How Do I Become a Scientist? [Important Considerations You Might Not Have Foreseen]

I have a PhD. As a first rule, you need a PhD to become a scientist.

What is a PhD? It is a Doctorate in Philosophy. A doctorate is an advanced degree. In the French language, the word “doctorate” sounds the same as “wise rat”. This is an apt description of what getting a PhD would do to you. Would you like to be known by all in heaven as a wise rat? Great, then keep reading.

Why a doctorate in philosophy, of all topics? Why not a doctorate in video gaming, or simply in the science of computers, or whatever else you really want to know about? Aside from historical reasons, my main explanation for why it is in “philosophy” is because the holders of PhDs tend to flock together in that they have an interest at some level for deep questions regarding life, and a patience with looking for the answers. Does this sound like you?

Introduction

I want to be helpful here about how to become a scientist, but I humbly can only speak from my own experience, and that’s true of everyone else.

My own experience is quite unique, and so is yours of course, in its own peculiar way. Here are my credentials:

At age 9, I wanted to be a physicist like Einstein, to find the final theory of everything, to understand everything, and later on use this knowledge to become all-powerful (omnipotent) just like in science-fiction stories. That was me. And I stayed in this frame until my late twenties, until I’ve changed. I’m someone else now. That’s OK, everybody changes, but some more than others.

Ask yourself: why do you or did you want to become a scientist?

Many excellent answers are possible:

  • your parents are scientists, and that sounds like a good career, with nice perks (travel, freedom, leadership, interesting work, etc.)
  • you are good in science classes, so it makes sense to pursue that general direction, hoping the specifics will get clearer later on (careful about that!)
  • you have a passion for something in particular, maybe something that is a hot topic in the news these days, like artificial intelligence, or making progress in medicine, or any other topic, and you feel it would be cool to find out more about it and for that you have realized that you need an advanced degree.

Credentials

Did I mention “credentials“? They’re so important in science, no wonder why I started with that so early on the topic of becoming a scientist.

A definition: Credentials are external reasons why people ought to believe you: for example being published, holding a PhD, holding a professorship at a prestigious university. If credentials are not so important to you, then you will miss out on a central component of your colleagues social life, and yours too consequently.

You can take the hoarding of credentials as a game, the Academic Game, and in this game, you win by piling up the most valuable of credentials, and either you want to play this game or you don’t. If you play this game, play it wholeheartedly and forget it is just a game.

My takeaway point here in summary if you want to become a scientist is to make sure credentials are very important to you: of all the people you meet, pay attention with due respect at what their titles are, at what work they are known for, at who their scientific progeny is, and stay aware of the same for yourself.

Being a Scientist

It’s often said that once you’re a scientist, you’re always a scientist, it’s something that cannot be taken away from you. I’ve been told forcefully that I’ll always be a scientist. I disagree.

In this blog, I’ll use the word “scientist” in a fairly broad sense, but not so broad as to make it meaningless. In the basic sense I want to use, being a scientist means that you are working professionally as a scientist, or more broadly that you use scientist’s tools of reasoning in much of what you are doing. If you and others in your entourage consider yourself to be a scientist, then you are. If you are a student with strong aspirations at becoming a scientist, then again you are, or at least you are well on your way of becoming one. Are you already a scientist by any of these meanings?

If you’re reading this article because you were searching for “how to become a scientist”, and in the previous paragraph I wrote that maybe you already are, then you could feel like you’ve been tricked and something is missing, and that’s not my intent: we want to distinguish being a scientist from being a successful scientist.

[Note: if you consider yourself a scientist, but nobody else does, then you are known to the others as a “crackpot“. It’s a form of delusion that is difficultly curable, and I won’t try.]

Being a Successful Scientist

I’ll recognize that behind your question “how do I become a scientist” lurk several emotionally-loaded questions like “how do I become a successful scientist?” and “do I have what it takes to become a scientist working as a professional in my field?” Most scientists will have much doubt about their own aptitudes, and most likely you’re no different in that. You also need to ask yourself “what is a successful scientist for me” or “how do I know I am successful as a scientist?”

Hopefully, there is a relationship between the answers to the last two questions, and this third question: “what is success for me?” If unfortunately, there is only a tenuous link between your answers, then it is a bad omen for your success as a scientist. I’d predict you will not be happy if there is such a mismatch between the various definitions of success.

To be sure, these questions are rather difficult to answer. I like to give myself as an example, and that will illustrate why the concept of success is so vague and relative. I got my PhD at age 24 and now I’m 48, so I’ve lived half my life with and without a PhD. Getting a PhD at a young age like 24 was considered a success at the time, but with the wisdom of the years, this was instead a curse because I was quite immature for what life wanted of me as a PhD holder. I can suggest that success only means to you what you will choose to make it mean. But you also have to keep in mind how society defines success for scientists, to which I’ll return soon.

