How to Become a Scientist

August 5th, 2011

One of my more popular posts is Five Qualities Required to be a Scientist.  In response, I get a lot of comments and email from kids / teenagers who want advice about how to become a scientist.

Now, as a practical matter, being a scientist is like being a writer.  No one makes you into either.  If you write, you’re a writer.  If you do science, you’re a scientist.  So, want to be a scientist?  Practice science!

It’s a different story if you want to make a career of science and support yourself and perhaps a family as a scientist.  The answer is simple in some ways, but the execution can be challenging for many.  For the later stages of a career and having success in graduate school and beyond, I’ve explained before how to win at science.  But how do you even get to that stage?

First of all, get top grades throughout school.  If you can’t manage to be a straight A student, or haven’t been in the past, you have to prioritize at least your math and science classes and work hard and be at the top.  Impress your science teachers.  Do more than the minimum.  This isn’t just passing a class — this is your passion and your future career!  You ought to love it and it need not feel like a sacrifice.  Frankly, if putting extra into your science classes seems like work, you don’t love science enough to do it as a career.  You’re better off following another interest.

Beyond your classes, read and do science!  Participate in science fairs.  Read books about science.  Watch documentaries about science.  Participate in citizen science projects online like Galaxy Zoo.  Science, science, science!  Read and watch science fiction, too, if it inspires your science interest.

Go to the best schools you can at every stage.  Science is basically an academic discipline, although industry does support many scientists in many fields, but that’s generally post-PhD.  Take your top grades, your science activities on your transcript, glowing recommendation letters from your science teachers, and get into the best college you can afford to go to that has a top department in your field of interest.  There are a lot of online resources now, and it isn’t that hard to figure out which departments are good and recognized in different fields or subfields.  I’ve written about this process before for high school students.

In college, your goal should be to keep a GPA above 3.5 while majoring in your field of interest.  Avoid double majoring unless you have a real double passion and can see a niche in the overlap.  You should pursue research with a star in the department, who is likely to have grant money and can support your work financially as well as intellectually.  Work for that star professor in the summers, and try to do a summer reserach program (or two!) before graduation.  Ideally this will result in one or more publications and several glowing letters of recommendation.  Coupled with top grades and GRE scores (a side effect of studying hard for your major classes), this should get you into a top graduate school.  From there it’s not over, but that is the easy path.

I know it isn’t always that easy, but if science is your passion, you’ll love the work and it’ll be fun.

I do want to note that some people discover they like science but don’t love doing science as a practical matter.  If hours, days, weeks, or even months of doing tedious, careful, boring work is too much to pay for digging out one of nature’s tightly held secrets, you may not be cut out to be a scientist.  For me, I’ll wade through a lot of B.S. in order to finally put together a graph showing whether or not my hypothesis is a good one, and its prediction is borne out.  If you won’t, reconsider your future.  If you will, you’ll do good work, make good results, and be welcomed as a fellow scientist.




You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.