Have You Peaked Too Early or Left It Too Late? Here's What We Can Learn From Great Scientists

What do great scientists have in common? A new study finds that age and career path have no bearing on success – but "deliberate practice" does, and it's something we can all use. 


Scientists can have their big break any point in their career.

A new paper published in the journal Science determined that from a big data analysis on scientific careers from 1893 to 2010. The research team, led by Roberta Sinatra and Albert-​​​​László Barabási of Northeastern University, determined that a scientist can make a lasting impact with their research from the very first published paper to the very last. There is no definite trajectory for success, and every successful scientist’s career is a mix of skill, persistence, and luck.

The research team figured all that out by analyzing publication data from scientists who published papers between 1893 to 2010. Those data points began with 236,884 physicist publications and expanded to 24,630 Google Scholar profiles and 514,896 publications across seven scientific disciplines “from physics to chemistry, economics to cognitive science,” according to the Northeastern press release.

Credit: Kim Albrecht/Northeastern University

They crunched all of that data and came up with a productivity quotient or “Q.” “The Q factor cap­tures a com­bi­na­tion of ability, edu­ca­tion, and knowl­edge… how good is a sci­en­tist at picking an idea and turning it into a discovery,” Barabási explains in the press release. “A high Q com­bined with con­tinued efforts pro­vide a fore­cast of what’s to come. We cannot pre­dict when a big hit will come, but by exam­ining Q—a stable factor—we can pre­dict that one will likely come in the future,” Sinatra adds later. Here’s an example of what that might look like:

probability diagram 1.jpg

The publication history of two Nobel laureates, Frank A. Wilczek (Nobel Prize in Physics, 2004) and John B. Fenn (Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2002), illustrating that the highest-impact work can be, with the same probability, anywhere in the sequence of papers published by a scientist. Each vertical line corresponds to a research paper. The height of each line corresponds to paper impact, quantified with the number of citations the paper received after 10 years. Wilczek won the Nobel Prize for the very first paper he published, whereas Fenn published his Nobel-awarded work late in his career, after he was forcefully retired by Yale. [Image of Frank A. Wilczek is reprinted with permission of STS/Society for Science & the Public. Image of John B. Fenn is available for public domain use on Wikipedia.org.]

The probability of a scientist’s first paper being enormously impactful is exactly the same as their last paper being enormously impactful. As the study authors write, “We find that the highest-impact work in a scientist’s career is randomly distributed within her body of work. That is, the highest-impact work can be, with the same probability, anywhere in the sequence of papers published by a scientist.” That probability remains regardless of discipline, career length, “working in different decades, and publishing solo or with teams and whether credit is assigned uniformly or unevenly among collaborators,” according to the study.

“The composition of this Q quality, whatever you call it, is likely to vary in different fields,” Dr. Dean Simonton of the University of California, Davis told The New York Times about the Northeastern study. “That’s why you can see people who are highly successful in one field switch careers and not do so well.”

The biggest factor for success? “Pro­duc­tivity and the will to keep trying that cor­re­sponds with great dis­cov­eries, whether the sci­en­tist is 20, 40, or even 70,” explains Northeastern. “What mat­ters is not the timing of dis­cov­eries that could affect future gen­er­a­tions but that they hap­pened... under­standing that good sci­en­tists, if they have the resources to stay pro­duc­tive, could gen­erate future big dis­cov­eries, inde­pen­dent of age, is essen­tial for us to move for­ward in thinking about how to boost sci­ence.”

And if they can do it, you can, too.

The scientists are essentially cultivating the habit of “deliberate practice,” or pushing yourself slightly beyond your skill level. By utilizing deliberate practice every time you want to get better at something -- from building a business to learning a language to writing that novel for NaNoWriMo -- you increase your skill levels. You will most likely fail, but you’ll learn how to overcome that obstacle and push past it next time. That creates an atmosphere for success, as author David Shenk told us:

So remember: the next time you want to succeed at something, keep trying. Or, as Barabási put it for The Times, “The bottom line is: Brother, never give up. When you give up, that’s when your creativity ends.”

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