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How To Be a Grownup Scientist
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Janet over at Adventures in Ethics and Science has started what looks to be an interesting series on how to learn the stuff you need to learn to be a good scientist. Here's Part One.


Of course, what I discovered is that there is a great deal more one needs to learn than just how to be creative, have good insights, design reasonable experiments, present reasonable data, and write clear scientific papers. (Even this much is quite a lot to learn, and some of it -- like scientific creativity -- is pretty hard to teach.)

Grown-up chemists also seemed to know how to write effective grant proposals, how to manage (and even mentor) graduate students, postdocs, and technicians, how to nurture productive and mutually beneficial relationships with other chemists in their sub-specialty, how to stay on top of the literature and discern which newly described results or techniques were most important (at least with respect to their own research area), how to be fair and constructive peer reviewers and how to respond effectively to referee reports on their own manuscripts, how to work within departmental politics and the politics of their discipline.

They knew how to tell when an experiment was done, when the data was good, when there was a finding that merited a paper to announce it. They knew how to work out authorship on the papers. They knew who, in their field of research, would be the hardest to convince of the new result. They knew which journal would be the best place to submit a particular manuscript and which meeting would be the best venue to present pre-publication results. And, they could conceive of three distinct follow-up projects to build on the new results.

Plus, they (at least, the grown-up chemists I was looking to as role models) seemed to know which chemists in the community were good people to talk to, collaborate with, or argue with (in the best sense of argument, where each side makes its best case and then presents its best criticisms of the other side). And they seemed to have identified the chemists around whom you'd want to watch your back.


Yep. It's a pretty vast array of skills necessary to be a good scientist. She lays them out well. One of the stereotypes of a scientist is a wild-eyed loner, cackling as he pours colored, smoking liquid from beaker to beaker (actually, that's an accurate description for about 20% of them). In reality, science is an incredibly social endeavor, as Janet's list points out.

You're just not going to go very far if you don't know the people in your field. You need a constant stream of criticism coupled with constructive feedback. On top of that, you have to know an awful lot about not just your subject matter, but the field as a whole. I'm in my third year of graduate school, and it's even worse for an interdisciplinary course of study, since Cognitive Science is at the intersection of multiple disciplines like Artificial Intelligence, Philosophy, Psychology, and Linguistics. So you have to have working knowledge and insights into all those communities of researchers.

I feel reasonably good about my program and my adviser. In our first year, we were required to carry out a research project, work up a poster based on the research, and present the findings to the department. This was good practice. In doing so, we also learned how to critique each other's work. Also, my adviser maintains a nice balance of autonomy and supervision. There's not a lot of overt pressure to attend conferences and publish, but I'm not sure that pressuring students to do those things will translate into a working scientist with a drive to publish.

Anyway, I look forward to the rest of Janet's posts. Should be interesting.


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