Advice for science newbies

Science is an exciting cooperative puzzle played by people from all over the world. However, the scientific career is very hard, because the competition for positions is fierce, and the earnings are not as high as in other high-profile areas. Thus, if you want to become a celebrity, to have a lot of free time or to get rich, do not become a scientist. But if you don’t care about those things and are very curious, open-minded, and tenacious, science may be the right profession for you. In this short article, I show that if you really want to be a scientist, in addition to learning all technical skills, you have to pay attention to some important issues.

People do science, above all, to quench their thirst for knowledge

Science is not about saving the world or getting famous. The everyday scientific work involves a lot of hard and repetitive activities, and is frustrating many times. Thus, only engage in pursuing questions that strongly stimulate your curiosity.

Keep track of your goals

Do not just follow the crowd. What is good for a colleague may not be the best for you. Try to discover who you are, what you want, and how can you contribute to science. To avoid getting lost in the “Scientist’s Journey” (which is very similar to the Hero’s Journey), always set personal goals and think: where do I want to be in one, five, and ten years? From time to time ask yourself: do my current activities put me closer or farther away from my goals?

The “scientist’s journey” is hard and offers no guarantee

Do not think that just because you did well in graduate school your place in science is guaranteed. The fight for a permanent (or at least stable) job in science begins only after the PhD. In the First World, but also in competitive developing countries such as Brazil, the best jobs go to people who did at least one or two postdocs.

In Germany, for instance, people spend on average 10 years as a postdoc before getting tenure; in the USA, the average is similar, and the system is even more cruel. Therefore, you need to invest a minimum of 10 years of your adult life (undergrad course, Bachelor, Master’s and PhD), or even 20 years (considering some postdocs), before becoming a professional scientist with a real job.

Furthermore, from your Master’s until your last postdoc, you are probably going to need to change your university, city, and even country sometimes, because opportunity does not necessarily come to where you are. If you have a spouse and children, this can be very stressful, especially because of the lack of financial security and social stability. Therefore, before entering the long and winding path of the newbie scientist, think twice.

The professor-student relationship is similar to a master-apprentice relationship

Working in a lab is different from working in a company or studying in a school. The education of a new scientist involves learning and working at the same time. Therefore, a professor is a mixture of a boss and a mentor, and sometimes this is confusing for both sides. Most important, there is a hierarchy: the student enters a workgroup to learn, and so shall be open to advice and criticism. Nevertheless, a good student must show initiative: don’t do just what your advisor requests, but try to always go one step further.

What you get from your training is proportional to what you invest

If you work very hard and respect your colleagues, you may grow as a scientist and build a solid career. You must learn to deal with frustration. Patience and tenacity are essential. Another crucial part of your training is to master the English language (the lingua franca of our time). If you are not a native speaker, invest in courses, grammar books and style manuals. Do not expect graduate school to be like a 9-5er job. Most of the time, you are going to work over 40 hours a week.

Mixing political, religious or moral views with your research results in weak science

You may have personal opinions on any topic. Furthermore, you must observe the law and  the research ethics in your field. But always seek the best answer to your scientific question no matter what it is. Sometimes, the best answer is not pleasant and is going to make somebody angry.

Read a lot, but select literature carefully

Cherry pick only the best papers and books. Read also about topics that are not directly related to your research. Take some excellent courses but not too many, as studying by yourself is more important.

Good networking is very important to your scientific career

Although some geniuses can work almost alone, even they need to exchange ideas with colleagues from time to time.  Anyway, 99% of us are not geniuses, and so professional networking is essential. Colleagues open many doors. Seek contact with people in your field in conferences, courses and personal visits. In your lab, be helpful and you will get help when you need it.

A research project ends only after a publication

A valid publication is a paper in a peer-reviewed journal, the record of a patent or the release of a product, depending on your focus as a scientist (baseline or applied). Monographs (e.g., dissertations and theses), mere bureaucratic formalities, are only the beginning of the end. Unpublished research does not exist for the community, so it’s not science. Furthermore, getting your papers published is not all that matters: your research must be available to a wide international audience (remember that science is a worldwide cooperative puzzle) and it must be as useful as possible (i.e., be cited, used, applied etc.).

Final advice

Success comes from hard work, even for ‘geniuses’ (read the book Outliers by Gladwell). If you want to excel, observe the 10,000-hours rule.

Read other nice advices for newbies

* Originally published in 2009.

Fonte: Dent Cartoons.


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