Four “secrets” to success in science

By Faculty Contributor
November 9, 2012
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Editor’s note: In today’s post, our anonymous faculty blogger gives some advice for young scientists on how to succeed in a research career. (For the record, while certainly distinguished, we wouldn’t consider him “old!”)

The old professor just shook his head in response to the young student’s question about the secrets of his success. “Why in the world would you consider me successful?” he exclaimed. “I’ve never made any money in this business, my lab is always on the verge of bankruptcy, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get another NIH grant.” But the student insisted, “You’ve been doing what you love for more than 40 years, you’ve published so many interesting papers, and you’re known all around the world for the discoveries you’ve made. You must be doing something right. Can’t you give me a few hints?”

The professor thought about it for a minute and relented, “Okay, I’ll tell you four things that have kept me going for such a long time. But they’re not secrets. They’re just things that everybody knows, but doesn’t want to think about because they are hard truths to face…”

1. Put in the time. Unless you have supernatural intelligence and somehow can see things that are beyond the other 99.9 percent of us, you should be prepared to outwork everyone. My last year in graduate school, I knew a really great basketball player who asked if he could play for our Biochemistry Department team, which was strange since we were all very ordinary players. But with his leadership, we came in second in the all-University tournament. When we asked him why he had wanted to play with our team, he told us, “It’s because you guys always show up and you never quit trying.” So the take-home lesson is to show up every day and don’t get beat because you didn’t try hard enough. People notice these things. You know that girl in the lab next door who is already here in the morning when you get here and is still here when you go home? That’s the person you’re going to be competing with for a job someday.

2. Be productive (not just busy). Even if you are working like crazy, it’s critical to learn the difference between being busy and being productive. One of my students, who was producing monoclonal antibodies, literally spent all her time making multiple freezings and repeatedly testing the viability of every single hybridoma clone she produced, but without ever really characterizing any of the antibody specificities. So she was incredibly busy, but completely non-productive. The student who took over the project (hint, hint) focused on three of the most interesting clones, threw the rest away, and ended up with several great papers on protein expression patterns in the vascular system. He worked hard at being productive, not at being busy. (By the way, I’m old fashioned to say so, but I view much of my students’ internet usage in this same way. Browsing websites is addictive and time-consuming, but often not especially productive.)

3. Solve problems. A big part of being productive is learning to be a problem solver. Let’s say your boss is always suggesting experiments or projects (bosses are funny that way). They usually have great vision of the big picture but can be sketchy about details, so that these projects will often have some sort of glaring technical deficiency that you immediately recognize. There are several ways to approach this situation: 1) you can tell the boss that it will never work and then just forget about it, 2) you can make an initial try at it, using exactly the strategy he suggested, and then tell him his idea didn’t work, or 3) you can try it, find out it doesn’t work, figure out what was wrong with his strategy, and then come up with a way to do it so that it does work, giving you a productive new line of research. This last approach is the only one with any real value. I have had a couple of students whose main joy in life seemed to come from proving that my ideas were wrong. While undoubtedly satisfying, just proving that the boss’s theory is wrong doesn’t get you anywhere. Figuring out why he was wrong and correcting his mistake in a productive way is the only way for you both to succeed.

4. Look at the big picture–but focus, too. You need to develop broad interests, and not have tunnel vision that obscures your ability to think outside of a single molecule or a single cell type. Whatever you learn about your molecule or cell, you’re going to have to be able to relate it to a bigger picture in order to write a paper, write a grant, or attract widespread interest in your work. Collaborating with other scientists is a great way to expand your field of vision. A corollary of this rule is not to put all your eggs in one basket, and to pursue multiple projects at the same time. Not only will this improve your chances of success in at least one of your projects, but it will also give you the luxury of setting a stubborn problem aside for awhile and working on something else that is flowing a little more easily. Success in the less difficult project may allow you to come back to the balky one in a week or two with a fresh perspective. But here’s the tricky part…while you are developing these broad interests and pursuing multiple lines of research, you also have to develop a sense of when it’s time to put everything else aside and focus on a single, key project. You have to do this in order to really crank out the volume of detailed data needed to publish your paper on that project.

After taking in all of this advice, the student felt a little cheated that his mentor had not really given him any magic formulas for success, but had basically just told him in four different ways that he needed to work harder. Still, he thanked the old professor for his wisdom, promised to incorporate these lessons into his work habits, and then hurried back to his desk to post the four “secrets” of success on his Facebook page…

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Still interested in a research career? Visit our Graduate School for Biomedical Sciences or learn more about postdoctoral training opportunities at Sanford-Burnham: sanfordburnham.org/training

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