Don’t follow in the footsteps of your idols. Create your own career path inspired by their work, says Sofia Otero.
Contributor Sofía Otero
In the 1880’s Nikola Tesla moved to New York City to work with his idol, Thomas Alva Edison, the inventor of the phonograph and the founder of Edison Electric (the future General Electric) on his ideas for alternating current systems. He believed that together they could illuminate the world. Unfortunately, Edison didn’t recognize Tesla’s talent and, since he believed that Tesla’s alternating current threatened Edison’s investment in his inefficient continuous current, he started a campaign to discredit his new adversary.
Idols are not necessarily as we imagine them: their outstanding achievements may not match an outstanding personality. Even so, they might have pioneered discoveries in their fields and are an inspiration for young scientists, attracting them to their laboratories in search of an opportunity to share their knowledge and foresight. Fingers crossed then, that your hero will mentor you and help you grow as a scientist, creating a relationship that will be fruitful for many years. However, don’t worry if for whatever reason this is not the case: be inspired by your boss but make your own decisions and become a leader.
Idols in science are those that are considered successful in their careers. But it’s worth taking a moment to consider how they became successful before you start following in their footsteps. When the person you admire started investigating that subject, it was probably “hot”, had a surge of funding pushed towards it and represented a big step forward. But, is it still trendy now? Is there funding for you to explore this subject? Is it still a good scientific problem? Of course, everything is interesting to study but some topics may become outdated: even if you admire Gregor Mendel, crossing wrinkled and round peas may not be the best idea today.
If the problem is still worth pursuing, you have to remember to be yourself. After all, following in someone else’s footsteps is impossible, as every one’s life experiences will be different, something positive because it makes you unique: don’t try to repeat a story, it is a new context so look from your own angle and don’t be afraid to give your opinion, even if it’s different from your idol’s.
If you are a graduate student or a postdoc joining the lab of your role model, one way of starting down your own path is to suggest a new project that you could collaborate on. This would help establish you as a more independent scientist, whilst still getting input and guidance from the person that inspired you. They might offer different options among the pipeline of projects in the lab, projects that you could shape using your previous background and your own vision. However, if you are planning to establish your research line, try to find your own market niche: choose unexplored fields that are somehow related to your favourite questions where you can easily take advantage of your knowledge and expertise.
Whatever situation you end up finding yourself in, it’s important to use this opportunity to learn as much as you can and find your own way. To follow in, or not to follow in, that is the question. My answer? Be inspired but always remember to be yourself. After working for Edison and quitting, Tesla found investors for his projects and created his own company. With the support of Westinghouse, he finally won what was called War of Currents, leading to the now familiar (and often taken for granted) alternate current and other inventions. Never lose self-trust, and as Tesla said: “the present is theirs; the future, for which I really worked, is mine”.
Sofía Otero is a runner-up in the 2015 Boston Naturejobs Career Expo journalism competition, and has just got her PhD at Centro de Biología Molecular Severo Ochoa, in Madrid. Forher thesis she has been studying histone dynamics in Arabidopsis and now she is about to start her first postdoc at the Sainsbury Laboratory in Cambridge, where she will focus on root development. For the last few years she has been running a science blog named “Gene Tonic” (@Gene_Tonic_), where she writes both in Spanish and English about scientific news or science desserts. In her free time she likes travelling, hiking, watching the latest TV series, and she enjoys chocolate and singing out loud in her car.