Finding the Spark that Lights Your Fire


OK, I'm going to be terribly upfront about one of science's biggest taboos: Yes, science can be unbelievably boring, especially other people's science, no matter how hard you try to pretend you find it fascinating. Doing other people's PhDs or postdocs would simply drive most of us up the wall. Of course, part of how we manage to cope with our own projects is that we are committed to them and know we just have to do the work. But we are genuinely interested in at least some aspects of our projects. We unconsciously ignore the boring bits and keep ourselves focused on the good stuff.

So I suppose a minimum requirement for a successful career in academia is to make sure that we pick a project that inspires us. Why do some people thrive on equations, when others are much happier staring down a microscope, or trudging through the rainforest? I don't pretend to understand the complexity behind my total aversion to hard-core chemistry; surely all that matters is that we each identify our own niche--somewhere we can work happily, animated by drive and passion for what we do.

But in the real world, identifying your own little niche is no trivial matter. How often, when you listen to a scientist being introduced before a keynote lecture, do you hear that the person started out studying something quite different from his or her current field? Scanning back through complete publication lists (not the censored ones on scientists' own Web sites) shows just how frequently people change direction early in their scientific careers.

Your journey of self-discovery really begins when you set out to find a PhD. (No offence, but it's generally accepted that choice of first degree matters little in the grand scheme of things.) A few years ago I did a mini-tour of UK universities when I was selecting my PhD. I looked at quite a lot of projects and found most of them totally boring. "That's just because you weren't committed to them," I hear you cry. Not so! When I eventually stumbled on my last port of call, I knew immediately that I'd found what I'd been looking for. Finding the right project for you is a lot like falling in love: You might think you know what sort of person you'd go for, but that counts for nothing when your ultimate enchanter or enchantress walks in the room. "You'll know when you know," my parents told me of the hunt for my future wife, and they were right.

So I guess my advice to those of you out there looking for projects is to cast your net far and wide, and be open-minded. Don't wait for adverts. Get in first before the crowds. E-mail people or get on the telephone to arrange informal lab visits. If they're impressed with you, they might not even bother with the advert, and they'll love you forever for it! Also, you may never have known they had a vacancy at all if you hadn't been proactive and picked a few promising names from the great panoply of scientists on the Internet. I'm afraid you're kidding yourself if you believe that the majority of jobs get advertised!

I also think it's a mistake to apply for a particular project in response to an advert without first visiting the lab and talking to the project leader and, if possible, the rest of the team. Most labs are very welcoming, given that so few applicants bother to do it, and I am sure you will find it very helpful. How on earth are you going to know whether the project will drive you insane after 3 months? And it's not just about the techniques you'll be using. You also need to size up the lab culture. I mean, just how full-on and driven are the rest of the lab members, or how laid-back is the atmosphere? There are both types of lab, and more, and depending on your personality, any could drive you crazy.

As for those of you who are currently languishing in positions less than well suited to your temperament and personal abilities: Take heart, you can jump ship. You needn't worry about whether or not it will be detrimental to your track record. Just be upfront and nonchalant, and make sure you present it under a positive light--changing discipline makes of you a multidisciplinary person, you are able to reinvent yourself to follow your interest, those sorts of things. At the end of the day you don't have to stick with what you've done just because that's what you know most about. And in any case, your CV is more than a list of techniques mastered--remember all those people who bang on about transferable skills? Your major selling point is your aptitude to tackle and solve new problems. Top scientists don't flap if they need to use a confocal microscope and have never tackled the beast before, they just find someone to teach them the basics and get on with it. This slightly arrogant attitude to learning new skills is part of the pathway to success.

So first take a long hard look at who you really are. If you are seated rather sadly in a sparkling white laboratory dreaming of the great outdoors, or are feeling miserable as you stand up to your knees in a muddy estuary and dream of wearing those sexy latex gloves that proper scientists wear, I suggest you follow your instincts. Admit that sooner or later you need to be yourself when you're at work--and that's when you'll start to enjoy it.

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