Thursday, May 2, 2013

Will "be unique" advice for academics work for industrial scientists?

Be your own special flower (gag)
Credit: flickr user tlchua99
Derek Lowe has a long look at E.O. Wilson's latest book Letters to a Young Scientist; it is worth reading. To me, Wilson's advice seems to be fairly standard stuff, including this advice:
(DL) Here's how to pick an area to concentrate on: 
(EOW) I believe that other experienced scientists would agree with me that when you are selecting a domain of knowledge in which to conduct original research, it is wise to look for one that is sparsely inhabited. . .I advise you to look for a chance to break away, to find a subject you can make your own... if a subject is already receiving a great deal of attention, if it has a glamorous aura, if its practitioners are prizewinners who receive large grants, stay away from that subject.
If I had a nickel for every time I heard this advice in graduate school from a seminar speaker, I'd have a lot of nickels.

I wonder how this works at a large or a small industrial organization. It seems to me that, at a large company, branching out on one's own does not necessarily lend itself to being "a good team player" (or whatever the term for being conformist enough is.) It always seems like glamorous areas are great places for people to find success and rewards and promotion, the benefits of which are not to be completely denied. At a small company, the temporal and economic demands that require everyone to wear multiple hats does not easily allow for the time and focus to be a specialist. I also recognize that every good idea had a start somewhere -- the image of Hewlett and Packard in their garage is a testament to that.

I think that scientists (especially Ph.D.s) love, love, love to become specialists in weird fields and understand them deeply, potentially to the point of potential irrelevancy (said the obscure topic blogger.) I just hope I can, like Wilson suggests, turn this tendency to success in industry.


  1. Ash Jogalekar (The Curious Wavefunction) has commented on Freeman Dyson's advice, which is quite the opposite - go for the hardest problem you think you can obtain results in.

    IF you can first find the time and space to "be unique", and IF you can then succeed in convincing management that this is a good new opportunity, you will be successful.

    1. I'm going to second John's "hardest problem with results" suggestion as the safe route.

      Being unique really requires the support of management, and to truly be successful, a long leash.

  2. Here's what I think works in academia/national labs and at large industrial research centers: Be THE expert in a field that people care about. So, you need to be unique, yes. But, people need to care about your uniqueness as well. Both are difficult problems. In practice, this means that other researchers come to YOU to ask questions or get clarification with respect to your field. If this isn't happening to you, you are either not unique or not the expert or both. For people trying to get an academic position, displaying this property is the best way that I know of in predicting success on the job market. Oh and having a Science/Nature paper and your own funding help too ;)

  3. I should add, that in the spectrum that I mentioned above, if you become the person at the plant or small research center that people come to all the time (THE EXPERT) for something that they all care about, that's a good thing. You don't need to be as "unique" as in academia. But, the being accepted as an expert thing certainly holds true.

  4. I think what Wilson describes may have been true up to about 1985 for academic science. Now its more like this: are you an average guy with an average intellect for science, but still have the ambition to be faculty at an R1 university? Then work in a sparsely populated area and then have the perspicacity to know that just about the time you finish your post-doc Science calls your field "molecule of the year".

  5. John, thanks for pointing that out; that is what Dyson said, although hard problems and unpopular fields are not always incompatible. One of my graduate school professors, Fred Menger, decided to stay away from proteins because everyone was working on them. Instead he gravitated toward lipids and surfactants and made quite a name for himself in the field. The trick is of course to work on a problem that is hard and important while at the same time tractable enough for you to have a realistic chance to make a dent in it.