What it takes to be a scientist

The University of Vermont is a small state-owned college in New England and happens to be where I got my bachelors degree in physics. As a freshman I look introductory classes with about twenty other physics majors. By the time I was a senior my graduating class had shrunk to five physics majors, and in some of the years around me the department’s graduating class was only two. Contrary to what you might think, this weeding out was not a result of vindictive teachers or abysmal grades; students voluntarily quit the physics program just as they quit chemistry and biology programs. Over the course of my eight year college career and the decade since that I’ve spent as a professional scientist, I have identified what it takes to be a scientist, and it is not what most non-scientists think. Unfortunately that means many people never pursue a career in science because they prejudge themselves as not having “The Right Stuff.”

Being a scientist requires only two specific personality traits, but before we get to those I want to tell you what you don’t need in order to be a scientist, though most non-scientists think these traits are necessary. People look at Albert Einstein and think, “I need to be that.” Holy crap, is that not the case. There’s a reason Einstein is Einstein; no other scientist in history has been so accomplished both in and outside science. The problem is that if we define any profession by the pinnacle achievers in that profession then we will (almost) always personally come up short of those accomplishments. Do you think every college business major defines their success compared to the CEO of Wells Fargo? No.

First off, it is not necessary to be a genius. My wife (a biologist by education) has known a lot of PhD scientists through my work friendships, and contends that scientists as a group lack a high degree of common sense. It’s hard to disagree with her given the evidence she cites. Don’t confuse being smart with being knowledgeable, which is the topic of a separate essay. Believe me, anyone that possesses normal human thought capabilities can be a scientist.

What about being good at math? I’ve had over a dozen people tell me that they can’t be scientists because they’re bad at math. Here’s a fun fact about me: I don’t know the multiplication tables. It’s true, I can’t memorize them, and I have all the failed tests to prove it. I was a solid C student in math until I got to algebra. As soon as multiplying or dividing actual numbers was removed then I could see the rules of mathematics and work with those. There are parts of math I’m good at and parts I’m bad at, but if I had quit before discovering more math than multiplication and division then I never would have learned all the beautiful math that I know; the kind of beautiful math that describes our incredible Universe. It’s true that someone has to be pretty good with higher math to be a physicist, but that’s not the case with biology, which has its own complexity but generally relies on little math beyond statistics, which is taught in some high schools.

Of course, to be a scientist one needs to go to college, which raises the question of cost. The economics of college education is a topic for another day, and I will move on by simply stating that getting a degree in the sciences costs no more or less than getting a degree in any other field.

The first trait that is actually required in order to be a scientist is an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and discovery. A scientist has to hunger for an understanding of the world around them. This hunger pushes a scientist through their education and sustains them throughout their professional career. At the end of the day, all a scientist achieves is the unlocking of a few small secrets of the Universe, and if that accomplishment isn’t enough then they will not remain a scientist for long. I’ve seen capable scientists stop doing research in order to pursue careers in business or the like. They reach a point in their lives where the measure of success that science offers them is not enough, and they must move to a field with different metrics for accomplishment.

This need for understanding comes in levels, and the best scientists have it to a high degree. If someone is never satisfied with what they know then they will always try and know more, even if they have to discover that knowledge for themselves. Such a scientist never rests on the laurels of their own accomplishments because they see the road ahead as unexplored, whereas the road behind is already mapped. If someone completely lacks this hunger then regardless of how interested they are in science they can never be a scientist for long.

The second and final trait required by a scientist is the one that is most difficult to come to terms with. Any person that wishes to become a scientist must make peace with the fact that they are ignorant. Not only that they are ignorant, but that they will forever be ignorant. As I said, there must be a thirst for knowledge and that thirst can never be fully quenched. At best it can be ignored. The Universe is so large that it is likely incomprehensibly complex. The human race will probably never understand it all, and if it does it certainly won’t be in our lifetimes. There is an existential quality to this trait, but more fundamentally a scientist will go through much of life feeling stupid. I have never met a group of more intellectually self-deprecating people than scientists, and I have come to believe that it is a fundamental requirement of the profession.

Many of those physics majors that quit to become history majors did so because it’s not pleasant to feel stupid. Nobody likes the feeling of not being able to do something. For many people, that feeling is to be avoided at all costs. But if one accepts that they are ignorant, and also has a thirst for knowledge, then failure becomes a choice between continuing to be ignorant or testing one’s own capabilities. Understanding is never impossible, it just takes patience. As Captain Kirk once said, “There is no such thing as ‘the unknown,’ only things temporarily hidden, temporarily not understood.” To be a scientist is to push at the edge of human understanding, and it requires that we not recoil in shame when we fail to break through that barrier. Every scientist pushes that wall just a little further forward, and in that contribution there is great personal satisfaction.

Provided one has the right mindset.


About Andrew Porwitzky

Dr Andrew Porwitzky is a professional scientist, comic book junkie, and freelance writer. He is also on Twitter way too much.

2 thoughts on “What it takes to be a scientist

  1. There’s a lot of truth here. I am also bad at math, I also do not know my times tables, yet I can handle complex equations. I was one of those scientists that gave up research in order to pursue a business career….in science.

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