Here for the cheer

October 7, 2005

When it comes to a career in science, there is no consensus on how best to begin, but Laura Barnett and Hanna Hindstrom discover that many big-name researchers agree that fun - intellectual and social - is the one thing that makes it worth doing

The white-haired old man who shuffled into the back of the auditorium while Nancy Rothwell addressed postgraduate medical students looked to the young lecturer like a cleaner.

As the man listened quietly to her speech, the 28-year-old Rothwell - who is now vice-president of research at Manchester University and a Medical Research Council research professor - had no idea that he would have the power to advance her career.

The unassuming man was chairman of the Royal Society committee awarding the research fellowship for which she had applied. He decided that he liked what he heard. "I got the fellowship, and it made my career," Rothwell explains.

Geraint Rees, head of a lab at University College London's Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, is a believer in fate. "Enjoy yourself and what you do. Don't worry about planning your career - most develop by happy accidents and fortunate coincidences. You don't need a masterplan."

But leaving yourself open to chance should not be an excuse for passivity.

Nigel Unwin, head of neurobiology at the MRC's Laboratory of Molecular Biology, argues rather controversially that researchers "don't need to be all that clever". He argues: "You should have confidence in your own thinking and try to follow it and not listen too closely to what people tell you."

Adrian Bird, professor of genetics at Edinburgh University, echoes this belief. "I think it's very important to follow your nose, follow your instincts," he says. "I entered a field that had a number of long-established scientists, and I was regarded as an interloper. I hadn't trained, but I had some interesting ideas. I wished I had backed myself more a bit earlier on. It is sometimes difficult to back yourself."

He adds: "I think the most enjoyable thing about science is challenging conventional wisdom. You need confidence."

Nonetheless, being too single-minded can get you into trouble. Bird recalls the time that he was put into a team. Bored with its agenda, he began to meet secretly in the evenings with a friend to experiment with a different form of gene isolation. "When I told my supervisor what we had done, he went slightly bonkers and I was evicted from the team," Bird admits. "Maybe I was out of line, but I think he overreacted."

Unwin's first supervisor was Sir Robin Nicholson, the scientific adviser to Margaret Thatcher, and he remembers learning more from his absence than from his presence. "I really didn't see much of him. He let you do what you wanted," he says. "It's good in the sense that you learn to struggle on your own."

Established scientists agree that inexperienced researchers should have some idea of the kind of environment they want to be in and the type of supervisor they need. Bird is blunt about this. "People who take you on look at where you have been and at the scientists you have worked with in the past, so make sure you go to good labs," he says. "Don't think you can start out in a small lab at a small university and work your way up. You can't do that. The way you train has a lasting effect."

Rees takes a different view. He believes that choosing a supervisor is all about finding a balance between someone you get on with and someone you look up to professionally. "The bottom line is don't pick your supervisor because he or she is someone who looks good on your CV. Instead, pick them because you like them and they have a good record in publishing and supervising," he advises. "It's a three-year relationship, which is rare in the medical world, where most jobs last six months at a time. You have to feel comfortable."

Rothwell agrees. She argues that succeeding as a young researcher is all about finding "the right person, the right problem and the right place".

Whether that place should be in the UK or abroad is a matter of debate.

Rothwell, who has never worked overseas, says that spending time in foreign laboratories is less important than it once was. "It's more relaxed now. If the best lab is in the UK, why go abroad?" she says. "On the other hand, I do encourage my postgraduate students to spend some time abroad if possible."

But Elizabeth Fisher, professor of genetics at University College London, is more definite. "It's essential for your development to meet other people and expand your horizons," she says.

Kay Davies, professor of anatomy at Oxford University and honorary director of the MRC Functional Genetics Unit, urges: "Get as much broad experience as possible that you can apply to your own personal interest."

Davies believes that having the courage to change direction and move into new research areas was central to her success. The internationally renowned genetics expert moved into biochemistry from chemistry at the age of 23, and at 30 she still knew little about genetics. "Don't be afraid of changing fields. Be flexible," she says.

No course will be without its obstacles, so you need to prepare for the lows as well as the highs. Failure is a vocational hazard. "A lot of people can work extremely hard on something for five years only to discover that someone else has made the discovery - the whole scooping thing - and it certainly has caused problems for some of the young and extremely ambitious," Unwin explains. "We fail in lots of things, and it's always hard to overcome failure. It's like climbing a mountain; you keep on trying different ways until you make it."

If this seems daunting, you may be encouraged to hear that many senior scientists also insist that fun is one of the most important ingredients of a successful science career. "Collaboration is fun. If it's not fun, it's not worth doing it," Davies says. "All my mentors taught me this. The joy of science is in collaboration and the exchange of ideas."

This is also the prevailing message in Rees's lab. "Enjoy yourself, do cool experiments and publish well," he says. "If you do all three, you will hopefully be happy and successful. Transform your world into something you enjoy."

If you have any doubts, now might be the time to think hard about your chosen career. Jonathan Stoye, head of virology at the MRC's National Institute of Medical Research, explains: "I enjoyed it almost from the beginning. I found it an intellectually stimulating cause". But he warns:

"If you don't like working in a lab, don't do it. Hours are long, the pay isn't good. What makes it worthwhile is if you like it."

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