Zen Philosophy

Maybe the reason I’m much interested in the Zen philosophy of life is because every situation is paradoxical as illustrated above: any event can be seen as good or as bad, useful or not useful, or even anywhere in between. Life is absurd, but as a scientist, your job is to make sense of some very specific aspects of life, and for that, you need to forget for a long while about this absurdity, and instead work by assuming some beliefs, some axioms, and see what you can deduct from the axioms.

That’s how I could obtain my successes: for a while, I decided it was of overarching importance that I learn everything about theoretical physics and mathematics, especially with respect to how this could lead to a unified theory of all physical phenomena. Some of the crucial insights as I saw them, but the credit goes to Gerard ‘t Hooft, were that the world ought to consist of a finite number of degrees of freedom, although our usual theories contained an infinite number, and also that the world ought to be deterministic, although our existing theories were quantum-mechanical. Eventually, I felt that these insights had little importance in my day-to-day life, and while I’m still curious to know, I don’t care enough to keep working on these topics.

What Scientific Success Looks Like

While I was actively working in physics, some of my past successes included:

  • I worked under two Nobel laureates (David Gross/Steven Weinberg), both my master’s thesis (Robert Langlands) and PhD thesis (Nathan Seiberg) advisors were at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and indeed my master’s thesis advisor occupied Einstein’s office for decades.
  • I have at present an h-index of 24, meaning that 24 of my articles have been cited at least 24 times each, and my best cited work 680 times.
  • I was offered academic positions at many top universities, and I could select which ones to go to
  • I currently have a title of “adjunct professor”, which is actually just an honorary title, since the position is unpaid.
  • Some of my students went on to continue working at prestigious universities.
  • Important perks were to be invited to speak at many scientific conferences around the world, and hence to get to travel broadly, all expenses paid
  • But perhaps more to the point of becoming a scientist in the first place, I made scientific discoveries.

While I could go on with this list, another scientist’s list would be quite different. For example, a scientist’s success list would often include: teaching and positive feedback from students, organizing conferences, the total currency amount obtained through writing grants, writing popular science books, obtaining patents, speaking on television, producing science-inspired art, reaching out to the general population through a science blog, etc.

How To Enjoy Working as a Scientist

I had plenty of success that was very meaningful at the societal level when it happened, but that now does not mean anything to the 48 yo that I am, and so these are my words of wisdom now: you do need the societal forms of success like the examples above, but what’s most important to your real success in a scientific career is whether you enjoy most of the work most of the time, the day-to-day processes that consist of so many components:

The scientific research, interacting with your peers and eventually your students, teaching, carrying out administrative work, writing grants, reviewing grants, etc.

This brings me back to why I don’t consider myself a scientist anymore: I don’t enjoy much any of the above tasks. What I really enjoyed was learning new things, which was frequent until I started knowing too much. I also really enjoyed making new discoveries, which was however always frustratingly rare.

To become a scientist, a successful scientist, you do need to find regular enjoyment in the many different tasks. Can you do something about it, if it does not come naturally to you? Perhaps yes, and perhaps I would have benefited, and you would benefit too, from various self-help tools that emphasize qualities like gratefulness, helping others, seeing the positive in everything, etc., various topics that Lynn and I write about in our blogs on this website.

Human Qualities Are Crucial

Science is a societal endeavor.

I was talented with learning mathematics and physics, and with finding modest discoveries in these fields, but I lacked several human qualities, that are essential for success. These qualities can be acquired, and I have, but I didn’t have them when I needed them.

I was very driven by ambition, which is definitely essential for success, but is good only up to a point. Colleagues that were less talented than myself, but better at enjoying their scientific careers, did much better than I did in the long run. If you have heard of the fable of the tortoise and the hare, this is a good illustration: you might not be very confident about your abilities at becoming a scientist, but if you really enjoy what you are doing, and live to see the glass as mostly full rather than mostly empty, whatever your specific circumstances, then you have much better odds of outward success.

Enjoying working as a scientist is easier said than done. Becoming a scientist, and working as a scientist, requires working very hard, much harder than the general population. This implies many sacrifices. You will be fine if you are able to see what you get from being a scientist as better than what you lose through the sacrifices.

Einstein wrote that his success was due 99% to sweat and 1% to genius. To be a successful scientist, you can function on 100% sweat and 0% genius, thanks to joining a promising group. Most of today’s science is done by medium to large groups, so what’s most needed is reliable, intelligent work, not genius-level work. Unfortunately, this takes out much of the glamour of being a discoverer of novelty in science, but it is the practical reality.

Curiosity, Learning Everything and Philosophy

Fundamentally, I became a scientist because I was very curious, and probably you are like that too. I wanted to know the answer to deep questions, and my experience with supervising various PhD students is that most of them are not that bothered with deep questions. Although the interest for deep questions is something that I personally expect or request of a scientist, I found out that most scientists are not especially concerned with it, even the physicists.

