Are You A Late Bloomer? The Careers Of Eminent Scientists Offer Hope

Success is not always about age.

Young people often set the age of 30 as a self-imposed deadline for major accomplishments and career milestones: starting a business, getting a doctorate, writing a book or any other number of achievements.

Some of the most successful scientific legends we know ― everyone from Albert Einstein to Marie Curie ― reached remarkable heights while still in their 20s.

But is the combination of youth and early accomplishment the secret to success?

If you didn’t make the 30 Under 30 list, fear not. According to new research, success over the course of a career isn’t necessarily a byproduct of age or early breakthroughs ― for scientists, at least. Instead, it’s likely caused by a mix of factors including personality, hard work, persistence, luck and dedication.

In a big-data analysis, published Nov. 4 in the journal Science, researchers attempted to determine the factors that predict the success of a scientist’s career. They analyzed literature from 1893 onward from nearly 3,000 physicists who had careers of at least 20 years and had published at least one widely cited paper every five years. To investigate the patterns behind a successful scientific career, they looked at when these noteworthy papers began emerging.

The researchers based the success of each scientific achievement on the impact of the paper on the scientific community, as determined by the number of citations. They found that a scientist’s greatest achievement ― i.e. her paper with the greatest impact ― was not determined by youth.

The chart above tracks when in their careers physicist Frank Wilczek and chemist John Fenn published the papers that earned them the Nobel Prize.
Journal Science
The chart above tracks when in their careers physicist Frank Wilczek and chemist John Fenn published the papers that earned them the Nobel Prize.

The Formula For Scientific Excellence

So how did researchers explain the fact that so many eminent scientific minds made their major achievements earlier in their careers? It seems that scientists are likely to do their best work during the time that they’re most productive, and young people generally tend to be more productive. But if a scientist is more productive in the later years of her career, then she’s most likely to have her best work then.

“The highest impact achievement happens early in a career,” Dr. Roberta Sinatra, a physicist at Central European University in Budapest, told The Huffington Post. “It is because scientists are more productive early. So creativity or quality of work is not enhanced early in a career ― a scientist is just more productive, hence tries more.”

Sinatra explained that it’s simply a matter of chance. “If you buy 10 tickets of the lottery when you are young, and one when you are old, you are 10 times more likely to win when you are young than when you are old,” she said.

Sinatra and her colleagues found that overall scientific success and long-term impact could be quantified by what the researchers called a “factor Q,” which is made up of a number of components including likability, communication skills, talent and the prestige of the institution where the scientist studied.

Scientific excellence, then, is the result of a mix of high Q factor and luck.

“A scientist with high Q needs to take her chances and keep trying to get to a great achievement,” Sinatra said.

Other research has found similar results in fields like music, film, psychology and technical invention. One study on age and scientific genius did pinpoint a specific age where breakthroughs were more common, finding that scientists are most likely to have Nobel Prize-winning innovations in their late 30s.

The new findings are hopeful for all of us, as they suggest that with hard work, any period of your career can be your most successful.

“There is always hope, if you don’t give up!” Sinatra said.


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