For many years I was a research scientist, professor and inventor. When you consider my rather limited scientific abilities, the degree of success I achieved in my career is surprising. When I think back on my past scientific career (I am not much of a practicing scientist these days) I come the conclusion that there are a few tricks of the trade that enable graduate researchers and students to succeed far better than might otherwise be expected. So please pay close attention as I share mine (my tricks of the trade, that is).
1. Find a mentor, not a topic
Mentors are usually professors who are hell-bent on succeeding in their careers. They take on students to do research projects which they (the mentors) will benefit from. The more they benefit, the more interested they are in the project.
You might have a special idea of your own that you’d like to study. I myself wanted to study monkeys playing piano and algae listening to the Beatles. Bury these ideas. Find a mentor who you can learn from. Someone who will take the time to explain, to listen, to coach, to critique, to help lead you on your path. Monkeys and algae can wait.
When I was considering graduate school, it was very difficult to assess potential mentors. It was especially hard to find past and current graduate students who would spill the beans. And you couldn’t ask the mentor for his/her CV (you could ask for a paper or two to read over).
Now everything is out there on the internet. You can read a lot about the career and personality of a potential mentor before you choose one. Do it and avoid several miserable years working for someone you don’t respect.
For my Ph.D. I chose Prof. Eugene Rosenberg and Prof. David Gutnick as mentors. Eugene and Dave later had a falling out and I ended up primarily as Eugene’s student. In four years, he taught me all I needed to know about coming up with a project, designing the experiments and writing papers. In short, Eugene turned me into a scientist. You need a Eugene. But here is the crazy thing. I didn’t like the potential topics that he offered me to study. And I almost left the lab. But eventually I forgot about my monkeys and my algae, and ended up falling in love with the topic he gave me. It changed my career.
So first pick a great mentor. Try to fall in love with the topic that you are given, and make it your own. That is key.
Eugene also had great mentors. He told me about them. And his mentors had great mentors. Probably many of the ideas here I learned from him, and indirectly from them. So passing them forward to you appears appropriate.
2. Don’t believe everything you read. Actually, don’t believe anything you read.
Scientists publish lots of papers. Otherwise they perish. Some of the papers are okay, I guess, and a handful are important, but the large majority are shoddy and flawed. And sometimes incorrect and misleading. After all, scientists are only human beings (sometimes I wonder whether they are selected as an inferior version).
I used to tell my students to read a paper carefully, yet believe nothing. Challenge every bit of information, every line of text, every detail of the experimentation.
After you have read the paper and done that, you can only then begin to determine whether ANYTHING in the paper might be worth assimilating.
I know that this appears contrary to logic, but as a graduate student I spent a year (two stints of six months each, actually) trying to do experiments that were doomed from the outset, based on flawed or incomplete information that I read, or that my mentors had read. In research, disbelief is king.
You might be thinking, in Popperian fashion, that I should challenge others to challenge the hundred or so papers that I have published. Absolutely. Go ahead and criticize my work. That’s what it’s there for.
3. If you’re wrong, be elegantly wrong
Eugene used to tell me that there are two kinds of scientists: architects and brick-layers. I have met both kinds. The architects are the ones who think big, who create new paradigms, who are not afraid to be contrarian. The bricklayers are the scientists who take someone else’s work, change the species, the strain, or the season, and publish a remarkably similar paper, usually in an inferior journal. These articles contribute to the breadth of scientific knowledge, but rarely lead to what Thomas Kuhn called “paradigm shifts”.
So what I say is that there is nothing wrong with being wrong. If your idea or project is self-obvious (black cars heat up faster than white cars in the summer), then it’s less likely you’ll be wrong. And more likely your research will be mundane.
So it’s okay to fail and to be wrong. But if you’re going to be wrong, then I suggest that you be “elegantly wrong”. Come up with a great hypothesis, plan a wicked experiment. Eventually, you’ll do something awesome.
