Developing a career in the biological sciences can be a daunting venture. You must throw your heart and soul into your career and wait years before you know if you are going to be successful.
For those of you who are feeling a bit lost, I have garnered some pearls of wisdom from post-doctoral scientists that have learned what will advance a career and what will hinder it:
The career path of a scientist is rarely a straight line.
Many students picture a timeline in which they complete their undergraduate studies, continue into graduate school or an entry-level lab position, and escalate through the hierarchy of titles and salaries until they reach the top.
However, it is not always as simple as that. It may sound counter-intuitive, but careers in science cannot be planned. Circumstances both in and out of the lab will affect your interests, and as they change, your career path will grow numerous branches.
The key element that should remain consistent throughout your career is your willingness to learn about new topics while investing in new skills. This way, whichever path you choose, you will always be able to demonstrate the high level of value that your employers are looking for.
Invest your time only if you truly enjoy it.
The essence of an experiment is that it takes time to nurture. Each experiment can take anywhere from several hours to a couple of days to complete. It is only upon completion that you realize if your experiment was successful or not. If patience is not your strong point, then it is likely that these long hours will transform your perception of lab work into nothing more than a chore. No one ever wants a career that is a chore.
Not every experiment works every time.
You may perform the same experiment hundreds of times. These procedures become routine in your daily life just like waking up in the morning and taking a shower. Then, when you need the experiment to work, such as when demonstrating it for new students, it doesn’t work at all. This is a form of Murphy’s Law that is infamous in the lab.
How well you recover from such set-backs is what will separate you from those who advance and those who give up. Just remember that we would not use the word “research” if we actually knew what we were doing every time.
Do not be afraid to ask questions.
A major flaw in the human instinct is that little voice in the back of our minds which says, “Asking questions will make others think I am inept in my position”. However, scientific research is a system that relies on asking questions. The earlier you ask essential questions in your career, the faster you will progress. Your mentor was once in the same position as you, and I guarantee they were asking as many questions as they could think of. The only way to truly learn is to build a thicker skin, learn from critiques, and accept the fact that your best resource may be the scary supervisor.
Publications can be your best friend or your worst enemy.
Many scientists believe that their quality is solely based on publications. It is true that publications look nice on a CV, and even nicer if those publications are in a high impact-factor journal. However, due to this focus on publications, there is a large amount of pressure to gain as many positive results as possible before someone else beats you to the punch.
If you are early in your career, publications should not be the main priority. These will come in time, but only after you have solidified the laboratory skills which are essential to actually conducting quality experiments. There are a surprisingly large amount of scientists that are unfamiliar with first principles, and this tends to hinder their progress at later stages in life. If you focus on publications too early, it would be the same as trying to run before you can walk.
You may not be the first person to make a particular discovery.
There are too many scientists in the world to assume that you are the first to discover something, whether it be positive or negative. Despite all of the resources that are available for the purpose of sharing ideas, positive results and methodologies tend to only become available once accepted for publication. Negative results, on the other hand, are almost never shown because their benefit is highly under-rated. Hence, the best advice is to collaborate as much as possible within your field. Other scientists, both locally and internationally, are resources that allow you to look behind the curtain and potentially hear what not to do in the lab. If negative results were shared more frequently, less people would be repeating mistakes, and advancements would occur more rapidly.
These insights are a good starting point, but are by no means a final message.
Science is something that envelops the lives of everyone, yet we identify with it uniquely. Some strive to utilize the resources of science for the purpose of changing the world as a whole, while others solely want to understand very specific factions. This spectrum of options is what makes science highly interesting at its core.
Whatever career path you choose to follow as a scientist, you will always come across a branch that will enlighten and enrich the world around you. You just have to keep pushing forward.