How to become a scientist (Podcast #4)

Welcome to the GradschoolShopper podcast. Ever wonder what it means to be a scientist? Dr. Fred Dylla, Executive Director and CEO of the American Institute of Physics shares his experience and explains what being a scientist is all about.

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What do you think it takes to become a scientist? Share your thoughts with us!

Dr. Fred Dylla, Executive Director and CEO of the American Institute of Physics

Episode Topics

  • What is the mission of the American Institute of Physics?
  • Misconceptions about scientists
  • What does it actually mean to be a scientist?
  • Advice to people who want to pursue advanced degrees and become scientists

Episode Summary

Fred Dylla is the Executive Director and CEO of the American Institute of Physics.

What is the mission of the American Institute of Physics?

Much like most professional societies, the American Institute of Physics (AIP) and its member societies help guide physicists throughout their careers. AIP is an umbrella society for 10 member societies:

  • The American Physical Society (APS)
  • Acoustical Society of America (ASA)
  • American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM)
  • American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT)
  • American Astronomical Society (AAS)
  • American Crystallographic Association (ACA)
  • American Geophysical Union (AGU)
  • Science and Technology of Materials, Interfaces and Processing (AVS)
  • The Optical Society (OSA)
  • The Society of Rheology (SoR)

AIP was founded in the 1930s, during the last great depression, when five of the member societies decided to band together and pull resources to publish scientific journals. AIP has become a significant publisher of scientific journals, with some of the most popular and popularly cited publications.

AIP uses its modest income from publishing journals to fund several outreach activities, among them:

Misconceptions about scientists

There are a lot of misconceptions in the media about scientists and what it actually means to be a scientist.

The general public has a very little conception of what a scientist is, although they value what scientists do.

Recent surveys show the public has appreciation for scientists even if they do not know many modern scientists themselves. They seem to respect what science does because they see the results of scientific research in everyday life. Smartphones, for example, wouldn’t have been possible without the basic work in quantum mechanics, relativity and solid state physics that started more than 100 years ago!

What does it actually mean to be a scientist?

Being a scientist is a way of thinking about the world, a sort of child-like curiosity about things around us. It is about wondering how we got here, what the world is made up of and how things work.

It’s about asking questions about the world around you, it’s figuring out how to answer those questions. If you can preserve that child-like curiosity, that’s what being a scientist is.

To be a really good scientist, you often have to pursue advanced degrees because knowledge is built on the shoulders of 300-400 years of scientific research. The pace of discovery is constantly accelerating, and you don’t learn these concepts overnight.

Advice to people who want to pursue advanced degrees and become scientists

The best thing you can do as an undergraduate or early graduate student is get as broad a training as possible, in both science and communications.

Communication skills are extremely important, especially to aspiring scientists. Scientific research is funded as a public good by the federal government and various institutions. To get this funding you must compete with many others who want the same funding.

You rise to the best and get that funding and do the work, and then justify that you spent that money wisely. That requires excellent communication and teamwork skills.

Today, the frontiers of science are mostly interdisciplinary and multidimensional, and the field requires scientists and engineers from various fields. Graduate school prepares your way of thinking, but your best preparation for scientific work would be to broaden your horizons and cooperate with other disciplines or specialties.

In fact, Dr. Dylla’s career is an example of how science careers can evolve and shift between various specialties within physics. He earned his undergraduate degree in acoustics, master’s degree in low temperature physics,  and PhD in biophysics. His career was similarly versatile; his jobs ranged in specialties from plasma physics to accelerator physics.

I didn’t find it strange moving around from those different sub-disciplines. I actually found it exhilarating.


What subjects of physics do you like most? What do you think it means to be a scientist? Share your thoughts with us in our comments section!


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Advice to Students

Apply to as many schools as you possibly can. Maintain your focus but cast a wide net in order to increase your choices when it comes time to accepting offers. Be sure to research the specific characteristics of each program, such as degree length, faculty, class sizes, fellowship opportunities, research specialties etc. as these factors may drastically influence your decision. — Crystal Bailey, Education and Careers Program Manager at the American Physical Society, Podcast Episode #2

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