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How to build a scientific career

Early-career scientists face difficult decisions when building their career in research, and indeed about whether a career in research is right for them at all. To help with these decisions, the Nobel Prize Inspiration Initiative gives young scientists the opportunity to question Nobel Laureates about career paths. The laureate’s answers are varied, insightful, and sometimes unexpected.

How do I choose a scientific career path?

The first step towards a scientific career can be dauting, but the advice from laureates can be quite simple. For example, they are often keen to stress the importance of doing something you enjoy. Picking a good mentor is a common theme, as is confidence: don’t think that research is for someone else.

Bruce Beutler advises people not to agonise over their career, and to simply take forks in the road as they reach them. Likewise, Paul Nurse says you can’t map out your career, and suggests that young scientists should simply go for opportunities that interest them. In fact, Michael Brown believes there’s only one ‘make or break’ decision in your whole life: who your spouse is (if you have one at all)!

Ultimately, in the words of Roger Kornberg, if you are sure that a research career is for you “there will be no obstacle that you can’t overcome”.

In this video, Chemistry Laureate Martin Chalfie questions the common advice of ‘follow your passion’. Speaking from his own experience, he didn’t identify what his passion was until it appeared in front of him.

Watch more laureate videos about choosing a career path.

How should I choose a research topic?

The choice of research topic is an important challenge that scientists are faced with early on in their careers. Laureates have wide-ranging advice, and some of it can be surprising.

Tim Hunt advises people to choose a research problem they can solve in their lifetime. It should be difficult but doable in a reasonable timeframe, particularly because funding depends on demonstrating your progress.

You don’t instantly need to be able to see the application of you research though, and laureates often speak about the importance of curiosity-driven research. Barry Marshall, for example, encourages people to tackle a problem that interests them, and who knows what this new knowledge might lead to.

It’s also important to think about how much you will enjoy doing your research, and what you will learn. Brian Kobilka therefore tells people to choose projects that will expose them to new techniques and skills.

Not everyone will agree with your choice of research topic, in fact Michael Brown advises people to choose a topic that others think is boring. In this video, Chemistry Laureate Fraser Stoddart warns scientists to be prepared for criticism and suggests that early criticism in an indicator they are onto something creative.

Watch more laureate videos about choosing a research topic.

Should I stay in research?

Only a very small proportion of graduate students will go on to become professors, and there are many exciting careers available for those who choose not to stay in academia. Laureates have advice about what careers are available outside research, and how to decide whether research is for you.

A scientific training equips you with a valuable skill set. For example, scientists learn how to analyse problems and rely on evidence, as Paul Nurse points out.

There are endless opportunities for putting a knowledge of science together with other kinds of careers, and examples include: public policy, patent law, publishing, education and teaching, medical writing, journalism, venture capital, and museum work.

There is certainly no reason for young scientists to feel restricted to an academic career path, and the biggest challenge is perhaps choosing which route to follow. In this video, Medicine Laureate May-Britt Moser gives advice on how to decide whether to follow a research career, and on the next step towards that goal.

Watch more laureate videos about career opportunities for scientists.

Should I work in academia or industry?

One common alternative to academic research is a career as a scientist in industry – there are many opportunities to do experimental work in a commercial setting.

Barry Marshall has experience of both academia and industry, creating commercial products from diagnostic tests and treatments for Helicobacter. He finds it a different experience to work in a commercial company compared to a university or research institute, particularly because success is judged in a different way. Whereas universities are looking for people who have brought in lots of funding, companies are looking for people who have produced a product, ideally with as little funding as possible. The product is your main focus, unlike in universities where you can switch between different ideas.

Randy Schekman is keen to point out the advantages of working in industry. Industry may be a better setting for people who just want to focus on research, for example, because scientists in universities spend a lot of time on teaching, grant writing and administration.

In this video, Medicine Laureate Michael Young stresses that the choice depends entirely on the preference of the scientist. He believes it is inevitable and important that different people are attracted to different career paths.

Watch more laureate videos about working in industry.

These videos were filmed at Nobel Prize Inspiration Initiative events delivered in partnership with AstraZeneca.

To cite this section
MLA style: How to build a scientific career. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2021. Sat. 4 Dec 2021. <https://www.nobelprize.org/science-career-paths/>

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