PRISM Magazine Online - March 2000
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Research
Blow Your Own Horn

By Douglas M. Green

About a hundred years ago, Johns Hopkins University physics professor Henry Roland invented the diffraction grating, which to this day is used as a basic research tool to investigate a wide variety of phenomena. Roland received his baccalaureate education in civil engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, so he was well versed in rigorous methods of scientific inquiry.

Blow Your Own HornTo supplement his university income, Roland often provided testimony at trials. At one such trial, a lawyer was qualifying Roland as an expert witness, and posed the following question, "Professor Roland, who is the most eminent physicist in the world today?" To this question, Roland responded, "Well, that would be myself."

The lawyer proceeded with his questioning, but word of Roland's arrogance got back to the Hopkins campus before he did. Upon his return, Roland was called into a conference room for an emergency meeting of the physics faculty, where he was bombarded with questions from his colleagues. "Man, have you no shame?" "Don't you realize how your conceit reflects negatively on you, our department, and the university?" After a few minutes of this lambasting, Roland responded with a simple defense: "I had no choice," he said. "I was under oath."

In the years that followed, one of the presidents of MIT cited Roland as the leading physicist of the nineteenth century. But long before the accolades began rolling in, Roland believed in himself.

Gaining confidence in yourself as a university researcher is not something that you can simply decide to do—confidence comes with success. Some faculty members act like prima donnas, but lack the credentials to support such a demeanor and are generally regarded as charlatans. Almost all accomplished engineering researchers wear their success with quiet dignity. Occasionally however, a small number of researchers have some success and begin to display prima donna-like behavior. You should avoid going down that path if at all possible. However, there will be times when you must act as your own chief publicist. As my Aunt Carrie used to say, "He who tooteth not his own horn, the same shall not be tooted."

The critical element in gaining self-confidence is to define success in the proper context. You must have thick skin when it comes to submitting research proposals. Nobody likes rejection, but if one out of five of your proposals is funded, you are matching the national average. Anything better than a 20 percent success rate is excellent. Certainly you have obligations to your university, your graduate students, and your own career, but if you receive funding for 25 percent of your proposals, nobody has reason to complain. No baseball player hits a home run every time at bat, but everybody is expected to step up to the plate again.

Frank Lloyd Wright was once asked his reaction to a pronouncement in the press that he had been named the world's most outstanding living American architect. Wright quickly replied, "What do you mean American? What do you mean living?" Frank Lloyd Wright believed in himself.


    Douglas M. Green is chair of ASEE's Engineering Research Council
    and the dean of engineering at Marquette University.

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