the Air Vent

Because the world needs another opinion

Becoming a Successful Scientist

Posted by Jeff Id 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.

Link to Amazon.


23 Responses to “Becoming a Successful Scientist”

  1. hunter said

    Thank you for the tip.
    I am going to send have this sent to my daughter who is looking for some graduate school direction in genetics research.

  2. JAE said

    My career is essentially over, but I’ll just read it anyway! Oh, and the grandkids…

  3. GregO said

    I too have noticed there are different personalities in the sciences and engineering – I am curious to read Dr. Loehle’s take. Thanks for the recommendation and the book review.

  4. Sean said

    Jeff,

    I’ve got a few years on you working in a scientific/technical field but your excerps on this book make it sound intriquing. I’ll have to take a look at this book. My first thought on reading what you wrote was how does Loehle look at science in the age of federal support? I am a big believer in the “quick and dirty” experiment to see if an idea has some validity. (There nothing more frustrating than sitting through a long meeting with a dozen people that would be completely unnecessary if one person spent a day in the lab testing a few things.) What really gets me about science in the age of massive federal support is the disconnect between what happens on the ideas, funding and what happens on the bench. The greatest excitement in science are the serendipity moments. The ones where you find your pre-concieved notions are wrong or you’ve discovered some odd little quirk that says, ‘yes you can have it both ways’ that lets you escape from the box of constraints you’ve built for yourself. How do you plan for serendity in your proposal? If you find it, will it be recognized and appreciated by your funding source or will you be told your on a tangent that is not of interest to them.

    Perhaps my problem is I have never been inspired in a response to a technial topic for an RFP. The inspiration comes when you go to a lab or workshop and doing something. The second disconnect is understanding a problem. Government funded work doesn’t start until after a proposal is selected by the funding agency. The funding agency, in an effort to be fair, has to be at arms length with the folks writing the proposals. The problems arises is that you sometimes have to drill down beyond what’s written in the RFP to discover the real issue. It’s difficult to do that in the proposal writing stage. Third I’ve seen agencies tout that they are getting huge response on their RFP even though they may only be able to fund 1 in 20 proposals. How much technical talent is going into proposal writing vs. solving technical problems? I would bet that for scientists working on government funded projects, one third of their time is devoted to responding to RFP’s. Is that the best use of the nation’s technical talent?

  5. 1. Is the “Successful Scientist” one who experiences the joy of discovery?

    2. Is the “Successful Scientist” one who has many research grants and publications?

    Today these two camps are almost mutually exclusive. Dr. Loehle’s book seems to be written for those who value the success described in #1.

    From ~50 years of experience as a researcher and ~20 years experience as the head of an academic department, I conclude that Jeff has a good chance for success in path #1, but the path will not be easy because:

    1. Hard work, independent thinking, contemplation and meditation are keys to the success described in #1. On the other hand,

    2. Endorsing consensus opinions that are promoted by funding agencies and NAS members that control their research budgets are keys to the success described in #2.

    Many years ago, a program officer for one of the major research funding agencies took me aside and privately told me,

    “Oliver, I like your work. But I cannot protect funding for your projects if you keep ‘tweaking’ the noses of NAS members.”

    I didn’t change, because I was and remained convinced that good science must obey basic scientific and spiritual principals:

    “Truth is victorious, never untruth.”
    Qur’an 17.85; Mundaka Upanishad 3.1.6

    With kind regards,
    Oliver K. Manuel

  6. timetochooseagain said

    Looks like an interesting read.

    For those above noting the differences between scientists and engineers, my feeling has always been that Engineering is about problem solving, Science, ideally, questions and answers. Obviously this attracts different kinds of people and thinking. But the two groups are also very similar. Both want to know how the world works, engineers because knowledge is useful, scientists because, and I believe I’m paraphrasing Einstein here, they want to “read the mind of God”. Both are very worthwhile goals, although not too long ago I decided I preferred the former personally.

  7. Leonard Weinstein said

    Jeff,
    I find this particularly interesting, as this mirrors my own approach to problem solving. I frequently have arguments with other scientists about the virtue of deep literature studies vs a general effort to be aware of what is going on, and spending most of my efforts to go in my own internally generated direction. I have been far more successful than most at coming up with new and innovative ideas, even though I do sometimes reinvent something already in the deeper literature. However, there is another problem present. Even if you come up with great ideas, convincing the more narrow focused managers or peers can prevent one from getting support to advance the ideas. This is especially true if your idea seems to go against the accepted approaches. This has greatly limited what can actually be accomplished.

  8. Leonard Weinstein said

    timetochooseagain:
    I am a scientist and engineer. The distinction is misplaced. There are engineers that make up schedules, or make detailed drawings, but those are not the type I am talking about. I consider my scientist part as trying to understand a problem (and hopefully having some success), and the engineering part as working out the details. A research scientist or research engineer are essentially the same thing, and both do both parts of a problem.

  9. Engineering seems to stay closer to reality than modern science, which is increasingly led by theoretical models.

    E.g., awarding the Newton medal for the string theory that claims elementary particles are “manifestations of a more fundamental layer of nature described by 1D strings 10^–35 m”.

    http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/43054

    If a rocket nosedives or a bridge collapses, the engineer has a quick reality check.

    Scientists, on the other hand, can and do simply ignore those parts of reality that they can’t readily explain, e.g., neutron repulsion, excess lightweight isotopes in the solar wind, excess lightweight s-products in the photosphere, etc.

