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What does it take to succeed in science?

Last updated on 23/09/2020

I’ve been thinking lately about what personal characteristics are needed to succeed in academic science today. What does it take to publish top papers, win lots of grants and reach the top of the profession?

Many people would point to scientific ability, in other words the cognitive abilities needed to understand scientific concepts, design experiments, write papers and so on. In fact, to non-scientists, I suspect that ability seems like the most important factor in determining scientific success. Surely someone who is very good at science will end up doing very well in science?

But ability isn’t all you need. I think that personality and emotional make-up is at least as important. Let’s call this factor temperament.

To succeed in science requires hard, sustained work and hence calls on ones mental discipline. That, of course, is true of many jobs, but what I think makes science particularly demanding is that it involves a great deal of uncertainty, and the persistence of uncertainty over long periods. You might submit a paper upon which your career prospects rest, but you won’t know whether it will be accepted for many months. You might start a new project which you hope will produce wonderful data, but it will be years before the results are in. The temperament that allows one to sustain enthusiasm and passion under uncertain conditions is a virtue which not everyone posesses.

Finally, I suspect that success in science often requires luck. Ability and temperament are necessary, but not sufficient, for advancement in science. A lucky guess can inspire a landmark experiment, and there are thousands of potential unlucky events that could wreck an otherwise brilliant idea, not all of which can be guarded against. Even from the very start of a career, I think luck is important. A new PhD student who finds themself in a succesful and supportive lab is off to a great start. Of course, PhD students aren’t assigned to labs at random, but there is a good degree of luck involved nonetheless. How many students have lost out on places in great labs just because another candidate happened to see that job advert and apply?