Advice to a Young Scientist
Author: Peter Medawar
Written by a Nobel Prize winning scientist, this book is replete with nuggets of practical wisdom which cover the whole spectrum of research – from choosing a science topic to abiding by the ethical boundaries guiding laboratory work. The author’s objective was to prepare young people as they set out on a career in science – an endeavour the author referred to as ‘all exploratory activities of which the purpose is to come to a better understanding of the natural world’. By painting an inspiring picture of science, the book conveys the exhilaration of curiosity and discovery, and ‘the satisfaction of knowing that something is known‘ when experiments bear fruit. Whilst the book depicted science as an exciting and passionate career choice, it nevertheless also portrays it as a ‘very demanding and sometimes exhausting occupation’. The book’s coverage is remarkably exhaustive, providing guidance on such diverse topics as experimentation, research presentation, publication, scientific creativity, family life, and even religion (pages 1 and 6-8).
A major part of the book explores the essential personality traits that are required to build a successful life in science. Most importantly, the author downplays the importance of intelligence in the pursuit of scientific goals, saying ‘there is nothing in experimental science that calls for great feats of ratiocination or a preternatural gift for deductive reasoning‘; rather, he contended that most of the skills required for research can be learnt by anyone of average intelligence. Rather than intellect, the author underscored ‘the old fashioned virtues’ of ‘application, diligence, a sense of purpose, the power to concentrate, to persevere and not be cast down by adversity‘. He also stressed the hands-on nature of research, maintaining that the scientific life is inappropriate for people who ‘regard manual work as undignified or inferior’, or for people who plan to ‘carry out experimental research by issuing instructions to lesser mortals who scurry hither and thither to do one’s bidding’ (pages 8-11).
Whilst the emphasis of the book is on the practical aspects of science – both in the field and in laboratory – it also underscored the broad knowledge that goes into making good research. In this regard, the author highlighted the importance of both life-long learning, and of the shorter-term reading of the literature that is needed for the research at hand. As he encouraged young scientists to read intently, he also cautioned them to read ‘choosily, and not too much’ because ‘too much book learning may crab and confine the imagination‘ and ‘endless poring over the research of others is sometimes psychologically a research substitute’. Reading, he also maintained, should not be confined to the current literature on the subject, but broadened to include the history of ideas in that field of endeavour, particularly the knowledge of ‘the origin and growth of current opinions‘ in an advancing field of research; this, he asserts, will confer on researchers the ‘stronger sense of personal identity‘ that will enable them know where they fit ‘in the scheme of things‘ (pages 16-17 and 30).
Some of the most relevant recommendations in the book are those that set out to guide young scientists in their choice of research domains and topics. For example, the author counselled against picking a research subject just because it is ‘interesting‘; rather, he recommended choosing ‘important problems‘ which matter ‘to science generally or to mankind‘. For those who have already completed a PhD, the author’s emphatic recommendation is ‘on no account continue their PhD work for the remainder of their lives, easy and tempting though it is to tie up loose ends and wander down attractive byways‘. His similarly cautionary advice on the choice of research institution is to not to pick them just because they are ‘closest at hand‘, or because that is where the job offers are, but to choose them because they are ‘intellectually bustling‘. He also emphasised the advantages of carrying out research in organisations that facilitate team work, pointing out that almost all his scientific work was carried out ‘in collaboration with others’. In this regard, he noted that research partnerships enable team members to ‘build upon and develop each other’s ideas’ – a synergism in which ‘the joint effort is greater than the sum of the several contributions to it’ (pages 12-14 and 33-34).
Throughout the book, the author took pains to caution against falling into the pitfalls that threaten the career of researchers, and one of the most cogent was his stern warning against the temptation to deliberately falsify the results of research to make them confirm a hypothesis. Whilst he acknowledged ‘the frustration of seeing experiments fail and of making the dismaying discovery that some of one’s favorite ideas are groundless‘, he nevertheless warned against any attempt to conceal errors and blunders by creating a ‘voluminous smoke screen‘, or by participating in the ‘conspiracy of goodwill‘ which drives researchers to report ‘exaggerated claims for the efficacy of a medicament’. To avoid these deceitful and fraudulent practices, the author urged the young scientist to avoid falling ‘deeply in love with their hypothesis’; to be prepared to accept ‘no‘ as an experimental answer’; to readily admit mistakes when these are made; and to ‘have more than one string to their bow’ by having alternative research projects in hand. Other potential pitfalls the book warned the young scientist against include excessive hubris, inordinate ambition, attempts to flatter or ‘ingratiate themselves with their seniors’, and having too much confidence in the rightness of their views (pages 18, 82-85, 74, 94, 37-39, 50, 6-7, 41-44 and 51-55).
Perhaps the most intriguing theme of the book was the phenomenon of scientific disputes, especially those about priority. Pointing out that such feuds are ‘as old as science itself’, the author explained that they frequently arise because many scientists are trying to solve the same problem at the same time. Although he acknowledged that professional conflicts exist in other fields of endeavour, he asserted that they are ‘especially acute in science’ where they may sometimes be ‘of an especially venomous and unforgiving kind’. He attributed the exceptionally vitriolic nature of scientific feuds to the fact that ‘scientific ideas must eventually become public property‘, and ‘the only sense of ownership a scientist can ever enjoy is that of having been the first to have an idea’. The book did not advance definite solutions to the problem of scientific rows, but it suggested some mitigating measures such as openness about one’s work, recognising those who did the original work, and avoiding the dirty tricks of ‘scientmanship‘ which may involve refusing to cite other workers appropriately and proportionally.
In a very humorous but down-to-earth manner, this book outlines all the practical considerations that should go into deciding on, and proceeding in, a career in science. With valuable personal anecdotes, and with strong prohibitions and wise exhortations, the author outlined the hard work that constitutes research, its satisfying rewards, and its potential pitfalls. The book is invaluable for all doctors considering an academic career path because it neither downplayed the demanding nature of research work, nor did it exaggerate its finer points. Some technical recommendations were inevitably outdated, such as the author’s recommendation to favour blackboard over slide presentations; the major contents of the book however remain valid for modern research.
Research is a core feature of modern healthcare, and in many instances it proceeds in parallel with clinical activities. The need to appreciate its requirements and procedures is therefore central to medical practice, and this insightful book excellently fulfils this need. Written in clear prose, and brimming with guidance and admonishments, the book has covered the major elements relating to research. The contents of the book are applicable across all fields of medicine, and I recommend it to all doctors.
Publisher, Place, Year: Basic Books, London, 1978
Number of chapters: 12
Number of pages: 109
Star rating: 5