Advice: on choosing your own path in science

My previous post led to a great comment thread and multiple posts by others, expressing a range of views about how to decide where to submit your papers.* Seeing this range of quite different but all quite reasonable points of view got me thinking about the larger issue of choosing one’s path in science (and in life!).

New students in particular often are hungry for advice and role models in science. When you don’t yet feel confident enough to make your own choices, you understandably want advice on what’s the “right” thing to do, or want to identify an exemplary person whose example you can follow. But here’s the thing: for most non-obvious decisions in science (a category that includes most decisions of any importance, I think), there is no one right decision. By which I mean, no one choice that’s “correct” or “globally optimal”, independent of all other considerations. Science, and life, is an open-ended essay test, not a true-false question.

For instance, at first glance, it might seem that “academic ecologists” are a pretty homogeneous group. And in some ways they are–they’re all smart, they all have PhDs in something, they all like doing ecology, none of them went into academic ecology to get rich, etc. But in many ways, they’re very different from one another. For instance, I have pretty old-school views on how to decide where to submit my papers. But on the other hand, I allocate more of my time to blogging than any ecologist I know. Heck, there are numerous ecologists (including everyone from senior people to students) who don’t even read blogs, much less write them! And I’m pretty unusual among ecologists in working mostly in a laboratory-based model system that some of my colleagues don’t understand and even hate. And I’m far from the only ecologist who’s made unusual choices; I’ll bet every ecologist has made some. For instance, back in the mid-90s, the choice to go to NCEAS to do a postdoc based on synthesizing literature data would’ve been seen as career-risking by many ecologists. But former NCEAS postdocs quickly became one of the hottest commodities on the academic ecology job market! So whether you’re thinking of going into academia in ecology, or some other career path, keep in mind that there are many roads to success. Really, there are!

One nice thing about blogging and other internet-y things is that it gives students easy access to other role models and sources of advice besides their supervisors. To learn to choose your own path, or to make some non-obvious decision, it really helps to hear and think about how a range of other people have chosen their paths or approached the same decision. This won’t tell you what to do–but it’ll help you make the right decision for you.

The important thing, I think, is that you know why you’ve chosen every step in your path, and that you’ve chosen it for good reasons that you can articulate. You shouldn’t just blindly copy what anyone else–or everyone else!–is doing, and you shouldn’t do something for the wrong reasons even if there also happen to be good reasons to do the same thing. For example (and it’s just one possible example), lots of bad reasons for choosing a research project amount to people misunderstanding what’s good about their chosen project and why it’s worth doing. Similarly, lots of criticisms of the sort of microcosm work I do arise from people falsely assuming that I do microcosm work for what would be bad reasons. Choosing your own path doesn’t mean blithely ignoring the choices others make, or what anyone else thinks of your choices. There are many times, in science and life, when you’re going to want or need to be able to explain to others the choices that you’ve made.

Of course, there are risks to making your own choices, perhaps especially if you’re making an unusual choice. For instance, as the previous post noted, deciding to submit all of your work to unselective OA journals risks affecting how you’ll be perceived by others who’ve made different choices. Maybe you don’t like that, but it’s a reality you have to account for, at least in academic ecology at the present time. Good mentors can make you aware of and help you weigh those sorts of risks. Plus, there are also risks associated with following well-trodden paths. For instance, going to work on a system that everybody else is working on makes it that much harder for you to do work that will “stand out from the crowd”. There are no risk free decisions in life, because the future can’t be predicted with certainty. It’s all about trade-offs between different risks. Heck, going to grad school with a view to going on in science (whether in academia or elsewhere) is hardly the most risk-free career decision one can make–but if you’re reading this it’s probably a decision you’ve already taken!😉 Further, you can mitigate the risks associated with making an unusual choice in various ways. For instance, hedge your bets and have a backup plan if possible (e.g., a side project in addition to your main research projects). Another way to mitigate some of the risks associated with your choices is by being open and articulate about why you made your choices. For instance, I’ve done posts and written a paper explaining why I blog. And every microcosm paper I write has to explain why I chose to work in that system. If you ever do find yourself needing to explain an unconventional choice you’ve made (e.g., explaining in your cover letter for a job application why all your papers are in Plos One), I suggest trying to do so in a positive, non-defensive way. Own your choices! Others will appreciate it.

