Required Reading for Young Scientists Trying to Make it in the World

The academic year is closely approaching. For some of us, that means a return to filling young minds with new ideas.. Those who are still in the early years of graduate school must return to classes of their own. For the older students, it is a mere marking of time. Regardless of where you are in your journey, an outside perspective may be just what you need to make the most of this year.

Here, I provide a selection of books that have been personally recommended by professors at Rutgers and my peers in other programs or careers, and my own reading. These books are particularly useful for those interested in Science Communication, Science Writing, or Policy. We frequently discuss transferrable skills here on the blog, and writing is a big one! All of these authors serve as proof of that.


Let’s just get through grad school first…

First up: the swath of advice books at your reach. I have chosen books both old and new, as truly good advice can be timeless. The oldest one is from 1897 and is written by Santiago Ramon y Cajal. For the non-neuroscientists in the room, Ramon y Cajal is the father of modern neuroscience. Learning from Cajal is something we can all do with his book, Advice for a Young Investigator; its original title in Spanish is, Reglas y Consejos sobre Investigación Cientifica: Los tónicos de la voluntad, which translates into: Rules and Advice About Scientific Research: The Shades of Motivation. Luckily for us, these shades of motivation are not nebulous and Cajal was quite funny when detailing personality types of scientists. Here is an excerpt in which he discusses one of his “Diseases of the Will,” the bibliophile and polyglot:

The symptoms of this disease include encyclopedic tendencies; the mastery of numerous languages, some totally useless; exclusive subscription to highly specialized journals; the acquisition of all the latest books to appear in the bookseller’s showcases; assiduous reading of everything that is important to know, especially when it interests very few; unconquerable laziness where writing is concerned; and an aversion to the seminar and laboratory. Naturally, our bookworm lives in and for his library, which is monumental and overflowing.

Eccentric personality quirks is something that one of our own bloggers, Paulina Krzyszczyk, picks up on in her recent post about common lab pet peeves. Cajal also details classic bias traps and how to do the work of science.

In a similar vein, and even title, Dr. Peter Medawar is known as the father of tissue transplantation. He completed ground-breaking research on immune tolerance that earned him a Nobel prize in 1960. In addition to his academic legacy, Medawar left behind a tome of advice aptly called, Advice to a Young Scientist. This book is known for insightful advice on manuscript writing.

While being productive and doing the work of science is important and fairly straight-forward, sometimes the ‘how” of it is more of a mystery. Dr. William I.B. Beveridge provides us with, The Art of Scientific Investigation, and gives us insight into the thought patterns of scientists. Though guided by the all-powerful hand of the Scientific Method, scientists rely on a fair amount of “educated” intuition to get by. Written in 1949, this book discusses the mental strategies that scientists actually use to make discoveries. Despite its age, this book comes widely recommended to grad students.

As good as some of these great older books are, the scientific landscape has changed drastically and will likely continue changing. For example, current projections suggest that less than 10% of all biology PhDs will land themselves in a tenure-track position. Universities are encouraged to help their students explore their options. There are, in fact, a number of excellent articles on this blog that address modern challenges such as developing your mentor-mentee relationship. Beyond our blog though, we can find some advice in: A PhD Is Not Enough!: A Guide to Survival in Science, By Peter J. Feibelman. While this book seems to be geared a bit more to those of us who are interested in academic careers, it admits the pitfalls of academia and openly discusses how to obtain a research career in industry or government. The book details how to make the most of your training. Still, while we can work ad nauseum on being our best scientists, a good break and ability to laugh at ourselves may be the best approach to success. For that, Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to go to Grad School by Adam Ruben, comes highly recommended. Dr. Ruben receive his PhD from John Hopkins, where he also kindled an interest in stand-up comedy. This book is the marriage of those two experiences. Dr. Ruben also writes a column for Science Careers called Experimental Error that is worth a read.

I would be remiss if I did not recommend Dr. Kathy Barker’s series of “Laboratory Navigators.” For those of us in grad school or just starting in science, At the Bench is an excellent resource. Meanwhile, for those Post-Docs who are on the road to starting their own labs, the sister book, At the Helm, comes highly recommended. These books are full of practical and modern advice for scientists. When I say practical, I mean it; Dr. Barker discusses everything from lab meetings, to dress codes, to planning building renovations for new equipment.

Communicating Science

Communicating science is HARD. This is a paradox, as one would think that more knowledge means more things to talk about. Yet, the more we learn in our programs, the more caveats we become aware of and the harder it is to make hard-and-fast statements about our findings and what they mean for the field. Personally, I have never seen a neuroscientific concept conveyed so elegantly as when Eddie Redmayne was discussing ALS while promotingThe Theory of Everything, in which he plays renowned physicist Stephen Hawking. Actors are also professional communications experts and they seem to have the upper hand in knowing how to convince others of current research! That is why I am recommending Alan Alda’s book in communication, If I Understood What You Were Saying, Would I Have This Look On My Face? Alan Alda has spearheaded a movement to improve scientists’ abilities to communicate with the masses through improv classes as well as through a course at Stony Brook. This advice seems to focus mostly on oral communication.

Of course, clarity in written communication is needed in our lives as well, as we must write grants and manuscripts. The Art of Scientific Storytelling: Transform Your Research Manuscript using a Step-by-Step Formula By Dr. Rafael Luna, is a practical guide for scientists at any stage. Dr. Luna recently came to Rutgers to discuss his formulaic approach to communicating science. I distinctly recall his entertaining and useful advice in constructing the perfect title, as well as his tip of making characters and a story line out of molecular concepts! If getting published is your aim, as it very much should be during this period of your life, Dr. Luna’s advice will help get you there.

What can I do with all this knowledge?

What do star athletes and the Harvard Medical School post-doc director have in common? Both recommend, Black Hole Focus: How Intelligent People Can Create a Powerful Purpose for Their Lives by Isaiah Hankel. This is a good book for those of us who are just beginning to question what kind of career we want to build with the full set of knowledge we have/will have obtained in our PhDs. Identifying your goals is key to building your future, and don’t forget that iJOBs can help get you there!
A real-world example of someone who has exceptionally clear goals is Elon Musk. In a recent book, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, Ashlee Vance biographically chronicles Musk’s rise to prominence in the business world. Parallels between Musk and most of us (especially if you are reading this blog) are purely metaphorical. Musk famously began a PhD in Applied Physics and Material Science, but left after two days. He states that, “I wasn’t sure success was one of the possible outcomes.” Certainly, this is a thought that many of us can relate to. Of course, having a PhD AND a strong entrepreneurial spirit is indeed something to be envied. Musk’s experiences show us how to exercise the latter part of that equation. For those of us interested in the business of science or in starting a biotech, taking a page out of this modern powerhouse’s life is a good place to start.

I hope that these selections will lead you to the path of success that you want in your life, or at least in a position to identify exactly what that is. Please leave your comments with books you loved, would avoid, or would further recommend!

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