Scientists: Is Modesty the Best Policy?

I recently looked over a company presentation for a friend and noticed something that I see a lot from scientists: she was being too modest in stating her reputation and abilities. When I pointed it out, it seemed as though I was suggesting that she should brag, a fate worse than death it appeared. Now, we all knew the jerk in grad school who acted like s/he can and did do everything, winning the favor of the advisor and not giving credit to others in the lab. I am not suggesting that scientists should overstate their abilities, but rather, be more confident and clearly communicate their skills and how they can benefit others.

I see this change in attitude being beneficial at many levels. On a personal level, scientists should think about what they’re good at early and often, and how to communicate it (also, if distinguishing talents don’t emerge, that needs to be worked on as well!). This is good for a scientist in developing his or her scientific progress as well as landing a job that fits well and positions them for maximum growth. See Comprendia’s Biotechnology Marketing 101: You First presentation for more hints on finding and communicating your ‘value proposition.’

Additionally, I see biotechnology as a whole benefiting from more confident, self-realized scientists. If companies find it easy to identify qualified candidates, either because they clearly post their abilities on LinkedIn or give great interviews, they save time and end up with employees who are a great fit and can communicate well. I also see scientists at companies being too modest at all levels, it doesn’t always ‘go away’ when a scientist leaves academia or reaches upper management. See Comprendia’s Biotechnology Marketing 101: Your Company for more details on clearly defining and communicating the value proposition of your company. Your business, science, and employees will all benefit when it is clear what your company excels at.

Who benefits when scientists are too modest? I can’t think of anyone. As long as you give credit where credit is due, and help others, you should realize that knowing and communicating your talents is the best way to advance the field. If you’re worried that you’re exaggerating, by all means ask for advice from some colleagues. Any fears about appearing too arrogant will likely be allayed by people who know you or your company, and they may even tell you that you’re still understating your abilities!

I sometimes feel as though I’m on the ‘other side’ of science since I concentrate on marketing, but I think I’ve got a good perspective on the importance of communication for success in biotechnology and life sciences. Success by any one of us means more success for all of us. Remember that many younger scientists are benefiting and learning from your science and your achievements–why understate them? As life scientists, we don’t have a Hippocratic Oath regarding our responsibilities to society, but maybe we should. Feel free to leave your ideas for one below!


  1. Mary,

    thanks so much for voicing this. Scientists who communicate their ideas, goals and abilities honestly and clearly will find their collaborators much faster. I serve my audience better by making it easy for them to grok me.


  2. I instinctively distrust scientists who are not modest.

    Scientists who are confident about their work and their intellectual abilities don’t need to draw attention to either – it will show.

    Scientists who make a point of promoting themselves are usually doing so out of a fear (or knowledge) that they are mediocre and that therefore their work and intellectual abilities will never merit praise.

  3. Agree very much with Rita and Lisa, Mary. I tend to distrust anyone who talks themselves up, scientist or not. It may well come out of insecurity and lack of confidence. A quiet person is often more quietly confident than the noisy ones and people often sense that.

    We have a saying in oncology – let the data speak for itself and shine from within.

    That could just as well apply to people too :-)

  4. Confidence need not be boasting. Confidence can be shown by your body language, informing others of what you are now doing, and, most importantly, inviting a conversation, not a non-stop recitation of your accomplishments. Exhibiting a balanced, other-oriented attitude appropriate to each situation should make a positive impression.,

    However, until mind-reading gets perfected, you really do have to let them know something about you. It is a balance between modesty and “boastingly” talking about yourself. Don’t downplay your accomplishments, or you risk exhibiting “false modesty.” Be true to yourself, but make sure it is your best self

  5. I sometimes wonder if young scientists miss out on opportunities because they’re doing what they’re ‘supposed to do’; they’re being too modest. I don’t mean to imply that they shouldn’t respect their mentors. Only that they shouldn’t limit themselves, solely, to one mentor’s expectations.

    If you do what you are supposed to do, like everyone else, why would someone want to hire you? In this regard, you are not viewed as ‘special’. You don’t stand out. This is unfortunate because I believe that should be your aim.

    I agree that confidence is critical when searching for a job. I’m sure if students/scientists work to develop their confidence, they will take greater initiative at in their projects.

    Perhaps NOT taking any risks is the riskiest thing a person can do.

  6. This is something that I’ve worked with many people over the years, including scientists. IT’S NOT BRAGGING IF YOU DID IT. That’s not to say you should boast or embellish what you did but how in the world will an interviewer or for that matter, company or lab leaders who are not working directly with you know what you’ve done if you don’t let them know?

    I’ll be commenting on that in my next blog.

    Suffice it to say that you should always be truthful but if you led something, don’t give all the credit to your team. Rest assured someone is taking credit for your work then.

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