Wednesday, March 17, 2010


(Comment by me on a post at Women in Wetlands.)

The original post is interesting and thought provoking, and I encourage you to read it. It dealt with "...the idea that successful scientists are somehow luckier than everyone else." The post makes the assertion that "This is rarely true..." The text below is my response.

Interesting post. I want to completely agree with you, but recent life experiences (graduate school) make me disagree.

It's not that I think successful scientists don't work hard. I know many very successful scientists, and they definitely work very hard. No question. And they're smart. No question. The problem is that I also know many scientists who are also very smart and work very hard but just haven't obtained success. So, what's the difference?

The difference must either be "luck" or some je ne sais quoi traits the successful have and the unsuccessful do not. And, I think it's both.

I'd like to give a concrete example to illustrate. Let's say a smart, hard-working student starts graduate school. The student chooses to do research in a brand new lab with a brand new PI. This choice is risky, since the lab and the PI are unknowns, but with risk often comes the possiblity of high reward. The reward might be learning to build an experiment and a lab from scratch with an enthusiastic, rising-star PI.

But, sometimes a new PI will flounder, and it's impossible for this floundering to not greatly affect the students. Perhaps the PI can't obtain funding after start-up funds run out. And students are left to try to join a new lab 5+ years in, or try to graduate with no publications. Or perhaps the PI's experiments, which sound amazing enough to be funded by brilliant, experienced professors sitting on NIH panels, turn out to be impossible to interpret. And students are left with uninterpretable results, no publications, and really no results that would even make a reasonable thesis. Should the students have been smart enough to avoid a new PI? Or smart enough to avoid a bad new PI? Even the talented and experienced professors who chose to hire the new PI weren't smart enough to avoid the bad PI, so it seems impossible to expect students to be able to discern. So, the student who chose this lab is highly unsuccessful by the standards used for judging success in science. The student possibly receives no Ph.D., or maybe a Ph.D. with no publications. Was that student less talented? Less hard working? No. That student was unlucky.

Could that student have possessed some traits that would have prevented this "unlucky" situation? Yes. The student could have not been a risk-taker, and therefore not chosen a new lab and new PI. Or the student could be non-persistent, and could have chosen to switch labs after 2-3 years of frustration. So, this situation selected for non-risk-taking quitters. Just what we want in science, no?

I suppose the biggest argument would be, could that student still go on to achieve success? Maybe. Maybe that student can try to do a brand new Ph.D. using everything they know now. Or maybe the student can do multiple post docs. But maybe now that student is 28-30 years old, and doesn't feel they have the time or energy to do it all again. Plus, now they know it's not all about hard work and talent. Now they know there's luck involved, and no guarantee that they won't be unlucky again, perhaps in a different way this time.

I actually think this last issue is the worst negative impact of the whole situation. As you say, believing luck has anything to do with success is self-defeating. But isn't it also self-defeating to just decide you're not cut out for this profession because your hardest work wasn't good enough in this particular situation?

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