Becoming a Successful Scientist
Posted by Jeff Condon on June 29, 2010
I met Dr. Craig Loehle briefely at the ICCC conference, on the program schedule it said – book signing. I was surprised that Dr. Loehle had written a book which hadn’t made its rounds on the climate blogs and asked if he would share a copy with me. It turned out to be a detailed 300 page discussion titled – Becoming a Successful Scientist. The book is a serious and extensive effort to explain a career in a scientific field, including everything from different scientific personalities, methods of problem solving, expectations from different fields to methods of presentation and communication of your results. What I found interesting was the fact that so much time was spent considering how different personalities fit in the world of the sciences.
It was only after finishing reading and considering what the book meant to me that it became clear to me that the book is a useful tool to help those considering working or who are already working in the field of science to be circumspect of their own strengths and personality and how it fits in their chosen profession, and further, how to maximize the outcome. Now that I’m 41, I look back and think that had I understood many of the points made here, I would likely have made different decisions in my youth and perhaps will in the future.
This paragraph is particularly apt in describing the book – my bold:
While there have been many books about creativity and problem solving, they are mostly about problem solving minutia, such as the use of analogy, visualization, generation of novelty, brainstorming, lateral thinking, and free association. We may say that these component skills are like the ability to saw, the ability to hammer a nail, and the ability to use a drill, without any skill in reading blueprints or an understanding of how an entire house fits together. While a collection of low level skills will enable you to build a bird house, they do not allow you to build an office building. To make another comparison, brainstorming may help you come up with a name for a new product or an ad campaign slogan, but it will not help you compose a symphony or build a space shuttle. This book goes beyond brainstorming and describes the tools needed for both generating new ideas and for carrying them through to a completed product.
The tools described are not simply spoon fed as though you need this and this and this but rather as descriptions of the basics which any technically minded person would have followed by an extensive review of how these pieces are fit together by different personality types and integrated into a body of knowledge. It seems to me that the concept behind the book was huge, the payoff being that an individual considering a career in science can take the required introspective time to consider what they hope to get from their career and an improved understanding of what the field of science offers in return.
I’ve never read a book quite like this one, it was complex, very well considered and will be helpful to those who are interested in maximizing their career experience from both a personal satisfaction and scientific productivity angle.
Still there is plenty of direct advice in the book, like this particular section which I’m going to work harder to take to heart.
Don’t read the literature. Graduate students are inevitably told to read the literature to get started. This advice is fine for students, because they are used to looking up the answers in the back of the book anyway and repeating the examples they have seen. For the practicing professional, however, this first step can be inhibiting. First, it channels your thoughts too much into well-worn grooves. Second, a germ of an idea can easily seem insignificant in comparison to finished studies. Third, the sheer volume of material to read may intimidate you into abandoning any work in a new area. Medawar (1967) also advises against reading too much, arguing that study can be a substitute for productive work.
My recommendation for the first step (after getting the germ of an idea) is to put your feet up on the desk and stare out the window. Try to elaborate the idea as much as possible. Do some calculations or quick lab experiments. Write a few pages or sketch out a design. Only after the idea has incubated and developed will it be robust enough to compare it to existing literature. Given a certain level of knowledge in a subject, you know generally what is going on, so you are not likely to be reinventing the wheel. When you go to the literature, you may find that someone has preempted you or that your idea is invalid, but at the risk of only a few days or weeks of work. The cost of good ideas killed off too soon is much higher than the cost of some wasted effort.
Interesting advice because recently I was considering another climate effort on sea ice, I don’t know why because I don’t have any time anyway, but became intimidated quickly because there is simply too much literature on the topic. Concerns of redoing work that is already understood basically stopped my project in its tracks. If I do find the time, I think I’ll develop some of the preliminary work and then search the literature more extensively.
There is basically no math in the book so no complex equations to consider, but if you are truly interested in how this work can help you, it isn’t what I consider light reading. The consideration and understanding of how these thoughts apply to yourself mean that you aren’t going to rip through it in a day with a bowl of popcorn. It’s thought provoking read which has the ability to genuinely help guide you in a science career.