4. Controls, controls, controls
All scientists are biased. We want our hypotheses to pan out. We want our ideas to catch on. We want our experiments to succeed. And sometimes they do!!! Very often, we assume that the successful outcome has to do with our hypothesis. We ignore the possibility of spurious outcomes.
That is one of the reasons that experiments need to be controlled. I would tell my students “You can never have too many controls in an experiment”.
But there is another reason. Strangely enough, sometimes the control results are themselves peculiar and surprising. This can lead to even more interesting hypotheses and experiments.
5. Observe, observe, observe
Scientific discoveries are often made by stray observations. You’re doing an experiment, you lick your finger to flip a page, and lo and behold, it is sweet and lo. You have discovered saccharin, aspartame, etc.
But in order to make that discovery, you have to do something that most people (and many scientists, being people) do not. NOTICE. Observe. Be curious about everything
Not being a great scientist, most of my success was due to my ability to observe and notice. In other words, being actively curious.
6. Never Throw out an Experiment.
Well, again I am exaggerating. When worms or mice start to crawl out of your petri dishes (and they weren’t there to start with), when the room becomes so full of stench that you can’t breathe, I guess it’s okay.
But if you can leave your test tubes in the rack or your petri dishes in the incubator for just one night more, you might find what you are looking for. Or the opposite, which is even better.
Think of the good thing that happened when Fleming left his agar plates to become contaminated over the weekend back in 1928. You can do it too.
7. Practice the Fine Art of “Limited Sloppiness”
I always worry about the careful and pristine students, who are so meticulous carrying out the experiment, that ‘nothing can go wrong’. You have to allow a little bit of leeway for the unforeseen, the chance contaminant, the renegade result.
In the lab I was always something of a “Swedish cook”. This was not always good as I once caused a large laboratory explosion. I guess there is fine line here. But it’s okay to be a little sloppy, if you can go back and reproduce the same sloppiness when it brings you an exciting, unexpected result.
8. Think about the big picture.
You might be studying something about viruses that holds true for many life forms.
I once invented a mouthwash. The same principle we developed works for eye makeup remover. I wasn’t thinking big. If I had thought bigger, I might have done better.
9. Simple is better.
Some students think that the more complicated their system, the more likely it is to be important and highly regarded. But at the end of the day, the simpler hypotheses often prevail, and simpler ideas can be more profound than complicated ones. Occam said it better than I ever could.
Similarly, simple experiments are easier to control than difficult ones. The more parameters you try to check, the greater the number of controls you need (thanks Hila).
10. What Pasteur Really Said about Luck
Pasteur is one of my scientific heroes. Multidisciplinary, curious, observant, basic, applied. He was supposed to have said “Chance favors the prepared mind.”
The truth is that Pasteur didn’t know English very well and he was from France so he spoke French. And what he probably said was Le hasard ne sourit qu’aux esprits bien préparés which translates better as “Chance does not smile EXCEPT to the “esprits” (intellects) who are well-prepared.” There’s a big difference. If you don’t get it, perhaps you are not well-prepared.
According to my friend Henry, it’s not enough to be prepared for luck. You literally have to CHASE it all over the place. Henry once flew from Brazil to Tel Aviv just to ask me a question he already knew the answer to. Sometimes you have to walk down every corridor and try to open every door. That’s what they call ‘making your own luck’
11 (Bonus tip). Develop Presentation Skills
I’m assuming that during your studies you will write proposals, manuscripts and hone your written presentation skills. That important, but it isn’t enough. Practice oral presentations. Volunteer to give talks whenever possible. Good verbal skills at an interview, a department seminar, a meeting with the dean, will help you land that coveted job. Go for it!!
Thank you for reading my book!
If you like it, you might also want to read other “10 tips” books,
Mel’s Ten Tips on Creative Thinking (with Dr. Alon Amit and Hagai Cohen)
Read more about me and see ALL my books on Ourboox (I have many)
Or even better, create a book of your own!!!
Here is a tutorial to help you get started on your own voyage as an Ourboox contributor!!
And finally, you can always write me at