How To Succeed In Academic Science Without Really Trying

The most important character trait that I have seen correlate with success in academic science is the ability to clearly assess one’s own ignorance, and to seek out opportunities to learn from people who know what the fucke they are doing. No matter how smart, hard-working, and creative they are, the ones who think they already know everything and know better than everyone around them are the ones who fail. They are killed by their own egos.


  1. Alukonis, metal ninja says

    Hey, that sounds like effort! I got my hopes up from your headline and now I am filled with disappointment :(

  2. Binjabreel says

    Yeah, this sounds an awful lot like trying.

    I thought the way to succeed in academic science without trying was to go into sociology. Zing!

  3. chrisdevries says

    This is all assuming that to be successful means something other than to get more grant money than the departmental average, seamless promotions every few years and a cushy pension at the end of your career, complete with Emeritus status at an institution of your choice. Because there are plenty of incompetent fools who nonetheless manage to work the system quite successfully.

    But if success is defined by making many significant impacts to your field of study throughout your career, then I agree completely.

    It’s the Dunning-Kruger effect for academia. Those who truly know what they’re doing have much less confidence in their ideas and are therefore much more likely to shift perspectives because they can look beyond what they were taught (the currently accepted ideas in their field). It’s like that Einstein quote where he says (paraphrase) that you shouldn’t worry too much about your difficulties in mathematics because he can assure you that his problems are much bigger. The more you know the less you know.

  4. fuckesatonne says

    Actually, miko, it boils down to how you define success, as chrisdevries says. Sure there are lots of egotistical assholes in academic science, and many of them seem to be very successful.

    But there are a lot of others who regularly churn out work that is just as good if not better, without making complete asses of themselves at every opportunity. Often they are very willing to consider new ideas and to be wrong. These are great qualities in a scientist, especially if you lack the aforementioned ego.

  5. fuckesatonne says

    Then you should redefine it upwards. Success in science is proposing and defending new ideas. If your work causes someone else to say, “hey, miko’s result leads me to new hypothesis X, and I’m going to do an experiment to test X,” then you have been successful.

    The more you do that, the more successful you are. It helps to have a faculty job, but it isn’t required. It doesn’t necessarily help (except perhaps in the short term) to have a big ego.

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