Excellent career advice from a Nobel Laureate

What advice would you give a teenager who wants a career in science? Select a subject that interests you and make an effort to become an expert in that field. I promise you, if you make the effort, and you become an expert, you will have a wonderful career.

It doesn\’t apply just to science. The same is true in any walk of life.

Become, say, The City\’s expert in the field of charitable trust law and you\’ve a nice 30 years ahead of you of changing the names on the standard document. At £500 an hour (I know someone who really did this).

Or spend two decades as the expert on the scandium market.

Being an expert allows you to extract rents: or if you prefer, your knowledge is a definite value add.

It will get competed away over time. And obviously, the extraction of rents isn\’t quite what we preach as being good for the whole economy. But it is darn good for your own income.

And of course if you\’re adding sufficient value that people will happily pay your rent then there\’s no harm in it at all: that comes when you manipulate the system (legally, politically) to protect yourself against that nascent competition.

But as career advice: believe me, being paid to be the expert is a whole lot better than having to earn by the sweat of your brow.

11 comments on “Excellent career advice from a Nobel Laureate

  1. The advice of 99.9% of scientists in academia is to go do something more lucrative and less political instead. Sure it’s worth it if you are Nobel material and end up getting that Nobel – for almost everyone else it is a poor trade off.

    Unless you take your scientific training into industry and start extracting those rents, of course.

  2. Agreed.
    There’s a growing opinion that gaining expertise is a waste of time, because it’s been commoditized (ie. too easy to find expertise for free on the web.) But expertise drives passion and that keeps you ahead of the pack.

  3. “But expertise drives passion and that keeps you ahead of the pack.” Oh dear God; I see you’ve developed expertise in drivelish.

  4. As soon as ex scientist – I have a phd in chemistry.
    My advice is don’t go into science it is like buying a lottery ticket, for the majority a waste of time.

  5. I suppose being The World Expert gives you an edge. But if you are, then your field is likely to be so recondite that few have cause to tap your expertise.

    For example, if you are the World Expert in a not particularly distinctive rare earth metal, you might find yourself with some time on your hands.

  6. You don’t have to be “The World Expert”, just good at something and available. I spent over 5 years as the local expert on a particular brand of industrial controllers (Telemecanique and Modicon). Which have a low market share for direct sales in Aust but are imported in large numbers as part of European machinery. Sure, there were plenty of people with similar skills but most were full-time employees at factories with lots of them. The local distributor (my former employer) used to refer site problems to me because it wasn’t worth their while to deal with them, and because this stuff usually required people on-site – the internet does not help for that.

    Once someone was annoyed that I said I was committed that day, but I would come and sort them out tomorrow. Asked if I minded if he rang around, I said “of course, no worries”. He rang back three hours later and said “nice little racket you’ve got going there isn’t it?”

    Eventually the distributor got their act together and set up a real service department, so I went off and became an expert in something else :) but it was a nice little niche while it lasted.

    Was that rent-seeking? Yep, sure was. Did it get competed away? Yep, that too. But it was still worthwhile. And if I had wanted to stay in that business (I didn’t really, wanted to go back to big multi-disciplinary projects rather than being a glorified tradesman) then I’m pretty certain I could have stayed ahead of them.

  7. @dearime – Alanrick’s comment is very sensible. I’ve run into the theory that “we can go out and buy expertise anytime we like” many times and I’m *always* happy to let them try. Unless it’s trivial, it rarely works. “Expertise drives passion” does explain why the real experts will worry at a problem like a dog on a bone (and probably refuse to sleep or eat till they solve it). That’s how they got to be experts. You may think it’s drivel, but it’s true.

  8. “My advice is don’t go into science it is like buying a lottery ticket, for the majority a waste of time”

    Does seem to depend on the country and the field.

  9. alanrick,

    There’s a growing opinion that gaining expertise is a waste of time, because it’s been commoditized (ie. too easy to find expertise for free on the web.) But expertise drives passion and that keeps you ahead of the pack.

    It’s the passion that drives the expertise. People who like fooling around with computers because they’re fun become brilliant programmers.

    The way that experts make money is because a lot of people have needs that haven’t been solved by the web or the sort of budgets that mean that they don’t care about paying for expertise as long as its right.

  10. ” It’s the passion that drives the expertise. People who like fooling around with computers because they’re fun become brilliant programmers.”

    Which may or MAY NOT pay the bills. The problem as I (and many other Ph.D.’s ) see it is that the luck factor is way too big a wild card. People have stopped taking chances on substantive research in favor of “safer” pathways which tend to lead us in circles going nowhere fast. It is also an expensive way to accomplish relatively little.

    I was in research for 15 years – so I’m no stranger to the game. I advise any students of mine with dreams of a career in research to rethink their plans unless they are independently wealthy. This is no longer a game for the masses. I’ve seen far too many brilliant minds with incredible and a seemingly inexhaustible amount of stamina and determination crash and burn to ASSume that passion and ability alone will let you soar above the crowd. Unfortunately, its way too big a crap shoot for that. Meanwhile people have to have a roof over their heads, cloths on their back and food on the table.

  11. In the oil business, the technical experts (e.g. reservoir engineers, geophysicists) get paid more because their expertise is valuable, but they suffer the drawback of there not being so many positions: a subsidiary will only need 1 or 2 reservoir engineers. Whereas project engineers, for example, have nowhere near the technical expertise and are hence paid less, but it is much easier to find a job as “we could always use another PE”. It’s a trade off.

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