I found this article, On the Process of Becoming a Great Scientist, published by Morgan C. Giddings on the journal PLOS Computational Biology in almost exactly ten years ago (2008), highly readable and enjoyable.

I would recommend it to everyone who works as a scientist, or wishes to become a scientist. The article is full of wise words.

For those who want to have an executive summary, here I copy-paste her advices:

  1. Don’t worry about age, worry about being exposed to new ideas.
  2. Tinker - the author went more specific to point out that it is important that maximize exposure to chance occurrence and events, and mind needs a rest from time to time.
  3. Take risks.
  4. Enjoy your work! Do science for the sake of doing it.
  5. Learn to say ‘No!’. Step back frequently and ask, “overall, is this work I am doing fun?”. If no, revisit points 1-4, and consider diving into new areas.
  6. Learn to enjoy the process of writing and presenting. Write a bit every day for some time, without considering the forms and correctness of ideas.
  7. See the big picture and keep it mind.

I liked particularly the last paragraphs, where the author eloquently argued that it is the process, rather than the result, that matters and that leads to long-term gratification.

Especially impressive was her way to interpret the advice often given to young scientists, namely ‘working hard’. While it is hardly possible to define a threshold of ‘enough hard-working’, she argues that there is an empirical way to judge whether one is working hard enough: namely enough hard-work, citing her, is exactly the amount at which one can maintain enjoyment of the process of work, without burning out … or becoming socially isolated. Since the process of doing science is dynamic, it is necessary to judge from time to time whether one works enough, namely still enjoys the process of work without negative effects of too much work.

While there is no subjective measure (like hours per week, citations, publications, project counts) able to determine the exact amount of hard work needed, the simple rule proposed by Giddings - maybe we can call it ‘the Gidding’s Rule’ - can indeed help a scientist find her/his most appropriate degree of hard working.

I found the Gidding’s Rule a very good complement to the core concepts expressed in the assay Life Is Short by Paul Graham, and is a great answer to the question of how to keep work-life balance as a scientist, the answer to which many friends and I have long sought after. It also supports some of the ideas expressed by the Stoic philosophers that I admire, especially Epictetus. The priority of process over results is also explored and acknowledged by some authors that I love, for instance Tiesheng Shi.

In the cited article, the author further argued that If that amount of work is not enough to maintain a scientific career, then a different career may need to be considered, where such enjoyment can be found. Because, in the end, one may have many medals or honors bestowed, but those are transient scraps of paper or metal. True satisfaction with doing something worthwhile lasts for a lifetime. This, I believe, is wisdom.

As a side note, I googled the author and found that she has left her lab at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and started her own companies and pursued her own projects. While it is a pity that she left the frontier of science, I wish her all the luck with the new endeavours!