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Five qualities required to be a Scientist…

November 5th, 2007

Here’s one site about becoming a scientist: Cool Careers in Science

What does it take to become a professional scientist? To get into graduate school, persevere, collect a PhD and land a job in the field?

A lot of things, but not all obvious to the uninitiated.

I used to like to tell people that it took three qualities, two of which might not be obvious. I now think it takes five.

First, it takes brain power. Intelligence. Talent. The ability to do the hard work.

This is probably obvious to most, but is sometimes ignored when people want to put down a scientist reporting results they don’t like. Every scientist has some native intelligence above and beyond that of the general population. Perhaps not a lot more, but above average. Scientists get not only through college, but into graduate school and through it. Few graduate programs let in students with GPAs below 3.0, which is pretty good at colleges other than Princeton or Harvard.

Now, I will admit that there are plenty of gradations of intelligence above average, and that there are some stupid smart people and some smart stupid people, but that’s the subject of another, future post. PhD-level scientists are all smart, but plenty fall way short of genius level and fail to apply their brains to every problem before them.

OK, second: stick-to-itivness. You don’t get a PhD for pointing out small things. You have to show that you can produce a significant step in our understanding of the universe, and that requires many months to years of sustained effort to complete. Usually at least three years. If you can’t start, sustain, and finish a project that takes longer than a year, forget about being a scientist. There are plenty of smart people, including geniuses, who can’t be scientists because they’re flighty, lazy dilettantes. We all know them, and most of them make me shake my head. I’ve had a couple of promising, smart students who will never make it for this weakness. They make good points, have good criticisms, but never produce anything of their own all that worthwhile.

Third item: communication skills. Maybe it’s possible to be a scientist without good communication skills, but, oh, wow…how will the career suffer. Scientists must write papers, proposals, and give talks. Referee papers. Review proposals and papers. The ones who can’t communicate clearly and effectively will not get their work considered seriously and will have poor careers, assuming they can even get through writing a thesis and defending it successfully. Staying in science without being able to secure funding is tough. Very tough.

That was my original list, but I finally decided that I had to add two other items.

Curiosity and attention to detail.

Curiosity is what drives any decent scientist. Having a PhD and securing a permanent position means having independence to pursue a line of research. That requires curiosity. Grad students who blow away the GRE but need to be told what to do every step do not make good scientists. They’re technicians at best, which is fine, but a different career. Scientists are curious and need that to do research. There is a scientific method, but there’s no algorithm to how to develop and test the next hypothesis. It does require that spark.

Finally, attention to detail. This was something I was never great about growing up and had to learn myself. It’s amazing how many details must be addressed in bringing a research project to publication. Ideally every journal article describes every project in enough detail to duplicate it. That’s a big responsibility, and anyone who can’t be bothered to get those details right nearly all the time or better can’t be a good scientist. Mistakes are always going to happen, but they shouldn’t be too common. And sometimes in science, the results and their interpretation turn on those details as they do in few other fields.

Summarizing, every would-be scientist needs:

1. Raw brain power
2. Dedication to finish long-term projects
3. Communication skills (writing, speaking)
4. Curiosity
5. Attention to detail

There’s no crime in not becoming a scientist. Not every smart person has these qualities. And there are plenty of smart people who aren’t geniuses who make great scientists. As a professor mentoring students, I see some of the brightest fail on some of these points every year, and others less gifted succeed on their other strengths.

Another day I’ll rant about the stupid smart people who are the bane of the system all too often…

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