N Skills Every Scientist Should Have

A little while back, Popular Mechanics published a list of 25 Skills Every Man Should Know. Seven of the 25 are car-related, another four have to do with construction, and an additional six are outdoorsy things. Of course, they also threw in “extend your wireless network,” for the nerds out there, but it does tend toward the parodically ManlyMan side of things.

In response, Cut to the Chase posted a list of 20 “practical skills every self-sufficient adult should have”, which probably errs in the other direction, with entries that are far too humorlessly sensible. (Though I notice that “Know basic nutritional needs & how to plan balanced meals” makes the list, but nothing about cooking said meal…). There’s probably a “meme” in this, but I’ll save that for another post.

Anyway, the reason for this post is that it occurs to me that a similar list could be developed for scientists. So, here is the beginning of a list of N Skills Every Scientist Should Have (in the order in which they occurred to me):

A scientist should be able…

  1. … to plan and carry out a simple experiment.
  2. … to construct and test a simple theoretical model.
  3. … to operate a computer.
  4. … to interpret a graph.
  5. … to understand algebra.
  6. … to calculate and interpret simple statistical quantities (means, medians, standard deviations).
  7. … to understand simple calculus (basic derivatives and integrals).
  8. … to write a technical paper explaining a new result.
  9. … to write a grant proposal.
  10. … to give a “cocktail-party” explanation of thier work in layman’s terms.
  11. … to give an hour-long seminar about their research.
  12. … to read and evaluate the papers of other scientists in the field.
  13. … to read and evaluate general-audience articles about other sciences.
  14. … ?

I’m sure this isn’t a complete list. What am I missing?

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(Note that this is intended to be a general science lit, not a list of discipline-specific skills. If it was a list of skills a physicist should be able to do, “solder” would’ve made it…)

(Also, please note that I am aware of the famous Robert Heinlein quote, which you can find in this collection of historical ManlyMan skills lists, so don’t bother leaving it in the comments.)

(Original link via Republic of T.)

Comments

  1. #1 Dave Munger
    October 22, 2007

    … to understand and account for sources of error.
    … to critically evaluate the work of others.

    Off the top of my head. I’m sure there are lots more.

  2. #2 Size
    October 22, 2007

    I’d say something like:
    To differentiate between good and poor experimental design and/or to be able to defend their own design.

    To recognize, describe and/or account for potentially confounding factors in an experiment or study.

  3. #3 SMC
    October 22, 2007

    … to operate a computer.
    …even if it isn’t running “Microsoft Windows”…
    … to write a grant proposal.

    I’d suggest rather a more generic “justify your funding in writing”, since I’m under the impression that scientists working “in industry” aren’t normally dependent on grant-writing…

  4. #4 Harlan
    October 22, 2007

    hmm…

    …to collaborate with other people.
    …to self-motivate.
    …to find flaws in your own work.
    …to maintain an annotated bibliographic database (EndNote, BibTeX).

  5. #5 katherine sharpe
    October 22, 2007

    I love the Cut to the Chase list. Beats the Pop Mechanics list (cleaning a bolt-action rifle is bad-ass, but you’ll use your decent sense of direction a lot more often).

  6. #6 such.ire
    October 22, 2007

    An experimental scientist should be able to fix most of the machines that the lab uses without having to call in an outside technician, or at least get them working well enough to finish the last run of experiments.

  7. #7 JSinger
    October 22, 2007

    I paddled a kayak and filleted a fish just yesterday, while I can’t recall the last time I needed to take the derivative of anything. And thankfully I don’t have to write grant proposals.

    But fixing a flat bicycle tire belongs on this list, even if Cut to the Chase dismisses it. How else would you get to lab?

  8. #8 Rebecca
    October 22, 2007

    …to use the library, specifically the searchable databases
    …to mentor a junior scientist without being condescending or rude

  9. #9 Jonathan Paul
    October 22, 2007

    …to be comfortable presenting complex theoretical models (plus supporting data from one’s own lab) to potentially hostile audiences, and within an arbitary time limit.

    I guess this could replace

    “… to give an hour-long seminar about their research.”

  10. #10 Edrei
    October 22, 2007

    …to admit that whatever hypothesis or theories that came before might be wrong if given the proper evidence that it is wrong.
    …to rely on ideas as a basis for moving forward rather than belief.
    …to jerry rig alternative ways of making experiments work when the machines we usually take for granted doesn’t seem to work.

  11. #11 Nick Anthis
    October 22, 2007

    …to kiss ass, suck up, stroke egos, cite the right papers….

    ;-)

  12. #12 CCPhysicist
    October 22, 2007

    Following up on reply #1: … redesign an experiment to eliminate the most important source of error

    … “know” when a result (experimental or theoretical) is incorrect.

  13. #13 Chad Orzel
    October 22, 2007

    An experimental scientist should be able to fix most of the machines that the lab uses without having to call in an outside technician, or at least get them working well enough to finish the last run of experiments.

    That’s a little more specific than I was aiming for. I don’t disagree, at least for experimental physics, but I’m not sure it’s a good general rule…

    …to mentor a junior scientist without being condescending or rude

    I’m not sure about this one. After all, there are a lot of very successful scientists out there who are total pricks….

    (But yes, if the list is prescriptive rather than descriptive, that ought to be on there.)

  14. #14 milkshake
    October 22, 2007

    …to obsess about technicalities of an esoteric project – and to do so because of a curiosity and for the bragging rights – rather than because of a sense of duty or quest for power
    …to use the imagination and memory to draw analogies, on seemingly unrelated subjects
    …to question the solidity of an accepted idea/conclusion/authority (then working out the consequences of the guess)
    …to say ‘We dont know – yet’

  15. #15 nunatak
    October 23, 2007

    Algebra and statistics, fine, but calculus is most certainly a specialist tool and thus does not belong on a general list of science skills. I’ve been a geneticist for 13 years, and have never had to use calculus.

    And on a different note, isn’t this crying out for a spoof entitled “N skills that every creation scientist should have”. It should include “…to memorize talking points (‘teach the controversy’, ‘not enough transitional fossils’, ‘irreducible complexity’ etc.) instead of wasting valuable time designing and carrying out experiments (experiments, pshaw).

  16. #16 Jiri
    October 23, 2007

    and, more generally,my favourite.-.-

    [IF]

    If you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
    If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
    But make allowance for their doubting too,
    If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
    Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

    If you can dream–and not make dreams your master,
    If you can think–and not make thoughts your aim;
    If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;
    If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
    Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools:

    If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
    And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breath a word about your loss;
    If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,
    And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

    If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
    Or walk with kings–nor lose the common touch,
    If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
    If all men count with you, but none too much,
    If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
    Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
    And–which is more–you’ll be a Man, my son!

    –Rudyard Kipling

  17. #17 Jiri
    October 23, 2007

    and, more generally,my favourite.-.-

    [IF]

    If you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
    If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
    But make allowance for their doubting too,
    If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
    Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

    If you can dream–and not make dreams your master,
    If you can think–and not make thoughts your aim;
    If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;
    If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
    Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools:

    If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
    And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breath a word about your loss;
    If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,
    And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

    If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
    Or walk with kings–nor lose the common touch,
    If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
    If all men count with you, but none too much,
    If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
    Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
    And–which is more–you’ll be a Man, my son!

    –Rudyard Kipling

  18. #18 pjcamp
    October 24, 2007

    To teach an introductory class in your field.

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