December 2011

Advice for new assistant professors

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Define the issues. 
When writing a paper or a grant application, anticipate and address likely questions or weak points. Simply ignoring them leaves you vulnerable to any misconception or confusion that arises in the reader. You want to define the issues rather than having them defined for you.

Think like a reviewer. 
Focus on demonstrating proof of concept or expertise when amassing preliminary data for a grant application. An experienced reviewer will see the masses of routine, descriptive preliminary experiments for what they are.

Avoid arguing with reviewers.  
The vast majority make constructive, good-faith efforts under difficult circumstances. Treat them with respect and adopt a gracious, constructive tone in your responses. Avoid scolding the reviewer for missing something already in the manuscript, for in the end, as the author, you are responsible for making critical points clear and noticeable. Think strategically when framing your response. Identify the critical area in which you need to convert the reviewer to your point of view – perhaps regarding the need for some additional experiment. Concede the small points and those points readily addressed by simple experiments. But remember Clausewitz: If you try to defend every little thing, you likely will prove completely unconvincing overall.

Think of your research program as an investment portfolio.
If you put all your assets into one high-risk venture, you may reap great rewards, but you also may crash and burn. Develop a diversified portfolio. In addition to your main, bread-and-butter effort, establish a low-risk project (or two) that is likely to produce useful, if unspectacular, publications particularly during off years. Look for opportunities to spin off a methods paper in addition to a research manuscript. Talented undergraduates represent an excellent source of labor for carrying out low-risk projects as well as for exploring novel, high-risk ideas.

Peter-KennellyPeter J. Kennelly (pjkennel@vt.edu) is professor and head of the department of biochemistry at Virginia Tech and serves as the current chair of the Education and Professional Development Committee of the ASBMB.

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