Advice to a young biologist

January 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?


  1. Mostly good advice, Greg. But since I'm an ecologist, I have to say that comment #1 is narrowly framed and does not apply to most ecologists or evolutionary biologists, to say nothing of biologists who do a significant amount of theoretical work. Being detail-oriented and rigorous is indeed valuable for any biologist, but not always for the reasons you suggest. For instance, grad students in ecology and evolutionary biology typically have much more independence than grad students in cell & molecular biology. EEB grad students therefore aren't at risk of being "fired", since they typically aren't seen as working "for" their supervisor in the first place. EEB students can of course fail to succeed, but that's not the same as being "fired" by their supervisors. And manual dexterity and patience with repetitive bench work definitely aren't relevant outside of those subfields of biology that are exclusively lab-based.I'd suggest two further pieces of advice:1. The best students think broadly, think critically, and think for themselves. This independence of mind is an essential trait if you want your work to represent a significant advance on previous work. I stand by this advice even for students interested in those subfields of biology that place the greatest emphasis on technical bench skills.2. The more comfortable you are with math, the better. Even in fields like molecular biology that until recently demanded essentially no quantitive training. That is changing very fast, and it's not just a passing fad, it's a sea change in how biology is done. In this respect, cell and molecular biologists are playing catch-up with ecologists and evolutionary biologists, but that's another story…Evolutionary biologist John Thompson offers some quite detailed advice to grad students on his website. I strongly recommend it to all prospective grad students in ecology and evolution. Steve Stearns' classic "modest advice" to graduate students, and Ray Huey's reply, from the 1987 ESA Bulletin, is widely available online and remains as brutally honest and relevant as when it was written.

  2. Greg,I enjoyed this post. I am subscribed to your blog (via RSS) and read it regularly along with a smattering of other runners' blogs.I confess I didn't expect to find a post seemingly written for someone in my shoes (just about). I am an undergraduate (and a research assistant) in electrical engineering and often feel overwhelmed by not just the abundance of work that hasbeen required of me thus far, but also by the amount of 'advice' from which I must discern the relavent from the inapplicable.Perhaps I am biased while reading the written words of another runner but I found your post informative, pertinent, and full of interesting considerations undergraduates like myself must make as we progress through our respective curricula.So I suppose this was all just a round about way of saying… thanks 🙂

  3. Greg,I think all of these comments are helpful for prospective young scientists. One more seems essential to me:8. Curiosity. The vast majority of scientists are driven by an insatiable (and some may say, insane) curiosity for how an organism works, the causes of a disease or how the universe evolved. This wondering of how and why things are the way they are is a common trait among most scientists I know. It is the explorer aspect of being a scientist, knowing that your work may be the first among 6.7 billion humans on a particular topic, and that it may help to elucidate an important aspect about the world or humans. If you tend to be curious, then going to work in your office or lab each day can be a lot of fun, and your job can oftentimes seem more like a hobby or avocation instead of humdrum toil.Great comments, Greg. Keep up your blog. You are a talented writer and thinker.Mark

  4. Hi Greg,As an academic (economist) and (slow) ultrarunner, I enjoy your blog a lot… although apparently only intermittently :)This one is useful advice, and I thought I'd point you to Greg (yes, another Greg!) Mankiw's pointers for undergrads thinking of going into economics: http://gregmankiw.blogspot.com/2006/05/advice-for-aspiring-economists.htmlYou'll see many similarities. Good luck with all your 2009 goals!

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