Do you have to be exceptional to succeed in science?

For @ilovebraaains

Short answer: if you are smart enough to get into grad school, you probably have all the talent required to be successful in science.

Supplement to short answer: if you were objectively accepted into grad school, but think you might be the exception who isn’t talented enough, you may have imposter syndrome, which is very very common, and straightforward enough to deal with.

Long answer: I have been closely watching grad students for 12 years now, and I have formed some opinions on what predicts success. I’ve thought about it a lot, and I think the single biggest factor is persistence.

Being smart helps, but in my experience, that effect saturates quickly, and most people who have made it into grad school are plenty smart enough.

Being creative helps, but in my experience, you can always befriend creative people who have more ideas than they have time to test, and are happy to give you their good ideas.

Being good socially helps surprisingly much, and remember that standards are very low in science. In the land of the blind, the one eyed graduate student is king.

Being hard working helps, but if you are smart about it, you don’t have to work more than 40 hours a week. Although most successful people enjoy their science enough that they choose to do more. Enjoying it is much easier once you get a little success and you dont feel like a wannabe. But, fake it til you make it.

Being good at math helps, but this is a skill that can be learned and is not, in my experience, something that divides the successful from the failures.

Having depression or other mood disorders, or personality disorders, is a surprisingly common cause of failure. Even if you don’t have these things, people you know and like will, so you should learn the symptoms and the basic approaches to treatment.

Perfectionism slows a lot of people down. I don’t have this one so I can’t offer any advice there. But I’m sure there are some resources on the internet.

Persistence. There is a lot of rejection in science, a huge amount. I think getting 80% of papers rejected to the first journal you go to is not unusual. Having 80% of the data you collect the first time not work the way you expected it to is the standard. I have been rejected on perhaps 70% of the grant applications I have submitted. I think these numbers are common and they are even more common at the beginning, when you have less practice. If you have the kind of sunny personality that can bounce back quickly from rejection, that’s a big help, and if you don’t, it can be learned with some basic self-CBT. Even the most successful people will get depressed for 3 days, but if you’re still beating yourself up 2 weeks later, then it’s time to cultivate some optimistic thought patterns.

With all this rejection and failure, one of the hard parts is knowing whether you are on the right path. This is where having good mentors is important. Not just your advisor, who often has countervailing incentives, and not just your committee, who often see you as a chore. It’s ideal to get someone you trust who doesn’t mind if you nag them over and over. It’s worth the effort to find one or several.

When you look at yourself, you need to have a built-in shock proof shit detector*. You need to be able to look at yourself honestly and see what needs to be changed and then figure out how to change it, and then not get depressed that something about you need changing. (I spent a large chunk of the last year of grad school learning how to write a scientific paper b/c I knew I sucked at it).

Also, this stuff works wonders following rejections:

It’s called Phish Food and it’s worth trying. I’m eating it right now cuz I got a grant rejected today, myself.

17 thoughts on “Do you have to be exceptional to succeed in science?

  1. Good post! But I think that being lucky is also an important factor. You’ve got to be somewhat lucky if your hard work produces great data instead of good data. Or if your paper goes to a reviewer that really likes it, or if your grant application goes to someone who likes your ideas, or if you happen to be in the right lab at the right time…

    • I think you can be successful with good data or great data. Maybe being super-successful requires luck, but I think with the average amount of luck, you can count on some success.

  2. Luck helps, but I don’t think it belongs in this list, which is a list of personal qualities an individual can have, not a list of circumstances that lead to success.

    Agree wholeheartedly that the thick skin/perseverance combo may be your best weapon. You can’t take rejection personally, and you HAVE to keep trying. Accept that your grant/manuscript was less than perfect, adjust accordingly, and resubmit.

    And if I may quote the valiant and venerable Vince Vega, personality goes a long way.

  3. I agree that persistence is a key, along with a bit of social and political savvy. The question I have, though, is how does one define “success” in science? I’m 13 years into the job, full professor, two major grants over the years and in year 9 of an NIH grant. I’m just starting to feel successful. Do we have to maintain funding for 25 years, for example, and retire when the grant runs out to be successful? Or, are we successful if we can maintain funding for 15 years? I’ll be interested to hear how others define “success.”

      • Agreed, but what is success in science? Tenure? Longevity? High profile publications? I am happy and love what I do, but I’ll also admit that I’d be less happy w/o making tenure. I guess one point I’m trying to make is that I’ve felt successful at different stages in my career, but at my institute maintaining a robust research program for many years is a major definition of success. The definition would differ at a smaller college or teaching department, so I’m curious to see how others define success. Thanks for your follow up SciGrl.

        • That’s a good question. I think you’re successful when you achieve a goal that you’ve set for yourself. So one person may feel successful when he or she has landed a permanent job (not necessarily TT), whereas someone else may not even feel successful is he or she didn’t win a Nobel prize at the end of their lives (but is very successful in other people’s eyes).

  4. Pingback: Could imposter syndrome learn from sports? | Neurotic Physiology

    • It’s not about having a moving target at different career stages. We’ve all had successes in our careers – getting first TT position, first paper, first grant etc. But when are we considered success-ful? Many scientists define being successful as staying in the game as long as possible, especially in the current funding environment. Faculty may view this as one major grant with 2-3 renewals, which should put them, age wise, in mid-50′s and a handful of years before retirement. Administrators on the other hand view success as continued funding until retirement. This is a major cause of tension between faculty and admin.

  5. You are setting up a valuation that is necessarily personal…and therefore variable, Clay. You also tap into the problem of approval. Nobody with an interest in your productivity is *ever* going to say “good enough”. Because then you might fail to do *more*….

    Particularly true for administrators. True for academic supervisors also, but in their case it is complicated by the will to train for the career….and almost everyone could use some butt kicking now and then…

  6. Take this as the musings of a mid-career scientist where the end of the tunnel (retirement) is about the same distance away as first faculty appointment. Perhaps aging scientists get too introspective as they age, and maybe downright maudlin by retirement. But, the valuation is necessarily personal. How I define my success will be different than how others define their success. Faculty with primarily teaching appointments may have different ideas of success than faculty with a higher research appointment. This brings me back to my original point. I’m curious to hear how scientists at various institutes, different disciplines, and stages in their career define success for themselves. Thanks for the follow up BM.

  7. Good post and interesting point of view. As young post-doc I can just say that for sure persistence and hard work are key factors in science and luck acts as a modulator. Unfortunately today science became a jungle where you have to defend yourself from predators mainly if you don’t have permanent position. It’s sad to realize how many smily and friendly faces are just able to manipulate your scientific life…(fortunately not all the time). Often people confuse being smart with being shark and adapt their behavior to the environment. Sometimes I wonder whether or not there’s real meritocracy in science…but I’m strongly convinced we need an internal revolution, we need to re-shape a professional code nowadays lost.

    • Agree absolutely with Neurostyle above, and agree with depression being a major factor -in fact, I had major depression and this in the end forced me to quit.

  8. Great post. I definitely think that the thick skin comment is important at all levels of academia. You have to be able to separate yourself from your work, and you have to be able to take (constructive) criticism well. It’s not easy, and it can be harsh, but if it makes your project stronger, you should accept it. That being said, as soon as the criticism shifts from being about the project to being about you, you need to remove yourself from the situation. And that’s where good mentors and a supportive environment become invaluable.