What does it take to make a good Scientist?

Image by *Kazze*I just saw something on the weekly edition of Nature Jobs that made me very happy. It is something that I was waiting to see since a long time. In May 2006 Georgia Chenevix-Trench felt like sharing some of her wisdom with the youngest public of the journal Nature. In the (often embarrassing) portion of the journal called Nature Jobs, she published a Decalogue with “tips for students”; goal of the letter was to provide prospective PhD students with rules of thumbs that would help out having a successful career. Sadly enough most of them were embracing the concept of hard work and only marginally important skills such as creativity, imagination, collaborative science. The author makes the point that only a tiny fraction of enrolled PhD students end up succeeding with a career in Science and propose that the reason might be

we enroll far too many of them without telling them clearly what doing a doctorate should entail. We therefore set ourselves, and the students, on a path of frustration and disappointment.

I won’t say what I think about this idea. Not yet. But I was glad to see an answer today from Sarah Bekessy and Brendan Wintle, two other Australian researchers. Their opinion is very different and definitely less stereotyped.

The idea of a one-size-fits-all model for PhD study is simplistic, patronizing and bad for science.[…] It is a mistake to promote a corporate culture of bulging briefcases, long hours and working weekends as signs of good research practice. PhD students should be judged on their insight and the outcome of their work, not by the number of hours they spend working.

There is no point spending hours and hours in the lab if the only reason of all this hard working is being faster than someone else outside in the world working on the very same project. Think about the great names that made Science: do we remember them because they were faster? Or we rather worship them because of their creativity, their imagination, their ability to think out of the box and see things clearly where other people would see shadow? Not everybody is gifted whit the rare skill of creativity but if there is something you want to work on, then you better concentrate on that. Most of the lab work we do everyday is repetitive, boring and unimaginative. It takes a brain to make a scientists, not just pair of quickly moving hands.


  1. Reply
    dr.psycho 15 October 2006

    (posso rispondere in italiano?)
    eppure, leggendo le storie dei premi nobel (ad es. “Nobel dreams”, libro di 20 anni fa dedicato a Rubbia e in particolare all’impresa che l’ha portato al nobel), spesso si vede che il senso di fretta c’era eccome.
    sono d’accordo con te che cio’ ha conseguenze frustranti e disumanizzanti, e a me non piace, ma… be’, temo che sia un dato di fatto che con la fretta ci si deve imparare a convivere.

  2. Reply
    Dr.my bad english 17 October 2006

    I often happen that when I speak about science with scientists, they tell me how much they work, they tell me about their nights in the lab, and so on.
    Nobody ever talk about ideas, or project, or something new, unrealizable maybe.
    No, I have to listen to the same grumbling.
    I think that there is a bad way to live science (but I know only italian labs).
    People work to rech results that often are wrong, becasue they don’t stop to analyze their data.
    So frustration and disappointment come in their life, above all in friday when the week is finishing and the results are bad.
    I have seen related labs to work on the same project and in hard competiton, accordingly I have seen Ph.D. students to work continually. They wondered why?
    I wonder why?

  3. Reply
    Giorgio 19 October 2006

    You guys are both right. The system is set in this way and whatever the opinion one may have about it, it is important to be able to cope with it. Since everyone is rushing, new comers feel rushing is what they need to do. And most of the time it’s true. But I am convinced that you can find your rythm and try working differently if you think differently. Perhaps this problem is not so obvious in physics, psycho. You guys have radically different concepts at the basis of your Science. Only to mention two: huge collaborative projects (with hundreds of people participating), and alphabetically ordered names in the author list of a pubblication. These are concepts that are not even conceivable for a biologist: people tend to kill each other to gain a position in the author list!

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