Nature | Editorial

Timeless advice

The best guidance on how to get ahead in science stands the test of time.

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How can a young researcher get ahead in science? They need perseverance: “You do experiments and 90% of them aren’t going to work. Nobody warned me about that.” Boldness: “People don’t ask enough questions. They’re embarrassed.” Mastery of the basics: “I didn’t even know where the pipettes were.” And perhaps a dose of reality: “Rejection is an ever present companion in science.”

Those quotes, all from researchers interviewed for a Careers Feature on page 491, demonstrate that there is more to a successful scientific career than being good at science. And although opportunities for paid positions in research have flourished in recent years, so has the competition. The message has yet to filter down to schools and university undergraduates, but professional science has become one of those careers that teachers and lecturers could euphemistically describe as ‘popular’ and ‘competitive’.

This is good for science overall. The global talent pool is well-stocked and the number of proficiently trained apprentices eager to take their chances is healthy. It is less promising for the scientists themselves: too many are chasing too few positions.

In such a climate, providing careers advice for scientists has become a career in itself. Yet, as the researchers highlighted in the feature make clear, many of the questions and anxieties that trouble early-career scientists also crop up in other careers. And the useful skills that ambitious researchers are urged to develop are hardly unique to science either: confidence, communication skills, networking abilities and persistence will help to propel people up the ranks in most professional fields.

Not everyone is suited to a career in science — nor is there space for them. So how can the community identify and help those young researchers who have the best chances of success? Senior and established scientists can help through formal mechanisms such as mentoring schemes and more informal routes, including workshops and blogs. Universities and other institutions should recognize that these contributions are valuable, and assess and reward them appropriately.

Amid all this advice, how should young scientists judge which guidance to listen to? Nature’s advice to these young scientists is to read Advice to a Young Scientist by Peter Medawar (Harper and Row, 1979), which celebrates its 36th birthday this year. Back when it was published, digital science meant little more than measuring fingers, and to modern readers the book may look as if it belongs to another age, but almost all of its content remains startling relevant. Furthermore, it is warm, witty and written in a welcoming way that, at the very least, shows scientists that scientists can (a) communicate and (b) do so as well as anybody else.

Here is Medawar, for example, demolishing the platitude that science is based on mere curiosity. “Curiosity is a nursery word,” he writes. “Most able scientists I know have something for which ‘exploratory impulsion’ is not too grand a description … A strong sense of unease and dissatisfaction always goes with lack of comprehension.”

But he is not always correct. On scientists who find that the job is not for them and opt out of research, Medawar claims that “the qualifications required of scientists are so specialized and time-consuming that they do not qualify him to take up any other occupation”. In fact, as Nature has argued before, a solid grounding in science and the skills of research offer a strong platform for many alternative careers.

Lest anyone jump on the “him” in the above sentence and assume that this is a book ‘of its time’ that paints a male-dominated picture of science, Medawar is frequently at pains to stress the benefits of and the need for greater equality — for better and for worse. “Men or women who go to the extreme length of marrying scientists should be clearly aware beforehand, instead of learning the hard way, that their spouses are in the grip of a powerful obsession that is likely to take the first place in their lives.”

And on the original point, on how young scientists can get ahead, he writes: “A novice must stick it out until he discovers whether the rewards and compensations of a scientific life are for him commensurate with the disappointments and the toil.” Indeed.

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