Want to be a researcher of Nobel class? Find out what it takes

Our 2020 Citation Laureates™ share their advice for becoming a successful researcher.

Every year the Web of Science™ recognizes a handful of world-class researchers as Citation Laureates. This tribute celebrates the scientific and research elite, whose contributions to science have been transformative, even revolutionary, as attested by their exceptionally high citation record within the Web of Science.

We spoke with our class of 2020 Citation Laureates about what it takes to be a successful researcher. We received a huge response – both over video and email – and we’d like to share these with you here.

What qualities do you need to become a successful researcher?

Claudia Goldin
Henry Lee Professor of Economics, Harvard University (USA)

“A lot of curiosity, independence, time, support, and the ability to admit that you don’t know something and the desire to correct that.”

Pierre Perron
Professor of Economics, Boston University (USA)

“I’d say it is the drive to make the work complete, relevant and impactful. It may take time but you have to dig and dig a lot. I hate to hear statements like “I don’t care about your comments, my paper is now published in a leading journal”. This is the unfortunate effect of the “publish or perish” syndrome I guess. It kills a lot of potential innovation. I was fortunate not to have to worry about that when I started. Besides the drive, it is important to not be afraid of going against the prevailing wisdom. Do your own thing and take some risks. Having a curious mind is also an asset. I also work mostly using intuition. I think it is very important. You don’t really understand something if you cannot explain it using simple intuitive arguments, especially in econometrics for which many scholars simply throw endless equations when asked a simple question. This is not useful, especially when it comes to teaching. Also, work a lot with PhD students. They really help bring new perspectives and force you to expand your horizons.”

Pamela Bjorkman
David Baltimore Professor of Biology and Biological Engineering, California Institute of Technology (USA)

“I think one of the most important qualities one needs for doing meaningful research is a passion for the questions you are addressing. Passion will keep you in the lab even when your experiments aren’t working, and that may very well end up being most of the time! But if you feel compelled to find the answer, you will figure out a way to get the experiments to work or you will design a new way to approach the question. Another quality you need is a healthy amount of scepticism so that you don’t ignore evidence against pet hypotheses and always design your experiments with both positive and negative controls. In that respect, I think it’s actually helpful to have a healthy amount of “imposter syndrome” (something that women, in particular, often suffer from) – that way, you are more likely to more carefully analyze your data to make sure you aren’t fooling yourself.”

Hongjie Dai
J.G. Jackson & C.J. Wood Professor of Chemistry, Stanford University (USA)

“Interest, persistence, originality and working with talented students, postdocs and visiting scholars.”

Thomas Carroll
Research Physicist, Center for Computational Materials Science, U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (USA)

“Being smart is good, but most of all you need a strong drive to find scientifically interesting results. Some of the best people I have worked with didn’t go to the best schools, but because they had to work for everything, they had a stronger drive and were better scientists. I think Thomas Edison said “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

James Levinsohn
Director of the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, Charles W. Goodyear Professor in Global Affairs, and Professor of Economics and Management, Yale University (USA)

“The ability to persevere. So many researchers much more talented than I am just didn’t stick with it quite as long. It also helps to be just plain lucky.”

Find out more about our 2020 Citation Laureates here.