Lifelong learning as a scientist

Developing a practice of lifelong learning as an established scientist is essential to your continued professional development and happiness. By the time you become an industry scientist, you may have spent 25 years or more on your education and training. But you’re not done learning. To the contrary, if you want to excel, you need to keep learning. In fact, I’d argue that fostering a habit of lifelong learning is one of the most important things you can do for your career. The reasons for this are several:

  • New skills and expertise differentiate you. Become a unicorn with no comparables. 
  • Sustained development broadcasts your willingness and ability to learn. This signal can be incredibly influential to perceptive hiring managers and coworkers.
  • Learning is required to just keep up. The rate of technological change has increased dramatically. If you don’t keep up, you’re falling behind those who are learning. Don’t get left behind.
  • Broadening your knowledge base will make you more agile at interacting with diverse groups. Whether you’re making small talk at a cocktail party or developing a relationship with a new colleague, deep and broad knowledge will make you more interesting and engaging. 

Whichever reasons resonate with you, invest in yourself: develop a practice of lifelong learning. Whatever your reasons for leaving academia, you’re a scientist. I’m confident that you are curious and drawn to learning. That needn’t change because you took an industry job.

Disclosure: Some of the links in this article are affiliate links. This means that, at no cost to you, I may receive a commission if you click and make a purchase. 

Equip yourself for success.

While you can’t just buy learning, there is definitely equipment that I’d recommend to maximize your learning efficiency and experience.

AirPods Pro.

I bring my AirPods Pro with me everywhere I go, and–paired with my iPhone–they facilitate learning in any setting and situation. Noise cancellation and transparency modes as well as the ability to use only one earbud at a time provide an enormous amount of flexibility. 

Spotify subscription.

At $11 a month, a Spotify subscription is a bargain. Depending on your mood, you can listen to Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, Philip Glass’ piano etudes, or literally any other music that helps you focus and learn. Additionally, it’s a great podcast manager and an amazing source of recommendations and discovery. 

Audible subscription.

Subscribe to Audible for $15 a month, you will read at least 12 more books this year than you did last year. Audiobooks are a great way to find more time for “reading” and provide a really intimate listening experience.


An iPad is probably the best way to take an online course or learn from YouTube videos. I accessorize mine with a stand/keyboard. With the keyboard detached, I lug the iPad around the house, setting it on the counter while I’m cooking, on the dryer while I’m folding clothes, etc. I am writing this very article with the keyboard attached, then I’ll use my Apple Pencil to edit or draw quick diagrams.

Moleskin notebook.

I still also have a soft spot for old fashioned pen and paper, and definitely don’t go anywhere without my trusty companion. I prefer the larger format and sometimes opt for the grid lined. For me, notebooks are the best format to keep long running lists (books I want to read, things to look up, to do lists, people I’ve interviewed, etc.). They’ll always be with you if you find a spare moment, and there’s nothing like the visceral sense of accomplishment when you physically check something off your list with a nice pen. 

While having the right equipment isn’t going to make you a lifelong learner, it will definitely help you create an environment that facilitates your learning practice. Like dressing for success, you’ll feel more purposeful with a nice, dedicated setup. Additionally, the act of spending the money can serve as a signal to yourself: “Lifelong learning is important, and I’m serious about it.”

Develop the habit of learning.

Utilize windows of mindless work.

You need to develop learning habits that match your life, and you’re not a full-time student anymore. Your day may seem jam packed with commuting, work, chores, errands, and hopefully some exercise. If you can’t find the time in this busy schedule to devote to learning, learn while you’re doing them. Listen to an audio book or a podcast while you’re driving. If your commute is public transit based, you can even take a downloaded Coursera course on the bus or train.

While you’re at work, are there mindless tasks? If so, pop in your AirPods and keep on learning. If not, keep learning during your lunch break. And don’t forget that there are ways to learn on the job (more on that later). Folding laundry, doing dishes, cooking, or working out are all great times to learn. Listen and watch something while your hands are busy with these monotonous tasks. You might be surprised to find a couple of hours every single day that could be spent learning something new.

Just do it.

