How to be a top scientist today

Janine Erler, professor, Erler Group, Biotech Research & Innovation Center (BRIC), University of Copenhagen,

Being successful in any career is challenging, and scientific research is no exception. Research is a way of life. You live research and you do it because you love it. ‘Top scientists’ have one thing in common: an inborn curiosity for life – a thirst for understanding nature. While there are no easy fixes, and success can be measured differently by different people, I believe there are some basic principles which will put any young scientist within reach of the ‘top scientist’ accolade.

Whenever I interview a candidate for a position in my lab, I ask them what career they would like to have in the future. Almost everyone assures me that they intend to continue in academia and lead their own research group. This leaves me wondering whether their response is honest, or if they have heard that academics believe academia is the ‘only way’ so if they answer otherwise they will be frowned upon and overlooked for the position. In response, I always challenge the person sitting in front of me, by questioning why they wish for such a career? I ask them what is so attractive about constantly worrying about obtaining funding, spending most of your time on administrative tasks, and having a challenging work-life balance? This normally throws them and often they end up admitting that indeed it is perhaps not the most attractive of careers.

But, research is a way of life. You live research and you do it because you love it. For no other reason. it can bring fame and fortune to a select few, and there are certainly some large egos in the science world. But all of us ‘top scientists’ have one thing in common: a curiosity for life – a thirst for understanding nature. In my view, this is not something you develop, it is something you are born with, and so for researchers, there is no other path to follow. Academic research is the best place for discovery science. So if that is your passion, all the down-sides become irrelevant and you accept they are just part of the job.

Being a top scientist

Leading a research group is wonderful. I consider it an amazing privilege to guide a team of dedicated and talented researchers working on projects conceived together. It is also an amazing opportunity to understand the fundamentals of life. No amount of grant writing or other paperwork ever dims that brightness.

It rather amuses me that the world still thinks scientists are all about socks and sandals, and that we are too socially awkward to speak to each other. Despite the occasional eccentric, it is important to understand that science is all about far-reaching communication and intensive collaboration. So, while we may not be the world’s best dressers, and while we are nerds at heart, our research is so heavily dependent on our ability to communicate our science at all levels and on our ability to work as part of a team and large collaborative network that we function quite well socially. It is impossible to be a successful scientist without this skill. As in all sectors, there are cavemen/women who prefer work in isolation and ego-maniacs who prefer to step on others, but on balance we are a genial group of people with shared interests and goals.

Striking the right balance

In everyday life as a scientist, it can be a challenge to balance everything. But as with all things: your life is in your hands. You decide. For me, my priority is supervision of my people so I would rather turn down requests to review grants and papers, than decrease the time I have available for them. And the more people you have the more you are challenged, since their careers (and thus lives) are in your hands. You are responsible for helping them to achieve their career goals; for ensuring the funds are in place to keep their research going and to provide them with a contract; for keeping projects on track and retaining the ‘bigger picture’ view. It is demanding but personally, that is an aspect I love about my position.

Figure 1: Distribution of working time. Whereas 25% of the time is spent for research and 20% for lab management, 50% of the time goes to administration.

I estimate that 25% of my work time doing research is spent doing research (Fig 1). After that, 50% of my time is spent on administrative tasks, 20% on management (which, in my opinion, could be viewed as research) and 5% on other responsibilities. In fact, most of my ‘to do’ list is made up of 30 or so administrative tasks that each require 15-45 minutes. I am incredibly lucky to have a light teaching load. I know many talented scientists who commit to dedicating 50% of their time to teaching. How they manage any research at all is amazing to me.

Here in Denmark there is a strong awareness of work-life balance. Particularly, wider Danish society makes it possible to have children and a highly successful career, by maintaining a decent work-life balance in any position. Almost every successful scientist here in Denmark has children, so it is broadly accepted if you need to pop out during the morning to buy some cakes from your child’s school cake sale, or if you need to leave early to attend the school’s Julehygge. This is certainly not the case in many other countries where it is possible to feel ‘punished’ for having children and a career in the sciences, especially as a woman.

So I cannot (and do not) complain. Yes, the job is extremely demanding and requires an incredible amount of time and dedication to be successful, but the funding situation in Denmark is very good compared to most countries (but of course could be better!), as is the work-life balance. I know that I am very lucky: I have good funding, an outstanding research team, and I need little sleep, which all help a great deal!

What does it take?

Back to the issue of how to be a top scientist today. It is extremely demanding but incredibly rewarding and requires you to live your work and swallow the routine tasks that come with it. Scientific excellence depends on a high level of energy and dynamism, an insatiable appetite to understand life, and an almost super-human efficiency to juggle everything while maintaining focus. Not to mention, a powerful ability to communicate with your peers and to fight with reviewers. Not for the faint-hearted!

You will instinctively know if this is the life for you because you will feel there is no other life for you. Of course, every now and again you will be challenged to re-think what you are doing and why, and many great scientists with the most unshakeable confidence have considered alternative paths, but your passion for research will always run through your veins and that will ensure you stay right where you are.

This article was published in BioZoom no. 2 2017 and again in BioZoom no. 1 2018, which celebrated BioZoom’s 20 year anniversary.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s