September 26, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

While my gel was running….advice for success in science to newbies

What does it take to succeed in science?

Here are some key ingredients in my opinion after 22 years in academic science.

Passion. One important ingredient that we cannot necessarily change significantly about ourselves, but that I think nonetheless is crucial for success, is a true excitement for science. Sometimes people even go so far as to call it “passion” or “fire in the belly”, which sounds a bit over the top, but I think is pretty accurate about many successful scientists.

They love science.

So I would say to young folks thinking about a career in science:

how much do you really like science?

Of course not everyone who is successful in science is going to be born loving it or even realize they like it strongly before college. For example, despite my love of science at a young age, I also loved writing and ended up getting a B.A. in English Literature at Reed College so I can’t claim complete fidelity to science. However, I took science classes at Reed and came close to getting a Bio major.

If you don’t strongly like science at least by the time you are well into college, my advice is don’t try to make a career out of it.

Of course there will always be exceptions to this rule and I know people who became scientists later in life and had great success, but they had always liked science and just found themselves in other careers. However, if you look into your heart and don’t strongly like science, than pursuing a career in it is likely to leave you frustrated and unsuccessful.

People. There is this stereotype about scientists that they have rather poor people skills, perhaps most recently (and strikingly) illustrated by the funny show The Big Bang Theory mostly populated by science geek characters from Caltech. While these physicists in the show are indeed inept at dealing with people, I’d venture to say that not all scientists are that way. In fact, I know many scientists who are delightfully engaging human beings, outgoing, and even charismatic. My dad was good with people and he graduated from Caltech.

But, that’s actually not what I mean when I list “people” as an important factor in success in science.

Instead, what I mean is that with only rare exceptions, you really cannot go it alone in science and the people around you will play crucial roles in whether you are successful or not. I’ve done a previous post on mentoring and I believe that mentors for all stages of scientists are very important. I also was fortunate to publish a piece written by Irv Weissman on his mentors, who helped make him the godfather of stem cell research. Finding the “right” mentor is critical and what “right” means depends on who you are. One student might find a mentor overbearing, while another might flourish with a mentor who provides a lot of structure. Others might do best with a mentor who expects independence.

In addition during your career, other students, technicians, administrative staff, etc. are part of your community as a developing scientist. You need to show all these people respect. Science is a small world and you never know when you might need help from the most unexpected people.

In science a huge part of your success or lack thereof will be your reputation and you start developing that early. Reputations can be powerful things. Go out of your way to show the people around you and also your long distance colleagues that you are a good colleague. Avoid pettiness. Be generous with your time and give to your fellow students and others. Be polite. Make yourself an asset to others.

At the same time, you have to have your own personality as a scientist. You need a balance between confidence and respect for others.

You also need to learn what you can from everybody. You can learn from other people’s successes but also their mistakes.

Persistence. At every level of science, persistence is vital. We all get grant rejections. We all get paper rejections. We get other kinds of rejection. Our experiments don’t work either for no apparent reason or because we messed up. Despite these hurdles, you must continue pushing forward and keep focused!

The most successful scientists I know all share one trait: they have an amazing ability to both  persist and focus despite challenges and hurdles.

There will be times in science when working fast to get papers done and published are important, but in general Science is a marathon not a sprint. 

A lot of science is doing seemingly the same thing or very similar things over and over….if that sounds too frustrating to you than science may not be for you.  Even the most creative, cutting edge, high risk science will involve repetition and certainly will present you with times when it feels like nothing is working. At those times you need to find something in yourself to keep going. You can’t rely on your mentor or friends to keep you going. Science is not for the easily discouraged. You also must have a sense of personal responsibility.

Perspective. When I was a graduate student I had a eureka moment. It wasn’t some discovery at the bench. Rather, at some point I was talking with my old friend Frank while our gels were running and I realized that during one’s time in science you are not only doing science, but also you should be growing as a scientist. This may sound corny, but it is so true. I believe that to be successful in science you have to keep perspective that you are really doing two things. You are doing science and you are also changing as a person. If you do not follow both these paths, then you will not really succeed as a scientist. The great scientists that I know realize this and they embrace lifelong learning. They take every opportunity to improve as a scientist and a person. It is not enough to do great science. You also have to keep making yourself better, learning new things, taking a fresh perspective….otherwise you’ll find yourself the same person you were a long time ago without having grown.

In the end you need to be honest with yourself and I think you’ll find the answers as to whether a career in science is right for you. Even if you are not 100% sure, there’s nothing wrong with in essence experimenting on yourself in the sense of trying out science for a while and seeing if it “clicks” for you. That’s in fact more generally what life is all about.