So for me, it is still apt that a scientist is a holder of a philosophy degree, as an ideal, while acknowledging that this “philosophy” label is a pointless misnomer in perhaps 90% of PhD situations.

One clear answer to a central question that so many are curious about: It was clear to me early on that there was no god, initially by age 6, but I got a much better understanding of that by my mid-twenties. For me, this was certainly an outcome of getting a PhD, but because I took the time to do much reading, but it doesn’t have this effect on most developing scientists. This explains, to me at least, what was for much time to me a puzzling fact: why are some scientists not atheists? My views on religion evolved over time to align with the ones professed by Daniel Dennett: religions are helpful to some people, including scientists.

In other words, scientists need only apply the scientific method to their narrow field of study in order to be respectable scientists. They do not need to apply it to every possible area of life. They do not need to be curious about everything or want to learn everything. They do not need to be real philosophers. This can be evolutionally more efficient: there are so many possible questions, and if a religion stops you from thinking about some or many questions, then you have more time for some other questions.

How to Live Life as a Non-Scientist

Well into my thirties I was still looking for answers to questions on the meaning of life. Nowadays, I don’t see any meaning to Life, meaning is something that we humans attribute to anything we like in the Universe, but I am happy about living, because I am healthy and doing a wide variety of activities that are challenging and that I find interesting, that I keep learning new things every day, and with people in my life that I get along well.

Psychologists have run studies pointing out that this is how to go on about leading a happy life and it works for me in my current life, in a way that it did not in my earlier scientific lives.

The transition from being a scientist to not being a scientist can be very difficult. Something has to die in this transition. I’ve noticed it in myself and in many former colleagues who had so much difficulty letting go of research topics for which society was no longer supporting them. Hopefully this website can help people with this.

After my theoretical physics career, I was an investment banker for a short three years, and then an artist, but I returned to a different type of science for another 10 years, and I’ve quit that too. I’ll just mention a few words about these last 10 years as a biomedical engineer:

I very much want to live forever, i.e. to have actual immortality, and I wanted it enough to have spent some of my last ten years doing biomedical research, moving in the last years towards spending more time doing research specifically on longevity. But I did that research for only long enough to learn to realize that there are no realistic hopes to increase human longevity by much in our lifetimes, so that I lost my motivation to carry out further research.

Not every scientist changes their interests through their lifetimes, but most do, and indeed only very few keep working on the same topics for their whole careers. I don’t know where you’ll be, but the odds are that you will switch careers or topics, and the causes can be many: your topic can become uninteresting to the whole scientific community, and by contagion, to yourself too; an alternative is that you’ll find your topic too difficult with respect to your peers, and switch your interests accordingly.

Too Many PhDs and Too Many Scientists

There are too many PhDs and too many scientists. I want to stress that point. But first, how can that be? Should it not be that being knowledgeable and finding out more about the world and about how to solve the world’s problems are all-important, and that therefore there could not be too many PhDs and scientists?

An important memory I have dating back nearly 30 years is how several times the person who would become my PhD advisor (Nathan Seiberg) tried to discourage me from pursuing a career in theoretical physics, saying that I would be happier doing something else, that it’s fiercely competitive. He was right. Yet, since I was only 21 years old, very driven, no words could dissuade me from pushing on.

My advisor efforts at discouraging me from doing a PhD were very ethical, and while I have used a bit this strategy on my own students, I was unfortunately in an environment where producing the greatest number of students was the norm, and in which the chance of earning a PhD would be denied only to the most unsuitable students.

As a child, I grew up under an Auguste Comte’s positivist philosophy, instilled in me by people without knowledge of the scientific method, especially my father, who believed that Science was undoubtedly good and will offer a simple answer one day to every problem one might have, a philosophy often present in people who grew up under the rapid technological progress of the 1950s and 1960s.

Instead, I suggest you become aware of the fact that there are too many PhDs and too many scientists, starting with the ones who struggle the most at getting their degree or with making it as a professional scientist.

Academic Scientist or Industrial Scientist?

An interesting and happy person I met recently obtained an engineering bachelor degree, worked for an aerospace company for several years, and through their employer sponsorship, pursued a PhD to completion.

I’d say this is the ideal version of an industrial scientist, where the PhD program is designed to evolve naturally with the business needs, to solve complex scientific problems indeed required for the business. It’s ideal because of the social and financial support present throughout the studies: an engineer salary was earned, the studies were paid for by the employer, the student did not go through the typical depressive stages characterizing so many PhD stories, and yet the individual is a well-recognized scholar in their field, well-published and an accomplished applied scientist. Without having to work too hard. Such cases are the exception to the rule that you have to work extremely hard to become a scientist.

