What does it take to become a successful scientist? This question is usually asked or thought about at some point in a young scientist’s career. The early stages of a scientific career are fraught with many hardships, and achieving success can seem impossible and daunting. After encountering many obstacles, it becomes easy to focus on failures and lose sight of career goals. The journey to success can seem so simple when looked upon from the outside, but even the best scientists have endured many hardships, which are often not communicated. This educational symposium featured a diverse panel of 5 accomplished scientists representing different work environments, such as government, industry, and academia. They discussed tips on how to have a successful career journey and the key qualities of a successful scientist. Also, they revealed the secret to what’s in the winning formula for success.
If becoming a scientist is challenging, then becoming an accomplished scientist is even more challenging. For young investigators, it can appear as though the experts in your field hold the secrets to success. At times, the road to a fruitful career in science may seem hazy to an emerging scientist who has spent countless hours conducting experiments that fail, writing manuscripts and grants that are rejected, and generating research ideas that never come to fruition. It’s easy to become fixated on your failures and lose sight of your career goals. Young scientists must realize they are not alone and that successful scientists have also experienced similar hardships during the early stages of their careers.
Most young scientists are eager to know how to become successful, the key qualities of a successful scientist, and the secret formula for success. In this educational symposium, a diverse panel of 5 accomplished scientists who work across several career fields (e.g., government, industry, and academia) revealed their secrets to success. They shared many anecdotes about their career journeys and the tactics used to overcome adversity. The panelists were as follows: 1) Dr. Regan Bailey (Nutritional Epidemiologist, Office of Dietary Supplements, NIH), 2) Dr. Marion Sewer (Associate Professor, University of California, San Diego), 3) Dr. Michael McBurney (Vice President of Science, Communications, and Advocacy, DSM Nutritional Products), 4) Dr. Connie Weaver (Professor, Purdue University), and 5) Dr. Brian Wansink (Professor, Cornell University).
Journey to Success: What Does It Take?
Dr. Wansink stated, “Most people think the path to success is a straight line, but it’s actually a squiggly line with many different paths.” Unfortunately, as scientific funding and the number of tenure-track job positions decrease, today’s young scientists will be rejected more than those of equal caliber in the past century. Young scientists must be prepared for these career challenges in this hypercompetitive job market with limited funding and positions. During the symposium discussion period, the panelists provided the following 6 tips to help young scientists flourish while on their career journey.
Enjoy your work.
Great scientists enjoy what they are doing and their happiness is the key to their successful and long-lasting careers. Dr. Weaver stated, “Aiming for success is the wrong goal. Instead, emerging scientists should strive for a way to be of value and enjoy what you are doing.” If you truly love your job then you will be successful because it is very difficult to perform poorly at something you enjoy. You should find a job you like so much that you would do it for free. However, if you’re not passionate about your chosen career path then perhaps it’s time to reinvent yourself by exploring a different career path where such enjoyment can be found. Dr. McBurney stated, “Don’t be afraid to transition between careers (from academia to industry and then back to academia).” You should always pay attention to how you feel when you are doing different activities to discover what you value in a career. Whether you love science, or something else, love what you do because life is too short to spend time on things you don’t enjoy.
According to Dr. Wansink, “Successful scientists not only work hard, but they take a lot of risks that magnify their impact.” When successful scientists see a great opportunity, they pursue it. When an opportunity knocks, open the door and don’t ignore it. Dr. Bailey stated, “Don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone and if ‘plan A’ doesn’t work then the alphabet has 25 more letters.” Be open-minded to new ventures and untraditional paths. Risk taking is where most of the big discoveries and opportunities in science lie.
The old adage “It’s not always what you know, but sometimes it’s who you know” is true. Dr. Bailey stressed the importance of networking because it can help you land a job. You can always network at meetings, online (Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.), and within your professional organizations. Be genuine and nice when networking, and try to think of ways you can help others succeed rather than always looking for a handout. People will remember those who helped them succeed in the past.
Dr. Sewer stated, “Be a collegial team player, but learn to say ‘no’ and budget your time very carefully.” If you are doing your share of administrative work in your department as a junior faculty member, do not hesitate to decline a request to serve on another committee. Indicate that once your time commitments change, you would be more than willing to take on new responsibilities. In the early years, focus your committee member responsibilities, speaking engagements, and grant and manuscript reviews both internally (e.g., your institution) and externally to tasks related to your research area. You don’t want to become so overwhelmed that your research progress is hindered. Dr. McBurney stated, “Volunteer with intent.” Devote your time to activities that you want to contribute to. Don’t just say yes to any job opportunity.
Step away from science.
Becoming a great scientist requires countless hours of hard work. However, working too hard can be counterproductive. Dr. Sewer emphasized the importance of setting aside personal time to rejuvenate. It is critical to balance hard work with other activities to help the mind and body de-stress. Find activities that can recharge you emotionally, mentally, and physically, such as traveling, exercising, exploring hobbies, spending time with family and friends, practicing meditation, increasing sleep time (resting well), or eating healthy. Dr. Weaver suggested scheduling your personal time like an appointment.
There will be a number of setbacks encountered early in your career. Stories of great success are often preceded by epic failure. There is nothing shameful about being wrong, especially if you learn from your mistakes. Dr. McBurney indicated that moving forward is important for success, “If the study didn’t work, find out why and try it again.” Learning from your failures can turn what others view as problems or disappointments into opportunities. Failure teaches us, reveals our abilities, makes us stronger, inspires us and others, builds courage, and leaves us open to better opportunities. Dr. Wansink shared with young scientists that “sometimes the fourth time is actually the charm.” Don’t ever give up on your dreams because with perseverance they will become a reality.
What Are the Key Qualities of a Successful Scientist?
Although there are many key qualities that define successful scientists, the panelists identified 10 of the most important ones. Not all accomplished scientists will possess all of these qualities, but most will have many of the qualities. The top 10 key qualities of a successful scientist are to be:
Passionate about his or her career.
Detail-oriented but yet visionary.
A creative thinker.
Knowledgeable (an expert).
A team player.
An effective communicator.
Capable of thinking “outside the box” (open to different ideas).
Conclusions: What’s in the Winning Formula?
Unfortunately, all of the symposium speakers concurred that there is not a simple formula that will lead you to a path of excellence. There are many different paths to success; you just have to find your own that you are passionate about and that keeps you motivated and excited about your career. It is important for you to carefully examine your own interests and lifestyle, and choose the career that works best for you. A young scientist must always remember that, although the end is important, the journey must be fun. So enjoy the journey to becoming a successful scientist because you are in the exciting process of discovery!
The authors thank the symposium speakers and sponsors (The Coca-Cola Company, the ASN, the ASN Young Professional Interest Group [YPIG], and YPIG sponsors) for their enthusiastic participation and support. Both authors read and approved the final manuscript.