But don’t own them to the extent of denigrating others. Just because others chose different paths than you doesn’t imply that they’re ignorant or stupid or hidebound or biased or whatever. Not even if they chose differently than you on some issue about which you feel very strongly. As regular readers will know, there are some things that I think many ecologists are mistaken about, and I’m sure there are some things that many ecologists think I’m mistaken about. Smart, informed, well-meaning, honest people often disagree, because ecology (and life!) is difficult. If some choice seems obviously right to you but doesn’t seem obviously right to other smart, informed, well-meaning, honest people, well, that’s probably a sign that it’s not as obviously right as you think it is. That doesn’t mean anything goes or it’s never worthwhile to debate about disagreements–far from it! But try not to let even strong disagreement shade into disrespect for others as people and colleagues. (This piece of advice is something I admit I’ve occasionally violated, to my embarrassment)

So I hope the advice I’ve given in the past, and will give in the future, is helpful to you. But it’s just that: advice. It’s not an order, or The One True Way. Choose your own path, and walk it as best you can. In the end, that’s all you can do.

*p.s. A big thanks to all the commenters, bloggers, and tweeters who weighed in for keeping the discussion on my previous post professional, productive, and on-topic (with only a few minor exceptions), despite widely diverging views. Before and immediately after posting, I was kind of worried that the comments would devolve into unproductive personal arguments, because the post skirted the edge of some quite controversial topics. But it quickly became clear that that wasn’t going to happen, for which I’m very grateful. I think the discussion has been a great example of productive debate in science, and I hope all concerned feel the same.

**p.p.s. I know most of my examples in this post are drawn from academic ecology. But I hope it’s clear that the advice in this post applies much more broadly. I’m just picking examples I know well. That shouldn’t be taken to imply that I think academia is the only worthwhile career path or anything like that, because I don’t.

13 thoughts on “Advice: on choosing your own path in science

  1. This has by far been the most beneficial thing to me, as a grad student / young researcher, since I’ve started overlapping science and social media. It’s like all of the sudden I had access to a whole suite of “mentors”, established researchers and other grad students, in different areas, with different perspectives and at different stages of their careers. This has helped me not only by broadening my perspectives but by forcing me to evaluate critically these different, often passionate, views on topics that are so important to me. I have been learning a lot, and it has been awesome.

  2. This is a thoughtful, well-reasoned post. I appreciate that you took the time to discuss finding a path and knowing not all paths are right for everyone. I also appreciate that you made a point of saying “owning one’s path does not mean you get to denigrate other paths.” As a scientist in industry (and thus a card-carrying member of The Dark Side), I admit that I am probably a bit sensitive on this particular point, but no one enjoys having their path dismissed.

    For all of us, wherever we are, it comes down to this: Strive to be the best person and best scientist that you can. Being your best person is more important, but being your best scientist will probably follow from being your best person, so it works out.

    • Thanks very much Kes, glad you liked the post.

      Re: you being a member of the Dark Side, you said it, not me!😉 In seriousness, I appreciate where your sensitivity comes from. I hope that the admittedly-academic focus of this blog (which arises just because academia is all I know, not because it’s all that’s worthwhile!) hasn’t heightened that sensitivity.😉

      • Oh, I freely joke about being a member of the Dark Side! If you can’t make fun of yourself, life is boring.🙂 The sensitivity comes when I realize that the person I’m talking to doesn’t see it as a joke. I also tend to be a little dismayed when a “Careers in the Sciences”-type panel that purports to provide lots of different perspectives on career options includes absolutely no one in industry and often no one in government either. This is not a good plan for any number of reasons.

        As for the blog’s focus, there is great science happening all over the place, and I like blogs that talk about it. That’s all that matters to me.

  3. Thanks for this post. It reflects my way of making choises and my way of giving advice to students. Complexity and diversity are standards in nature and so they are in academia🙂.

  4. Nice post! Yes, surely there is no such thing as The One True Path. It is highly beneficial for students to hear career advice from multiple sources with different views. I also wrote some posts on this topic in my blog, as for instance: My advice for students on that matter is: observe prominent scientists, but do not just follow the crowd; search your feelings and let them inspire your path in science, but take decisions with your mind.

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