Young people working in any variant of science face many challenges. However, some tips can increase your chances of success, says Naturejobs journalism competition winner Sofia Otero
A degree in science is just one stepping stone on a long path with varied exits, curves and about-turns. Choosing wisely is not always an easy task, but there’s no right way to success: there’s a whole lot out there to choose from.
At the London Naturejobs career expo on September 16th, there was a lot of talk on how to succeed in science, and an interview with the editor-in-chief of Nature, Sir Philip Campbell. Some tips came up repeatedly and are worth listing.
Being fascinated with your work was a unanimous recommendation. If you love what you do, work stops being work and becomes a passion instead. Problems turn into challenges and every small step forward is a great victory. In other words, you stop worrying about your career and start enjoying the journey.
If you no longer like what you’re doing or need a break to recover your excitement, step back, talk to people and look for an alternative: a different project, a new lab, a job in industry — according to Pauline Williams, the head of GSK’s maternal and neonatal health R&D unit, it’s never too late to start a career outside of academia — or an opportunity to develop that idea you’ve been sitting on for far too long. Perhaps it’s time to start a start-up?
Digging beneath the problem was another popular piece of advice. A scientist in any field is there to dig for new pieces of information, to be critical and rigorous. To stand out and provide a unique contribution, dedicate some time to a problem, study it in depth and try to look at it from a different perspective. Even if it’s good to know how others did in a similar situation, sometimes you have to find your own way. Don’t forget to relax: sometimes the best ideas come when you’re not focusing on work.
Just do it! Steve Mould, the science presenter (and discoverer of the Mould effect) told the expo that there’s no substitute for practice. Persevere and you‘ll get better, and don’t waste your time making mistakes when you can learn from others wiser or more experienced than you.
Networking was a tip also present in every talk: meet new people and keep your contacts. They can bring you inspiration, a piece of advice, a joint venture or even a new job. The world’s small, and it’s likely you’ll meet again someday, so make friends, and cultivate positive relationships.
Add narrative to your CV, to your paper or to your outreach activity. People love stories and adding them into your work will help to keep their attention. You and your projects are interesting — all you need to do is remind people of that. Remember your audience needs to understand the message so get into their heads and fit your story to them: who will read your grant proposal?
Science is a tough field and there’s a long way to the top. A bit of luck always helps. As John Hammersley, the CEO of Overleaf said, “you can do a lot to be in the right place at the right time.”
Keep these recommendations in mind and don´t forget the most important thing: whatever your style and no matter the path you choose, work hard and work smart.
Sofia Otero is a postdoc at The Sainsbury Laboratory Cambridge University (SLCU), where she studies phloem development in Arabidopsis. She likes travelling, watching the latest TV series, hiking, the Mediterranean sea, reading, writing and cats.