Want to succeed in research? Passion is key!

Everyone wants to know how to shape a successful career early on. Who better to ask than Nobel Laureates? Their pragmatic advise, however: passion, inner drive, and luck.

Many people assume graduating with a PhD is difficult, however, the even trickier part awaits the students right after graduation: Where to go next? Several articles have already summarized how one can switch from academia to industry. Here, I want to outline what you need to consider if you do want to stay in research and what to look out for when choosing the right Post-Doc position.

Let me explain: During my recent tenure as a blogger at the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting at the end of June in the south of Germany, I was struck by how many of the attending young scientists kept asking the Laureates the same questions: “How did you make it to where you are now? How can I become a successful scientist?” The resounding answer: “I worked very hard and I got incredibly lucky.”

There was even an entire session with Laureates Harold Varmus and J. Michael Bishop, focusing on whether successful academic careers can be planned – the outcome: no, they cannot. At least not to the extent the young researchers would hope. Instead, Bishop and Varmus followed their intuition, they were curious about a research question and wanted to find out how something worked. There seems to be no magic formula of ‘publish a big paper here, change labs there, and learn a new technique there’.

Rather, and all attending Laureates stressed this repeatedly, an intense internal drive and passion, and the willingness to take a chance, to fail if necessary, and to start the process all over again are far more important than anything else. In fact, if you look at the early publications of the laureates and sometimes even those articles that describe the findings that would later earn them the Nobel Prize, very few are “big” papers in high-impact journals. What they do have in common: tremendous passion, drive and meticulous research.

Many Post-Doc-advice articles tell you to look out for at least three characteristics when choosing a prospective lab: it should be in another country than your PhD lab was, have different or at least additional techniques, and an excellent publication record. Sure, these are beneficial aspects, but are by far not the main criteria you should look for.

Instead, let’s get back to the intense interest and passion mentioned by the Laureates: Again, two other of this year’s Lindau participants, Tomas Lindahl and Torsten N. Wiesel, also moved to research mostly by chance: both started out at medical school and by pure coincidence and luck “caught” the research bug during a lab-rotation. They were fascinated by a scientific research topic or question to such a degree that they wanted nothing more than to immerse themselves in it and understand it completely.

Naturally, today’s curricula at universities are far more streamlined and anyone interested in research will most likely study e.g. biology or chemistry and go straight to the research lab from there. And all the Laureates, now mostly in their 60s to 80s, or even 90s as is the case of Torsten Wiesel, freely admitted that it is a completely different research and employment world now, than it was 40 to 60 years ago, when they were coming up. One thing remained the same though: You won’t make it without the same intense interest and passion that drove them. If at the end of your graduate studies your research topic causes nothing but annoyance or fatigue (and this doesn’t change after a couple of weeks of vacation), chances are, it’s going to be difficult to stay motivated to keep investigating the same topic for up to 60 hours a week during a Post Doc. Because the truth is: you will have to work very hard as a Post Doc, so you better make sure you’re actually passionate about your research topic. If you’re not interested or invested in it, the workload to stay competitive can soon be overwhelming.

What about a new topic? Certainly, you can always start a new topic, sometimes you might even have to, because funding runs out or the experiments just won’t bring you the coveted results. However, with a new topic come new difficulties: new literature you need to familiarize yourself with, new techniques, new experimental problems, etc. Especially at the beginning of a new project, work load often intensifies, rather than decreases. Hence, switching topics or projects should not be your go-to solution from the outset, rather, use it as a last-resort if everything else fails you.

So, how do you become successful as a researcher and how do you choose the right Post Doc position? First and foremost you should be motivated by passion and curiosity for your research topic – do it for science, not for tenure! No one ever became a successful scientist with the sole premise of being awarded the Nobel Prize down the line. Pick your Post Doc lab based on their research interest and attitude towards it, not primarily based on their publication record. And keep in mind: plans rarely work out the way you thought they would. But according to Laureate Aaron Ciechanover, the key to success is: “Do something you are passionate about, something that you love and your gut tells you, you are good at! Then success is inevitable.”

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