Writing

How To Become A Scientist And Help Make Your Science Matter – Forbes

When I was a graduate student I read academic career books and resources to try to figure out if academia or some other nonacademic path was the right fit for me. Now as a professor who is responsible for training graduate students, I have continued to read academic career books to continue to learn, but also to gain insight on how to educate and inspire the next generation.

One thing I’ve learned is that a lot of these books have redundant information, and that career advice can differ depending upon the field the advice giver comes from and also how their unique career narratives played out. It is always useful to remember that many of the people who write these books are either established professors or high achievers and thus have been fortunate enough to survive the winnowing process to make it to the top to be able to provide advice to others. Here I provide a list of resources that I have found useful and why I think they are useful from a diverse array of researchers, academics, and science writers. These resources fall into two categories: How to become a scientist and how to help make your science matter.

How to become a scientist

You and your research. This is an essay on the art of doing research by retired Bell Labs scientist Richard Hamming, which can be most recently found in his book The art of doing science and engineering: Learning to learn. In this essay Hamming seeks to inspire the next generation of engineers, scientists, and researchers by stressing the importance of choosing important questions and problems, learning to be comfortable with ambiguity in the research process, and ultimately pursuing excellence.

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So you want to be a scientist? This book by Philip Schwartzkroin is a set of reflections about how to go about choosing scientific problems and seeking answers to them, set in the context of an extremely pragmatic and clear explanation of different ways that you can seek to do your very best research. I found this book to be one of the best explanations of why one might pursue research as a career (not necessarily in academia, but research in general). Though many of the tasks of a professor are mostly not about research, Schwartzkroin reminds us that research is often the reason for why many seek to be professors in the first place and that doing good research is an important and worthy goal to focus on and continue to aspire to.

Good work if you can get it: How to succeed in academia. This book by Jason Brennan contains highly pragmatic advice geared to those deciding whether they want to go to graduate school, whether they want to get an academic job, and how to go about getting that job and succeeding in it. Brennan is all about being clear about what actually counts in academia: “Professionalizing in grad school primarily means publishing…If you want to get a job, even a full-time teaching job, publishing beats teaching.” He also notes that “Any person with a point of view different from what’s normal in his field will face an uphill battle…the bad news for you is that challenging the consensus view on any topic takes hard work. The good news is that you’ll by necessity have to produce better work than you otherwise would.”

The early career researcher’s toolbox: Insights into mentors, peer review, and landing a faculty job. This book by Andres de los Reyes is an excellent guide to understanding how narrative is a useful tool in the researcher’s toolbox. De los Reyes, through the concept of theater, helps explain how you can find your burning question, how to deal with peer review, and how to build your research program. This book focuses on helping an individual scholar find out how to position their own research program within the context of the galaxy of their mentors, how to publish and deal with peer review (he even gives example documents on how to effectively do this), and ultimately how to land a faculty job by focusing on these aspects. The book also has anecdotes from scholars at all stages of their careers about each part of the book.

How to help make your science matter

Escape from the ivory tower: A guide to making your science matter. This book by Nancy Baron is an excellent resource on how to help make your science matter by learning what science communication means and why it matters. It introduces how there are a clash of cultures between scientists and the journalists, policymakers, and public that one may seek to reach but that there are strategies that scientists can help learn to understand how to fruitfully engage and help their research and ideas escape the ivory tower.

Another book that may be useful as a complement is The craft of science writing edited by Siri Carpenter. Though written in many ways by science writers for other writers to hone their own craft, it is an excellent window into how science stories come about and what science writers and editors are looking for when it comes to research. Scientists in many ways have a lot they can learn from science writers.

In a recent paper in press in Perspectives on Psychological Science, Neil Lewis, Jr. and I wrote about “Communicating what we know and what isn’t so: Science communication in psychology.” This was an encouragement for academics to seek to get the word out about their work to ensure their science matters, but to do so responsibly, seeking to communicate what is replicable and robust rather than just a one off story about a particular finding or paper. In the supplement of that paper, we also provide some tips on how to responsibly engage with the public, including writing for the public, but also on social media like Twitter. An excellent guide is Daniel Quintana’s Twitter for scientists.