What Makes a ‘Good Scientist’?

Authored by Stuart Goldie

When considering what makes a good scientist there is a tendency to misunderstand famous role models. People like Newton, Curie and especially Einstein are considered genius individuals capable of vast leaps of thinking; in reality this does a disservice to the work actually required to arrive at such a point, and becomes unnecessarily intimidating. Whilst the story of an apple falling on the head of Newton causing him to “discover” gravity is a nice cartoon, the reality was a lot of methodical work.

In reality, much better drivers to success and wellbeing are “curiosity” and “grit”, measures of our innate want to know more and our resilience to push through setbacks. In a recent study these characteristics were found to correlate to goal achievement and wellbeing [1], and significantly, in the case of curiosity even a small amount of learning when you are interested actually primes the mind for further learning and growth [2]. Whilst these studies were not specific to scientists the trends remain true; good science is about the questions we ask and the journey, often long and bumpy, to answer them.

Possibly the most quoted example of that tenacity; Thomas Edison’s views regarding his many unsuccessful attempts to perfect a lightbulb filament reveal that far from failures, he considered them important learning points that the curious use. The ability to learn from ones mistakes and develop further is also supported by more recent investigations into learning; students with an open approach to failure who believe they can always improve generally progress further and learn more than people who believe in a “fixed” intelligence or ability [3,4].

As a final anecdotal account allow me to introduce Ritty: a boy who struggled with languages and literature at school and scored an above average but otherwise unremarkable 125 on a school IQ test (current record is 263). Unlike many other students, however, Ritty spent his entire life on a quest to sate his own curiosity and learn as much as possible no matter how often that meant he was wrong. Ritty, or as he’s better known Richard Feynman, is arguably the most successful scientist of the 20th century revolutionising the field of subatomic particles, but also working on genetics to understand the interdependence of mutations, and his visionary thinking kick started interest in nanotechnology.

I hope to have illustrated that successful scientists are made from more than just “high intelligence”. Every new discovery is, by definition, unique and there is no singular way of working. We all have our preferences. Nevertheless, experience has shown me good science is never easy. There are many failures and some desire, some curiosity, must keep you pushing through to reach the end you often cannot see.

There is an overused metaphor about needing to leave the well-trodden path if you want to find anything new. Whilst there is some truth to that you must be a diligent mapmaker; finding wonder in, and recording, everything if you wish to share your discovery with the world. Wandering off the path and hoping your innate “genius” will find something amazing is not science, it’s gambling. To develop as a scientist: revel in failure. Use that new knowledge and experience to better oneself and never stop asking questions. You are never too stupid to do science; only too lazy to learn.


[1] K. M. Sheldon, P. E. Jose, T. B. Kashdan and A. Jarden, Personal. Soc. Psychol. Bull., 2015, 41, 575–585.

[2] M. J. Gruber, B. D. Gelman and C. Ranganath, Neuron, 2014, 84, 486–496.

[3] M. Yorke and P. Knight, Stud. High. Educ., 2004, 29, 25–37.

[4] J. A. Mangels, B. Butterfield, J. Lamb, C. Good and C. S. Dweck, Soc. Cogn. Affect. Neurosci., 2006, 1, 75–86.