Winning a Nobel prize may seem like an absurdly ambitious goal for most scientists to even contemplate but some researchers will admit to daydreaming about it.
So, how do you achieve this accolade? Is it a matter of intelligence, hard work or just sheer luck? Can researchers really take practical steps towards achieving science’s greatest honour, which has been bestowed on fewer than 700 people since the first awards were made in 1901?
Those who are likely to know best are the Nobel laureates alive today – perhaps the most elite club in global science whose members number fewer than 300 people, even after the Swedish Academy named the latest clutch of winners in Stockholm last week.
As part of a unique survey by Times Higher Education, we asked 50 Nobel prizewinners in science and economics – about 20 per cent of all living laureates in these fields – to offer the best advice that they could give to early career researchers to maximise their chances of making a Nobel-worthy breakthrough.
Some laureates were, of course, highly sceptical that any useful advice could be offered.
“My big tip is to be lucky,” said Sir Richard J. Roberts, the English biochemist who shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1993 for work on gene splicing. “There is no strategy that you can adopt to win a Nobel prize – a lot depends on whether you end up in the right place at the right time.”
For Sir Richard, one stroke of luck that aided his career actually seemed like a disaster at the time. “I had just finished my postdoc at Harvard University and had applied to the University of Edinburgh, but they lost my application,” said the University of Sheffield-educated scientist, who admitted that he “would have liked to go back to the UK at the time”.
Instead, he was hired by the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, which was then led by DNA pioneer James Watson, where he carried out the work that would lead to his Nobel-recognised breakthrough.
Luck is mentioned by several other laureates – a surprisingly modest bunch, it seems – although it is clear that most prizewinners do not ascribe their success simply to good fortune. Many advise today’s early career researchers to be bold, determined and resilient.
“Do the research that you are passionate about,” advises Brian Schmidt, an astrophysicist who shared the 2011 physics prize and is now vice-chancellor of Australian National University.
“Don’t worry too much about the constraints facing ECRs. If you do something well, it will open up lots of opportunities, in and out of academia,” said Professor Schmidt.
“Even if you don’t make a Nobel-worthy breakthrough, you will have lots of great opportunities in life to do fulfilling work,” he added.
That view is echoed by Jean-Pierre Sauvage, the University of Strasbourg academic who shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2016, who urges scientists to “have confidence in their ability to do high-level science and look for novelty rather than following trendy routes”.
“Look for the unexpected, and do not enter crowded fields where you will not be noticed,” advised Peter Agre, director of the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute, who shared the chemistry prize in 2003.
Scientists might also consider working in smaller “not-so-famous places” where they can pursue their own interests and carve out a reputation for themselves, added Professor Agre.
Cultivating a diverse range of interests, rather than relentlessly pursuing your research, will also stand graduate students in good stead, Professor Agre explained.
“I did not feel that I had incredible scientific talent [as a student]. I was interested in journalism and politics among other things and I think that this helps,” he said.
Like many other Nobel respondents to our survey, Professor Agre advises ambitious young researchers to put aside thoughts of a Nobel prize for some time.
“Never care about prizes – only quality counts,” agreed another Nobel laureate, who is based in Switzerland and, like many respondents, wanted to comment anonymously.
Several Nobel prizewinners also point to the crucial importance of having a good mentor, with one California-based laureate recommending that researchers “go [to] a nurturing atmosphere with really smart, collaborative people”.
“All major steps in my career were enabled by individual people who took an interest in me and my ideas,” explained John Mather, a senior scientist in cosmology at Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, whose work on satellites earned him a share of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2006.
Other advice ranges from the mundane (“get a permanent job so [that you] can concentrate on the research [that you] would like to do”, advises one Swiss laureate) to the ethically dubious (“be prepared to lie when applying for funds to optimise [your] chances [of success]”, recommends a UK-based laureate). Another rather dubious tip, simply stated, is “cheating”.
Meanwhile, a laureate based in Germany called on scientists to be “stubborn with respect to the goal but not with respect to the ways of reaching it”, adding that researchers should “think carefully about unexpected results that could lead to an important serendipitous discovery”.
A Nobel prizewinner from Hong Kong advised younger scientists to “take on problems that look as though they will require a lot of work, and where you don’t know the answers”.
“Do it with one or two people who are also good enough to have a fairly good chance of solving the problem, and really want to,” he added.
Having ambition, an open mind, a good mentor and lots of luck seem to be the recipe for a Nobel prize, but even that is not enough, suggests a Japanese laureate.
“Young researchers must be curious and stupid, while public research systems should guarantee their freedom and the general public must be generous and patient,” he concluded.
Laureates’ top tips for winning a Nobel prize
“Ignore the constraints as much as possible.”
“Extremely hard work, great mentors and much luck.”
“Be sceptical. Be honest. Work hard. Believe in yourself. Listen to criticism.”
“Be prepared to lie when applying for funds to optimise [your] chances.”
“Never care about prizes. Only quality counts.”
“If making ‘Nobel-worthy breakthroughs’ is your ambition, you should rethink [your] goals.”
“Start early, acquire skills and look for opportunities.”
New Jersey laureate
“If you see something curious that should not exist, play with it and see what you get.”
“Do not go with [the] mainstream.”
“Network with other colleagues with complementary expertise.”
“Be suspicious when everyone believes the same about something that clearly isn’t so one-sided.”
“Be willing to take on risky projects.”
New Jersey-based laureate
“Be persistent. Believe that you are going to succeed and do not take ‘no’ for an answer. Be original and build on your unique strengths.”