I want to leave you on a positive note with this success story, for you to recall this as a potential mechanism to become a successful scientist.

Conclusion

To become a scientist, you first have to be strongly resistant to the messages discouraging you from becoming one. Here, I piled up the messages warning you against becoming a scientist, drawing from my personal experience or from societal trends.

Next you have to work very, very hard. But there are exceptions as the above example illustrated.

You have to be entirely dedicated and committed to your success as a scientist, adopting the framework of credentials to measure success.

Finally, perhaps the central message I wanted to convey is: to ensure your success at becoming a scientist, the most important effort is to be able to align the social factors in your favor in the best way possible. That you get full enthusiastic support from as many people from your entourage as possible, and especially the key people like your thesis director and your peers, who are not far from the funding agencies: it goes without saying that funding agencies are made of people, and that you please them in a similar way that you please people, by helping them at reaching their own goals as much as your own goals.

I’m very curious to hear your thoughts below, or any questions you may have.

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10 Responses to How Do I Become a Scientist? [Important Considerations You Might Not Have Foreseen]

  1. Jim says:

    Hi. Wow! A scientist. Your story is truly amazing. I wanted more then anything to become a scientist when I was a child. I had an interest in Math,Astronomy and space exploration. But something went wrong and I ended up at University doing a business course. This course lead me to a career in banking, which I hated. I  couldn’t believe what I was reading when you said that you moved from a career in theoretical physics to Investment banker to Artist. What an incredible set of life changes. I thought that mine changes were dramatic from business to gardening but yours were far more dramatic then mine. You state that there are to many people with PhDs today. You would think that in this modern world where AI , robotics and space exploration are becoming more prevalent  we would need as many as we can get. Thank you for this very informative article. Jim

    • Phil says:

      Thanks for sharing and the feedback, Jim! Gardening is a great way to keep in touch with Life!

      Yes, we need PhDs of higher quality rather than just more of them. The market is saturated with PhDs, which makes the degree worth less, albeit not worthless.

  2. Rob says:

    Thanks for sharing your story! It is refreshing to come across someone who has adamantly perused their passion for science despite the increasingly anti-science atmosphere we’ve seen growing in the modern age. It is easy for people to misunderstand just how rigorous being a scientist can be but it can really be a rewarding career for those disciplined enough to stick through all the ups and downs. It’s good to know this going in rather than finding out halfway through. Thanks again for the inspiration! 

    • Phil says:

      Yes, Rob, as you noted, people going into training to be scientists are not warned enough about the lost opportunities in the likely situation that they are not well-matched to the demands of the jobs.

  3. Russ Green says:

    I can honestly say I found this article quite fascinating, I would loved to have been a scientist, I mean, how could you ever get bored, there are so many interesting scientific experiments etc, in fact the list must be endless, unfortunately for some reason I just didn’t find science very interesting when I was young, if only I could see my time over again, but as you said tn this article we are continually looking for answers to questions and finding challenges that we find interesting and we keep learning from them, it is true that these days all we have to do is look for answers on the internet or just a quick google search, but we all have problems that we have to work out for ourselves, so i suppose there is a tiny piece of a scientist in all of us, thank you for sharing this very informative and interesting post.   

  4. Carol5162 says:

    Interesting facts. I had no ideas that you need a PhD in order to be become a scientist. Wise rat..now I get it. For myself, I do not think I am a credential person, especially on the sciences. There are people that were just born with it.

    I really respect PhD holders, I know they’ve sacrificed a lot to be scientist and try and figure out stuff that seemed impossible. I have a sibling that is pursuing pure sciences and I think I have gotten some insights to pass it on to her. The Zen Philosophy is so interesting and basically true.

    Congratulations on all your achievements. You are an inspiration to upcoming scientists.

    Great article!

  5. Stella says:

    Hmm, there’s nothing as good as doing what we so much desired. I found myself in science class when I was in the college. I can’t really tell the reason why I choose the field until I reached my penaltemate year. I used to have passion with both science and business studies when I was in junior class. Maybe because I have many friends who wanted to study a science, that’s why I picked interest on that. It was a good decision anyway. My goal was to study medicine in the university until nature drove me to study genetics instead. I think am in love with it already. One thing I discovered about myself is that I can make things to work for me no matter how it looks. In as much as am deriving pleasure and useful knowledge that can help the society at large. This made my mission in being a geneticists a wise decision. Although am just doing a Master degree on that. Very soon I will obtain my PhD if nature allows that .This will support your statement that says science rank certificate and evidence more than anything. This is an interesting review from a wise and experienced author. Am glad I find myself in this website.

    • Phil says:

      Thanks, Stella, good luck on completing your studies towards the PhD! I see that you had a rather tortuous path, but that is not unusual. It’s normal and useful to have a variety of interests, and maybe you will find a way to put them all together to good use! Again, good luck!

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