Miguel Panao | Professor and Author

Finding ways to improve scientific writing and academic productivity.

Limitations: the underlying truth in a scientist’s job description

Recently I spoke with an Italian friend about what could be a Job Description for a scientific research position. Here are the qualities that look like limitations:

  • Be ignorant.
  • Ability to deal with failure.
  • Dare to be vulnerable.

Yes. Contrary to the perception given by Hollywood movies, these are the qualities needed to be in a research position.

Limitations... our job description


There’s an excellent book by Stuart Firestein about Ignorance. If you think about it, ignorance is a driver for curiosity, which leads to the pursuit of knowledge. If you think you know how everything works, why would you do research?


Again, Stuart Firestein wrote a book on Failure. I would say he’s on the right track. The world is used to see only the successful part of the story behind a scientific or technological breakthrough. But the effort, sweat, and a lot of failures are behind most of the time until the breakthrough.

Failure is a human quality because the discovery only comes from a resilient dealing with failure. Failure sets us on the right path and gives the necessary experience to improve the way we do science.



Here I’d recommend the TED talk and book of Brené Brown “The Power of Vulnerability.” Whenever researchers are in front of an audience presenting a paper, in front of a camera explaining some phenomenon, or in a public speaking event sharing their experience, it is in a position of vulnerability.

I still don’t fully understand the full implications of this quality in a scientist, although I experience it. But it is not hard to envision its power to build confidence in a scientist.


Limitations overcome by belief

In Simon Sinek’s book on “Start with Why,” he tells a story of a job description to Antarctica by Ernest Shackleton.

“Men wanted: Hazardous journey; small wages, bitter cold.
Long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful;
Honour and recognition in case of success.”

Limitations supported on belief

Instead of all the beautiful things this job could provide, the ad doesn’t hide the perils of the journey or its limitations. Only those who believe in what Shackleton believes can adhere to his project. In the end, they could fulfill their purpose. They failed. But none was lost. And that’s where the power of belief resides.

Limitations are a measure of the strength in what you believe. If you feel science is the right path for you, and you can let ignorance inspire you, deal with failure and welcome vulnerability, then you fit the minimum conditions of a scientist’s job description. In time, things like success and make an impact in the world with your research will come.

Question: would you apply for this job description?

About Miguel Panao

I am a Professor at the University of Coimbra in Mechanical Engineering. I am also author of books in the fields of environmental ethics and Science and Religion. From the several research projects, this site is personal and dedicated to the search for the best approaches, tools, techniques to improve scientific productivity.

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