What motivates a scientist.

I put down the pipettes and start the timer. The samples are tucked in the heating block and the enzymes (manufactured in some bland warehouse in Germany) have thirty minutes to do their magic. The gloves come off and I mentally browse through tasks to fill this mini-gap. Should I read a paper? Perhaps add a few lines to that manuscript that insists on not writing itself. Thirty minutes is too short to be productive at any of these tasks so I sit in the empty lab, wondering. The timer moonwalking steadily to the inevitable beep.
“Why do I do this?” – I wonder.

Hovering above the master mixes, the manuscripts and the strategic decisions that may or may not extend your career in academic research is this fundamental question: what is one’s motivation to be an academic scientist? Over the years I have met many scientists and the reasons that attracted them to a career in research are plenty. Of course most people do not have just one motivation but a combination of several, the weight of each varying from person to person and across time. Here, I will attempt to list some motivations I have encountered in my fellow colleagues (and in myself) to the central question of why we chose a career in academic science.


But first I’ll exclude two motivations that only the most delusional individuals would claim to be the reasons that attracted them to science: money and social status. Sure, your average post-doc salary can sustain a moderate middle class lifestyle (so long as you don’t indulge into procreation or long-term financial commitments) and the money tends to improve slightly as you progress through the slippery career ladder but many equally qualified jobs pay much better wages and often with greater job security. Just ask your friends in IT or finance.

As for social status, yes, people will commend you at dinner parties for the nobility of a career in science and shamefully admit that in comparison their job in marketing is futile and meaningless but your grandmother still thinks you are a student (why else would a 32-year old hang around a University?) and insists on giving you money for Christmas. You may even one day achieve a Nobel prize, the largest pat on the back a scientist can get, and your name will be remembered by your peers for a long time but not by the general public. Unless you are a charismatic science communicator the likes of Neil deGrasse Tyson and Carl Sagan you are better off looking for social status elsewhere.

But what does motivate scientists?

The pure love of science.

I’ve met researchers whose predominant motivation was a raw love for science. They cared little whether their research ended up published in Nature or the International Journal of Dairy Technology, wether it produced patient benefit or granted them peer recognition. Their sole driving force was the joy of solving nature’s puzzles often accompanied by a quasi-puritanical approach to the scientific method and the rules of statistic validation.

This is perhaps the idealised vision of what it means to be a scientist: a free and creative spirit that bows only to the mysteries of science and is not conditioned by the restrains of a career structure. Unfortunately, the time of Darwin and Wallace has passed and most of us can not afford the lives of wealthy 19th century naturalists. Passion for science is essential but the demands of current academic career structures require something more than pure love.

A sense of duty.

Yes, science is interesting and solving puzzles is neat but science is also a tool for the benefit of Humanity. A fairly common motivation amongst scientists is the sense that this work matters and that it should have a practical application. Maybe your research will increase cancer survival rates, improve crop output or generate cleaner energies. Maybe it will empower the poorest people on the planet by eradicating a disease that due to geographical reasons has received little interest from the rich nations.

This sense of duty is similar to what attracts people to careers in the development and humanitarian sectors and is often rewarded by cash-strapped funders like cancer charities who want a bang for their buck. In many ways, this motivation can be similar to a passion for science but spending four years studying the development of zebrafish gonads just won’t cut it – the work has to have an applicable goal.

However, no matter how noble the motivation, scientists driven by a sense of duty will inevitably face a harsh reality: most academic research will not have a direct impact on people’s lives. At least not in the short-term.

To be the most intelligent person in the room.

Many academic scientists working today were once the best students in their classes. Many of us grew up with copious amounts of praise from teachers, family and friends when it comes to intellectual performance. However, entering the academic world means that top-of-the-class students are now rubbing shoulders with equally or even brighter minds. This new situation can be a shock to the system. Whilst a natural reaction would be to reassess one’s ego and accept a middle-of-the-class position there are those who thrive on the challenge of continuing to be the smartest person in the room.

This motivation can materialise itself in arrogant or even pedantic behaviour, like rudely trashing a colleague’s work or always wanting to have the last word in an academic debate, but is also the driving force of people who enjoy disrupting dogmas and going against the establishment even if it’s just to prove the bigwigs wrong.

To climb a career ladder.

Some people are motivated by achievement. It doesn’t matter what the work is for, how much benefit it brings to society or even if it was enjoyable. It’s science but could well be banking, marketing, sport or an online video game. The objective is to get to the top! What do I need to achieve to move to the next level? Who do I need to network and collaborate with? Who can I dismiss? What sexy paragraph must I add to my manuscript to attract the editor’s attention?

