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Sigal Tifferet

Senior Lecturer, Ruppin Academic Center

TEDCRED 500+

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How can a talented teenager prepare himself for a scientific career? What do you scientists recommend? (Personal experiences, please).

My son is 16 years old and is very interested in science (Physics, Biology, Math). He would like to hear your recommendations on how to prepare for a scientific career. Is this a critical period to learn things that will be difficult to learn later? Are there non-academic experiences he should try? We are especially interested in personal experiences of all of you scientists out there.

Let me add that my son (Alon) is the one who nudged me a few times to post this question. He studies at a democratic school, meaning that he has full freedom to do whatever he pleases with his time at school. A big portion of his choices are science-related, but he does other things as well (basketball, juggling).

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  • May 20 2011: I am a PhD student in Engineering. Here are a few things that I have noticed:
    1. There are lots of jobs that require or would benefit from a good technical education
    2. Academia is a tough nut to crack, much more so in science than in engineering. Many students have their sights set on becoming a professor and then realize that the international marketplace for professors is too competitive, requiring years of education and postdoctoral positions that pay very little, leaving many people disheartened.

    My advice for someone in their teens would be to explore career options in science that do not necessarily end in being an academic "scientist." And then that option would still always be there. For example a degree in mathematics from a good university is very useful in fields as diverse as engineering, finances, geology, etc. Engineering is a great career (and I am, of course, biased) and is a great way to actually practice a science (and there are engineers who apply almost every science there is).

    No matter what he chooses, your son will be competing on the international stage for positions. This means that it will not likely be his technical skills that will set him apart, but his soft skills. He needs to learn to write very very well. He needs to learn to lead and manage a team, to deal with stressful and changing situations, and to solve big problems in a multidisciplinary way.

    In a sea of applications with virtually identical technical expertise this is what sets people apart. And you do not get this experience easily. Your son needs to challenge himself. Volunteering, organizing, writing, this is the making a great professional in any field, but stands out particularly in the sciences and leads to the most interesting work. And trust me on the writing.
    • May 22 2011: A comment on jobs: I know very few people who have obtained jobs through a blind application process, and those who do have to work at it for a long, long time. I have never once obtained employment through that process.

      What seems to be the way jobs are actually landed is knowing someone who knows someone who recommends you for a position. It's the people network.

      My first position was through a friend I'd met in high school, who recommended me for a new opening on a project. He and I later started a business. When that failed, he sold the software to a guy who started calling me with technical questions, and then hired me. When I started to do contract software, I got jobs through people I'd met over the years.

      I tend to think this is the "normal" method of finding work.

      This is one very compelling practical reason to stick to doing what you like to do, in places that you like to be. You will tend to meet people with similar interests, likes, and needs, and they will become your "network" of job leads. If you enjoy what you spend time doing, you are much more likely to make a good impression in the first place, and it is more likely to lead to work that you find enjoyable.

      This starts as early as grade school, continues through high school, and is especially rich in college. The really nice thing about this is that, if you remain natural about it, it's actually fun in and of itself.
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      May 25 2011: Alon: Thank you. Can you write some more about the connection of engineering and science? These are two fields that interest me.
      Sigal: He didn't like the comment about writing...
      • May 28 2011: Hello Alon. The connection between science and engineering is widely misunderstood, because the word "science" has a high profile in school and elsewhere, while engineering is hardly mentioned (at least not in K-12). Many people think that engineering is a part of science, or a byproduct of science (e.g. "applying science"), or something that's easier and less important than science. Given that the word "science" is on the tip of everyone's tongue, science gets credit for a lot of things that are done by engineering. OK, to get to the point:Science is about analyzing and understanding what exists in nature, driven by curiosity.Engineering is about making things work that don't exist in nature, driven by creativity.Not everyone even realizes that curiosity and creativity are completely different things. Curiosity leads to discovery, while creativity leads to innovation and invention. Of course, science and engineering are closely related.It is often said that engineering is "applying science," because it is very useful to understand the laws of nature when doing engineering. It is equally true that science is "applying engineering," but no one ever says that. Science experiments can't happen without using "things that work," created by engineers. There is a kind of bias in the system, even to the point that scientists enjoy more prestige than engineers in some ways. Many people who do engineering have the job title "scientist," and strangely enough they don't want to be called engineers.Computer engineers have been called "computer scientists," for example, and rocket engineers have been called rocket scientists.In the job market, it is not always easy to be creative as an engineer, if you have to provide a guarantee to customers.The education system and job titles make things complicated. To figure out where you fit in, ask yourself whether you are interested in making things work, or are you interested in studying nature.

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