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How to Become a Scientist

Three Parts:Setting the GroundworkGetting a Higher EducationHaving the Mindset

A scientist investigates how the universe, or specific parts of it, work. Scientists formulate hypotheses from early observations, then test those hypotheses with additional observations and experiments in which they can measure those results and confirm or refute their hypotheses. Scientists often work in either a university, commercial, or government setting; if you'd like to be one, you're in for a long but fulfilling and exciting ride.

Part 1
Setting the Groundwork

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    Take preparatory classes in high school. Starting in high school, and continuing into your undergraduate years in college, you should take classes that teach you the analytical and critical thinking skills you will need to be a scientist. This is a must to get a leg up later in life.
    • You'll need to be well specialised in mathematics. Scientists in the physical sciences use a great deal of mathematics, particularly algebra, calculus and analytical geometry, while those in the biological sciences use math less often. All scientists need a working knowledge of statistics, too.
    • Consider going to science camp during high school. You'll do more intensive projects than you do in your regular science classes in school.
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    Start out with the basics in college. While you will specialize in a particular discipline later, you'll need to take basic courses in biology, chemistry and physics to ground you in the basics of each science, as well as the scientific method of observing, making hypotheses and experimenting. You can also select elective courses based on areas of interest or to discover new areas of interest to help you define your specialty. In a year or two, you can commit to a more specific branch of science.
    • Skills in one or two foreign languages may be helpful as well, in order to read older scientific papers that haven't been translated into English. The most helpful languages to learn include French, German and Russian.
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    Declare a major in a field that intrigues you. After you’ve gotten your feet wet and you’re familiar with the directions this career could take you, declare a major in a more specific branch of science. Planetary? Medical? Psychological? Geneticist? Agricultural?
    • If you'd like or if your college's lack of options necessitates it, you can wait to declare something more specific later (aka grad school). A general major like chemistry is fine, too.
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    Get an internship in college. It's best to start making connections and doing work as soon as possible. Contact one of your professors about an internship – you may be able to get your name associated with a paper your team publishes, too.
    • This will get you 100% certified lab experience, which is going to be helpful for going to grad school and looking for more serious jobs later. It shows you've been taking college seriously and have a grip on what's expected of you.
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    Hone your writing skills. You'll also need to write well as a scientist, both to obtain grants for your research and to publish your results in scientific journals. Classes in English in high school and technical writing in college will help you polish your skills.
    • Always be reading scientific journals and keeping up with the field. You'll be in those journals yourself, in time. Look to their work for structure and the basics of a good scientific paper.

Part 2
Getting a Higher Education

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    Go to graduate school. While some commercial and industrial positions are available to college graduates with a bachelor's degree, most scientists have at least a master's and more likely a doctorate. Graduate programs are geared more toward original research and development of new theories, working with a professor or other scientists, and possibly using cutting-edge technology. Most graduate programs take at least 4 years, and possibly longer, depending on the nature of the research.
    • At this time, you'll have to declare a specialty – something that greatly narrows down the field and allows you to have a concentration. This will make your work more unique and your field of competition smaller.
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    Land a research internship. In grad school, you'll need to look for a research internship for your specific area of interest. The amount of professors that are working on something that speaks to you is going to be quite small – which means you'll likely have to go elsewhere to find it.
    • Your professors and your school in general will be very helpful tools in finding which internships exist and where. Tap into all the connections you've made to find something that fits you like a glove.
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    Participate in a post-doctoral program. Post-doctoral programs provide additional training in whatever specialty you've chosen as a scientist. Originally lasting 2 years, these programs now usually last at least 4 years and possibly longer, depending on the field of study and other factors.
    • In addition to this, you'll be doing three or so years of post-doctorate research after this. If you've been counting that's 4 years of undergrad, around 5 years of higher education, and 3 years of research, which means it'll be a solid 12 years before you're actually working. This time-limit is something to be aware of as soon as possible.
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    Keep your knowledge up-to-date. During your decade and more of education (and your career), it's wise to keep up-to-date in your field and related others by attending conferences and reading peer-reviewed journals. Science is constantly changing – in the blink of an eye you could be left behind.
    • In smaller fields (and some larger ones), you'll get to know all the names in these journals. Reading them will let you know who you should ask for research help or favors when the time comes.
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    Continue researching and seek full-time employment. Scientists are always working on some project or idea. Regardless of how far up the career ladder you are, this is a given. But after your post-doctoral research, you'll likely need a job. Here are a few of the basic opportunities you'll find:
    • A science teacher. This one is pretty self-explanatory and doesn't always require upper education (depending on the level you want to teach). In some areas and fields, you'll need education credits, too.
    • A clinical research scientist. Many scientists work with a major company or the government. To start out, you’d be a clinical research associate. You would work on clinical trials, of say, emerging medications. You would gather date and monitor procedures making sure everything is up to protocol. Then, you get to perform analyses on whatever project you’re currently working on, developing products (like vaccines), or sometimes even working with patients, physicians, or technicians about laboratory procedures.
    • A professor. Many scientists, at least eventually, have the goal of becoming a professor and getting tenure. It's a well-paying gig with job security and you get to affect the lives of many. However, do know that it can take decades to get here.