After you saturate all of the monotonous work time, you’ll need to reallocate time from something else to learning. The options are fairly simple: get up early, stay up late, and use the weekends. It’ll be a compromise for sure, but you’ll have to make the hard decisions. If you want to maximize your learning, you’ll have to make the time somewhere. Remember that investments can be painful at first. But you still invest some of your income rather than spending it all, because you know it’ll be worth it in the long run. Investing in your lifelong learning practice is exactly the same. 

What and where to learn.

All learning is good learning, but think broad–not deep. You’re already a scientist with incredibly deep technical subject matter expertise. It’s unlikely that a marginal unit of learning in your existing expertise will have a high return on investment (ROI). In contrast, a scientist with substantial knowledge of economics, management, data science, marketing, software engineering, etc. is unique. String several of those together and you might even become a unicorn

There is an incredible wealth of learning resources available to you. The rest of this article will list and discuss some of my favorite ways to learn.


Podcasts are an incredible medium to learn with relatively little focused attention. If you can have a conversation while driving, you can learn from a podcast while driving. It’s basically just listening to a conversation. At their best, the passivity of listening is completely forgotten as you fall into a deceptively intimate listening relationship with the podcaster (and maybe their guests). Alone in your car or with an earbud in, you’ll feel like you’re part of a natural conversation allowing you to learn without exhaustive concentration. 

Make sure you select podcasts for their educational content, not just their entertainment value. I tend to focus on discovering podcasts with a deep library and long play times, so I can listen to the whole back catalog without needing to find a new podcast. Right now my favorites include:

  • Acquired: Histories and analysis of some of the world’s most interesting companies from the perspective of a venture capitalist. 
  • Hardcore History: Dan Carlin’s remarkable syntheses of historical eras is universally beloved for its storytelling and narration.
  • The Journal. A daily podcast presenting analysis of a big economic event or an illustrative profile. The stories are diverse and overtime keep you up-to-date on the state of the economy.
  • TWIML: This Week In Machine Learning is a technical deep dive into cutting edge artificial intelligence research and the technologies required to make a reality in industry. Don’t expect to follow everything, but over time you’ll gain a valuable perspective. 

Online courses.

Combining the best of formal curricula and online pragmatism, online courses have proliferated in recent years. However, their depth and quality vary dramatically. Additionally, the formats are all over the place. I prefer courses that are heavy on the lecture component, light on interactive assignments acoursend quizzes, supplemented by a healthy dose of online resources, and embedded with a sequence or web of related courses. The DeepLearning.AI courses by Andrew Ng and colleagues are a great example of these. They can be found on Coursera with a $49 monthly subscription. (Of course if you’re a scientist looking to learn data science, our Scientist to Data Scientist program is designed specifically for you.) Regardless of your preferences, you’ll find courses fitting your style and subject matter requirements somewhere. I recommend starting with Coursera, Udemy, or LinkedIn Learning.   


If you have a question, there’s probably a YouTube video that answers it for free. However, It’s a bit weaker at providing a structured, coherent presentation of more substantial scope—like a full course or an entire discipline. That type of organization and curation often still requires online courses. Nevertheless, notable exceptions exist. In particular, I love the Khan Academy channel by Sal Khan and 3Blue1Brown channel by Grant Sanderson. These channels provide curated playlists of videos arranged chronologically like a traditional course.

As comfortable as that course structure can feel, don’t be afraid of very long YouTube videos on a single topic. This over three hour video is basically a polished but free stand alone course providing an intro to using APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) in coding. If you want to learn programming, you’ll be surprised to see how effective watching someone write code live can be at teaching the non-theoretical, hands on the keyboard aspects of programming. Here’s a good example. Again this one is over three hours long. You might want to consider a YouTube Premium subscription to avoid the ads and be able to download videos.

Websites and Apps.

It goes without saying that the internet is full of great resources and some of them are packaged into mobile apps. I’ve already mentioned some, so this section will only talk about new material. 

  • The Economist. Reading the news can become a huge time drain. Don’t let that happen; instead, read the Economist. You’ll learn about business and economics, develop your global acumen, and get your news fix on your smartphone. 
  • LinkedIn. The LinkedIn app is absolutely essential for networking, but–like the news–it can be a serious time drain. I’ll discuss LinkedIn more in a future article. 
  • Medium: Quality articles on virtually any subject written by in-the-trenches experts. It’s low cost and a never-ending spring of learning. Just make sure to stay honest with yourself that you’re learning and not falling down the well of time wasting list-icles. 
  • AWS: If you aspire to develop your data science skills, learn AWS. If you don’t, learn AWS. Cloud computing, infrastructure, and services are the future for everyone, and AWS is the king of that domain. Their website is full of learning opportunities. Take advantage of them.

