The Scientists’ Creed or Baldwin’s expectations for scientists in the Department of Molecular Ecology

1)    Recognize that being a scientist is a privilege.  The life of a scientist involves engaging in a structured knowledge accumulation process to understand how Nature works.  This is a highly creative, if not artistic, process.  And as such, we are paid artists.  With the recognition of the privilege of being in a profession of paid artists, comes two obligations:

  • a.    The obligation to communicate our scientific discoveries to the world. In other words, doing science is nice, but if you don’t publish what you discover, you are not fulfilling your obligation to the people who pay: the public.
  • b.    The obligation to take this job seriously,  which means:
  •      i.    To become “knowledge addicts”.  This is no different from any other form of addiction, and probably involves the dopamine reward system.  Addiction to the process of discovery is probably the default state of the human brain, second only to sex, and the consumption of sweet, salty and fatty foods,  but the propensity to become a knowledge addict is one that is easily lost during maturation and, for some, requires relearning.
  •      ii.    To become passionately engaged in your research.  Without passion, you will not find what it takes to do great science.  Being passionate means that you should learn to see the world through your research question, as if the question was etched into your cornea, and allow the question to get under your skin so that you carry it, effortlessly, with you at all times.  If you treat your science robotically, robots will eventually be programed to do your job. Moreover, this is the Max Planck Society, and if you strive for mediocrity, there are other places you can go.


2)    You have an obligation to inform yourself about the science done in the Department by reading the Departmental publications and informing yourself about current research activities. The research in our Department frequently builds on discoveries from other group members. Hence, to maximize your research impact, you must attend and engage in lab meetings, read the blogs from all the various meetings, and participate in the symposia (e.g. Laboratory Mom and Instrument Dad Symposium, retreats) designed to enhance communication within the Department.

In practice, what does this mean for a starting Ph.D. student?

1)    You must be willing to undergo a transformation.  The process of becoming a scientist worthy of the Ph.D. degree in the short three years allowed by the German funding system, will likely be the largest transformation you have experienced since you were born.  This will require assimilating five essential scientific skills. These are all skills that employers of Post-docs expect that you will have mastered, and hence the Ph.D. training time is the only time in your career for you to master them.  All five require constant practice so that they become habits, not unlike brushing your teeth. These five are:

  • a.    Critical thinking. Learning to formulate testable hypotheses that address interesting scientific questions is the only skill you will learn as a PhD student which will never age ….
  • b.    Critical reading abilities. Scientific literature is hard to read and dissect, and requires special reading skills.
  • c.     Organizational skills. Designing efficient experiments that falsify hypotheses is the daily work of a scientist.
  • d.     Scientific writing. Writing up your scientific results for publication is similar to learning a new language, even for native English speakers. The publications that you produce are the currency in which the progress of your career is measured and evaluated. For a detailed description of Baldwin's formula for the writing of scientific papers and reviews see: The Baldwin formula for writing a scientific paper and reviewing papers.
  • e.    Scientific presentation skills.  Scientific talks are key components of the communication process, particularly for career advancement.

2)    This means not working on a schedule, but to obtain a result, a scientific discovery. While having and maintain schedules will be important for building competence in the 5 skills listed above, your scientific discoveries will not come from a schedule, but rather your passionate engagement in the discovery process. This is a way of working that is different from that of most of the 9-to-5 working world.

3)    Does this mean that I have to work all the time? No. Most scientific discoveries require very little actual time invested – much of the time investment comes in carefully formulating your hypotheses and tests, and communicating your results. But it does mean that you have to learn to manage your own creative juices: to recharge your batteries on a daily, weekly and yearly basis, so that you will have sufficient creative energy to feed your knowledge addiction and be fully engaged in the discovery process.  This is a very personal thing, and you will have to figure out what works for you.

I also would like to articulate the obligations that I have to you as a scientist in the Department. My most important obligation is to do whatever it takes to help you obtain your goal of becoming an independent scientist.  This means that I will engage with you with a comparable amount of passion to help you attain your scientific goals. My job is not necessarily to become your friend; this can come after you have successfully undergone the transformation into an independent scientist.  In practice, this means that I feel obliged to help make the question that you are working on yours. If you do not feel ownership over your question, this question will not become “your baby”, and it will be hard for you to become adequately engaged.