting group free synthesis.
Robert Hancock – Host defence peptides.
Stuart Schreiber – Diversity oriented synthesis.
K. Barry Sharpless – Click chemistry.
R.B. Woodward – Natural product synthesis (this trend is not new).
These professors are defined by their work, and it’s no accident. Promotion of their big idea is inherently self-promotion, but relentlessly promoting an idea has very little of the stigma associated with self-praise. When it comes time for a job interview, tenure review or major award these professors are also able to show their contributions to science in a minute or less, because they haven’t simply contributed to an amorphous subject (ie. chemical synthesis) but have advanced an entire sub-field. As Kuchner quotes Caltech physicist Sean Carroll,
It’s easier for people to think about what you’ve done if it can be summed up in a sentence. When people ask, ‘What was your major contribution?’ have an answer ready.
Moving from answering single research questions to developing these sub-fields is a key part of transitioning from being graduate student to acting as budding professor. Most researchers have more than one SRI over the course of their career, with many starting out by bringing the SRI of their former supervisor to a new university or institution (David Spring at Cambridge and Derek S. Tan at Sloan-Kettering are good examples of this, as both studied under Schreiber and then set up their own DOS research groups elsewhere). It’s not necessary to be on a first name basis with a Thomson Citation Laurate though. Every research group has side projects which may have the potential to develop into a larger SRI, but are far enough outside of the group’s normal focus that they may not spark the PI’s imagination. Look for them, and with your boss’ blessing stake your claim.