Route map for aspiring lieutenants

Who Wants to Be a Scientist?
May 30, 2003

Who, indeed, would want to be a scientist? The increasing burden of administration, the diminishing financial return, the rising tide of insecurity, the increasing rigours of health and safety regulations, and the capriciousness of public acceptance all undermine determination and aspiration. Yet a brilliant lamp burns that attracts despite the difficulties - the chance to enjoy a career spent in discovering what is perhaps unknown anywhere else in the galaxy, to driving civilisation forwards, to enhancing life, and doing it within a huge international community of like-minded comrades.

Peter Medawar's wise but now dated Advice to a Young Scientist is the springboard for Nancy Rothwell's handbook to circumventing the gloom that some perceive in a life of science and to achieving the unalloyed pleasure that stems from a successful career. With authority and sensitivity to the problems and opportunities awaiting young scientists (and not just them, for much advice is applicable to those selecting the greater loneliness of research in the humanities), she examines the road from first embarking on a research degree to the acquisition of eminence (or at least sitting on a committee).

To old-stagers, much of what she advises will seem like common sense. That is exactly what it is, and no worse for being so. I can believe, though, that young minds carried in bodies stepping out on their newly adopted road will find the advice invaluable. Old-stagers should also read it to appreciate the concerns of their charges and perhaps to see reflected in its pages something of their own idiosyncrasies, their brusqueness, their lack of appreciation and all the other plagues that the established might not notice, or fail to acknowledge, in themselves.

Rothwell begins at the point where you might have drifted into graduate work or have taken a decision that such work is to be your next goal. How should you choose a supervisor? How should you adjust to the traditions of the research group you join? Where is the seat of power? What should you do if your Einstein-like brain is not appreciated as much as you think appropriate, or if you never see your supervisor?

Next, she turns to the deep end of science, setting out effectively on one's own as a postdoc. Now the die has been half cast, you have almost committed yourself to a life in science and are required to demonstrate independence. You are still under the wing of a respected mentor but are lieutenant rather than private, and - within the paradigms of the group - are expected to have your own ideas.

Along the way, Rothwell advises on that most difficult of aspects in a close community of scientists - the suspicion of fraud among your colleagues and how to deal with it. Another issue that merits cautious handling is the possibility of deteriorating relations with your supervisor and the sometimes-related problem of extracting yourself from a career that may be turning sour or at least undershooting your expectations.

We are given excellent advice on the art of self-promotion, be it in the canonical form of publications (although I was puzzled by Rothwell's advice to report apparently timeless facts as though in the past: perhaps in biology they are dead as soon as they are discovered), at the more theatrical level of seminars and papers presented at conferences and, in that cruellest battleground of all, the search for a job. Throughout, Rothwell wisely advises honesty, being true to oneself and optimism.

Once one is established, there sets in the middle-aged spread of obligation and administration. We are given sound advice on how to cope with adverse referees' reports, the avoidance of exacting academic vengeance, the duties of contributing to the general scientific community by preparing grant applications, judging those of others, making appointments, running societies and so on. There is a useful starter section on cashing in on one's research by technology transfer, one of the beacons, or at least gleams in the eye, that gives hope to the financially struggling academic.

There is also advice on that most important of secondary activities of research scientists, the propagation of science to the public. (Rothwell gave the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures a few years ago and has good advice on this aspect.) I find little to disagree with in this wise and sensitive book. There is a slight over-emphasis in places on the biological sciences (due to the author's interests), but the bulk of the advice is universal. The book does not, however, address the problem of finding time to write up one's work into monographs (a pursuit increasingly frowned upon by heads of departments, who see research as currency). Nor does it touch on one of the great advantages of being a scientist - that to some extent one can continue to do it, or at least to follow it, over the horizon of retirement. But these are minor criticisms of a thoroughly worthwhile book that should be in the hands of anyone considering that most rewarding of pastimes - a career in science.

Peter Atkins is professor of chemistry, University of Oxford.

Who Wants to Be a Scientist?: Choosing Science as a Career

Author - Nancy Rothwell
ISBN - 0 521 81773 0 and 52092 4
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £40.00 and £14.95
Pages - 166

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