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11 Tips for Young People Interested in Social Science and Public Health Research

Atheendar Venkataramani headshot

By Atheendar Venkataramani, PhD, MD, MPhil
Assistant Professor of Medical Ethics and Health Policy, Perelman School of Medicine, CHIBE faculty member

A while back, I wrote down some principles to guide my research work. I later repurposed them into 11 tips for young social scientists, public health researchers, and clinician-investigators. Here they are below:

1) In science, substance is necessary, though not always sufficient. Regardless, it should come first.

Beware of “thought leaders” who have not invested in the groundwork of building substance.

2) Mentors help you get better at creating substance. Sponsors help you get the substance out there.

Good mentors and sponsors are not in it for quid pro quo (i.e., reciprocity beyond the personal benefits of seeing someone grow intellectually and otherwise). (Of course, sometimes your mentors will give you one of their projects to push forward, especially early on. This is part of learning. Just make sure that over time the relationship does not become extractive).

They support you so that you can identify and take a “good risk” – on an idea, or a career path – and help you identify the really bad risks.

3) Building up others/collaborating strictly dominates engaging in competition as a long-run strategy.

Science is better with friends.

4) Get out there! Find out what matters to people, what people think, and what makes them tick. Do so by actually talking to all different types of people (and by reading widely). Revisit your hypotheses and research questions accordingly.

5) But also recognize that people have a blind spot. There are things that don’t matter to them now, but might (either now or in the future) if we all knew about it.

6) #4 and #5 capture the occasional tension that arises in the short-run of being immediately “relevant” versus “innovative.” As a researcher, it’s probably good to feel this tension from time to time. Remember that in the long-run, innovation and relevance are often complementary goals.

7) Avoid the “constellation” tendency: if one or two consistently weird findings stands at odds with the narrative you constructed from the other findings, pull on the discordant threads first before publishing it. It could either lead to you being wrong OR a better version of the initial idea OR a different idea altogether.

Don’t get too personally attached to any one idea and recognize the value of being wrong.

A short-term “fling” with an idea is OK every now and then. It might turn up something interesting.

8) Write all of your ideas down, no matter how poorly formed, because they may be worth returning to in future work.

9) Mechanisms matter – why does X cause Y? They matter to science and to people that you would otherwise think about only care about the bottom line (i.e., the answer to: does X cause Y?).

10) You’ll have to do some stuff to keep your job or get promoted. Do those things match your core values as a scientist (and person)? Will they lead you to do good science? If yes, great. If no:

Can you do what you need to do while having enough time to do what you actually want? (You’ll often have to do some stuff to satisfy the bean counters – and that’s OK as long as it doesn’t crowd out everything else!)

If no to (a), can you find a situation/place where what is required for survival or promotion and what you want are complements?

11) Back to the big picture: Always remember why, at the core, you chose to go into your field in the first place. Do you still enjoy what you do? Why or why not? Make sure to ask yourself this frequently and play the long game!