How to Become a Successful Scientist
By Alan Marnett
Standing in the magazine section of Walgreen’s, I ran across a list of the “Top 10 ways to run a risky business”. As I read it, it became clear that the principles were arguably more relevant to creating a successful scientist! I’ve reworked the list and tailored it to the bench researcher and our experiments in the laboratory.
Interestingly, the title of the original list included the word “risky”. Considering the inherently risky nature of scientific research, I think the list is more appropriately titled:
1. Do the experiment.
It’s fun to sit around and talk about hypothetical data and all of the potential implications, but at some point, we have to test the hypothesis. The sooner the better.
2. Realize nobody knows the outcome.
Science is exciting because we work at the edge of knowledge. The flip side of that is that it’s very hard to see where our project will lead. Recognize it’s a journey and we’re just following the data.
3. Don’t overthink it.
There will always be reasons an experiment could fail. Lab experiments without risk are lab experiments without fun. A successful scientist rolls the dice.
4. Experiments don’t fail.
They give us information. Maybe that information is telling us that dropping our flask on the ground was not a good idea. Data collected. Lesson learned. Next experiment.
5. It might fail.
Get comfortable with this idea. We will face far more failures than successes. Not one person in the history scientific research ever had a career without a failed experiment. Ever. We all fail. So what?
6. Don’t stop learning.
Try a new technique. Consider switching fields. Scary? Absolutely. But it’s more fun to be scared than bored. And most of the time, we find our fear was irrational anyway.
7. No project is safe.
If an experiment is 100% predictable, then it’s either already been done or it’s just not interesting. Learn to gauge risk, but don’t let it stand in the way.
8. Analyze the data and be confident.
Second-guessing ourselves can be a killer. Make the best decision with the data at hand and move forward. Future lab experiments may disprove our hypotheses, but that’s how science works.
9. What will we really lose if it fails?
Time, money? We knew these risks coming in. Double down and take a hit.
10. We don’t have to re-write textbooks.
Don’t get stuck waiting for the nobel prize-worthy idea. Starting with small, easily-addressable questions often opens the door to much bigger ideas than we could have imagined.
Had any success with these steps in your own career? Are there other guidelines you live by to become a successful scientist?