Who Wants to be a Scientist? Choosing Science as a Career
By Nancy Rothwell
Cambridge University Press, 2002; 166 pp., 21.00 (paper)
A succinct reminder of the skills and habits of mind that encourage success and the good will of those around us, Who Wants to be a Scientist? reminds us of all the things we should have learned--and immediately forgot--as undergraduates. Rothwell's work is useful for careful readers in three important ways. First, the book covers a wide range of topics. These include choosing a good "fit" with your institution, mentor, and research topic; employing strategies that make your life easier by making your supervisor's life easier; making effective presentations and reading the dissertation guidelines with great care; interviewing and being successful in your first job as a "real" scientist; and finally, securing funding and mentoring those following you.
More importantly for the aspiring young scientist, however, the book deliberately underscores the things you must and must not do, as well as many of the potential challenges. Among other things, successful scientists, Rothwell says, must work well with others in the group and be both deliberate and considerate in their work. She warns aspiring scientists to avoid including grumpy or aggressive dissertation committee members--for all the obvious reasons--and cautions diligence in being painstakingly exact in recording and interpreting data.
Rothwell also suggests that some challenges are inherent to the work of science and are likely to present themselves at some point in the scientist's career. In this category, she includes meeting lab commitments that can be nothing short of Herculean and come at the expense of "a life." She also emphasizes the challenge of valuing diversity of viewpoints in scientific debate and debates about science in the public sphere.
Finally, Rothwell empathizes with and offers explanations for many of the critiques that are rightfully or wrongfully made against scientists by those who are less familiar with what being a scientist really means. For example, she offers the truth that some scientists are "tongue-tied, boring, and unable to give a straight answer" in the public forum because they are highly trained in conducting science and not in translating their work for nonscientists. She does however, highlight that many scientists are quite skilled at presenting important and complicated science in ways that make it accessible to a more general audience.
Her point throughout the book is to map out some of the many paths that a "career" in science can take and then to highlight some of the challenges that may lie in wait for the unaware young scientist. However, not content with simply mapping out the terrain, Rothwell also offers a range of strategies to keep in mind should "Problem X" arise. For example, if your mentor has not gotten around to reading your last thesis chapter for the third meeting in a row, it is highly likely that she is juggling a large number of commitments and responsibilities. One strategy for this situation might be to send a reminder and include a brief outline and/or abstract of the chapter you'd like her to read in preparation for your next meeting.
Essentially, Rothwell thinks that aspiring scientists need to be proactive in nearly all situations. To be successful, she argues, the young scientist must: 1) be aware of the geography of the journey, 2) be open to as many options as possible so that course changes can be made with minimal pain, 3) practice solid "people" and presentation skills (oral and written) as often as possible, and 4) be committed to the endeavor of hard work that is successful science. Ultimately, by carefully mapping the terrain of the scientist's life, Rothwell allows readers to answer the book's title question--Who wants to be a scientist?--for themselves.