The hardest parts of science

March 20, 2008 – 6:00 pm

For me, and I imagine a lot of people, the hardest parts of doing science are (1) coming up with good (or any) ideas, and (2) writing. Because these tasks are so challenging–and because I have an unhealthy obsession with how-to guides and formulaic advice–I have been gathering materials for years now that I consider to be good advice on the matters. I am going to be slowly posting that information here in chunks so that people can comment on them, add to them, potentially learn something(!), and of course, tell me that when it comes right down to it, none of this can be taught and that I should stop wasting my time unless I’m genetically engineering myself to be more talented.

Count me in the crowd that doesn’t think you need obscene levels of congenital talent to succeed. Sure, being generally smart and motivated is a prerequisite for doing science (or any other talent driven occupation like athletics, politics, or entertainment). And a good helping of luck gets you far: In his excellent book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (you though my last name was bad) interviews dozens of extremely creative individuals and concludes that one of the only common bonds among them is good luck! Nearly every interviewee cited being in the right place at the right time as an important factor in their success. But, once you have a modest amount of talent and the same chances of a lucky break that anyone else has, there is still a lot of craft left to be learned. In science, coming up with good ideas and writing well are two essential ingredients.

Sometimes I tell people like prospective grad students that, actually, psychological barriers are the most difficult part. Which is of course different than saying that generating ideas and writing are the hardest. Somehow both of these statements simultaneously exist as true in my mind and I haven’t sorted out exactly why that is. Perhaps psychological barriers are the hardest part of graduate school while the writing and ideas are the most difficult parts of science. Or perhaps the psychological barriers make it hard to of come up with good ideas and write well (this is an important point and there will be a post on it). But then again, part of me is just happy to say that it’s important to be aware of the trueness of both statements. Maybe this will get resolved by the end of my series.

Finally, I’m definitely not saying that I’m particularly suited to sharing advice on these topics because I myself am so great at them! In fact I’m not, which is why I study how to do them better. I am, however, the one who is anal enough to compile all this stuff, and nerdy enough to write about it all, right here on my blog. Based on comments thus far, I know I have at least two readers!

  1. 3 Responses to “The hardest parts of science”

  2. Anthony,

    I found your blog looking up information on sedge taxonomy/systematics, as I’m leaning toward finding a master’s program with a project along those lines; I was hoping to find potential advisors. Perhaps you’re familiar with a few authors who know their sedges?

    At any rate, I agree that a huge obstacle in the way of getting science done is having good ideas (which I would imagine come from direct experience and reading). If I had lots of good (realistic, concrete) ideas, I would be doing science, rather than field work.

    Thanks, and nice blog.


    By Steve on Apr 16, 2008

  3. Steve,

    I’m afraid I’m not familiar enough with the plant systematics crowd to recommend people or places. What I can say though is that I think the personality and general helpfulness of a potential advisor is more important than the exact topic that they study. And as for idea generation, don’t sell yourself short! You probably have some great proto-ideas that could be whipped into concrete shape by a good lab group. Thanks for reading.

    By Anthony on Apr 18, 2008

  4. I’ll second that – and add that it’s true across disciplines (I’m a sociologist). It’s more important to look for an advisor who is willing to invest in your success (that is, offer you time, energy, and both intellectual and emotional support) than whose research interests are identical to your own.

    By Jaclyn on May 12, 2008

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