Continuing in the same frame of mind as my last post, What Comes After Grad School, I was thinking about something that Alex said:
It reminds me of a bit of advice given to a fellow postdoc by Dr. Richard Hynes – try to attend every seminar. I would also add that in my comparatively short science career I have found that conferences are great as well. You meet people, people meet you, you learn, you communicate, and you develop this type of long distance acquaintance.
This is vital, and something that I will miss greatly, having relocated to a rather small country with a noticeably small academic infrastructure. The brilliant among us might conceive of their own breakthrough ideas in a vacuum, but it may be safe to say that real originality is extremely difficult to achieve.
Present Seminars – Test the waters of your ideas, and open them up to criticism. Oftentimes, the counterarguments of critics is the best way to identify the strengths and weaknesses of our own positions. This is how science works – by falsification. Whether your ideas are really well-founded or not, you will probably get some questions about problems in your argument, and in the end be able to develop effective defensive arguments or revise your original thesis accordingly. Or, if you don’t get any questions, you know that you probably either confused or bored your peers to death.
Attend Seminars, and learn the art of criticism yourself. Hopefully you can stick to constructive criticism, but either way, you will learn to identify the characteristics of well-founded arguments. And you might learn some new facts.
Collaboration, or exchange of ideas. As a rule, two (or more) minds are frequently better than one. You’re not going to be able to consider every possibility by yourself, completely independently. So when a peer offers an helpful criticism or suggestion, or you are someone else’s seminar and think you have something to contribute, stick around after the seminar and discuss it some more. Occasionally, such discussions lead somewhere.
At small colleges and universities, the availability to engage in these activities is severely limited. In the private sector, these activities may be of a completely different structure, or unavailable altogether. These factors put the onus entirely upon the individual to go out of his or her way to cultivate such interactions. It’s difficult. It takes initiative. But it’s what can make you a better scientist.