Questions and answers with Marc Kuchner
An exoplanet astrophysicist applies marketing principles learned from a world seemingly far removed from science—the country music business.
October 10, 2012Published: October 10, 2012
By Jermey N. A. Matthews
In addition to his astronomy and astrophysics research, Kuchner composes original music and lyrics for country music artists. More recently, he's turned his attention to teaching scientists and the science community how to get and retain "jobs, funding, and influence." That's the focus of his new book, Marketing for Scientists: How to Shine in Tough Times, published earlier this year by Island Press. He also blogs about the topic at http://marketingforscientists.com.
Physics Today recently caught up with Kuchner to discuss the book.
PT: What motivated you to write this book?
Kuchner: At first, it was the steady onslaught of insults to US science: climate-change denial, evolution denial, the decay of science education. Then the recession struck in 2008, and the number of job openings for postdocs in my field dropped by a factor of three. My own postdocs and students were hurting. I felt that I couldn't just scratch my chin and spout the same old anecdotal job-hunting advice that worked twenty years ago. But after my experiences in the music business, marketing looked like a promising tool to help my students and colleagues win the jobs, funding, and influence we scientists need to keep doing what we love.
PT: Did your experiences as a NASA scientist and as a commercial songwriter contribute differently to the formulation of your thesis? If so, how?
Kuchner: Often, scientists enjoy a special privilege: We live in a bubble of friendly colleagues who feel compelled to listen to us and read our papers. As a new country songwriter from New York, I quickly learned that most people don't have the privilege of an automatic audience. Overcoming that challenge taught me lessons I could offer scientists who are struggling to be heard, such as young scientists seeking jobs and more senior scientists who want to influence the public and the government.
PT: How do you address skeptics who say that marketing, especially so-called Madison Avenue-style marketing, is anathema to scientific integrity?
Kuchner: Every scientist is marketing every day. Every journal article, every scientific presentation, every grant proposal is a piece of marketing. Of course, we all hate TV advertisements, junk mail, and people who oversell their work. But these days, when we feel a product is shoddy or overhyped, we complain vigorously about it on the internet, and our complaints have forced many companies to rethink their business models. For this reason, the "Madison Avenue" style marketing shown in the TV show Mad Men is dying, replaced by a new business ethic of openness, charity, and co-creation (think of TOMS Shoes) that I think has come into alignment with scientific values. That's the modern marketing I preach.
PT: Why do you think science needs to better market itself, and where, specifically, do you think that physics, as opposed to other scientific fields, needs a marketing makeover?
Kuchner: Science as a whole is faltering in America. Half of American adults can't correctly answer the question, "How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun?" Physics often seems to inspire a special fear in the public: radiation from nuclear power plants, black holes that can devour the world. The mad scientist stereotype that infects so many Hollywood movies and TV shows is linked to physicists. Maybe the nerdy characters in the TV show Big Bang Theory really are funny. But it's not funny when our projects are axed by Congress, or when physics departments are cut in colleges in Louisiana, Iowa, Missouri, and Texas. So I think physicists have extra reasons to study marketing.
PT: What books are you currently reading?
Kuchner: I'm working on a new book that will help scientists make individual marketing plans that will find them more time for their research, rather than distracting from it. So my reading list is full of new marketing books that I'm trying to distill for scientists to benefit from, like The Influence Game (Wiley, 2012) by Stephanie Vance, World Class Speaking (Morgan James Publishing, 2009) by Craig Valentine and Mitch Meyerson, and Thumbonomics (Findability Press, 2011) by Heather Lutze. It's not Phys. Rev. Letters, but scientists are about 30 years out of date on marketing techniques, and somebody's got to fix that.