While the internet and smartphones are packed with limitless learning opportunities (some of which are mentioned in this article), they also present an unprecedented opportunity for time wasting. You must be vigilant in avoiding this trap, or your lifelong learning practice will be ineffectual. 


In today’s digital world books are still special. They offer an opportunity to understand someone else’s worldview.  Like podcasts, when I find an author I like, I read the catalog. Malcolm Gladwell, Walter Issacson, Jared Diamond, and Ron Chernow are some obvious favorites without a bad book amongst them. (Did I mention I’m pretty strictly a non-fiction guy?) While I love physical books, I’m becoming more of an audio book “reader” lately. An interesting, well-narrated audiobook can make me look forward to chores or a long commute. Subscribing to audible is a great way to set a one book per month pace and hold yourself accountable.

If you love learning and writing as much as I do, perhaps you’d like to write book reviews for other scientists on Check out this opportunity and build your skills while learning. 

Textbooks can be incredible learning resources. They’re standalone, cohesive surveys of a large subject domain, written by experts. It’s probably been quite a while since you’ve seriously utilized a textbook. However, I’ve gained a newfound appreciation for textbooks after my formal education ended. When you read it straight through, as the author intended (without another professor interjecting), it’s easier to get a global overview of the subject Additionally, older edition textbooks are relatively cheap on Amazon, and the internet is littered with free pdf versions of texts. If you want to learn coding, I’d recommend a Python reference–less to read through and more to consult for a well-indexed, comprehensive reference. 

Formal education.

As a scientist with beaucoup formal education, you shouldn’t immediately jump to more, but formal education can still have a place in your lifelong learning practice. An MBA is really the main traditional consideration for scientists. I think there are four good reasons for a scientist to get an MBA:

  • A career pivot. If you want to leave a technical, scientific role and transition to a role in marketing, for example, an MBA can do a lot for you. In the eyes of non-scientists, it can give you more credibility, expand your network, and signal your seriousness. 
  • A faster climb. If you want to climb the management ranks in your scientific organization, an MBA can differentiate you from your peers. More importantly, it can give you the tools and knowledge to excel in management.
  • Confidence. If you lack confidence in your ability to excel in a non-traditional scientist role, an MBA can provide the boost you need. In addition to learning business skills, you’ll realize that–quite simply–you’re good enough to compete and succeed in any business environment.
  • Entrepreneurship. If you think you may want to start your own business but don’t know how, an MBA can be an expensive but effective route forward. (A cheaper route is to just do it: see below. Let’s talk if you’re interested. Contact me at

While you could take two years out of your life and attend a traditional, full-time MBA program, I generally wouldn’t recommend it for most scientists. There are many good options for nights/weekends, virtual, and hybrid programs.

On-the-Job Training.

Lifelong learning needn’t be limited to academic pursuits, the workplace provides a fertile ground for learning. Crucially, it comes with the advantages that you get paid for being there, you have a network of potential teachers, and you could immediately translate your learning into career advancement. Start with your manager and human resources website. They likely already have some programming available with a trendy name like gig learning or experiential learning. Alternatively, you might look for a professional development program. 

Less formally, you can create your own learning opportunities. Interview widely to expand your network and learn about other areas of the business. You might even ask someone to establish a more extensive shadowing relationship. Ask them to sit in on meetings, go on a sales call, or visit the manufacturing floor. Depending on the power dynamics and potential mutual benefit, you might even be able to position your on-the-job learning as a collaboration. Whatever the scenario, use it to your advantage. Present yourself as a leader and position yourself squarely in line with the company strategy while getting paid and most importantly learning.

Arts and Exercise.

To experience the full joy of lifelong learning, learn something without fitting it into your perfect career progression. Learn a musical instrument or a foreign language. Spending 30 minutes a day concentrating 100% on something completely outside your comfort zone will refresh and refocus you. Music and language can stimulate your mind and even potentially make you more relatable. Sports are another avenue of learning and enrichment. Pick up golf or tennis. Join a cycling or running club. Double up on learning and exercise.  

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