Thursday, November 20, 2014

Startups are children; please be kind to the parents

There is a reason why you often hear entrepreneurs say something like, "I have three kids - two daughters and a startup." It's because parenting and being a founder have countless similarities. They are not identical since a startup, unlike your toddler, isn't going to bite you. And despite the biting, you don't really want to sell your child, but eventually hope to do that with the startup. Still, the comparison resonates because kids and startups are both rewarding, exhausting, exhilarating and life-changing. You never stop thinking about them, you worry ALL the time, you panic, you don't sleep - and yet, despite it all, you still have another kid and start another company.

What puzzles me is how often people lash out at founders and criticize and question our motives and decisions. Why? I have thought for a long time of writing a blog about this, and a major Twitter storm yesterday that accused us of being EVIL finally gave me the needed push.

We have given up our jobs and careers, have made enormous sacrifices, have subjected our families to financial difficulties and worries because of the crazy drive to create Of course I want to make money on this. But the real promise here is not the lucrative exit but the opportunity to change science communication. It's the opportunity to save society billions of wasted dollars every year and to speed up research.

So when someone accuses us of trying to stifle innovation and science communication, it hurts much more than any random mean Twitter comment ever should. It reminds me of the person at the park who criticizes a mother giving a bottle to her infant, "Don't you know that breastfeeding is so much better for your kid?" Why the assumption that the mother is a bad parent who doesn't care about the kid? Maybe the mother's milk never came in or she had a mastectomy. Maybe she tried her best and after two months of excruciating pain had a nervous breakdown and switched to formula.

Parents and founders need help and support, not vitriolic criticism. And keep in mind that neither parents nor founders are experts. At ZappyLab, we have degrees in math, molecular biology, computer science and business, but none in parenting or startups. That's because there is no PhD for these. We are all amateurs who learn on the job. That means we are all trying our best and we are all making mistakes.

If you disagree with what we are doing, just consider that there may be valid non-nefarious reasons for our decisions. But if you are sure that what we are doing is a mistake due to lack of experience, please do reach out and advise us. We crave feedback and help. Most parents and founders will welcome the advice.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Yes, papers are important for getting faculty positions

Arjun Raj has written a good post on why publishing papers is important for getting a faculty job. It is in response to my argument that having a Science/Nature/Cell (SNC) publication is not nearly as important for getting a professor job as most people think (I published a list of professors who got job offers before publishing their main postdoctoral work).

I am in violent agreement with Arjun on much of what he wrote, and disagree just as strongly with other parts of it.

"I definitely feel like my job search might have been easier with a published paper, especially in biology/medical departments. And I have definitely heard of places, for example in other countries, in which applicants have been explicitly told that the job is theirs if and only if their postdoc paper is accepted."
I never meant to suggest that publishing does not help to get a faculty job. Reading your manuscripts allows search committees to assess how you communicate your science, how you write, and how you think - all important for trying to predict whether you will be able to do good science, get funding, teach, and get others interested in your research - factors crucial for the hiring decisions, as Arjun points out. A university would be a crazy risk-taker to hire someone who has never published at all.


"If the search committee understands the work and the researcher and believes in them both, then why does the existence of an accepted high profile paper matter so much in and of itself? A big part of the answer is that visibility matters... Having a high profile paper when you start is undeniably a part of the answer to these questions. And it’s also a simple metric of success that is readily interpreted by people across disciplines."

While publishing your work is clearly important and helpful for assessing you as a researcher, using the journal/impact factor as a proxy is the opposite of good assessment. If instead of reading your papers, the committee invites you based on the name of the journal where you published, they are using a wrong and lazy metric. Your paper in Nature may be great or terrible, and it's impossible to say which one it is, without reading the paper itself.

Faculty searches are complicated with a million factors that play a role. Hope Jahren wrote a terrific comment on how faculty searches work, describing how unique each one is and that there is no formula or method that all universities or committees use. The list of faculty who got hired prior to publishing their postdoctoral discoveries makes it clear that having a paper in a fancy journal is not a prerequisite for getting a job.

Do publications help to get a job offer? Without a doubt. Does having your paper in a glam journal help? Yes, for some search committees it increases the chances you will be invited. But the correlation between hired faculty and glam pubs is driven by the quality of their work, as my list illustrates, rather than the name of the journal being the causal factor.

As I have commented already, "What I am arguing is that it's unclear if chasing the SNC paper helps or hurts your chances of becoming faculty, all other factors being equal. That chase - the rejections, rebuttals, resubmissions, followed by more rejections, and resubmitting to another glam journal - carries a huge cost. And if that costs you advances in your research, it's not inconceivable that this very chase will hurt your chances of getting a faculty job."

I'd love to see data on whether chasing the high-impact-factor publication helps or hurts postdocs.