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Science Careers Blog

July 20, 2008

Nuggets of Career Advice from a Nobel Prize Winner

There are no recipes for success, but there are some basic principles to follow, Nobel Prize winner Aaron Ciechanover told a small group of young scientists during a "Tapas with the Professor" session here at the Euroscience Open Forum in Barcelona.

Ciechanover, a researcher at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, received the Albert Lasker Award for basic medical research in 2000 and the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2004 for his work on cellular protein degradation. Even in the face of adversity, Ciechanover never deviated from his principles on how to be a scientist, he told the seven Ph.D. students and postdocs sitting around the table.

Ciechanover’s mottos are the following:

·        Be confident. In the late 1980s, Ciechanover’s research was not rallying great support from the scientific community. “People never really doubted our science but [doubted] the focus of it,” he says. If your research ideas are original and you are able to build the set of tools you need to pursue them, then “don’t get influenced by the ground noise, stick to your ideas,” Ciechanover says.

·        Gain your independence early. Having started making some important discoveries as a Ph.D. student, Ciechanover worried he would never be able to step out of his supervisor’s shadow. During his postdoc, he made a point of finding his own niche and funding. “I became a freelancer, working on my own subject,” during which he published five papers. “Then people didn’t identify me with my mentor anymore.”

·        Find a good mentor. Having a good mentor who gave him some bench space and materials so he could follow his own lines of research was nonetheless critical in his success, Ciechanover says. He advised the young scientists around the table to choose their mentor carefully. “I didn’t just read [about the groups], I went to the U.S. for three weeks for interviews and then I chose my mentor,” Ciechanover says. Avoid picking a “big shot who doesn’t care… [or] a young P.I. who doesn’t know,” he says. The institution, too, is important. “You want to be in a big environment where you can run around in the corridors and find what you need.”

·        Don’t get hung up on journal ranks. “If you look at my CV, you will see a distribution [of journals], not only Science and Nature,” Ciechanover says. “If the community recognizes that you are really good, then it doesn’t matter where you publish.”

·        Constantly ask questions. Young scientists should regularly ask themselves whether they are on their way to independence. “You can do a lot by keeping yourself alert all of the time,” Ciechanover says. Ask yourself whether the question you’re looking at is important or whether you are tying up loose ends for your mentor, and how important your role within the group is.

·        Allow yourself some mistakes. You can’t do it too many times, but if you really don’t like your mentor or supervisor, or you realize you went down the wrong career track, allow yourself to get it right, says Ciechanover, who swapped a physician’s career for research. You have to be true to yourself and say, ‘it’s a mistake… Don’t get stuck into something you don’t want to do.’”

Ultimately, what you want to do to be successful in research is build an identity for yourself, says Ciechanover. “Then build the tools and the means to do it.”

You can read about Ciechanover's plenary lecture on Science's news blog, Findings.

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