Words of wisdom and scientific career advice

Given that SfN is coming up for a lot of neuroscientists, I thought I might post a bit of a document I keep concerning career advice I have found. I try to peruse it at least once a month to think about things I need to do. The first part is about networking: remember this at conferences! So here we go:

#1, always: do good research. This is most important

Networking on the network

  1. Know who the relevant people are in your field and contact them somehow
  2. Come up with simple ways to be useful to people in your network

“A few times a year is plenty. Pass things along to them. Mention their work to other people. Plug them in your talks. Include them in things. Get your department or laboratory to invite them to speak. Put them up when they come to town. Write reviews of their books. And invent other helpful things to do. None of this is mandatory, of course, but it helps. And I can’t repeat this often enough: keep it low-key.”

  1. Build a professional identity
  2. Intellectual leadership: Edit a book/review on an emerging theme? Organize a meeting within the community? Invite people in your network to help

Pro-tips for graduate students

  1. Know what’s going on: set up an RSS feed, etc
  2. There are starters and finishers. Be a finisher. (Eve Marder)
  3. Review papers (a few, at least, but not too many) so that you know the direction of the field

Research hints from Darren Lubotsky

  1. Keep your initial research goals solid but small
  2. Try to write down a new paper idea every day or two and save your 1-2 sentences in a file somewhere.
  3. Write early, and write often.


  1. “When you are famous it is hard to work on small problems. This is what did Shannon in. After information theory, what do you do for an encore? The great scientists often make this error. They fail to continue to plant the little acorns from which the mighty oak trees grow.”
  2. “And I started asking, “What are the important problems of your field?” And after a week or so, “What important problems are you working on?” And after some more time I came in one day and said, “If what you are doing is not important, and if you don’t think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it?” I wasn’t welcomed after that; I had to find somebody else to eat with! That was in the spring.”
  3. “Along those lines at some urging from John Tukey and others, I finally adopted what I called “Great Thoughts Time.” When I went to lunch Friday noon, I would only discuss great thoughts after that. By great thoughts I mean ones like: “What will be the role of computers in all of AT&T?”, “How will computers change science?””
  4. “I was conned into doing on a digital computer, in the absolute binary days, a problem which the best analog computers couldn’t do. And I was getting an answer. When I thought carefully and said to myself, “You know, Hamming, you’re going to have to file a report on this military job; after you spend a lot of money you’re going to have to account for it and every analog installation is going to want the report to see if they can’t find flaws in it.” I was doing the required integration by a rather crummy method, to say the least, but I was getting the answer. And I realized that in truth the problem was not just to get the answer; it was to demonstrate for the first time, and beyond question, that I could beat the analog computer on its own ground with a digital machine. I reworked the method of solution, created a theory which was nice and elegant, and changed the way we computed the answer; the results were no different. The published report had an elegant method which was later known for years as “Hamming’s Method of Integrating Differential Equations.” It is somewhat obsolete now, but for a while it was a very good method. By changing the problem slightly, I did important work rather than trivial work.”
  5. “But I needed more machine capacity. Every time I had to tell some scientist in some other area, “No I can’t; I haven’t the machine capacity,” he complained. I said “Go tell your Vice President that Hamming needs more computing capacity.” After a while I could see what was happening up there at the top; many people said to my Vice President, “Your man needs more computing capacity.” I got it!”
  6. “You find this happening again and again; good scientists will fight the system rather than learn to work with the system and take advantage of all the system has to offer. It has a lot, if you learn how to use it. It takes patience, but you can learn how to use the system pretty well, and you can learn how to get around it.”
  7. ““Why? No Vice President at IBM said, `Give Hamming a bad time’. It is the secretaries at the bottom who are doing this. When a slot appears, they’ll rush to find someone to slip in, but they go out and find somebody else. Now, why? I haven’t mistreated them.” Answer, I wasn’t dressing the way they felt somebody in that situation should. It came down to just that – I wasn’t dressing properly. I had to make the decision – was I going to assert my ego and dress the way I wanted to and have it steadily drain my effort from my professional life, or was I going to appear to conform better? I decided I would make an effort to appear to conform properly…You should dress according to the expectations of the audience spoken to. If I am going to give an address at the MIT computer center, I dress with a bolo and an old corduroy jacket or something else. I know enough not to let my clothes, my appearance, my manners get in the way of what I care about. An enormous number of scientists feel they must assert their ego and do their thing their way. They have got to be able to do this, that, or the other thing, and they pay a steady price.”


– Be known in multiple areas (ie, science writing, general writing but on topic, science)

– Have a blog!

– Ask questions, etc, at every talk, seminar, etc [indirectly from Ben Barres, who evidently will recall grad students and postdocs from conferences if they are too silent.]

– Reach out to someone new (who I haven’t talked to recently) every week

– Exercise

– Eat more vegetarian

– always try new techniques, stop relying on techniques you already know

– What would ‘success’ look like to you?

Research/life statement

How do you see your research proceeding? What is your theme? Figure this out early if you can: figure out what interests you. You want to be known for a thing. You want to have a personal brand. Write down in one sentence who you are and what you are researching.

Monday open question: What have you read that inspired you in science?

In a twitter discussion of inspirational scientists, I realized that a more interesting question was whether other scientists had particular papers or books that had profoundly inspired them.

For very young me, the answer would clearly have been Jurassic Park. This made me want to do science to the extent that several friends and I found a microscope and had one of us (not me) pick their nose until it bled so that we could look at the DNA in the blood, with grand visions of cloning near at hand. Needless to say, this did not work – it turns out that you can’t see DNA under a 40x microscope.

More near at hand, the text that continues to fascinate and inspire me is a book by Joshua Epstein and Robert Axtell, Growing Artificial Societies. This presents a simulation of behaving agents in a land called the Sugarscape. Epstein and Axtell then try to show what happens as these agents live and die in this brutal land. The idea that one could simulate the rules of life and use it to understand how living creatures create societies was breathtaking to me – much more so than something so abstract as Conway’s Game of Life. To this day, that is why I want to understand the clockwork neuroscience that drives organisms as they interact with each other and the ecological environment.

A suggestion by someone else was David Marr‘s Vision: A computational investigation into the human representation and processing of visual information. Marr died of leukemia tragically young, but his sketch of how to attack the problem vision is still considered fundamental. Here are some selections from the book and reading it one is left 35 years later marveling at the intellect behind it.

So what readings have influenced you? I want to read them!