Not Discussed: The Unspoken Rules for a Career in Academic Medical Research is a travel guide for academics at any stage of their careers. Instead of Rick Steves, it’s a master mentor giving you the tips and tricks for getting the most out of a research career, as well as the pitfalls and places to avoid. “Master mentor” just so happens to describe Dr. C. Michael Stein. He’s mentored many high performing K scholars at Vanderbilt over more than 20 years, and in this book he shares the information that made his mentees so successful.

The book starts at the beginning of a career, with how to choose a mentor and a project, moves on to several chapters on effective writing of papers and grants, then lands on mid-career topics like promotion and tenure. It ends with cross-cutting chapters on topics including “How not to give a bad talk,” “Avoid an E-mail Mess,” and responsible conduct of research. Students and others very early in their careers can benefit not only from chapters aimed at them, but also from peeking ahead to the challenges of and strategies for continuing a scientific career.

In each chapter he gives practical, concrete advice on what to do and—maybe more importantly—what not to do. For example, from the chapter on sections of a scientific paper:

Your limitations paragraph need not blow your foot off: Towards the end of the Discussion it is usual to have a paragraph about the limitations of your study. This is not a place to shoot yourself in the foot. All studies have strengths and offsetting limitations, so instead of: Our study was small and underpowered, offset the limitations with some strengths: Our study was small, but the homogeneous group of patients allowed us to detect a significant difference in…

Like any generous mentor, Dr. Stein includes examples like the above throughout the book for readers to learn from. In one chapter, he even reprints the entire introduction to a triaged grant he resubmitted (p. 145).

On subjects where there are multiple correct courses of action, such as picking a mentor, Dr. Stein lays out a list of qualities to look for in great and spirited detail, without dictating which should be weighted more than others. As long as a mentor has time for you, for instance, a work style of “I’ll see you at 8 a.m. and we can talk about what you are going to do today” versus “Let’s meet in a few weeks when you have completed these experiments and look at the data” is up to your personal preference.

While there are plenty of books, articles, and websites with great advice for grant-writing, getting papers out, and careers in academics, it’s rare to find one that pulls together what you need to know across the arc of a career. It’s even rarer to find one with the depth of detail in Not Discussed. A research career is challenging already; read this book to lift the veil on the unspoken rules and sharpen your academic edge.

Book Giveaway

Leave a comment with your unanswered career question or best piece of advice, and you’ll be entered in our giveaway contest. On December 18, we’ll pick one commenter at random to receive a copy of Not Discussed.

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The best peice of advice that I picked up from here and for others, is to give yourself 1-2 hours of uninterrupted time (no email, FB, etc) at a set time each time to focus on writing whether it be a grant or paper.

I like to make timelines with specific benchmarks for big projects (grants, dissertation chapters, manuscripts, etc.). What are some strategies for tackling things that come up and need a fast turnaround (e.g., response to manuscripts reviews) without disrupting the goals I have for my other projects? 

The best piece of advice that I ever received was that I have to be proactive about my career and that no one was going to come to me asking if I needed x, y or z. It is up to me to ask for it.

RJ Estephan says:

As a grad student working for a clinician scientist, I’ve learned that it’s important not only to think about the “big picture” but also the small important details. Oftentimes, my PI focuses only on the “big picture”. However, it’s up to me to think about the small details of an experimental design to achieve the “big picture”. Best piece of advice to those working in the labs of clinician scientists is to pay attention to the details!

My best advice was to look my door and hide inside my office to write as much as I can 🙂

The best advice I received is to learn to say no!  While you may not be able to say no to everything, every week there is at least one thing to which I can say no, whether it be a request to attend a meeting, manuscript  review, etc. You have to protect yourself!  You can say no, nicely, ‘I’m sorry I cannot participate, please keep me in mind for next time’.

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