Here we are in the first week of 2016 (Happy New Year, by the way!), and I have just finished writing a report on our recent outreach activity at Universitè de Montrèal, Canada. You might have read about it here. In a few words, we organized a series of workshops directed to high school students to be held in our laboratories with the aim of giving them an idea of what the job of a bio-scientist looks like. The first workshops were a real success and we are looking forward to the next sessions later this year. It was very rewarding to see how the students reacted to the laboratory environment and this reflected in the feedback they provided, such as:
“I loved the fact that we were able to use technologies that are not available at school. I found that the activity gave me a better idea of what biotechnology is.”
During our activity, we allocated time for a PowerPoint section in which we spoke about careers in science. The students were very attentive during the talk and submerged us with questions. I was surprised to see how little they knew about a career in science but pleased that our workshops are, in fact, organized to help the students understand exactly that.
Among the many questions, one seemed to be of great interest to all: “What does it take to be a bio-scientist?”. I would like to try and give an answer to it by sharing my very personal point of view, in the hope for this information to be of help to young scientists-to-be in the career choices.
My first instinctive answer is passion. I have always looked at science as a vocation. If you don’t feel the drive to it, maybe it is not for you. Why such a bold statement? Because the work of a laboratory scientist is intellectually (and also physically) demanding, with long hours waiting for your experiment to get to completion and often dealing with repetitive tasks.
If you have a passion for what you are researching, the final goal will be justification enough for your efforts, and you won’t mind the struggle. The results of your experiment will be your reward, and, believe me, it is the best feeling ever.
But it is also true that if you are interested in a career in science, the chances are that you are already passionate about it.
The second most important thing is patience. I have to admit that it is not one of my greatest virtues. Nevertheless, you can learn to be patient, and this has worked out just fine for me.
First, you will need a lot of patience during your studies (depending on the country you live in you are looking to 4-5 years of undergraduate studies and maybe the same amount of time for graduate studies if you decided to pursue a PhD). Once you got your diploma, there are so many other things you will need your patience for: waiting for your experiment to finish, waiting to hear the answer from the journal where you submitted your research paper, looking forward to receiving the letter that confirms that you were awarded the grant that will allow you to continue in your research. These are only a few practical examples.
If you dream of an academic career, you must also lower your salary expectations. A career in academia can be very rewarding (i.e. there is considerable freedom in the choice of your research topics and in personal time management), but, except for few particular cases, the salary of a graduate student is barely enough to survive (and you won’t have time to do a second job). Again, don’t let this discourage you: even though salaries are low, you are not the only one in that situation and generally you will be able to share the experience, the troubles (and possibly a flat) with other fellow students and enjoy very much your doctoral years. Things get a bit better during postdoc (again, it depends on the country, the institution and the funding you manage to secure). If you make it to lectureship salaries are good, but do not expect to become a billionaire (in general: do not go for an academic career if you are looking to make a lot of money). In industry things are different. Salaries are higher, but academic freedom is gone, and you might not be able to research exactly what you like. Consider also that the highest salaries in Industry are generally not the ones of the laboratory scientists, but the ones of the people involved in the business of the company.
Focus. You must be very focused on the objectives you want to reach. You also need to be ready to fail and get back up on your feet. A career in research is full of excitement, but also of failures. I remember once reading a blog post, which title was “a CV of failures” (Oh wow, I was able to find it back: here it is). I did not understand it completely the first time I read it (I was just starting my graduate studies) and I also felt a bit cautious towards what the author was saying: It seemed to be a bit exaggerated and over pessimistic. The truth is, there could not be a better way to describe the struggle of a research scientist in securing a grant. So yes, the author hit the spot: your CV of failures will be as long as (if not longer than) your professional CV by the time you reach a permanent academic position. You just need to endure it and try again till you succeed.
Even though some might claim it is not mandatory, I believe that in this ever so globalized word, being able to work as part of a team and to be willing to establish collaborations with other scientists is fundamental. Science has become so vast and multidisciplinary, that it would be presumptuous to believe that you can become an expert in every single technique or skill you need. That’s why collaboration among peers becomes interesting: it helps to open your mind (and your research) to infinite possibilities.
Eventually, you will also need leadership skills, but this is only true if you want to lead your own laboratory one day.
A career in science is very rewarding. You get to do and see things that few people do. You also get the feeling of being very useful to the community, whether your research is applied or a bit more theoretical or fundamental. If knowledge and understanding are what you are seeking, then you could not choose a more suitable job. Even if some repetitive tasks are sometimes needed, every day you will work on something different. Eventually, it will be you who decide where your research is going to bring you.
I believe that the ones I discussed here are some of the fundamental qualities that you need if you want to be a research scientist in the field of chemical biology (or similar). Obviously, they are not exhaustive, and they are only my opinion, but I hope that they will give you something to think about and hopefully more questions to ask.