My family and I board the Kanyakumari Express at Bangalore destined for Kochi. The 3rd AC compartment is lively, and we enjoy a late night snack and chai and exchange conversation with others in the same compartment. “So you are visiting your son in Kerala- what does he do? We are on vacation, do you have any recommendations for where to get a good thali?” We prepare the beds, organize our belongings, and fall asleep to the rumbling sounds of the train on the track. Morning comes and we enjoy the beautiful early morning views of the Western Ghats, covered in mist. The journey to Kochi was memorable, interactive; much more fun than the sterile and predictable steps of going through security, boarding a plane, and collecting luggage at the next airport.
Going through scientific training and then getting a job is a lot like this train ride. It takes a while to complete, is sometimes bumpy, and often unpredictable. But it is interesting and interactive, especially if you are open to such possibilities.
Many young scientists ask for my advice on how to succeed. How many papers should I publish as a graduate student? Should I go into a “hot” field to increase my chances of getting a job? How many hours should I work per week? Where should I publish?
While such strategic questions can be important, my best answer is: relax a bit and enjoy your journey. If you are happy with your environment and your work, there is a far greater chance of being productive. You will be willing to work harder, able to focus, and become more receptive to new opportunities or ideas.
The connection between success and happiness in one’s work is not unique to science. But science requires persistence, often weathering through dry spells in which results are not forthcoming. The nature of this work necessitates that one enjoys the journey and not just the final destination (ie. a paper or a job).
There is no magic formula for enjoying your scientific journey, but I can offer some suggestions.
1) In choosing a lab as a masters student, Ph.D. student or postdoc, don’t just base your decision how how famous the PI is, how many papers the lab publishes, or even just the research topic of the lab. Visit and get a sense of atmosphere of the lab. Do you think that you will be happy working there? Are the people in the lab happy with their work? Are they enthusiastic? Joining a lab sight unseen is not a good idea.
2) Work with other people (i.e. collaborate or mentor a younger student). One of the most fun aspects of science is that it is interactive and social. Interacting with others can help you troubleshoot, get results or come up with new ideas. It also is more fun to come to work if you are networked with other people and not slaving away on your own. Don’t miss out on this important and enjoyable aspect of your scientific training and your job.
3) Find other things to enjoy about science beyond your own project. Enjoy listening to a seminar or reading a great paper. Think of what a privilege it is to be able to understand and appreciate the incredibly cool scientific advances that are happening at this moment in time. Relish the success of others, even if your experiments are not working at the moment.
4) Work hard because you want to uncover an answer or get an experiment to work, not because you need to be present and accountable. Take time off when you need to recharge your batteries and realize when it is time to do so.
5) Enjoy learning new things! Don’t get become too narrowly focused on what you are doing. Learning a new technique or even attending a seminar in a new field can be fun. Many professions involve doing the same job over and over again, but not science.
If you are enjoying the ride, you will most likely arrive a good destination at the end.
Next month — I will discuss postdoctoral training in India.