Are you stupid enough to work here?

Almost every time you read an interview with a scientist, the subject turns invariably to their sense of accomplishment and awe when they finally discover something new. Somehow, I never could quite identify with this sentiment entirely. Research is excruciatingly hard, laborious, frustrating and accomplishing anything always takes longer than I thought. I always keep hitting blind alleys; things don’t work and I don’t know why. I work for a long time on trying to confirm an hypothesis only to realize that I took a wrong turn near Albuquerque and I wasted time and money on what in 50/50 hindsight is an obviously stupid decision (and it seemed such a great idea two months ago!). By the time my findings are actually valid, novel and confirmed, i.e. “publishable”, whatever awe and wonder exists at this final stage is heavily tainted by exhaustion from repeatedly being frustrated and wrong in the process of getting to this point. Worse: there is always the gnawing fear that I might still be wrong and that I will be “found out” soon enough. So why do I keep on doing it? Well, there are the fun things, there is a culture I like to be in and sometimes, the awe and wonder manage to shine through.

That’s why I was so delighted to read Martin Schwartz’s essay on “The importance of stupidity in scientific research”, published in the Journal of Cell Science. Schwartz, a professor of microbiology at the University of Virginia posits the following: scientists work within the realm of the unknown. Nobody knows the answer to our questions. Not only our basic research questions, but also how to pose them in a manner answerable by a methodology, how to execute that methodology, how to set up controls, everything. No wonder we feel stupid at times: we work on problems in an area that is completely foreign to us, as well as to everybody else. We are “ignorant by choice”: we purposefully place ourselves in situations where we can only be ignorant, and consequently feel stupid. Schwartz recommends we acknowledge this situation for what it is, embrace it, and prepare our students for it.

So next time you interview a graduate student or a postdoc for a position in your lab, just ask them: “do you think you are stupid enough to work here?”

Schwartz MA The importance of stupidity in scientific research J Cell Sci. (2008) Jun 1;121(Pt 11):1771.

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