I began writing this on New Year's Day, 2014. When I was much younger I made New Year’s resolutions, but after a few years I became so discouraged by my consistent failures that I stopped making them. Like most people, I still resolve to act on new insights now and then, but they are unrelated to the time of year.
Though I no longer make resolutions, I shamelessly suggest resolutions to others. In a sense, my book (Simone’s Maxims) essentially provides a list of opinions and insights that could encourage readers to take a fresh look at people, institutions, and jobs. So this year I am offering you two new Maxims that have not yet been published. My hope is they may be useful to you.
1. If you are clearly the best guy by a wide margin (not just at the top of the list) in your organizational unit, you should consider a job change because it is very easy to become complacent and fail to grow. New challenges and opportunities help one develop skills and broaden the scope of talents. The move may be to a position within your own institution or elsewhere. The person you report to should recognize that your growth (and value to the enterprise) is constrained by a current role that can almost run on autopilot. In the best of worlds, he/she then provides you with an expanded scope of operation or a broader leadership position. Too often, though, that is not the case.
Of course, changing jobs, even within the same institution, is a serious business. A trusted mentor or senior faculty member should be consulted before serious thought is given to a move (don’t forget a prior mentor or supervisor in a former institution). They can provide advice based on their own experiences as well as suggesting where your best opportunities may lie. They also should be persons who will keep your conversations in confidence.
Some of the many possible outcomes of such a job review are: (1) you come to see that you are in a good position that you can build on over time and decide to stay where you are for now; (2) you decide to go to your boss and express your concerns and ask his/her advice on the development of your career -- in other words, give your boss a chance to respond; or (3) it becomes clear that there is no foreseeable upside in your current position due to the institutional structure, leadership, or other reasons. In this case you begin exploring other opportunities.
2. Titles and ranks do not necessarily equal great leadership and accomplishment. Too often we assume that a person with a major title—dean, chair, vice-president, CEO---are great leaders and/or have a long list of wonderful accomplishments in their wake. He/she is often a stranger to us so we judge by indirect means, such as titles or training at an elite institution. You surmise that since persons achieving those positions have been carefully screened and their CVs combed for significant publications and appropriate experience, they should at least be good, if not great, leaders and capable of major accomplishments. With embarrassing frequency, I have made and watched others make this mistake.
A search committee, for example, often includes people just like you who are capable of making the same misjudgment. In the oncology world, a committee member might overlook shortcomings if a candidate is currently at, for example, MD Anderson or Memorial Sloan-Kettering, believing that “they must be good.” A 60-page CV (I kid you not, I have seen several!) that includes 200 publications and a list of “accomplishments” that includes every lecture given, every tumor board, and every abstract submitted to a meeting, whether or not it was accepted for presentation. I have even seen a CV reference to becoming an Eagle Scout. Seasoned reviewers of candidates won’t be fooled by a CV weighing a couple of pounds and, in fact, may be immediately turned off.
One way to assess accomplishment is to add up the number of papers published in elite scientific journals, such as Science, Cell and Nature and their many spinoffs. A wise assessor will try to glean the specific contribution made by the person in question. But this approach often doesn’t work as well when reviewing physician-scientists or clinical investigators because so many publications have a large number of coauthors and it is hard to know what contribution any one individual has made. Tradition says the first author contributed the most and the last author is the most senior and often provided the basic idea, resources, and leadership for the project. But this yardstick may not work. First authors are sometimes the primary writer of the paper, who then gathers comments or suggested changes from coauthors and makes revisions in the manuscript.
One of my favorite ways to assess accomplishment, which is also imperfect, is to use the old-fashioned method of making phone calls to friends, colleagues, or acquaintances, who may know more about the work of the person in question. A letter of recommendation rarely provides a clear picture because the writer may not know sufficient details, wants the person to leave his institution (or stay), or is concerned that the candidate might see the letter. In my experience, even a short phone conversation provides some useful non-academic information about the individual, like character traits or work ethic. A person who has worked with the individual in question is the best source.
When evaluating a person you may work with or may recruit, judging whether he/she will be an effective leader or highly productive scientist or clinician is not easy. One confounding factor that is almost impossible to account for in a job change is whether you or your new boss will function as well as before. But the spadework necessary to learn as much as possible is well worth the effort.