    With kind regards,
    Oliver K. Manuel

  10. timetochooseagain said

    8-There is definitely overlap, certainly, and the two fields have a lot in common. But in “purist” terms, I think I described the differences fairly well. Of course, not everyone is all one and none of the other. So I do see where you are coming from.

  11. tonyb said

    I have a lot of time for Craig’s work so it looks as if a trip over to Amazon is in order-good tip Jeff.

    tonyb

  12. Steve Fitzpatrick said

    I’m probably to old to benefit much from this book.

    Jeff: (Sorry, off topic, but I thought you might enjoy this.) Here is Michael Tobis’s take on Obama and business, from Keith’s Collide-a-scape blog:

    “As far as I am concerned Obama is a defender of the system trying to modify corporate capitalism enough to save it from collapse under its own stresses and contradictions.”

    Just love the “save it from collapse” part. Interesting, but not very original… has kind of the ring of Karl Marx, don’t you think?

  13. stan said

    Oliver,

    AJ Strata had a good post on the difference between scientists’ code and engineers’ code back when the CRU scandal was hot. http://strata-sphere.com/blog/index.php/archives/11509
    For example: you can’t have PhD quality code launching massive rockets over this countries large cities running up the eastern coast. You can’t have PhD level code controlling large antennas, since you don’t want them be destroyed as you move these massive machines or fry someone by turning them on when people are working on them. You don’t want PhD quality code landing the Space Shuttle. It’s that simple and no NASA PhD will argue that point.

    The truth is the science teams don’t get enough funds to do it right, but that is only half the problem. The other half is the scientists like to write crappy code only they can use – creates a lot of job security. For much of science this is a livable and reasonable arrangement. Let the PhD’s dabble in exploring the unknown, and leave the designing, operating and safety of large complex systems (which can kill lots of people if things go wrong) to lesser people – like engineers.

    When the global warming canard migrated from niche research into trillions of dollars of policy changes effecting every human being on the planet, the PhD level of quality control should have been ejected immediately. With the fate of humanity at risk, it is not too much to ask for professional quality code, analysis, and a true peer review process. Not that silly science journal review process by the good ol’ PhDs network, a real review like we do when we launch people into space or build a rail system or a new airplane.

  14. timetochooseagain said

    12-It sounds more like a description of George W Bush-From his final press conference:

    “And I readily concede I chunked aside some of my free market principles when I was told by chief economic advisers that the situation we were facing could be worse than the Great Depression.”

    http://www.cqpolitics.com/wmspage.cfm?docID=news-000003007802

    But yeah, that does sound like a Marxist screed. In fact, it sounds like the Marxist theory of Fascism. So according to Kloor, Obama is a Fascist. Hehe, either that or he’s like Bush. Anything but a socialist I suppose.

  15. Steve Fitzpatrick said

    timetochooseagain #14,

    Nope, Keith Kloor didn’t say that, Michael Tobis said that. I don’t think Keith believes anything even similar.

    WRT G W Bush: he tossed aside his free market principles as soon as he took office… just look at his record over 8 years.

  16. timetochooseagain said

    15-Oops, read it again, yeah, not Kloor. Tobis. I am truly, truly sorry for making that error. Okay, so that is what Tobis was saying.

    Sorry for being a bit off. I’ve just been berated for saying that violence in protesting is not legitimate, so I’m off my game. Believe it or not, I was compared to Stalin, among others, including apartheid thugs and slave holders, for saying such a thing! The temerity of me!

  17. stan said

    From Doug Hoffman’s blog, The Resilient Earth, on a poster:

    SCIENCE
    If you don’t make mistakes, you’re doing it wrong.
    If you don’t correct those mistakes, you’re doing it really wrong.
    If you can’t accept that you’re mistaken, you’re not doing it at all.

    http://theresilientearth.com/?q=content/ocean-conveyor-belt-dismissed

  18. Steve Fitzpatrick said

    Timetochooseagain,

    ‘violence in protesting is not legitimate’

    Depends on what you are protesting I guess: Taxation without representation? The divine right of kings to rule? Incineration of innocents in concentration camps?

    Violence is sometimes a moral imperative.

  19. timetochooseagain said

    18-To be clear: I do not believe violence is legitimate when other forms of recourse are available. When one has no option but to fight for something, that is quite different. In a democracy, you should never have to do such a thing. All of the things you mention, involve dictatorships, essentially, and in the last case, what one would be fighting against is itself violent. In that case it could be seen as essentially like killing in self defense someone acting violently against yourself. But I have made all this clear to this guy, I think. Serious hostility…

  20. Jeff Id said

    Let’s move the discussion to the open thread. Craig has put more work into this book than most of us will put into any of our political adventures that I may agree with.

    I know most won’t come up with the big $$ to read it, but it is an amazing work which should’t be discounted.

  21. Jeff Id said

    Although there are only a couple of excerpts, the points made by Oliver and Leonard are quite true. If you have the opportunity to develop something new and the belief that you can do it, the politics are more than an impediment.

  22. Yes, Jeff, science is now ruled by politics. See the news stories and comments in Physics World on

    a.) PNAS blacklisting climate skeptics http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/43002

    b.) NAS President promoting AGW scare: http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/42666

  23. Jim said

    I bought the book based on your review. I would recommend this to anyone in a “thinking type field”, not just science. The title is too restrictive. Among many other things he crystallized my problems with the “creativity” pushers.
    Jeff I wish you would send your review in to CoolTools. This book is truly a thinking tool.
    Thanks !
    Jim

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