One of the Good Guys

Being someone who shares cell lines and reagents can be more satisfying than being a famous PI at a major lab.

Small scientific conferences are great if you enjoy learning. You can take in the latest advances in your field during the scientific sessions and then hear about how your colleagues are doing afterwards—generally over a beer. I was having a particularly good time with some younger colleagues at a meeting last month when the subject of career goals came up. These colleagues were successful in that they had recently received tenure at top research universities and had some grants and good students. Thus, the early career pressure to simply survive was gone. So now what motivated them? Solving challenging and significant scientific problems was at the top of their lists. Interestingly, they were also motivated by a desire to become one of the “good...

Good guys are concerned with the welfare of the field in addition to personal research goals. They will not publish a paper unless they are convinced that others can readily reproduce their work. They will give out vectors, cell lines and reagents whenever requested and provide constructive comments about papers and grants. They always try to be helpful, push a field forward, and make a positive difference. They are always respected by their peers.

The desire of my colleagues to be good guys was similar to my own feelings at the same stage of my career. And it was quite different from the goals that my friends and I had as beginning scientists. I remember us talking about becoming famous or having large laboratories, a half-dozen research grants and armies of students in our labs. Of course, our first decade of work showed us how unrealistic or undesirable most of these dreams really were.

Becoming famous requires mostly luck and a desire to do what other people think is interesting. Having a big lab and a half-dozen grants requires an enormous amount of work directed solely to that task—time and energy that I felt were better spent on analyzing data or designing clever experiments. Having an army of students requires dealing with an army of students. This was something that I found was best left in the realm of fantasy. Overall, I found that many of my early career goals were simply not worth the effort required to achieve them.

Good guys are concerned with the welfare of the field in addition to personal research goals.

Mid-career is a good time to recalibrate personal goals and decide what is both realistic and personally satisfying. Being a good guy in science definitely requires doing both.

Some people might think that being a good scientific citizen as well as having a successful career is as unrealistic as trying to become famous. However, studies in the field of positive psychology have shown that there is a surprisingly strong link between seeing yourself as part of a larger community and achieving personal satisfaction.

Unlike traditional psychology, which focuses on treating mental illness, the field of positive psychology tries to define approaches that will make normal life more fulfilling. Interestingly, studies in this field have shown that individuals derive a much greater sense of well-being and happiness from contributing to something larger and more permanent than themselves (e.g., social groups, organizations, and movements) than they do from achieving short-term personal success.

The fact that being an important contributor to the scientific community can be fulfilling should not come as a surprise to anyone. However, what I do consider surprising is how rarely this seems to be discussed with students and postdocs. What we do discuss are either those issues that are fundamental aspects of the job (get a grant, get tenure, do research in an important field) or those that are important to our institutions. Knowing how to do our jobs well is indeed essential for any kind of professional success. However, achieving the right balance in our ambitions is also important for our happiness. Let’s face it: Getting a half-dozen grants is more helpful to the university’s financial health than it is to our mental health.

Striving to bring in the big bucks and to be famous is what we do for others. Being a good guy is what we do for ourselves. And we all have a good chance of being successful at it, if we but dare to try.

H. Steven Wiley is Lead Biologist for the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

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