One of the most important differences between a mature scientist and a junior scientist is “ownership”. This is the metaphorical ownership, when we say that someone should “take ownership” of something, usually a project.
I know that taking ownership is important, and I want to be able to communicate that to people I work with, but I realized that I didn’t actually know what constitutes “taking ownership”. What does it mean? It’s not very helpful to tell someone to do something when I can’t tell them what it concretely means to do that thing.
I can think of things that look like ownership (or a lack of ownership). The obvious symptoms of non-ownership are things like:
You wait for someone to tell you what to do.
You do things that you are told and only those things.
When asked a question about what you did or why you did it, you turn to your superior and wait for them to answer for you.
If these are symptoms of the disease, what defines the state of health? A conversation on StackExchange included ideas (mostly in the context of business) like:
Taking responsibility for when a project goes wrong.
Being able to make decisions about the project rather than relying on the previous “owner”.
Taking control of a project.
Taking pride in a project and the quality of what you deliver.
“Making it your mission” to see the project through. (To me, this sounds like a circular definition.)
Look for problems before they become obvious and solve them rather than waiting for someone else to tell you what to do. If you can’t fix a problem, find the person who can and get it done, rather than passing the buck.
You want to see the project succeed, rather than just doing it to get paid.
Don’t be the waiter who delivers your food, be the waiter who takes the food back to the kitchen and brings you what you want if you don’t like it.
Never answer “not my problem” or “not my fault.”
A Harvard Business Review article has a more succinct answer: ownership is when “we internalize the idea of taking responsibility” by realizing that “no one is coming”. This means looking forward toward solutions, not backwards toward blame.
In discussions about research, my advisor and I identified some “symptoms” of good ownership health:
You can articulate the importance of what you are doing.
You know the details of what you are doing.
You don’t look to your advisor to answer every question.
You are the one deciding on the direction of the project.
You are self-reliant/autonomous/independent.
The project would not go forward without you.
You can the competency to execute the project.
You are the “world’s expert” on this topic.
You are doing the project because you want to do it, not because you were told to do it.
We also discussed some ways to become capable of ownership:
You write a review (which need not be formal) of the scientific question.
You write a proposal (which need not be formal) laying out the question and methodologies, arguing why this particular question and methodology are good choices.
You must understand the other questions you could be asking and the other approaches you could be taking to answer questions.
I’m not sure any of these answer exactly the question of what ownership is, but I hope it can help folks get closer.