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What makes a really good scientist?

I got invited to be a member of a judging panel for a science award aimed at groups of year 7-9 (13-15 year old) students the other day.

It was a very inspiring event. The students had to come up with an every day problem that was relevant to their lives, think of an experiment to investigate and maybe solve the issue, do the experiment, write it up, and then submit it as a scientific poster. The final five groups of students were then invited to present their work in front of a judging panel… which this year included myself. It was terrifying.

And it got me thinking about their very promising futures, and then traits that they need in order to pursue a career in STEM. I thought about all the amazing scientists (including Ph. D students) that I’d met over the years, and the qualities that made them good at what they did…

So I made a list.

Because I love lists. 😂

So here’s a list of personality traits that make a really good scientist. This goes out to any aspiring students who might be keen to explore the vast world of STEM, but aren’t sure whether they’re cut out for it (short answer, you probably are).

1. Curiosity

Probably the most important thing about any good scientist. You have to be curious.

Why does (something) do this? How does (something) work? How can I fix (problem)?

These questions don’t start unless you’re inquisitive about the world around you. Let that be the drive to something amazing.

2. Initiative

You can be curious about the world around you, but initiative is what’s needed to take that first step into actually looking into the thing you’re curious about.

It’s when you actually google the question. When you ask others about it to find out the answer. You’ve actually bothered, or made an effort to find out.

Some people don’t even do that. They spend their entire lives with this mystery, or issue… and they never do anything with it. There’s the baseline curiosity… but then it’s like, ‘eh- don’t care’ or ‘can’t be bothered’. Be bothered!

That first step is probably the most important.

This is the ‘literature search’ phase. You’re looking at other resources, whether it be Google, Wikipedia (we all gotta start somewhere), or for me personally, PubMed. You’re figuring out what information is out there, and also… what’s missing. The missing data is where you, as a budding scientist, come in. People want to solve mysteries, or solve problems. If you can look over your resources and find that, no one else has solved it or figured it out…

That’s your ‘in’.

There’s the investigation.

3. Creativity

So you’ve figured out the missing piece of information, or the problem that needs to be solved. You’ve looked around and learnt from other peoples’ attempts and figured out what’s already been done, and what hasn’t been done, yet.

Now it’s time to figure out how to find the answer, with everyone else’s previous attempts forming a guide for what else you can do.

You have to design an approach (e.g. an experiment), which… maybe no one else has attempted before? There’s no guide book for that. No instruction manual… just some hints from what other people have done previously.

So you need to get creative. And I think this is where a lot of research students (myself included) hit a roadblock.

You can be a technician who does the same thing day in, day out, but a fully-fledged scientist is solving problems that no one else has solved before. You have to be able to think on your feet, outside the box, take inspiration from potentially unusual places…

All of that takes a lot of creativity. And creativity isn’t something that’s easily learnt (or taught).

So if you’re already naturally creative, that’s awesome. It might help you to come up with solutions to things that no one else has thought of before.

4. Drive and tenacity (or stubborness)

Now that you’ve got the ball rolling- this is probably the most difficult and boring part of being a scientist.

You have to keep at it, and not give up. Finish the task as best you can and get it to a point where it feels the most ‘complete’.

And that requires drive and tenacity. You have to push yourself to keep going, and usually- no one else will cheer you on. They might, if you’re lucky, but a lot of the time it has to come from yourself. YOU need to push yourself to keep going. You have to become your best cheerleader. Even when it feels tough. Even when you’re exhausted and want to give up.

That being said, there’s nothing wrong with stopping if it’s actually having a negative impact on your life.

But if you’re stopping because you ‘can’t be bothered’… Get some pom poms for youself and cheer yourself on to the finish line.

The best scientists just keep pursuing their goals, even with multitudes of obstacles (lack of resources and funding being major hurdles these days). Maybe they might get lucky and their goals are achieved, but until then, they’ll just keep at it.

5. Organisation

With all the chaos that goes on during an experiment, you have to be organised.

Have you read up on as much as you can beforehand? Do you have all the materials necessary (and are they still within date? 😅😂)? Have you contacted (person A) so that they can help you out? Is your laptop fully charged so that you can use it to record and analyse your results?

All of that takes organisation. It’s okay to have a few hiccoughs along the way, but when everything is relatively smooth sailing… that’s when you know you were organised. If you’ve allowed for extra time because you had a hunch that step 3 was going to take longer than you initially thought… that’s organisation. Even for a home experiment- if you have a rag on hand to mop up spills- that’s organisation.

6. Attention to detail

Sure, some people might call it nit-picking, but I call it attention to detail.

Scientists are very good at looking at things in fine detail- that’s how we’re able to spot potential mistakes, or ‘holes’ in the design of an experiment. Maybe you’ve missed one small, but significant detail, and your results don’t have as big an impact as it could have. If you’re very detail-oriented, you’ll spot it sooner than your average person. That way you can fix it sooner as well.