Whilst some scientists come with personalities that neatly match this type of motivation, the longer you stay in academic science the more pressure there is to behave in these terms. The academic career system is set up much like a video game: with points (impact factors, H-indexes, citation numbers), mana (grants!) and different levels to climb (faculty positions, assistant professorships, etc) so it’s no surprise that we’ve become increasingly motivated by academic achievements rather than scientific ones.

Whilst chasing career achievements is a necessity there is today an excessive pressure to make this the predominant drive in science, squeezing out any vestiges of other motivations. Even worst, when taken to an extreme, such pressures can lead to the dark side of scientific misconduct.

I didn’t know what to do next and this came up.

When I enrolled in a PhD back in 2006 I had no idea what academia or research was about but it gave me an opportunity to stay abroad for a few more years, payed a decent salary and gave me plenty of opportunities to travel. So I stayed! By the time I defended my thesis however I had been colonised by some of the aforementioned motivations and I knew I wanted to be a scientist.

It is not uncommon for early-stage scientists, particularly grad students, to be in research because they’re still figuring out what to do with their lives. It is, I dare to say, a key part of doing a PhD: to find your motivations (or not) and decide by the end of the process if academic research is the life you want.

However, many not-so-early-career scientists find themselves drained of any other form of motivation and linger in the corridors of academia stuck in limbo between the unpleasing prospect of a career in science and the fear of hanging the pipettes and searching for happiness elsewhere. A work environment with a majority of limbo scientists can be soul-crushing for whomever still nourishes some love for this job.


These are my two-cents.

Did I omit or oversimplify an otherwise nuanced motivation?
How did your motivations change during your time in research? What motivations predominate at your current workplace? Please leave a comment!

6 thoughts on “What motivates a scientist.

  1. I agree with basically everything except for the last paragraph with which you conclude your 2cents. There is even worse cases around .. there exists those not-so-early-career scientists that do certainly find themselves drained, but not so much from motivation, but from anything that should basically keep them alive but doesn’t, i.e. no salary. Since they do not even get the chance to linger corridors of academia – i.e. they were successful but not successful enough to strike the next extramural funding, and thus the next contract- – . So yes, they are stuck, but not so much “in limbo between the unpleasing prospect of a career in science and the fear of hanging the pipettes and searching for happiness elsewhere”, but they are – in that sense – beyond fear. They have already chosen the unpleasing prospect of a NON-career in science, because they do not cease to be motivated by what motivated them to begin with – the excitement of finding out new things, that might even help humanity or at least the environment, and thus, hopefully, indirectly, humanity. They are, however, definitely in limbo between “to live beyond this month’s bank statement” and “there might be some income in the future somehow somewhere in some universe – maybe even back on Mother Earth, who knows, – and I might have to make SERIOUS compromises”. A part of their soul is already crushed – the one that believed that their work would be worth paying for. They now are looking for creating their very own work environment in which to create something out of nothing — you mention Darwin – he actually was put on that boat by his father who wanted him out of his feet, and who could not imagine any better use of his son – and his son triggered a revolution, – just by accident, because he JUST started thinking and reflecting about what he saw, and started to form hypotheses. THIS is motivation. Let us all be accidents that change the world! be it through governed work spaces or not! Let us find happiness in the science as we first imagined it to be, regardless of funders and peer reviewers!

  2. Re: “Maybe your research will increase cancer survival rates…”

    What is life when it is not protected from virus driven entropy https://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.3505769

    The anti-entropic force of virucidal ultraviolet light (UV) links guanine–cytosine (G⋅C) Watson–Crick base pairing from hydrogen-atom transfer in DNA base pairs in solution to supercoiled DNA, which protects the organized genomes of all living genera from virus-driven entropy. For example, protection of DNA from permanent UV damage occurs in the context of photosynthesis and nutrient-dependent RNA-directed DNA methylation, which links RNA-mediated amino acid substitutions to DNA repair. In the context of thermodynamic cycles of protein biosynthesis and degradation, DNA repair enables the de novo creation of G protein coupled receptors (GPCRs). Olfactory receptor genes are GPCRs. The de novo creation of olfactory receptor genes links chemotaxis and phototaxis from foraging behavior to social behavior in species from microbes to humans. Foraging behavior links ecological variation to ecological adaptation in the context of this atoms to ecosystems model of biophysically constrained energy-dependent RNA-mediated protein folding chemistry. Protein folding chemistry links nutrient-dependent microRNAs from microRNA flanking sequences to energy transfer and cell type differentiation in the context of adhesion proteins, and supercoiled DNA that protects all organized genomes from virus-driven entropy.

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