Advice to a Young Scientist

Not to be confused with P.B. Medawar‘s book Advice to a Young Scientist– I’ll actually cover his ideas later.

What I’ve come up with are five essential pieces of advice for budding twenty-first-century researchers or scientists (or research scientists, for that matter).

1. Sense of Direction-

You must have some idea of where you intend to go. This is one of the more difficult and time-consuming aspects of research, especially if you’re new to the process.

Keep in mind I am by no means telling you to have a two-year plan of what comes next by the time you begin, because that will all come naturally once you get started. But it is many times more difficult to approach a teacher or parent with a question like: “What should I study?” rather than, “How can I set up an experiment looking into mussel growth?”

Think about a branch of science you’re interested in and narrow it down from there. Mine was environmental science. Yours may be engineering, computer science, psychology.

Don’t worry too much about picking the “wrong” topic at first, either. Use your younger years to explore new subjects and ideas.

2. Fearlessness of Failure-

One of my favorite topics, mostly because this year I essentially learned the most graceful way possible to fall flat on my face. I had the Sense of Direction and dedication, but really had no idea what I was getting myself into. For some reason I thought my experiment would work out flawlessly.

When it didn’t, I cried like a baby.

Then I found this article on failure and slowly started to feel proud of how much I was learning by not doing everything right. When something didn’t work out, I wrote down potential reasons for the failure and learned to move on. I’m telling you: anything that could or may go wrong probably will.

Brace yourself and enjoy the ride.

3. Persistence-

Goes along with #2- don’t let those little glitches defeat you. It may be the toughest thing you will do- yes, even tougher than the statistics- but find a way to clear your head and get back up. Talk to a colleague, a teacher. Write down a couple possible solutions.

This also includes a piece of advice that you just have to learn for yourself: Anybody will respond if you contact them enough times. You’d be surprised at how many borderline-instantaneous email responses I’ve gotten after this:

“Dear Dr. So-and-so, I write to confirm that you received the following email I sent a few days ago. (Insert email here)”

Works like a charm.

4. Find a mentor-

It goes without saying that in life in general (and in science particularly), we need someone to ask questions of and to bounce ideas off of- an expert who’s willing to be your teacher. So, find yourself one of these people.

Not so easy. I wager I wrote about fifteen emails to different scientists, researchers, experts in my field before I received one hopeful-sounding response.

It’s not that these people have anything against younger scientists or think your ideas suck or don’t want to help, but often they’re simply too busy and don’t think you’re serious enough to dedicate any substantial amount of time to.

You need to prove them wrong by showing them you’re interested in your (and, therefore, their) field and that you won’t give up after one disheartening response. Ask for suggestions if they truly can’t help you themselves- colleagues? Journal articles? Websites?

Finding a mentor is difficult but rewarding work- I’ll get to all the essentials in another post.

5. Own it-

Excuse the cheesiness, but my favorite way to describe this one is: If you don’t believe in your research, who will?

The hardest time to do this was at science fairs when the kid standing next to me conducted cancer research that was being looked into by the Johns Hopkins medical school… You think I’m kidding?

Somewhere along the way I’ve learned to be proud of my work, even if it was nowhere near as earth-shattering as I’d hoped. Because I know that with a little more work, someday it very well may be.


Want even more ideas? Check out this TED talk by E.O. Wilson. “Keep your eyes lifted and your head turning. The search for knowledge is in our genes…”

What do you think is the most important attribute of a young scientist? Comment or hit the contact page to let me know!

‘Til next time.