Science street smarts: how to succeed in science in the real world

Some of the smartest people I have ever met in my life were scientists.

But some of these same people made the dumbest mistakes I have ever seen in my life.


Their raw brainpower and knowledge of science is amazing, but they seemed to lack common sense and what I would call “science street smarts“.

They had a hard time working within the context of the real world, which includes some dark alleys and traps, rather than their notion of an idealized scientific world.

In fact, I would argue that many scientists lack street smarts and a simple fact is that the younger you are as a scientist the more likely you have not yet learned street smarts.

I’m not talking about carrying a switchblade if you go down that certain alley behind your tissue culture hood or not buying the Brooklyn Bridge. Rather what I mean by science street smarts is operating within the realities of the scientific and non-scientific world, warts and all.

I don’t claim to be a pillar of scientific wisdom, but I have learned certain lessons, sometimes the hard way, that I hope to pass on to others here. I’m sure I have a lot more to learn myself, but perhaps I can help you avoid some of the landmines.

Lesson 1. Science is as much about the people as the research. The scientist who is brilliant, but has a blind spot for the importance of people has a greatly reduced chance of sustained success. Which people? I’m referring to one’s immediate trainees, students in classes, direct colleagues, more junior colleagues, funding officers, more senior colleagues, and even others such as patients if you are in biomedical science. Ignore the people in your scientific universe and even just outside of it at your peril. The scientist who tries to go it alone proceeds at a serious handicap. Do not submit your grants without them having been read by more senior, funded colleagues. Find mentors. Don’t just expect them to pop out of the woods, but keep your eyes open and reach out with questions. You can learn a lot in this way about potential mentors by who takes the time to answer your questions and how.

Also, there are some people it is likely wise to avoid in science. Science can be pretty cutthroat at times and some people will not hesitate to take you down, whether it is a grant or paper review. Others are trawling for new ideas at meetings. In the future I’m going to do a post on the dilemma of whether to present unpublished data at meetings, but especially as a young scientist do so with extreme caution.

Lesson 2. Don’t burn bridges. I can’t emphasize the importance of this lesson enough. Science is a small world. The person you are mad at right now and who you think you won’t ever need again, may very well turn out to be a decision maker in your future. They might even become an ally. I’ve seen it so many times when someone lets anger dictate their reaction leading them to do something very stupid. Even if someone has crossed you and is clearly not your friend, perhaps even actively your enemy, you have nothing to gain by fighting with them. Maybe you’ve learned the lesson not to trust that person and maybe you even need to exclude them as a reviewer of your papers, but don’t actively make them want to be your enemy.

Lesson 3. Don’t get trapped by the high impact journal black hole.  Who doesn’t like to publish in top tier journals? Of course that is a good thing. For example, in the stem cell field who wouldn’t want their paper in Cell Stem Cell or Nature? But, the most important thing is publishing your work and what is less important is only going for the most awesome journals. Of course, you might prefer to publish in a journal where your paper will get read by your colleagues rather than in the Journal of Southeastern Timbuktu, but there are a huge number of so-called intermediate tier journals that are incredibly good. Don’t be a journal snob when it comes to where you submit your papers. You maybe very well find yourself in an endless cycle of struggling to get your paper published and get scooped. Also when it comes to the papers that you read and cite, don’t simply choose the papers to cite in your paper based on what journal they were published in, but rather based on how good you believe they are regardless of the journal.

Lesson 4. Continue to develop yourself as a scientist and person. Many members of my family are medical doctors, and they have something called “Continuing Medical Education” or CME.  For doctors, to keep their licensure CME is not optional, but required. Scientists have no such requirement and oftentimes I think scientists are so busy with their labs, teaching, and grants that they forget that they still have a lot to learn and should continue their own development as a scientist.  It is not as though once you get a faculty position that your education is over.  Of course scientists should read papers and go to conferences, staying up to date on the literature, and that’s part of continuing your development as a scientists, but I mean more than that. Challenge yourself by learning about a new area. Continue to look for new mentors even if you are senior yourself. Try to look at things from a new perspective.

It is also important, as much as us scientists spend massive amounts of time working on our science, to have some balance in life. You are not just a scientist, but also a person. You need outside interests too. As much as hard work is an integral part of life as a scientist (yeah that might include holidays, should include weekends, evenings, etc), I think the scientific mind sometimes needs diversion to work at its best. I don’t believe in the 24/7 lab as much as others might. I expect my trainees to work very hard, certainly well beyond the Mon-Fri, 9-5 universe, but I realize they are also human beings and some time spent outside the lab and not on science by trainees and even PIs can lead to new ideas. Some of the most creative ideas I have ever had popped into my head when I was not actively doing science.

Lesson 5. Work on your communication skills. Maybe you are a relatively new scientist or maybe you are a veteran who has given hundreds of seminars. I think all scientists can benefit from improving their oral and written communication skills. Especially if you are over 50 you should also learn all about how to communicate via the Internet as well.

It always amazes me how some of the smartest people are the worst communicators. Communication is critical in science. Of course knowing how to write a paper is extremely crucial for anyone hoping to succeed in science. Good science that is written up well as a paper will get published. Good science that is written up poorly may not fare much better than bad science that is written up expertly. Verbal communication is super important too including interactions with your trainees and colleagues, but also in the context of giving presentations. How you present yourself, your lab, and your data says everything about who you are and everyone will judge you on it. Why then are so many scientists so bad at giving seminars? I think it is in part because no one ever teaches scientists how to communicate. As a scientist, be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses as a communicator and actively try to get better.

Lesson 6. Be a positive person who nonetheless can say “No”. In science, time is everything. One could argue that how you spend your time will dictate whether you are successful or not. There is no substitute for hard work in science and most scientists that I know are incredibly hard workers. I don’t think I need to tell anyone that to be successful in science you have to work hard, but you also need to “work smart” as the expression goes. There are many things that scientists spend their time on that is wasteful. In addition, even if one narrows the field to only spending time on things that are worthwhile, one still needs to maintain balance. Especially in the early-middle stages of your career as a scientist, you will get asked to do many things and many younger scientists feel unable to say “No”. They are worried that they will make someone mad or get in trouble, but the reality is that you have to learn how to say “No” or you will end up spending too much of your time on things that are relatively speaking less important for your career. When people ask you to be on committees, don’t always say “Yes”. Being on one or two committees at a time is reasonable, while being on 5-10 is detrimental.  By committees I’m not referring to thesis or QE committees, but rather institutional committees.

Lesson 7. Make a plan and have goals.  Sure, perhaps scientists think that having short, medium, and long-term goals sounds kind of new age. Some have even responded “blah, blah, blah” to such an idea, but from what I’ve seen making plans and setting goals makes a huge difference. Where are you going with your science and where do you want to be scientifically in 3 years? 5 years? 10 years? You just got an R01 funded so you should be asking yourself, what do I need to have done in 3-4 years to get the renewal? Where do I want to be career-wise in a few years? Longer term?

If you aren’t asking yourself these questions, then you are surely less likely to achieve the things that you want in any given period of time.