5 steps to building your scientific muscle

One of Monet's bridges

One of the basic variables of behavioral ecology is the GUT (Giving Up Time)–the amount of time an organism spends at one activity before quitting to do something else. The optimal solution to calculating an organism’s GUT is simple in principle: you quit one task when the opportunity costs–the costs of ignoring all the other stuff you could be doing–exceed the benefits of what you’re doing now.

That rodents are able to do these calculations with ease is a subject of much resentment among the scientists that study them.

But when do you stick with a project for the long haul? And what can you expect for all the effort? How do you avoid being an active participant in, gulp! an exercise in futility?

One answer is staked out in a recent article in the NYT summarizing the research of Andre Ericsson and colleagues. These are psychologists who study the correlates of expert performance. In other words, what does it take to get really, really, good at something? As their work is summarized in a 918 page tome, and I’m a wee bit behind in my reading the way it is, I will summarize the summary.

…the best way to learn how to encode information meaningfully, Ericsson determined, was a process known as deliberate practice….Deliberate practice entails more than simply repeating a task — playing a C-minor scale 100 times, for instance, or hitting tennis serves until your shoulder pops out of its socket. Rather, it involves setting specific goals, obtaining immediate feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome.


“I think the most general claim here,” Ericsson says of his work, “is that a lot of people believe there are some inherent limits they were born with. But there is surprisingly little hard evidence that anyone could attain any kind of exceptional performance without spending a lot of time perfecting it.” This is not to say that all people have equal potential. Michael Jordan, even if he hadn’t spent countless hours in the gym, would still have been a better basketball player than most of us. But without those hours in the gym, he would never have become the player he was.

So before we get into a knicker-twist over genes versus the environment, the message of this work seems to be that if you want to get really good at something, you have to practice, practice, practice.

But genius = good genes x workaholism.

To me, the more interesting issue relevant to this blog is the question: What sort of deliberate practice, focusing on technique and not outcome, would make one a good scientist?

An artist may paint the same bridge over and over, a dancer may practice her Tai Chi, a guitarist will work on progressions until their spinal. But what should a young scientist do over and over, focusing on the skill and not the outcome? Sure, each profession has a skill set (for me, its fixing tiny ants on tiny triangles of paper attached to stainless steel pins, so as not to immerse said ant in a sarcophagus of Elmer’s Glue)

Carebara reina, a damn tiny ant

But what intellectual practice makes you a better scientist? Here are my fives for today:

Each of these, I think, yield progress measured in terms of years, not days.

1) Read the literature obsessively. Read read read. Then read some more. You will get better at it.

2) For each paper, dissect out the hypotheses. They are sometimes carefully hidden! Break the hypothesis down into assumptions, logic, and predictions. Come up with reasonable alternative hypotheses for any interesting results.

3) Practice summarizing to a friendly colleague a paper you just read. Convey concisely the paper’s question, methods, main results. What was the paper’s single greatest strength, and what data you would like to see next? The better you can do this, the better you can give a talk at a national meeting.

4) Think about your research as you fall asleep. Turn it into pictures, graphs, relationships that move about and interact. When you turn your research over to your subconscious, your giving your brain another chance to work on sticky problems.

5) Find a mentor who will challenge you. Everybody who is serious about climbing a steep learning curve needs a coach who can help you recognize, and work to correct, your weaknesses.

h/t to AA


12 Responses to 5 steps to building your scientific muscle

  1. This is very helpful. I’ve been wondering the same thing. I’m very good at learning how things work, disassembling and reverse-engineering until I understand them. But science is a different beast entirely. I think I’ve been doing numbers 1 through 4 successfully. Number five is the hard part. My GPA is low enough I’m afraid most professors will bawk at my desire for learning and their time. I am going to a professor dinner group soon, so that might get my foot in the door. For the record, I’m a junior (sophomore in terms of credits) at Indiana University studying cognitive science, specifically cognitive neuroscience, with a sub 3.0 GPA. Ever hear of anyone like that making it into grad school?

  2. Gideon says:

    I think that list is pretty solid for anyone in academia (which is great!)

    I recently came back to being a full time student after years out of the loop, and while I always studied (a bit obsessively) a number of subjects, I’ve found coming back to OU, and doing the “read 500 pages and synthesize it by tomorrow” mambo has been quite a challenge. That, and realizing just how little my education has actually provided me has given me piles of books I feel I need to read. I’m a religious studies major, so to really have a grasp of my subject matter I need a solid understanding of history, philosophy, theology, sociology and psychology. Lots to study!

    This has led me to spend an enormous amount of time (probably too much!) trying to figure out the best ways to approach, study, and recall 5 or 6 hrs of daily reading. I think these points are pretty solid, and a lot I’ve been doing already.

    You really do have to immerse yourself in it, absolutely drown in it.

  3. […] a scholar of religion as opposed to an evolutionary scientist. Well, Dr. Kaspari posted a list of 5 ways of pumping up your scientific muscles which just happen to work (with only the slightest modification for us non-scientists). But what […]

  4. […] råd fra min nye bedste ven  (han ved det ikke), Dr. Kaspari. Der er indsigter at hente i den fulde post, men her er dagens fem om hvordan man øger sin kompetence som […]

  5. […] a scholar of religion as opposed to an evolutionary scientist. Well, Dr. Kaspari posted a list of 5 ways of pumping up your scientific muscles which just happen to work (with only the slightest modification for us non-scientists). But what […]

  6. Ran Halprin says:

    Jordan – To the best of my understanding, it’s hard to get accepted to grad school with sub 3.0 GPA, but there are several things to note:

    1. A successful research project, especially one yielding a paper, could mean a lot more then your GPA. So do recommendations from professors with whom you’ve worked.

    2. You might be able to be accepted to lesser known universities – but funding might be hard to find.

    3. GPA usually rises in the last year or two, after you get the point of academic studying. Some self exploration on learning techniques might help you get high grades to compensate for the slow start. Mostly, consider the question “Why did I get grade X in course Y and not more?” for all courses, you might be surprised from your answers.

    4. Are you even sure you’re interested in grad school? Suitable? consider point 3’s answers. Also check out phdcomics… 😉

  7. Jochen says:

    Good advice, except for no. 4. It should be ok if you think of your research in preparation of an afternoon nap. Otherwise it keeps me from falling asleep and not getting enough sleep will ruin my productivity of the next day.

  8. torchwolf says:

    I have no idea about the specific skills that would be relevant in any given field. Probably they vary from field to field, even within science. And even within any given field, there may be many different ways to excel, and many different approaches to achieving that excellence.

    But #5 may be somewhat generalisable.

    To achieve mastery in any field, you may need exposure to the work and methods of masters. Perhaps by having one as a mentor, or by immersing yourself in their works.

    It’s a reasonable conjecture anyway, and seems to hold quite well for a number of fields that I know a little bit about.

  9. Some nice points there. Especially for a struggling engineering student 🙂


  10. […] a scholar of religion as opposed to an evolutionary scientist. Well, Dr. Kaspari posted a list of 5 ways of pumping up your scientific muscles which just happen to work (with only the slightest modification for us non-scientists). But what […]

  11. Stately Bears Net

    Be a good listener: Give your full attention to the speaker and maintain eye contact. Dont allow outside noises to distract you, and dont interrupt the speaker. Sometimes its very difficult not to interrupt because your mind has raced ahead and you…

  12. Figured I’d follow up. I got accepted to the #1 program in the country for my area, with funding. I’m starting my 3rd year now. Thanks for the advise!

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