When Albert Einstein was five years old, his father gave him a small pocket compass to amuse him while he was in bed with a brief illness. Seeing the invisible forces move the compass needle convinced young Einstein that "something deeper had to be hidden behind things," according to Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson. He went on to forever change how we understand those deeply hidden things.
Origin stories like this one are common in science. But we don’t hear how successful scientists go from initial inspiration to the day-to-day work of science, from fascination with a compass to a blackboard at the Institute for Advanced Study.
Even if science fascinates you, the road to becoming a professional is anything but obvious. How do you break in? Here are a few tips from scientists who’ve made the journey.
Get a Foot in the Door
Like any profession, science has customs and rituals that you understand only if you’re on the inside. Even the ins and outs of applying to graduate school are a bit arcane.
"There's all sorts of secret information that you just wouldn't know working by yourself," says Shannon Murphy, a biologist at Denver University who studies the ecology and evolution of interactions between plants and insects. "So I think you have to have some connections to people who can at least explain to you how the system works."
But how do you make those connections? The advice here is to start where you are. If you’re taking a science course, tell your professor that you’re interested in pursuing science as a profession. Most will be glad to advise you — even if that means giving you the name and contact information of someone else who might be able to help.
If you’re not in school yet, find a scientist whose work you admire and send an email telling them of your interest in the field. Most will be happy to offer some advice.
When Jill Leonard-Pingel, a paleontologist at the University of Ohio, was an undergraduate, one of her professors recognized her interest in paleontology and suggested other people she could talk to. The professor also went with her to professional meetings and helped her expand her network.
Get Some Experience
You don’t have to wait until you have the professional credentials and a lab of your own to start doing science. You can start getting experience as early as high school — and if you’re already beyond high school, you can start wherever you are.
There are plenty of opportunities for beginners to get experience doing science (not just learning about it in the classroom), says Sarah Brown, a marine microbiologist who will be getting her Ph.D. this summer. Universities often have summer programs, study-abroad programs, and other opportunities.
Murphy suggests reaching out to a faculty member and asking if you can work in their lab. You won’t be finding a cure for COVID-19 or solving the mystery of dark matter — at least not right off the bat — but you will be learning how science is done and how to pursue it as a lifetime career. If the first person you contact isn’t helpful, try someone else. Resilience is a necessary trait in science. Start developing it now.
Once you’ve landed a job (even as a volunteer) in a lab or on a research project, you can find enthusiastic mentors. And good mentors are crucial, says Murphy.
"You’ll form a network of graduate students and postdocs and research techs that will become your mentors," she says. These often become career-long relationships.
Leonard-Pingel is still in touch with people who helped her during her undergraduate years. "It’s good to see them at professional meetings," she says.
Don’t Give Up
Pursuing a career in science can seem overwhelming at times, and many people drop out of science before making it to the professional level, something Murphy refers to as a "leaky pipeline."
Some teachers discourage people, especially women, from going into the field. Murphy recalls teachers and professors questioning her choice to take advanced chemistry classes, for example. Fortunately, she didn’t listen. But it still makes her sad that so many people internalize these messages. That’s another reason for seeking out supportive mentors. They can counterbalance the naysayers.
Science can be hard, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. Brown points out that you shouldn’t give up, even if some classes are difficult. You don’t have to be good at everything to succeed in science.
"You can have some things you’re really great at, and work toward improving things that you struggle with," she says.
Perhaps one of the most discouraging things is feeling like you don’t belong. You didn’t go to an Ivy League college? You’re the first in your family even to attend college? Everyone else in the class is a different color? You never met a real scientist in your life?
Don’t let any of that intimidate you, says Leonard-Pingel. There’s a greater appreciation for diversity of background and experience in science today. Even if you don’t fit the mold of what you think a scientist looks like, you should jump in.
"If you’re passionate and curious and committed and really want to contribute to science, then we want you there," she says. Go for it. Science needs you.