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Why scientists need to market themselves

Illustration showing network of scientists

Adapted from Getty

Most academic researchers might not be familiar with marketing, but my own long stint in the private sector and my recent return to academia have taught me that a market strategy can be a crucial step in winning grants, building a scientific reputation and advancing your career.

When I left academia in 2000 to launch my first company, I thought that marketing and sales were the same thing. To my mind, they both involved showing potential customers my company’s amazing technology and believing that they would want to buy it. But after several months, I hadn’t closed on a single sale.

Why? I hadn’t done a market analysis to learn whether my product would actually meet my customers’ needs. And I had not developed a market strategy to attract their attention.

A business-adviser colleague explained that sales involves presenting your product or service to prospective customers and addressing the decisions and steps that they must take before they buy. Marketing, by contrast, is a two-part process: figuring out what that product or service needs to be (in other words, carrying out a market analysis), and then working out how best to promote and present it (coming up with a market strategy).

Adjusting the focus

I soon learnt that even the best technology does not ‘sell’ itself. I was certain that our high-precision optical tools were superior to those of our competitors, but I did not understand or appreciate what might keep potential customers from switching to our product.

So I interviewed customers to determine exactly what they lacked and to work out how we could provide it to them. Our sales took off as soon as I had learnt that my clients were desperate for two things: rapid order fulfilment and test-certified optical components.

How does all this apply to scientists? Some might think that market analyses and market strategies have nothing to do with their work. Take grants, for example. Requests for grant proposals (RFPs) already specify the funder’s requirements and the boundaries of the research problem to be funded. It would seem that no market analysis is required.

But if you’re seeking funding from any source — whether a government agency, a foundation or a business — bear in mind that long before a funder issues an RFP, it assesses key areas of research need. Funders might organize invitation-only workshops to gather feedback from research or industry leaders. Often, a funding agency will have published a strategic plan or technical road map that identifies the priority areas for research. The US Department of Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Office, for example, has published a five-year plan. You should review such documents, as well as past RFPs from the agency concerned, and aim to learn from colleagues or associates what took place at earlier planning workshops.

If you don’t personally know former programme managers at an agency, you can search for them on LinkedIn, and find out which research ideas overall have proved most successful at that agency. And you can contact the funder itself and speak to a grant administrator or programme manager to learn whether your specific research idea pertains to the funder’s strategic interest. (Grantwriters should first study a funder’s website and grant materials to learn the funder’s priorities, and glean background information and context.)

Streamline your search

Many early-career scientists fail to conduct a market analysis or develop a market strategy for their job search. They wait for a job advertisement to appear and then submit a CV — a compendium of every element of their research career so far — and hope that their background and research experience will merit further review.

Instead, before applying for specific jobs, you should deploy the market analysis-and-strategy template outlined above (see ‘Play to your strengths’). Sound out people who are already working in a field or for organizations that interest you. Ideally, aim to connect with scientists whose backgrounds are similar to yours — perhaps they earned a PhD in the same field or from the same institution — and who have enough experience to directly advise you on where your skills and interests fit, and how best to present yourself.

Play to your strengths

Understand yourself. List your key technical skills, experience, perspective and approach to problem-solving. What problems do you solve best, and in which situations or environments do you produce your best work? When have you been your happiest at work and what were you doing? Knowing this will help you to identify the types of employer for whom you can add the greatest value.

Conduct a market analysis for the jobs and fields that interest you. Seek out people who received their PhD in the same field as yours, or in one that’s similar, but who have gone in different professional directions. Ask them where scientists with your background and strengths have been successful. Identify industries in which your skills and experience are relevant and valued, and investigate organizations whose mission aligns with your work. Gain a ‘market perspective’ on an industry by joining a professional organization or taking a short course or workshop to understand how your scientific background might align with that interest.

Expand your network. Reach out each week to people in positions that interest you, and meet them in person, if possible, to learn more about what they do. Follow up with them periodically to let them know your professional trajectory. Not only will you gain insights into positions or roles that interest you, but you might get help from these contacts in your job search.

Focus on opportunities. Identify those organizations that you feel are the best fit for your skills, interests and values. Conduct informational interviews with key managers — who may be expanding their teams in the future — to get a feel for the work environment. Find out the managers’ goals and needs and see how your skills and background could help.

Peter Fiske

As part of your market strategy, you should also craft and maintain a professional online persona. Use a platform such as LinkedIn or ResearchGate to create a detailed profile emphasizing key skills and experience, and to link up with others in relevant organizations or fields of research.

Use online technical forums to ask about skills and experience needed in an industry or for a specific position (part of your market analysis), and answer technical questions posed by others. Taking part in such dialogues can make recruiters notice you and seek you out regarding prospective openings.

These marketing activities are time-consuming. But they offer crucial insight into where a discipline or a field of technology is heading, and into the skills, knowledge and experience that you’ll find most valuable.

Nature 555, 275-276 (2018)



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