The reactions to his book were both enthusiastic and angry. In fact, he doubted whether he should even have it published. For VU alumni, it’s relevant nonetheless: Letter to my students, or how to become a good scientist by Professor of Neuroscience Jeroen Geurts. Who among us has not wondered whether or not to pursue an academic career?
Helping make the world a better place, following your passion, eternal fame. But also: too many applicants for too few positions, fragile egos and low-brow, small-minded conflicts. At one time or another, every university student considers becoming a professional scientist. Perhaps you are considering it still? In that case, then the story of neuroscientist Jeroen Geurts (1978) may be of interest. In his open letter to students, he tells his own story and gives some advice. Follow your own path. Don’t just passively complete your curriculum, but ask yourself what you are truly interested in, and make sure to feed your hunger for knowledge.
- Follow your own path. Don’t just passively complete your curriculum, but ask yourself what you are truly interested in, and make sure to feed your hunger for knowledge.
- Don’t be afraid to choose, even if that means passing up other opportunities. Having too many choices is a very modern problem, but just make a decision and follow your instinct. There is no rule against reconsidering your choices later.
- If at all possible, don’t join the mudslinging that is all too common in academia. Science is about solving problems, not about who solves them. Don’t be afraid to give something up occasionally. Be independent and unique. Set a goal and go for it. If you’re good at what you do, then nobody can touch you.
‘If you’re good at what you do, then nobody can touch you’
That may sound overly idealistic, but Geurts is certainly not blind to the obstacles in the path to science. Young scientists don’t have an easy life, and they have to invest years of their lives for a career with no job security. Geurts talks about it honestly with his students at an early phase of their studies. If he doesn’t think that they will survive the competition, he will tell them that openly.
- Ask your mentors if they think that you will make it, what you have to do, and where you need to go. Don’t rest until they help you find the answers to these questions and make your choices.
- Thomas Edison once said that science is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, and Geurts agrees with him. It involves a lot of very hard work, and nobody can study for you. Top scientists experience their work almost as a calling, and love it to the point that there is a very thin line between their work and the rest of their lives.
‘It involves a lot of very hard work, and nobody can study for you’
Geurts also has something encouraging to say about that 1%. He is more of a dreamer by nature, and he loves grotesque, absurd stories. He also loves writing them himself. If he had his way, he would retreat into his books, sketches and his imagination. “As a scientist, you describe the world the way it is, but I want to encourage my students to dare to dream first, and to free themselves from existing ideas”, says Geurts in Advalvas. “Of course, at a certain moment you have to stop dreaming and concentrate on the facts at hand. You can’t dream up the significance of your tests or the reliability of your data.”
- Reflect on your own behaviour. That applies for any good person, but especially for scientists: have I come to the best hypothesis? Have I read enough to know for sure? Is my method reliable? My line of reasoning? Reflection can protect you against dogmas or corruption.
- Go for it, or get out. Both of them are good decisions.
Letter to my students, or how to become a good scientist; 28 pg.; Uitgeverij Vesuvius/VU Uitgeverij; price € 3.95.