On becoming a group leader

How I learned to stop worrying and applied for my dream job

Go to the profile of Evangelia Petsalaki
Nov 03, 2017
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Recently, many people have asked me how I found the confidence to apply to a place like the EMBL-EBI. I was shocked to find that many people – especially fellow female scientists – would love to have their own research group, have great ideas, a passion for science and leadership skills, yet do not even dare to apply! I therefore felt the need to write a response about my experience.

A good time to fail

As scientists, we get accustomed to failure early on. Every time we design and perform an experiment, every time we have an idea and test it out, we accept there is a chance it may not work. What we are doing is learning, so hopefully as we mature as scientists we start having a better idea of what is less likely to fail, design better experiments, gain confidence and increase our chances of success.

Confidence lets us try crazier experiments with higher risk of failure – what a wonderful opportunity to make more ground-breaking discoveries! Failure is always disappointing, but there’s no point taking it personally – we just learn from our mistakes and try again. Taking it personally has too high a cost – it is just not compatible with academic research.

You didn’t stop then – don’t stop now!

If you don’t go for the job you want, you will have zero chance of getting it (unless you have good connections – as well as a good track record – and can get one that way)! 

The most straightforward way to find a position as a Group Leader is to apply with an amazing superstar publication record and a killer project that happens to be the exact thing that they are looking for in a specific institution.  This can happen and I would recommend you aim for it if you have a super star publication record.

But if you are like me, the first time you apply might be like the first time you tried to do a Western blot, or like that time you used your newfound programming skills to write code to extract some useful information from a UniProt file. Let’s just say there’s a good chance you won’t be successful. I certainly wasn't.

But think about it. The first time you did an experiment – even though you tried your best – you didn’t think you were going to make some ground-breaking discovery (or did you?), you were just happy to get any result whatsoever.

The first time I applied for a Group Leader role, I was excited to put my ideas on paper and start dreaming about what it would be like to have my own group. My lack of confidence in my research skills didn’t stop me at the beginning of my career – I didn’t let my lack of experience being a group leader – or confidence in the contents of my CV – stop me from applying for my dream job.  

The scientific approach

I am definitely not saying that this is the best or only way to go about it, but here is what I did. Thanks to a bit of luck, it worked out.

I approached my first few applications as ‘preliminary data collection’. My first two or three applications didn’t get a response, so I rewrote the application completely, and tried again. Some people asked for reference letters: progress! No interviews though.

Still not good enough.

I rewrote everything again, sent it around for feedback, improved it all still further, then applied again until I got an interview!

If you are not getting interviews and you have optimized your proposal as much as you possibly can, taking on board advice from people you respect, perhaps you need to take a break from working on your pitch and work a bit more on building your CV. Focus on getting another paper out, or acquire more experience in a technology that will be useful for your future research.

Once you get your first interview (i.e. finish your preliminary data collection), the chance of getting the job is confirmed as ‘real’ and you are ready to start the full experiment. You have thought through the amazing research that will be done in your future lab, are in love with your proposal and super excited to be given the opportunity to put your ideas into action (which admittedly makes it more painful when/if you don’t succeed right away but every time you learn something). In short, you are far readier to start your own group than you were at the outset.  

In my interviews, I gained valuable insights into the weaknesses of my application, and on one occasion managed to get very constructive feedback. I realized that my interview skills needed to be optimized. I don’t think I reached anywhere near the optimal level, but I came across as a good enough fit that I got an offer at one of my top choice of institutes (actually, THE top choice institute).

And it was totally worth it. I have only been here for around ten months but, so far, it is the best job I have ever had!

Important note: This is NOT advice to spam position openings with ridiculous applications. This is a massive waste of everyone’s time including yours, and you will lose credibility and respect among the people reading them if you really don’t put any effort. Always do your genuine best with every shot: When you submit you should truly believe that this is a great project and you would be a great fit in that institute.  Just keep in mind that you can always improve your application and try to do so after every unsuccessful try.

Confidence only gets you so far

I am generally a confident person. But when it came to applying for jobs, confident was not the way you could describe me. In fact, I was almost certain that I would fail at my first few tries, and had no idea whether it would work out in the end. After all, the odds against progressing to group leadership are pretty high (see, e.g., The Future of the Postdoc in Nature News and Comment, 2015), with a small sliver of postdocs landing a tenure-track position (there are many contributing factors, including what lab/institute you were coming from). I knew that if I didn’t make a systematic, concerted effort, I definitely would not have a chance of getting my dream job. And a dream is always worth fighting for, isn’t it?

The worst thing that could happen, I figured, is that I wouldn’t get the job. Having a personal deadline helped me keep my sanity. I told myself that if, by X time (which happened to be around four months after I did get the job offer) I hadn’t succeeded, I would admit defeat and start exploring other career options. That way, I wouldn’t waste my life banging my head against a brick wall, sending applications into the void.

Had I not managed to get my dream job, I would have been very disappointed, but that’s life. At the end of the day, no one died. I knew that I had something valuable and unique to contribute to the world, and if academic science didn’t want it, I could find the right home for my skills, enthusiasm and knowledge somewhere else. 

Try, try again

Bottom line is: if you want to have your own independent research program, don’t let lack of confidence get in your way. The worst thing that can happen is that you don’t get it, and that is not really such a big risk, is it? It would be far worse to miss an opportunity just because you didn’t try.

If you have a vision, leadership skills and some solid work under your belt, take a chance. Just go for it.

I would like to thank Mary Todd Bergman for her comments and feedback on this text. 


Poster Image: Christopher Morley Big shots are only little shots who keep shooting by BK on Flickr. Reproduced under the CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Go to the profile of Evangelia Petsalaki

Evangelia Petsalaki

Group Leader, EMBL-EBI

1 Comments

Go to the profile of CHHANDA CHARAN DANTA
CHHANDA CHARAN DANTA 3 months ago

! A failure is an opportunity to learn more...!