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Professional skills for scientists

by Michael Nielsen on September 27, 2003

In an earlier essay I talked about the development of professional skills by research scientists.

Now, this seems like such a self-evidently good thing, what more could there be to say?

Oddly, however, the development of such professional skills is, sometimes, seen in rather a bad odour by some scientists, as though a focus on anything not purely technical is to be derided. I have occasionally heard a scientist criticized or sneered at, just slightly, for giving a particularly polished talk, writing an especially clear paper(!!), or going to the trouble of developing and maintaining a strong professional network. (More often, I hasten to add, people celebrate such achievements.)

I have even – and this is the problem that concerns me – somewhat more frequently heard older scientists counsel younger scientists that they shouldn’t make their presentations look too professional, for just this reason.

The imputation undelying all this seems to be that people who do develop these sorts of professional skills have nothing to do with their time, and that rather than doing so-called “real science”, are merely wasting their time on cosmetic foolishness.

This line of thought is rubbish. It is true that there are a few scientists – a very few – who believe (in deed, if not in word) that form is more important than substance, or that political power plays are more important than asking and answering interesting questions.

However, the majority of people with top-notch professional skills develop them precisely because they realize how important such skills are to effective research.

How much more effective will your research be if you can communicate your ideas in such a clear and compelling fashion that someone from another field can understand your main problems – and maybe contribute new lines of thought that open up new avenues to solution, or suggest problems in their own field that you may be able to contribute to the solution of?

Albert Einstein, often revered as an icon of individualism, and for his focus on pure research, was actually a consummate research networker, writing many thousands of letters (striking for the clarity and care of their prose) to colleagues, describing his latest ideas, and receiving in turn many thousands of letters keeping him up with the latest thoughts of the other leading scientists of the day.

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