And this could be somewhat mundane things- like spelling errors, or inconsistent font use.

I’ve already mentioned my hate for formatting, but those are the things that make a document look pretty and professional, as opposed to only okay.

7. Critical thinking

Possibly one of the most important things in science is to be able to get vast amounts of data/information, and then critically analyse it.

Look at all of that information objectively and logically, without emotion, and without bias.

And what I mean by bias is, maybe you know you want a particular answer- so you decide to ignore results that are against what you want. That’s not how science works, and that’s not what a good scientist does. You have to take the results as they are, regardless of what you want to see.

But you need to be able to sort out results that are junk. Maybe they didn’t do a proper experiment, where all the parameters (variables) weren’t accounted for. Maybe their equipment was shoddy, or maybe they’re all talk and no data!

So you don’t want to include that in your analysis- because they’re bad experiments/results.

Critical thinking is being able to weigh up all that info, get rid of the bad ones, and hone in on what it all means. That’s a really hard thing to do, and that’s why we train for so many years to learn how to do it.

8. Perspective

Even in the frenzy of it all, it’s really important to maintain a sense of perspective.

Sometimes you can get really bogged down in the finer details (I’m notorious at this), and you sort of forget why you’re doing things.

And that means you need to occasionally take a step back to think about the bigger picture. What do the results (actually) mean? How does it fit into what’s already out there? Am I exploring this problem well enough in this broader context, or do I need to do more (or less)? How am I helping my field with my work (what am I bringing to the table)?

You also need a sense of open mindedness, too. Getting stuck in your own line of thinking is a really bad thing if you’re a scientist, because it means you’re not really open to new ideas- only if they come from yourself.

Science does have a lot of independent aspects to it, but it also involves a lot of team work. You alone, can’t do everything. Everyone needs help to do things, and that’s perfectly okay. You might think you’re doing everything, but chances are, someone is quietly helping you out here and there to make your life be a little easier. And by ‘help’, that also includes intellectual input- so, helpful hints and suggestions, feedback, soundboarding opportunities (where someone just listens to you while you talk aloud about your ideas)… Everything is a give and take. You should be open to other people’s input, because having input from other people (from various different backgrounds) will only make your investigation more thorough and richer.

9. Passion

You hear this a lot when someone describes a person who is really engaging.

‘Wow, they’re really passionate about what they’re doing’

And this isn’t limited to science- this is just life in general. People that do well in whatever field they’re in- are passionate.

Having a passion for something will only drive you forwards.

A good scientist is absolutely passionate about what they’re working on. You can tell because they’ll jump through so many hoops to keep doing it. When they talk about their work, their eyes light up, they’re excited, they’re smiling a lot… all of those things are great qualities in a scientist (and person).

But finding a passion for something is really hard. Possibly one of the most difficult aspirations in life (in general).

So if you’ve got something you feel really passionate about… run with it! I hope you continue to push yourself and move forwards through all obstacles that might be in your way. It’s a really fortunate thing that not everyone has.

10. Communication

This got brought up a lot during the awards night.

You could be doing amazing science… but there’s no point to any of it if you’re not communicating it to anyone else.

Whether it be by publishing in a scientific journal, or presenting your work at a scientific conference…

Creating a scientific poster and entering a competition so that you can present it on stage to an audience…

Doing a YouTube video or posting on social media…

Writing a blog… 👀

All of these things are science communication, and it’s really important.

Scientists have a bit of a bad rep about not being able to communicate their work to a broader audience. The technical jargon (i.e. big scary science words) are a bit off putting to a general audience. Hell, they’re off putting to me! Sometimes I don’t understand scientific papers, because all the words are field specific and as an outsider in my niche area, I’ve got no idea what they’re on about.

And that’s not good. You should be able to explain your results in a way that everyone can at least get the general gist of why you’ve explored it, how you’ve explored it, what you saw, and what it all means. Without having to open up a search bar to google every second term.

If you’re really good at getting a complicated idea/result/discussion and communicating that in a much more simplified manner… that’s a skill. In this day and age, where there’s so much misinformation out there, effective science communication is critical.

And if it helps, I’ve always thought of it as story telling.

Maybe the story isn’t about dragons and treasure, or superheroes and aliens…

But it’s still a story none the less.

My good friend, who presented a talk on effective science communication at the awards night, made a really big point about this. You’ve still got characters, you’ve still got a hero (you!), you’ve still got a build up of mystery and tension until the results are revealed, and there’s still the conclusion where everything gets explained and everything ties together (or leads to a sequel).

When you think of it like this, science, and communicating it… it isn’t that scary.

And practice makes… well- not ‘perfect’, but improvements. 😂

So if you’ve made it this far, and you feel like you have all of the above qualities and are interested in STEM… look into it. For reals. You might do pretty well in it. 🥰

Categories: Careers Ph D posts

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A Ph. D graduate in Microbiology, residing in Victoria, Australia. Currently working in multiple locations but still in the STEM field. 👀 🦠 🧫 🧬

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