The Seven Habits of a Highly Successful Scientist

The Seven Habits of a Highly Successful ScientistIt’s been over twenty years since Stephen Covey first published his best-selling self-help book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  That means it’s also been over twenty years that we’ve been pushing “reading it” to the bottom of our to-do list (“Let’s see, I could either set up another experiment or read some cheesy self-help book…”). But 15 million copies don’t sell themselves, so we figured it was time to take a look under the cover.  In the interest of your to-do list (and wallet), we’ve adapted Covey’s principles to create The Seven Habits of a Highly Successful Scientist

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Successful Scientist Habit 1:  Take charge of your bench

It’s called “your project” for a reason.  Own it.  A successful scientist proactively develops hypotheses, designs experiments and tests ideas without waiting for someone to tell them exactly what to do.  Sitting around waiting for instruction will most likely just lead to a sore butt, not an exciting career.

What can we do: Challenge yourself to come up with one idea related to your project each day.  Some of them will be bad, really bad (“Is it possible to put a pig’s head on a dog’s body?”), but many will be good.  When you hit upon a good idea, take steps to plan out the experiment.  If you don’t have the necessary equipment, find someone nearby that does and see if you could use it.  Research is full of roadblocks and if you’re not constantly searching for detours, you’re in for a long trip (and not this kind of trip…).

Of course, taking charge of the bench isn’t limited to experiments.  Want to write a review with your PI?  Tell them.  Propose a topic that you would be well-suited to write see what they say.  Great scientists aren’t passive- they create their own opportunities.

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Successful Scientist Habit 2:  Set a goal from the start

Why set goals?  Anyone who’s driven on a cross-country vacation with the family knows the power of a goal.  Twelve hour days in the car, bladder-expanding stretches without bathroom breaks and fast food meals while driving.  It’s not always pretty, but with a destination in mind there is no time for distractions (guess you’re going to have to see the world’s second largest ball of twine on your own time…).

What can we do? Pull out a piece of paper (or open a Word doc) and write down your goals for whatever project you’re undertaking.  “Graduate in five years”, “Synthesize and purify the molecule in three months”, “Publish a paper once a year”, etc.  Whatever it is you want to accomplish, write it down and make sure it stays within your field of view.  Literally- post it on the wall, put it in your drawer, tattoo it to your forehead – do whatever it takes to keep the destination in mind.  Just go easy on the bladder and take your meals outside of the lab…

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Successful Scientist Habit 3:  Prioritize

“Get a tenure track position” is an excellent goal, but maybe “get into graduate school” should be a higher priority after college than looking through the classified ads for academic positions…  There is always another experiment (or ten) to set up and if we’re working on multiple projects, those numbers quickly get out of hand.  Identifying the experiments that will benefit us most will help ensure we don’t spend five years chasing a result that nobody cares about anyway.

What can we do? Take a look at your goals and rank them in order of importance to you.  Then be a mercenary and spend your time performing only those experiments that get you closer to completing your goals.  This can be easier said than done as we often develop an emotional bond with a project.  Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough time in a day to do everything we want to so some tough choices will have to be made.

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Successful Scientist Habit 4:  Design “win/win” experiments

Everyone loves when the high risk, high reward experiment actually works.  Unfortunately, these homeruns only clear the fence about 1% of the time.  So accumulating six figures for a paper with a 1% success rate = 594 failed experiments.  The problem with high-risk experiments is that the negative result often tells us nothing, other than it didn’t work.  The best type of experiments are the ones where the result advances the project no matter what the outcome.  Positive or negative, A or B, red or green.  These “win/win” experiments are the result of careful planning.

What can we do? When planning the next experiments, consider whether all of the outcomes will tell you something.  If they won’t, think about why and see if there’s a way to expand the experiment to fix it.  Maybe it’s more controls, maybe it’s a different setup.  It’s not always possible to design a win/win situation for every experiment, but forming a habit of thinking about it will ensure you catch the times you can.

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Successful Scientist Habit 5:  Listen first, then speak

When dealing with a boss, a colleague or a collaborator proper communication is key.  Productive relationships with other scientists can be the difference between success and failure, particularly in a profession that relies so heavily on peer review.

What can we do? Unfortunately, not everyone sees the world through our lens.  Next time the boss says something you don’t completely agree with, before firing back with a response, take a minute to think about why they said it.  Believe it or not, your boss is human and they say things for a reason.  Sure, it may be incredibly frustrating when it’s not what you want to hear, but there’s always more to the story.  Just as with experiments, try to make personal interactions “win/win” so that both parties benefit in some way.

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Successful Scientist Habit 6:  Collaborate

English clergyman and poet John Donne said “No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main.”  This is particularly true in science, where it’s very difficult to perform a project in complete solitude.  Collaborations are a great way to gain extra rewards for a limited amount of work.

What can we do? Find a collaborator.  Look around the lab, department or field for someone you think might be interested in working together on a project and pitch them on the idea.  Examine your project for areas where you don’t have the time or expertise to push it forward and consider using the collaborator to get around the roadblock.  A great collaboration can make your career- think Brown & Goldstein, Bishop & Varmus, Jake & Elwood…

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Successful Scientist Habit 7:  Step away from the bench

It was almost universally agreed upon in a previous poll that becoming a great scientist requires hard work and discipline.  While this is certainly true, it assumes that the hard work is efficient so that the project is moving forward as a result of the effort.  As we progress throughout our development at the bench, we should become more productive.  This means fewer mistakes, better experiments and a perspective on where our work fits in to science at large.

What can we do? Identify and nourish the elements in your personal and professional lives that make you more productive at the bench.  Is it learning new techniques, getting the proper amount of sleep, reading more papers, taking more classes?  Regardless of what solution works for you, periodically step away from the bench to recharge.  Hard work is a lot less valuable if it’s not moving you forward.

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Check out these other articles on successful scientists:

10 Ways to Be a Successful Scientist

What Makes a Successful Scientist?

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1 comment so far. Join The Discussion

  1. Anarmaa

    wrote on May 23, 2012 at 7:57 pm

    I think this is the best article I've ever read on how being successful scientist. Thanks.

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