Sir Peter Medewar (1915 – 1979) was a Nobel Prize winning British biologist. In the late ’70s he wrote ‘Advice to a Young Scientist‘ – his take on what he thought the young scientist of the age needed to know.
The book is just the kind of mix of solid advice and philosophical meanderings you might expect from a man at the top of his game who genuinely wants to pass on a little of what he has learned.
I’ve tried to pull together 10 pieces of this advice for a young scientist today…
1. Science is hard
One of the key themes of Advice to a Young Scientist is the difficulty of science, and the sacrifices it often requires.
no novice should be fooled by old-fashioned misrepresentations about what scientific life is like
Medewar is quite clear about the sacrifices that might be involved, recalling tales of working on Christmas day and a disrupted family life.
2. But you don’t need to be that clever to be a scientist
Despite the difficulties associated with research work, as far as Medewar is concerned:
one does not have to be terrifically brainy to be a good scientist
although no-doubt, that’s easy for him to say, as a Nobel Laureate.
Rather than being ‘brainy’ Medewar suggests the ability to focus and concentrate and ‘not be downcast by adversity‘ are qualities more required of a scientist. Beyond this most other skills and attributes can be learned and improved upon.
3. Pick important problems to work on
Don’t just start working on whatever is closest at hand. There is nothing necessarily wrong with staying at the same institution you got your degree, but
any scientist of any age who wants to make important discoveries must study important problems
So make sure to avoid falling into working on a project, just because it is there, or fashionable, or what you worked on during your PhD. Branch out. Diversify.
4. Get results
It seems obvious to say this, but get results. Not just to fulfil your professional requirements – as Medewar puts it:
It is psychologically most important to get results, even if they are not original.
This notion of going for small victories is one also encouraged by Carl von Clausewitz in “On War” – his analysis of Napoleonic warfare. If it’s good enough for Napoleon, why not then for rest of us?
5. Avoid Trying to Master The Literature
Of course you will need to do some reading, but don’t let it get in the way of what you really need to be doing: the research work itself.
By far the best way to become proficient in research is to get on with it
6. Be picky about learning new skills
This doesn’t mean be stuck in the past and refuse to learn anything new. Just don’t be too keen to learn for the sake of learning.
Do not learn new skills our master a new discipline until the pressure is upon [you] to do so
This ‘problem’ based approach is also encouraged in A PhD is Not Enough. It’s all too tempting to try to learn something new ‘just in case’, but it’s far better to think in terms of “which problems does the world need me to solve?” Rather than “which skills should I learn to prepare for any eventuality?”.
7. Be open to collaboration
Collaboration can be incredibly rewarding, scientifically, personally and professionally. But it can also be a pain in the balls.
Synergism is the key word in collaboration – it connotes that the joint effort is greater than the sum of the several contributions to it
For more on the importance of the interaction of people in scientific work, check out my posts on ‘Human Factors‘
8. Avoid ‘scientmanship’
That is the scientific equivalent of ‘Gamesmanship‘ or ‘Lifemanship‘. Examples might include falsely claiming to have independently come up with an idea, deliberately missing out references or implying that you have thought of or done something all before
9. Resist the temptation to join and serve on committees
Administrative drudgery will come soon enough when you are well established as a scientist. Until then committees just serve to sap your time that could be better spent doing actual research.
Service on committees, young scientists will find, eats up time they really would much prefer to spend in the laboratory
10. Embrace ‘Scientific Meliorism’
Ok. Stay with me on this one. ‘Scientific meliorism’ is Medewar’s notion of how to interpret science from a philosophical point of view: how does science fit within the rest of society?
The answer for Medewar is that science and scientists can serve society by working to make the world a better place, one problem at a time. This contrasts with scientific messianism – the notion science is the messia that will deliver us from our plight.
There are, in short, inumerable ways in which scientists can work for the melioration of human affairs