Advice to a young biologistJanuary 14, 2009
This morning, one of my undergraduate research assistants asked what advice I would give to young biologists. My learned, thoughtful response: “Um…. Well…. You see…. Let me get back to you on that.” And then I emailed him the following.
1. Are you a detail-oriented person who enjoys performing your own rigorously controlled laboratory experiments? If not, become one . . . or consider a different field. Most training-level (grad student/postdoc) positions in biology entail lots and lots of careful, well-documented experiments. If this kind of painstaking, repetitive work seems scary or dull, you’ll probably quit or be fired long before you can reach a position where others do the experiments for you. Coming out of high school, I was more of a thinker than a doer, so I spent much of my time as an undergraduate overcoming my fear of the lab and developing confidence in my hands.
2. Are you someone who can take pleasure in the achievement of small, incremental goals? Realize from the start that sudden revolutionary breakthroughs are extremely rare. Don’t stop dreaming of a cure for cancer, but don’t expect to get there anytime soon. Learn to appreciate the beauty of a perfectly linear standard curve, for that may be the highlight of your week.
3. Know your career options. Being a grad student is quite different from being a professional scientist, so try to determine your long-term goal, then acquire experiences relevant to that goal. Do you want to be a NIH-funded investigator who spends most of his time writing grants and papers? Or perhaps a biotech entrepreneur, a science journalist, a physician, a government policy wonk, a teacher? Seek out classes, internships, etc. that will help you decide whether these options are as great as they sound.
4. Read the primary literature. As an undergraduate, I hated wading through dense, clumsily written research reports. Today, the ability to scan these reports for useful information is one of the most valuable skills I possess. I’ve gotten better at this through years and years of practice. So can you.
5. Choose your mentors very carefully. If you want to be a scientist, it is not vital that your thesis be an astonishing tour de force, but it is vital that you finish it. A good adviser will make the lab a pleasant, stimulating place to be while also nudging you, gently but persistently, toward the door. I chose to do my undergraduate thesis on sphingolipids, not because I had a particular love of sphingolipids but because I liked and respected the faculty member who studied sphingolipids. It was a good choice.
Anything to add, fellow researchers?