Merry L. Lindsey, University of Mississippi Medical Center, Jackson, Mississippi; and G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Jackson, Mississippi
One benefit of a physiology research career is that you travel: to conferences to learn new science, to universities to present seminars, and to other laboratories to learn new approaches. As a result, it is fair to say that I hear the flight safety briefing on an airplane more than the average person. It was during one of the briefings that I started to think how similar what the flight attendants were telling me was with what I tell my trainees. It occurred to me that the flight safety briefing could be used to help prepare for a successful research career. Below are the seven main instructions, with discussion on how they can apply to your career:
- Know the rules
- Choose the right institution and program
- Know what you want
- Your mentor shows you the way
- Use all resources available
- Know when you need to help yourself first
- Prepare to be successful
Read the Safety Card: Know the Rules
Knowing the rules will help you to design a plan to accomplish your goals. For example, knowing the promotion and tenure guidelines will benefit you in developing a time line for advancement. Communication is important, not only in disseminating your science but also in discussing with your mentors what you want to accomplish and in discussing with your lab what you want them to accomplish. Your mentors can also help by telling you the unwritten rules or tips that they have acquired along the way. Not having to re-invent the wheel should save you a lot of time and effort. Networking is important for building a support group that can advance your career, and knowing the ethics involved will help you maintain the reputation you want. Another rule to follow is to keep a great lab notebook as a way to stay safe against any questions that may arise regarding your research. The best defense is a good offense, and being prepared by doing everything right from the start will strengthen your reputation. Knowing and following the rules for your university and granting agency will keep you safe from issues that could derail your career.
Seat Belts: Choose the Right Institution and Program
Being a good fit helps you to be secure. To choose the right fit, you need to know what you need, since every place and mentor has strengths and weaknesses. For example, a large medical school where you are expected to have two large grants and support all of your salary may not be a good fit for a one-grant principal investigator. You do not need to be a perfect fit, but your views and standards, as well as your abilities, should align sufficiently enough that you can be productive and progress in both your research and your career. In some cases where the fit is not right, you will find roadblocks put up that slow down your progress.
Emergency Exits: Know What You Want
Defining what success means to you will show you where to focus your attention. This is an individual endeavor, and the sooner you take the time to define success for yourself, the sooner you will see progress toward your goals. The trick here is to be honest with yourself and not make decisions based on what you think others think you should do. Another safety reminder is to keep in mind that the closest exit may be behind you. Always have back-up plans B and C in case things do not work out as originally planned (and this is often the case). Explore all of the options available to you, since the most obvious ones may not be the best for you. Frequent discussions with your mentor, including brutally honest conversations, are needed early and often. If your mentor is not bringing up the topic, take initiative to start the conversation. You should also take advantage of resources that allow you to gauge strengths and weaknesses. For example, the National Postdoctoral Association has developed a list of six core competencies, and you can use this list to assess your competitiveness for a research faculty position or gauge where you need to spend more effort (https://www.nationalpostdoc.org/?CoreCompetencies). The core competencies include being an expert in concepts specific to your field; having research skills, communication skills, professionalism, leadership and management skills; and taking formal training in the responsible conduct of research. Take time during your training years to acquire these skills.
Floor Path Lighting: Your Mentor Shows You the Way
You mentor models the way, helps you develop your guide, tailors advice to your stage, stretches you, and serves as a life-long advocate. An effective mentor shows you how to accomplish the difficult, or what you think is impossible, on the way to helping you accomplish your goals. You can use physics formulas to develop and maintain a career plan (Lindsey ML, de Castro Bras LE. The physics of an academic career. Adv Physiol Educ 41: 493–497, 2017. doi:10.1152/advan.00105.2017). For example, distance is velocity × time, and any of those three variables can be adjusted as needed. A good mentor will be a good listener, will challenge you, and will develop a two-way street with you. I have a number of graduate students and pre-faculty fellows who trained with me that I now consider colleagues and ask them for advice; it is great to see them develop in their own careers. A major phenotype of a good mentor is that he or she helps you to expand your comfort zone by continually stepping outside of it. Trainees, junior faculty, and experienced investigators should avoid complacency, since this is the easiest way to become out of date.
Life Vest: Use All Resources Available
Knowing how to find what you need to know, before you need to know it, is a trick that successful physiologists have learned. Voracious reading is common in the profiles of successful scientists, and reading includes journal articles but also the vast amount of advice and information provided on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social media sites. No matter your stage, your lab is your life vest; rely on them. Communication is important for this component, and using all resources available to you, including peer mentoring, will help you be productive. Having a peer mentor to spring board ideas across is an understated but highly effective resource. When I was starting out, two other assistant professors met with me weekly, and the three of us would discuss ongoing research as well as manuscripts and grants that we were writing. We all collaborated with each other, and by combining our research became stronger. I still rely on peer mentors today.
Oxygen Mask: Know When You Need to Help Yourself First
If the oxygen mask comes down, you need to put your mask on first before assisting others. There will be times when writing that manuscript and submitting that grant takes precedence over other activities. Focusing and saying yes only to what matters most will help you to triage activities that are not primary to your success. I must admit, I am not the best to give advice on this rule, since I find myself reviewing manuscripts and grants on many weekends when I should be recharging or working on my own submissions. A good rule of thumb is that you should give back to the scientific community the same that you request from it. That means for every manuscript or grant you submit, you should review six manuscripts or grants (assuming three reviewers for a submission and one revision).
Seats Back and Tray Tables Up: Prepare to be Successful
As you have progressed, you have hopefully received the best training possible, including primary research skills (ethics, experimental design, data analysis, presentation, and manuscript writing) and secondary skills necessary for success (lab and budget management). Use your mentors, particularly your peer mentors, to get advice along the way. This will prepare you for a successful career. In conclusion, following the flight safety briefing will help you to plan and develop a successful career.
Dr. Lindsey acknowledges funding from the National Institutes of Health under Award Numbers GM-104357, GM-114833, GM-115428, HL-051971, HL-075360, and HL-129823; and from the Biomedical Laboratory Research and Development Service of the Veterans Affairs Office of Research and Development under Award Number 5I01BX000505.
The content is solely the responsibility of the author and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health or the Veterans Administration.
Merry L. Lindsey Biography
Merry L. Lindsey is professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics and Director of the Mississippi Center for Heart Research (MCHR). MCHR is dedicated to performing cardiovascular research that involves developing multidimensional approaches to examine the mechanisms whereby the left ventricle responds to injury; applying the knowledge gained to develop therapeutic strategies to prevent, slow, or reverse the progression to heart failure; disseminating their results to the general, scientific, and medical communities; and educating the next generation of scientists. Her research is focused on extracellular matrix responses to cardiac injury and aging.
Lindsey’s research has led to more than 180 publications, and she has received grant support from the American Heart Association (AHA), the Voelcker Foundation, Novartis, the Veterans Administration, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Lindsey serves on the editorial boards for the American Journal of Physiology—Heart and Circulatory Physiology, Comprehensive Physiology, Circulation Research, and Basic Research in Cardiology and is actively involved in the APS, AHA, and the American Society of Matrix Biology. She has reviewed grants for the AHA, NIH, and numerous international funding agencies, and has presented her research at over 100 national and international venues. Her trainees routinely publish high-impact articles, win research awards for excellence, and successfully transition to independent faculty positions.