5 Key Characteristics of Scientists that Excel

The new R & D head of a major Biopharma company was asked about the key attributes he most admires in the scientists in his organization. The characteristics he mentioned were exactly the ones that I had come to appreciate in the most successful PhD students that had trained in my research lab over the past 11 years.  As the decade comes to a close, and my time in academia as well, it seems appropriate to reflect and highlight the important characteristics that transcend the type of organization that you chose to apply your PhD skills in.

Academic, government, and industry scientists with these fundamental characteristics will always be an asset:

1. Curiosity: If you don’t have it, you simply won’t enjoy the process, and you will give up when you hit the challenges that are an inherent part of investigating something for which the answer is unknown.  You also aren’t likely to do number 4 and 5 below.

2. Resilience: I always say the “P” in PhD is for Persistence or Perseverance. This is the same as resilience to me.

3. Problem Solving: A new hypothesis usually stems from a problem of significance in your field of study.  You’ve got to really be clear on what this is early and keep coming back to it for motivation.  And while you will have plenty of technical experimental problems to figure out in the lab, what we really mean is the larger philosophical problem or question you are working on.

4. Truth seeking: Focus on finding the true answer to your question. Not just any answer to get to the next step. The answer is unknown when you begin and even though we make predictions and hypothesis, I’d say we are wrong 80% of the time!!  But we still get closer to the truth when we thoroughly examine the data. That’s the WHOLE point- Discovering the truth. 

5. Being rigorous about generating and evaluating your data:  What is the data REALLY saying?  Not “what do you WANT it to be saying?”. Look at your data multiple ways to really see what you can accurately interpret from it.

My personal observations of the exceptional PhD students I’ve observed over my years in academia prompt me to add a 6th critical component to the above 5.

6. enJOY it! Yes, the process of scientific discovery is challenging. At the end of the day, however, you should find JOY in what you are working to figure out and be excited to get answers related to the questions you are asking.

In a prior post, I’ve listed the top 10 skills needed to make it as a PhD student: http://beyondthecodon.com/phd-skills-what-it-takes-to-make-it-as-a-phd-student/#more-108

It’s nice to see that 5 years, and several PhD students, later I still agree!  It’s also worth noting that the top 3 skills I mentioned previously are quite similar to the ones noted more recently by a Biopharma R & D head.  Cheers to happy science-ing in 2020!

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