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Tooling Up: Career Success Factors, Part 2--Ten Habits of Successful Scientists

As I pointed out in Part One of this series, I've learned a great deal from friends and mentors, although stumbling along making my own mistakes has been a major education as well. My oral communication skills improved dramatically simply by watching and taking cues from my mentor, Bert Decker. And in this month's column, I'd like to focus on 10 ingredients of success shared by another good friend.

Michael Zigmond is a top neuroscientist with a busy lab and a lot of national recognition in his field. Fortunately for the rest of us, Michael gets a great deal of satisfaction out of what he does outside the lab. He and his colleague Beth Fischer at the University of Pittsburgh are the duo behind the "Survival Skills and Ethics Training" program, a train-the-trainer marathon held each year in Aspen, Colorado.

I've just returned from the 2004 edition of this program, and after a week of discussions on topics ranging from grant writing to job searches, my head is spinning. One of my favorite events at the meeting was a roundtable called "The Ten Habits of Successful Scientists." Following Michael's seminar on this subject, attendees from all over the world discussed their own experiences. Michael's list of 10 habits really caught the interest of the group that day.

The Top Ten Habits of the Successful Scientist With acknowledgement to Stephen Covey and his best-seller, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Zigmond focused on the following list of 10 habits that make successful scientists shine in every aspect of their profession. In this column I'll focus on how these habits can help job seekers be more successful.

  • Be Informed: Zigmond starts with "know yourself," and I couldn't agree more. To the job seeker, it is extraordinarily important to know what you like, informed by a thorough self-analysis; what your skills are, informed by a systematic skills assessment; and what--specifically--kind of job you're looking for, informed by thoroughly researching the opportunities that are available to someone with your training, experience, and talents.

    One area that Zigmond believes differentiates the best scientists is that they easily work with (or around) the "rules," whether these are the rules of the academic/industry environment or the rules of job seeking, etc. There are three types of rules, he says, and scientists must be informed about all of them. Some rules are true and should be, as in Research = experiments + papers. Some rules are true but shouldn't be (Always have preliminary data for proposals; Always do hypothesis-driven research), and lastly, some rules are not true but should be (Good teaching is essential to promotion). Food for thought.

  • Connect With Others: Despite whether it is an academic or industrial work environment, the best scientists are plugged in to a professional network. They realize that networking is a talent to be used throughout one's entire work life. These scientists seek mentors and collaborators at all levels of their career; they are connected with their colleagues and communities and are constantly seeking feedback in order to grow.

  • Plan Ahead: This is one that I have trouble with, along, apparently, with lots of other people. It seems that many busy people have so much right in front of them that it becomes nearly impossible to take the time to plan ahead. "Successful scientists plan ahead, then think backwards," noted Zigmond. If you know where you want to be in 24 months, it is then easier to work backwards and plan the various milestones that need to be in place to make this happen. Want to be in a new position with a biotech company next year at this time? Work backwards and you may find it gives you the incentive to begin updating your CV tomorrow morning!

  • Select Problems Wisely: Zigmond says that successful scientists realize it is critical, when planning research, to choose research areas by the level of interest in the field and by what kind of work can be funded. Something similar works for successful job seekers; they, too, are selective in what opportunities they choose to pursue, instead of taking whatever happens to fall into their laps. As an example, investigating whether or not you'd be happy in a very small company before you take a job with a start-up firm ... this could save you a lot of heartache if it turns out that your work and your happiness require the resources and environment of a larger company.

  • Focus: The ability to focus is one of the most often-mentioned factors in any study of successful people. "The word 'obsessive' is not a dirty word for researchers," says Zigmond. "In fact, it is OK and expected for the best scientists to be more than a bit obsessive about their work, and this is reflected in the hours they keep. The most successful scientists aren't afraid to put in 65- to 70-hour weeks." As I heard this, I was reminded of how most job seekers focus on their job search--by spending an average of 30 minutes a day! Just imagine how much more progress you would make if you focused like a laser on your job search, instead of treating it as an afterthought. Refer to rule 3.

  • Never Misrepresent: While the "Survival Skills and Ethics Training" seminar describes this habit as a key ingredient in scientific ethics, it applies to job seekers just as well. Job applicants find it very tempting to misrepresent themselves and their capabilities when approaching employers; many people even feel that they have to exaggerate their experience to "sell themselves." I recall one situation in which I stretched a bit in describing my company's capabilities to a prospective client. It's still a very sore memory, because while I got the project, we failed in its implementation. Similarly, those who "beef up" their CVs face the prospect of hard times when the employer counts on those skills to get something accomplished.

  • Seek Balance: Successful scientists find that they must balance several areas of their work lives. Independence and teamwork is one such balancing act. While independence is often perceived as a marker of success on the academic ladder, it doesn't thrive in industry. Even the top academic scientists, Zigmond reports, collaborate and balance their independence with some degree of teamwork. "Another area of balance for scientists is modesty vs. self-promotion," says Zigmond, agreeing with frequent advice in Tooling Up. "Too much reliance on modesty often short-circuits a person's upward mobility. On the other hand, people usually see too much self-promotion as unethical."

  • Do Your Best: Of course you do your best, right? Often, I end up not doing my best because, as a perfectionist, I spend so much time wanting to be the best. "Anticipate and tolerate imperfection," says Zigmond. "The most successful people realize that counting on perfection at all times is impractical." Doing your best means that you have to get out a certain amount of results every day. This may mean that you have to put aside your inner call for 100% perfection. That CV you've been fine-tuning for months will have to do--right now, what is needed most is action.

  • Accept Responsibility: Zigmond has found that all the successful scientists he has met have one thing in common: They do not hesitate to take on responsibilities that others might pass over. With a strong caution against overcommitment, he suggests that young scientists get as much experience as possible on local committees or community tasks. A friend of mine landed a great job with a major pharmaceutical company because she accepted the responsibility for a job that no one else wanted--to be the social chair for a regional meeting in her backyard.

  • Be Compassionate: While we can all think of certain visible people who don't practice this habit, the majority of successful scientists manage their interpersonal relationships with a degree of compassion. They treat their colleagues, staff, and trainees with respect and are helpful and respectful in dealing with others. "Always balance this with what I call 'self-compassion,' " says Zigmond, reminding his audience of a quote from the Hebrew scholar Hillel who said, "If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I?"

In my next column, the third and final piece on the topic of "Career Success Factors," I'll discuss what I have learned from mentors and colleagues about creative thinking. While many people think of the job search as a rote process, there is a lot that can happen when you break from the norm and start thinking creatively.