So you want to be a scientist?

  • Philip A Schwartzkroin
Oxford University Press, 2009 208 pp. paperback, $19.95 0195333543 | ISBN: 0-195-33354-3

The decision to enter into a career in research is often made rather haphazardly. Curious young undergraduate minds can become intoxicated by the possibility of being a part of the enterprise that unravels great mysteries of the natural world, and the lure of escaping some of the craziness of the ‘real world’ adds to the appeal. Now, in a crisp new book that should be on the reading list for all young scientists, Philip Schwartzkroin, a Professor of Neuroscience at the University of California Davis, rolls up his sleeves and quickly dispenses with this fairy tale notion of science in which the lone genius dreams up brilliant ideas that change the world. He lays bare the challenges that young scientists will face and the compromises that they may need to make. Schwartzkroin takes the position that, although being a scientist is certainly special, there are many parts of the job that go beyond doing high-quality research. A career in science very much means being a part of the real world, and young scientists had better learn how to navigate it if they want to be successful.

Many mentors seem to avoid these types of discussions on the grounds that they dirty the pure scientific process. Schwartzkroin, however, thinks that the more you know about this career choice early on, the better the decisions that you can make to ensure a productive and happy existence. I wholeheartedly agree. That the author can engage in these discussions without detracting from the big, beautiful ideas that draw people into science in the first place is a testament to his skill as a writer and mentor.

The book's short and highly readable chapters cover many issues that confront scientists in training. For example, what are the considerations in choosing a dissertation or postdoctoral laboratory? Is it better to work with a well-known senior scientist running a big laboratory or an up and coming young mentor with a small laboratory? Schwartzkroin offers measured advice on this sort of decision, emphasizing the strengths of a broad and diverse early education and pointing out that it is not necessarily the specific experiments that one does early on that define one's reputation but rather the manner in which they are done.

Certain recurrent themes emerge. Your reputation is the most important asset as a scientist, the author argues, and care should be taken to nurture and promote it in a way that “impresses rather than alienates.” His very sensible recommendation is to establish a reputation early on as a careful and disciplined thinker who stays close to the data. The tradeoff might mean maintaining a tight focus at the beginning and perhaps not tackling the sexiest problems. However, the payoff is that once a solid reputation is established, peers will be more likely to accept riskier and bolder hypotheses as you mature as a scientist. Networking to Schwartzkroin is not a sleazy game for self-promoters but is instead a healthy and necessary part of establishing your reputation with other scientists; at its core, science is a very social enterprise.

Also deserving special mention, a series of chapters offer advice on how to prepare scientific papers, grant applications and talks. Schwartzkroin emphasizes the importance of being able to weave one's work into an effective narrative. “Telling a story and practicing critical thinking are not mutually exclusive; indeed, they complement each other quite nicely.” I think this is an important point that is far too often ignored by scientists at all levels, who frequently believe that a ‘just the facts’ approach is the most honest way to present data. In fact, such ‘data dump’ papers, grant applications or talks are often highly ineffective at communicating with peers and the broader scientific and lay communities. The human mind, it seems, pays attention and remembers most effectively in the context of a good story. It's a real art to learn how to present complex, nuanced and often incomplete scientific results in a broad enough context that engages the audience without dumbing down the material.

Other chapters on ethical conduct in research and the role of scientists in society are highly relevant and timely. Given the rapid change in some fields such as genomics, where huge collaborative efforts are common, new ways of thinking about data sharing and authorship are required. A chapter on personal challenges deals compassionately with the common ‘crisis of self-confidence’ that hits many, if not most, young scientists at some point in their training. And a chapter on rewards and riches that touches on the inherent joy of learning to do something well and the value of close friendships forged in the laboratory resonates well.

The author states upfront that the book is based on his own personal experiences, which are entirely within the academic biomedical community; he provides only a cursory list of so-called ‘alternative’ careers. But in a job climate in which the majority of PhD graduates pursue careers outside of traditional academia, a substantial expansion of this section would have been welcome. An important point, in my opinion, is that PhD training is not really about learning a particular laboratory technique, such as patch clamping, but is instead about learning how to absorb a huge body of rapidly evolving knowledge, to think critically and quantitatively and to communicate in a complex world that deals in uncertainties. Seen in this context, a PhD can open a large number of doors outside of traditional academia.

We live in a time of enormous potential for scientific research, but which often feels plagued by a raging epidemic of angst about science as a career. Schwartzkroin's book, combined with a deeper appreciation of the extended value of a PhD, could be a much-needed antidote.