Part 3
Having the Mindset

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    Be curious. Scientists choose to become scientists because they are fundamentally curious about the world around them and how the things in it work. This curiosity leads them to investigate the how and why behind what they see, even if the investigation takes years to come to fruition.
    • Coupled with curiosity is an ability to reject preconceived notions and be open to new ideas. Frequently, an early hypothesis is not borne out by the evidence of later observations and experiments and must be modified or discarded.
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    Be patient in climbing the career ladder. As briefly discussed above, becoming a scientist takes a long time. There are very few careers that take longer than this one. Even when you're doing with your education, you still have to get research under your belt. If you're an instant-gratification type of person, this may not be the gig for you.
    • Some jobs only require a bachelor's and sometimes a master's. If you're not in a place where you can spend a decade not making money, this could be a viable alternative.
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    Be diligent and persevere. You’ve landed a tough gig. It's been said that "taking IQ into account, quantitative skills, and working hours, jobs in science are the lowest paid in the US." What this is getting at is that because of the long path to success, for a while you won't be living lavishly. Things are going to be tough for a while.
    • You'll also be meeting deadlines, often not determining your own hours, and working whenever your work says you need to. All of this combined makes it a difficult job, especially to stick with.
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    Have the need to always keep learning. Essentially what every scientist does it seek out knowledge. Whether it's reading peer-reviewed journals, attending seminars, or working toward getting yourself published, you'll always be learning. Does this sound like a normal Tuesday? Then you're probably made of the right stuff.
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    Be patient and think outside of the box. No scientist's work is done in a day, a week, a month, and often even in a year. In many cases, like clinical trials for example, you won't get results for years. This can be very dissatisfying. A good scientist needs to be patient.
    • Observation skills are also necessary. In those years of waiting for results, you need to constantly be looking for the smallest changes in what you expect to see. Your eye needs to be focused and ready at all times.
    • And as for thinking outside of the box, think back to Newton's apple falling on his head or Archimedes jumping into his tub and displacing water. Most people would think nothing of these events, but these men saw something else, something no one else was seeing at the time. To make strides in human knowledge, you have to think differently.


  • The ACRP offers three certificates to clinical research professionals: the Certified Clinical Research Associate, Certified Clinical Research Coordinator and Physician Investigator. You take an exam and you’re good to go.


  • Due to the larger number of PhD candidates for professorship and commercial positions, prospective scientists may find themselves having to take a series of postdoctoral positions before landing a permanent position.
  • Being a scientist typically requires lots of patience. There are equal chances of failure as that of success, hence you should be ready to accept the results as they come.

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Categories: Science