The Moscow Rules - Science Edition: Part 10

May 12 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Today, I’m winding down my stint here at the Scientopia Guest Blog with the last of the Moscow Rules for scientists, and some incomparable spy music.

Moscow Rules, number 10.

Keep your options open.

Are you letting an eight year old run your life?

I was listening to an interview (I think it was someone connected with space research on CBC’s Quirks and Quarks). The interviewee said he started pursuing his career since the age of eight. He joked that essentially was letting an eight-year old dictate his life.

We place a high premium on following childhood dreams. In my writing course, I ask my students to write a personal statement for some program that they want to apply to. Because I’m in biology, we have a lot of students who want to go to medical school, or into health professions. I’ve been struck by how often people justify their decision as a “childhood dream.”

When someone like Neil DeGrasse Tyson talks about answering that question with, “Astrophysicist!” from a very young age, there’s a tendency to hold those people up high as somehow possessing some sort of extra nobility because they “followed their dreams.”

The Avengers: I bet when Scarlett Johansson was a kid, she watched Diana Rigg on TV.

Sometimes we place too high a premium on childhood dreams. Seriously, what did you know about the world when you were 8? If we did the job we said we wanted when we were 8, there would be nothing but astronauts, firefighters, and ballerinas in the world. (And maybe a few spies.)

When a kid answers the “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question from adults, we forget how our adult response affects kids and young adults. What kind of response a kid gets when they answer, “I want to be a doctor” compared to “I want to be a mechanic”? Some adult occupations are better for a kid to want than others.

The road to a scientific career is a long and lengthy one. If you’re looking at a scientific career now, it’s worth asking how much of that desire is what the “right now” you wants, and how much of it is what the 8 year old you (or 16 year old you, or 20 year old you) wanted, perhaps helped along by adults who view “educated professional” as a very good answer to the “What do you want to be...?” question?

This is particularly important to ask this question early in your career, because it does get trickier to keep those options open as you go along. It gets harder to jump different research fields as you go.

If what you thought you wanted is not what you want, I have good news for you. There’s a lot of stuff out there that’s you didn’t know about when you were 8 that is awesome.

I sometimes joke about my own research by saying, “Nobody gets into this business to become a crustacean neuroethologist.” Before you get into university, never mind how you get trained for that kind of career, who even knows that is a an actual job that you can get paid to do?

Now, a lot of cool stuff is protected by a force field of tediousness (as Ben Goldacre says). You often have to do a bit of slogging before it starts to get awesome. But if you are willing to keep those options open, you can often find stuff that you didn’t know about that is challenging and rewarding and something that you can do.

And even as you go along further in your career, pay attention to the signals you’re getting. You can create new opportunities for yourself by habitually putting yourself in new situations, which creates little chance opportunities to seize (Wiseman, 2003). This is why you should look for chances to switch up the kind research that you want to do, and look for new challenges you want to take on. (See also Moscow Rules #6.)

In other words, luck is a skill. It can be learned, and improved, by following this last Moscow Rule.

Follow the Moscow Rules, and like the best spies, you too will be be capable of death-defying feats... of science!


Coda: If you have enjoyed these Guest Blog posts, please visit my current #SciFund project, Beach of the Goliath Crabs. If you can chip in a little contribution, great. If not, you could help me out by sharing it on Twitter and clicking the Facebook "Like" button. Thanks!

And just a reminder that I blog about science regularly at NeuroDojo, Better Posters, and Marmorkrebs, and about movies at Sunday Matinee!



Wiseman R. 2003. The luck factor. The Skeptical Enquirer May/June 2003: 26-30.

External links

David Kroll on career changes. Excellent stuff, from a man who gave up tenure twice.

This post talks about how open grad students are to different kinds of careers besides becoming becoming professors at major research universities.


6 responses so far

  • coturnix says:

    OT, but I doubt Scarlett is old enough to have seen Diana Rigg on TV, unless in syndication on cable years after the show ended.

  • coturnix says:

    To be precise, Scarlett was born 16 years after the original Avengers series ended.

  • scicurious says:

    It's been awesome to have you with us! I love this series you put together!!!

    Also, I am WAY too young for Diana Rigg...and I still watched her. On DVD. She's AWESOME.

  • David says:

    Hey, bro - thanks so much for linked to that old post. It still holds true today and, yes, I did relinquish tenure twice. Neither move was taken lightly but both moves meant listening to my heart at the time rather than the 8-year-old one.

    Great series - and thank you for reading and linking!

  • DJMH says:

    I loved this whole series of posts, Zen. All good rules generally and I liked the way you drew larger science (life?) lessons out of them.

  • Bashir says:

    Nice series.