Darwin's Career Advice

Darwin was one of the all time greats of science. But no matter what you achieve in science, it’s pretty useless unless someone follows it up. Science is all about testing ideas and deepening our understanding of the world around us. So one of the most important jobs a scientist has is to communicate their work to others. Darwin did this very well; his books were great science but also well written. He also supported many up and coming scientists, writing them references to help them get jobs. He even took on a few protégés including his son Francis and his neighbour’s son John Lubbock.

So what advice would Darwin give to up and coming young scientists today?

What Did Darwin Think Made Him Successful?

Darwin sums up his views on what made him a successful scientist in his autobiography:

‘My success as a man of science, whatever this may have amounted to, has been determined, as far as I can judge, by complex and diversified mental qualities and conditions. Of these, the most important have been – the love of science – unbounded patience in long reflecting over any subject – industry in observing and collecting facts – and a fair share of invention as well as of common-sense. With such moderate abilities as I possess, it is truly surprising that I should have influenced to a considerable extent the belief of scientific men on some important points’ (p79)

What Lessons Can We Draw From Darwin’s Life?

We now know a great deal about Darwin’s development as a scientist. From this we can make a guess at what Darwin might advise to others:

1. Do what you enjoy: Darwin was born a naturalist; as a kid he collected all sorts, and he continued taking great pleasure in the natural world right up to his death. He was probably happiest lying on the grass in his garden, playing with his pigeons or orchids. Aborted attempts at alternative careers in medicine and the church could distract him from what he really enjoyed. When you enjoy doing something it doesn’t seem like hard work, even when it is!

2. Be passionate about your work: If you enjoy something don’t be afraid to be passionate about it! Tell other people about stuff you’ve learnt or been thinking about; explaining ideas to others is a great way of making sure you understand it. If you really love your subject and want to learn more about it that’s half the battle won! Darwin’s passion helped him make friends with the people who helped him with his career, like Henslow and Sedgwick in Cambridge who helped him get a place on the Beagle, or the contacts he made round the world who supplied him with information and samples.

3. Work hard and be committed: If you enjoy and are passionate about your stuff then these should come naturally. Darwin was lucky: he was wealthy and didn’t have to work for a living so he had free time to enjoy his science. But he worked at it as if it was what he was paid to do. A bit of hard work can go a long way.

4. Make the most of your opportunities: Much of Darwin’s success is due to his time on HMS Beagle; again he was lucky to get this place and even more lucky to have a father who could pay his way. But the important thing was that he worked hard to make the most of his opportunities. He was industrious and rarely stopped working on the Beagle, impressing all the crew. The notes and specimens he collected formed the basis of his career – they got his name known. When he returned home he could have enjoyed life as a gentleman, but he didn’t; he worked for years to make the most of his voyage round the world, publishing many books about what he saw. That gave him the basis to start being confident in his own researches.

5. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box: Darwin’s ideas were often not much like what other people were thinking. But he had the conviction to see his ideas through by testing them rigorously and bringing in lots of evidence to see if they still held up on closer inspection. If you have a novel idea or approach, test it out, see if it fits the evidence. If it does, go with it!

6. You don’t need to have a job as a scientist to enjoy science!Darwin never had an official position as a scientist, even aboard the Beagle he only became the ship’s naturalist by default when the naturalist quit the boat. Despite this Darwin revolutionised biology! If you end up pursuing a different career that doesn’t have to be the end of science in your life, you can still enjoy it and you can still do your own science. Darwin was a great one for watching the natural world in his back garden and thinking up clever little experiments, there’s no reason why anyone can’t do this.

References And Further Reading

Autobiography of Charles Darwin, With Two Appendices, Comprising of Reminiscences and a Statement of Charles Darwin's Religious Views
by Charles Darwin & Francis Darwin, the Thinker's Library:1929

Written by Stephen Montgomery