Quitters Sometimes Win
Not everybody who likes independent research is suited for it.
Scientists are a persistent group. We all have the experience of doing experiments that refuse to work as planned, or favoring a hypothesis that seems contradicted by the latest data. If we accepted such setbacks, success would be rare, indeed. We frequently see frustration as a challenge and an opportunity to demonstrate the quality of our intuition. The harder we fight the battle, the sweeter the ensuing victory.
Of course we are not always victorious, and our challenges are not restricted to the next experiment. As scientists, we frequently pursue grants, jobs, and career choices using the same approach we use in research: We hypothesize that we are wanted for a certain position and then experimentally test that...
Here, again, scientists are persistent: I have noted that young scientists rarely alter their original hypothesis ("I am right for this job") unless forced to do so.
I first came to appreciate this when I was head of our departmental graduate program at the University of Utah. One of my most unpleasant jobs was telling certain students that they were not cut out to pursue a career in independent scientific research.
Critically evaluating a student's performance was a real eye-opener for me. When I went through graduate school, I considered myself an intellectual egalitarian. I thought that my fellow students were all equally smart to a first approximation and that success was mostly due to diligence and hard work. What I saw as an advisor, however, suggested something quite different. Some students worked extremely hard, but struggled to keep up with compatriots who barely worked at all.
The biggest difference between the successful and unsuccessful students seemed to be in the area of pattern recognition. The best young scientists saw connections between everything they learned. Hypotheses came easily and new ideas were abundant. A prodigious memory did little good if you could not see the relationships between facts. Of course, being a successful scientist requires much more than native intelligence. It does require hard work, persistence, good communication skills, and luck. But without fundamental talent, success is rare.
When I informed students that they inherently "did not have what it took" to become independent scientists, most took it very hard. I tried to explain to them that it was very difficult to become successful in their field with all of the right tools (great intellect, memory, lab skills, organization, and so on). In their situation, success was nearly impossible. The hard truth was that continuing was a waste of time. Their time. Better to get a job in an area where they could excel rather than struggle.
Experience has reinforced my conviction that dropping weak students was the right thing to do. In many cases, I met these students years later and they thanked me for doing them a big favor. Some found jobs in the biotech industry and one became an MD. One said that he was actually relieved afterwards. It forced him to be realistic and to pursue a career in computer programming that he loved. Conversely, the marginal students I knew who continued in their research career all struggled. Most became successful, but not as independent scientists.
Why are many young scientists so reluctant to consider alternate careers? My experience suggests that it is, in part, due to the obsessive-compulsive nature of most young scientists, who get a fixed idea in their heads that they want to spend their lives understanding the nuances of biological systems. But it is sometimes due to self-interested faculty mentors who think of students as more a source of cheap labor rather than budding young scientists. In fact, our graduate committee excluded a student's adviser from evaluations of their prelims because advisers would reflexively want to keep students regardless of actual performance.
There is no disgrace in failing to achieve a career as a scientist. Truly. Some of my students achieved distinction in their graduate work only to walk away from a scientific career with no regrets and with much ensuing success. Life is full of opportunities. The more attuned we are to how we realistically match those opportunities, the more likely we are to find real satisfaction in our careers.
Steven Wiley is a Pacific Northwest National Laboratory Fellow and director of PNNL's Biomolecular Systems Initiative.