Advice for science newbies

Science is an exciting cooperative puzzle played by many people all over the world. Nevertheless, the scientific career is hard, because competition for jobs is fierce, and earnings are not as good as in other high-performance careers. Let’s talk about the challenges and opportunities of this path.

If you want to be a celebrity or get rich, don’t become a scientist. But if you don’t care about those things and are curious, open-minded, and tenacious, science may be the right profession for you.

If you really want to become a scientist, in addition to learning all required technical skills, you should also pay attention to some key issues.

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

Science is not about saving the world, although some true heroes rise among us from time to time. The everyday scientific work involves a lot of hard, repetitive activities, and is frustrating many times.

Thus, follow this career only if you feel passionate about research. And only engage in answering questions that make you madly curious.

2. Keep track of your goals

Don’t follow the crowd. What is good for a successful colleague may not be the best option for you. Try to discover who you are, what you want, and how can you contribute to science.

To avoid getting lost along the way in the “scientist’s journey” (which is very similar to the hero’s journey), always set personal goals. Ask yourself: where do I want to be in one, five, and ten years? From time to time check your choices: do my current activities put me closer or farther away from my goals?

3. Discipline is vital

Science students tend to love their subjects and be obsessive about acquiring knowledge. In addition, Academia is a very competitive environment. Thanks to this combination, many students eat, sleep, and breath books and papers. They overlook their nutrition, rest, physical activity, social relationships, hobbies, and spirituality.

This a straight path to mental and physical disease.

Therefore, learn very soon to have discipline and protect your personal life and health. Plan your work days and weeks carefully, so you have time both for your thesis and your life outside the university.

There is enough time for everything.

4. The scientist’s journey offers no guarantee

Don’t think that just because you did well in graduate school a place for you in Academia is guaranteed. The fight for a permanent (or at least stable) scientific job 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 a tenure track position. 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, Master’s, and PhD), or even 20 years (considering two or three postdocs), before getting a tenured academic job.

Furthermore, from your Master’s until your last postdoc, you are probably going to change your university, city, and even country. First, because opportunity does not necessarily come to where you are. Second, because scientists need to work in different groups to expand their horizon. 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 this long and winding road, think twice.

5. The professor-student relationship is similar to the 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 both learning and working. Therefore, a professor is a mixture of a mentor and a boss, and sometimes this is confusing for both sides.

Most importantly, 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.

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

If you work very hard and respect your colleagues and mentors, 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. Invest also in acquiring skill that no one else has and that could make you shine.

Do not treat graduate school like a 9-5 job. Most of the time, you are going to work over 40 hours a week. But do not exaggerate. Take care of your personal life and have discipline, as pointed out in the advice #3.

7. 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 ethical code of 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 with you.

8. Read a lot, but select literature carefully

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

9. Good networking is very important to your career

Although some geniuses can work alone most of the time, even they need to exchange ideas with colleagues from time to time.  Anyway, 99.9% 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.

10. 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 (basic, applied, translational, development, or strategic). 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.).

Science is a human culture and cultures are all about communication.

Final advice

Success comes from hard work, even for geniuses (read the book Outliers by Gladwell). If you want to be a professional scientist, talent is not enough: you need to study and then practice, practice, and practice.

Further advice for newbies:

* Originally published in 2009 and constantly updated. There is also a Portuguese version of this text.

(Source of the main image: Jackson 2002, The Lord of the Rings, New Line Cinema)

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