João Pedro de Magalhães

How to Become a Scientist

If you are a student considering a career in science then this essay is for you; it gives a glimpse of what scientists do and how to become one.


Becoming a scientist, or aspiring to be one, usually derives from a natural curiosity about the world around us. I assume that if you are reading this essay you have that curiosity, that desire to learn more (often learn more than what is known). Perhaps you would like to know if there are aliens? Or understand why people get sick and die (and how to avoid it)? Or how we can build faster cars? Whatever the reason, you should have that motivation to learn more about science and technology. This motivation is vital because, as detailed below, becoming a scientist and doing science requires a lot of hard work and, while it can be fun and rewarding, the salaries of scientists don't match those of other highly-specialized professions.

Table 1: Typical steps in developing a research-focused academic career
Period Undergraduate studies Graduate studies Postdoc Independent lab
Approximate duration ~3 years 4-6 years Highly variable but the average age of first faculty position is about 38 years. Until retirement
Main task(s) Go to classes, pass exams Study field (may attend classes), develop original research project, write PhD thesis Develop research project Write grants and papers, mentor students and postdocs, lecture
Key goals Obtain good grades, be involved in science to acquire experience and gain focus Develop specialized skills, publish papers Publish papers, continue to develop skills and gain experience Secure funding for lab and publish papers
Annual salary (as of 2012) None though scholarships/loans exist in some countries Highly variable but often in $15,000-$30,000 range as a tax-free stipend $35,000-$50,000 ~$60,000 (early career) to >$150,000 (full professor)

Notes: Obviously the above values are ballpark estimates based primarily on data from the US and Europe. While they should apply to most countries, there are no doubt exceptions. Individual experiences also vary considerably depending on field of study (e.g., in medical research a PhD may not be necessary if one has a medical degree). Some researchers also spend time in industry, even if for a short period, before returning to academia. Typically, salaries in industry are higher but one has less independence to pursue one's interests.

Assuming you have the motivation and desire, how do you become a scientist? Good grades in school are important, no matter what stage you are in your education. Grades help you get to good schools, help you get to graduate school. While nobody will judge you solely by your grades (I certainly won't!), for students fresh out of university, grades and quality of education are often the most important information recruiters have to decide, say, who to interview for graduate school. The typical academic career is shown on Table 1 and involves getting a bachelor's degree and later a doctoral degree (and maybe a master's degree in between, though I normally don't recommend it as top students can often enter a doctoral program directly). At the early stages of your career, grades and alma mater are important and will open opportunities for you.

Related to academic performance, you should practice doing science. This can be on your own (as a kid I studied the ants in our house and wrote a report detailing my findings) or within a research lab. Often there are summer projects in research labs even for high school students and once in university this is something you should actively pursue. It will give you first-hand experience on what scientists do on a daily basis and, if you do well, it will help you establish a rapport with researchers who can provide letters of recommendation and help your career. Letters of recommendation are an essential component of applications to graduate school, jobs and even internships. Thus establishing connections with teachers and, preferably, researchers in the field you wish to pursue is essential from an early age. So do not be afraid to be involved in science and contact researchers in your area of interest--e.g., volunteer to help out in their lab. As a general advice, make no mistake that you will need to work hard. Even outside your formal education you need to gain experience and study your field of interest. To make discoveries, to learn more than what is known you need to know what is known.

If you are at an early stage of your career, you may not know exactly what you want to do or how. You may be interested in science in general or in a particular problem but are unsure how to tackle it. For example, you may want to help cure cancer, but how can you do it? Essentially, you need to learn more so you can specialize, so you can learn the techniques of your field of interest. Often there's more than one technique and more than one approach to tackle a scientific problem (aging is a good example). Strategic thinking is important and you should, for example, choose a field with potential and approaches that will allow you to explore that potential, yet there is often more than one road to success. The reality is that even experts are often unable to reach a consensus regarding which approach and which technique is more appropriate. Developing a career is about finding something you enjoy doing that you can get paid for. So you need to explore your area and the different approaches until you find one (or often more than one) that fits you. Scientists often become very specialized (sometimes too specialized) since as you learn more you gain focus.

Related to the above, another doubt students often have is in choosing PhD supervisor. (Postdocs can sometimes have similar doubts yet normally to a lesser degree as they tend to be more familiar with the field and people working on it.) Again, you need to do your homework and learn more about your field, identify the key players and those doing work and using techniques that excite you. The best labs and more reputed universities will not necessary be the best. I passed on the opportunity to do my PhD in Cambridge and instead went to a little-known university in Namur, Belgium, because I found the approaches and scientific questions of the lab in Belgium were more exciting and adequate to my career goals (and I never regretted my decision). Likewise, the bigger, more established labs may be more competitive and interactions with the supervisor may be less frequent. There is of course a subjective element to choosing a lab to work in. One issue is that freedom to pursue one's ideas may be encouraged in some labs but not in others, though some people enjoy it while others prefer a more structured mentoring. One general advice if you are considering joining a lab for PhD or postdoc is to contact former lab members and ask their opinion.

To become a successful scientist you will need to write a lot (thesis, papers, grants). Since English is the language of science, you will need to write a lot in English. The basic element of scientific productivity are papers (see goals in Table 1). These are original pieces of research that advance our knowledge of a particular topic. A typical paper may report a particular experiment you did in which you also need to interpret your results and put them in context of what is known already. You will also need to apply for funding, maybe even early in your career (e.g., a studentship or fellowship). Briefly, a grant application involves describing a project and how it will advance our current knowledge and can vary from a single page to dozens of pages. You will also need to give oral presentations and lectures throughout your career. As such, developing communication skills (and English proficiency if it is not your first language) will be vital for your career. Because scientists are constantly looking for funding, an ability to sell yourself and your work is of paramount importance. Even in industry it is essential to get funds and attract investors. Therefore, you should develop your communication skills and attend workshops/courses if necessary.

Becoming a successful scientists with your own lab is difficult. There are many more PhD students than there are academic positions and the transition from postdoc to independent researcher is arguably the hardest one. Still, consider that it is your motivation and talent that will determine your success. Luck plays a role, of course, but in the end there will always be a place for talented, hard-working individuals in science. Importantly, given the extraordinary advances in recent decades in a range of areas (genomics in life sciences, nanotechnology, etc.), in most fields scientists are not just studying a particular process problem. We are no longer students of nature but instead architects of nature and of life. You too can play a role in shaping our world to become a better place.