So you want to be a great scientist?

February 23, 2018

 

I'm not a research scientist. I am not an engineer. But I have spent almost 30 years working alongside research scientists, engineers and software developers both in academia and industry working in spin-outs, public sector, start-ups and charities, working internationally and in the UK. I work now to coach leaders, train researchers and develop engineers who wish to become people leaders. I also work with PhD students embarking on a life-long career of scientific excellence, focus and discovery. Or so they hope.

 

In this 30 year association I have observed a few essential characteristics of scientists and engineers who have built successful careers around their childhood passions. I judge this 'success' not by the numbers of patents they file, the lines of code they create or the publications they submit, but rather by their ability to grow great teams, secure prestigious funding, build collaborative networks and motivate and engage those around them to support, build upon and ultimately continue their work.

 

With this perspective in mind I was asked recently to think about the top characteristics of these people. Here's my list:

 

1. Relationship Management

The most successful researchers and engineers juggle the key relationships within the lab, across labs, into support groups, managers, administrative staff, public groups, policy groups, end users and beyond. They realise that their ability to continue their work requires them to build these relationships and make them strong. You want to get your poster in prime place at the conference? Engage with the outreach team. Want to keep your team in place when funding cuts are on the horizon? Listen to your end user and make your work relevant to them. Want people to engage with your team? Engage with them. Don't look at the floor as you walk down the corridor. Make eye contact, make small talk and be aware of what others are doing around you. Be part of the organisation and be human to those around you. Treat others the way that THEY want to be treated. Stop for coffee. Interact with others. Make these relationships about them, and not you, and you will the build trust and support that will allow you the space you need to achieve your goals.

 

2. Developing Others

Control freaks look away now. Only of course, that's one thing they could never do. Growing a great team is about allowing others to be at their best and allowing them to grow their ability. As someone once said; "you want to make great things happen? Hire the best people and then get out of their way". The most successful engineers and scientists that I have seen are generous with their time and don't demand credit. They know or have learned that directive leadership should be a used minimally, and that their role is to mentor new talent and grow new thinking. Generosity and reciprocity are not buzzwords for these people. They don't micromanage. They pay attention and ask questions that inspire inquiry and independence. They accept that to build the best team they must attract and retain the best people, and to keep the best people you must give space for them to grow.

 

3. Work for today, network for the future

Successful researchers are able to look ahead and build a network that will help them explore their ideas for tomorrow. They observe trends in their field of expertise and exploit connections with the right people. They horizon scan for risks and engage in opportunities to mix with others, develop conversations - online and in person - that build opportunities to collaborate and develop ideas, not just with a view on today's project, but on the potential focus of tomorrow. In what direction is your research headed? Will you follow the others who take it there or will you lead where they can follow? Allied to this, especially in academic science, is that your future trajectory is best planned to be alongside others and not out on it's own. Ploughing a lone furrow leaves you isolated and at risk when the funding cuts come. And they will come.

 

4. Be a story teller

Successful scientists and engineers know how to present. And I mean REALLY present, not simply bore the audience with monotonous slides of data. These people speak with a passion and energy about a subject that they love. When they present their research it is from the heart, not the head. As Stalin apparently said, "The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of a million is a statistic". The same could be said for bees, sealife, and sick children. When you talk about big data you lose your audience. Don't tell me about how a 10% reduction in rainfall levels creates a 0.1 increase in infant mortality, tell me the story of a child who lost her mother because of it. Make your story personal and tell it from the heart. Use images. Paint a picture. Tell me WHY you are doing your research not WHAT you do. Such presentations have greater impact, are more memorable and provide a call to action that makes me an advocate for your cause and build very strong connections to your work. And it gives you purpose.

 

5. Ask better questions of others

Scientists and engineers are clever folk. Generally introverted thinkers they like to reflect on and contextualise events. I often sit in meetings with engineers and scientists where a point will be made and heads will nod, yet I know for sure that not everyone around the table shares the same understanding of what's just been said. You can almost see the internal dialogue. The outcome is confusion and, sometimes, conflict when agreements that people thought were made were actually never signed up to. The answer in your head isn't always right. Share your thinking. Confess that you don't understand. Go deeper. Ask better questions to clarify mutual understanding and ensure everybody leaves with a shared vision.

 

It's all about behaviour

As a great engineer once said, "Let there be light". What followed was awesome. You have the power to create the energy to light up your career and those around you. The key to this is not what you KNOW but what you DO. All the above points are behavioural, they are things people do. Your behaviour REALLY matters. 

 

Keep these five characteristics in mind and use the light of your behaviour to shine the way to success.

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