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Friday, August 24, 2018. Updated Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Better advice for a young scientist

Thirteen rules based on years of observation of how a science career can go horribly wrong.


T here have been many books giving advice to young scientists. In this article, I'm going to do something different: give you some good advice. Which is to say, honest advice based on years of observation of how people around me failed.

All those books are written by people who never set foot in a bad lab or worked at a bad school. Most of them—Ramón y Cajal, Medawar, and the rest—got started before the crunch, which started around 1990 or 2000. Before that it was a different world. Nowadays academic positions in the hard sciences are much harder to get.

Cajal recommended doing research in one's own private lab. That's impossible today: trying to buy a bottle of NaHCO3 from Sigma would trigger a federal investigation thanks to our drug laws; if a nosy neighbor sees a beaker in your basement, you'll wake up to a SWAT team smashing through your front door and shoving a search warrant in your face. And running a private lab would guarantee getting a score of ‘9’ under ‘research environment’ on your grant.*

Cajal also says that excessive admiration for the work of great minds is one of the biggest obstacles to doing great science. So the reader may be inclined, out of a sense of self-preservation, to disregard what I say. But nowadays the biggest problem is not in doing good science, but in remaining employed while doing so.

1. Corruption

Universities and industry compete to see who can be more corrupt. At the moment, universities are in the lead.

Ramon y Cajal, the guy who wrote a book giving advice to young investigators, might not have noticed this, but in many places the boss, PI, lab chief, or whatever, uses you as cheap labor to benefit their own career. You'll know you're there if they pressure you to agree with their ideas, fire people who disagree with them, or force you to do uninteresting experiments.

If this happens, bail out. Age discrimination is real and severe in academia. Universities think the ideal candidate is a postdoc fresh out of school who studied in a famous lab and got one or two papers in Science, Nature, or Cell. If you can't convince a university you're one of those, or if you're over forty, you're screwed—unless you bring tons of money with you or give them a building. Universities like money, and they love new buildings.

As a friend of mine put it, whatever basis they say they don't discriminate against is what they discriminate against. Those disclaimers are there for purely decorative purposes.

If your boss insists on putting his name on all your papers, even when he didn't contribute, because he's the guy who brought in all the funding, while at the same time not teaching you how get funding of your own, or if he stomps on your ideas and forces you to write grants on his ideas, you are there.

Corollary: don't believe any promises anyone makes. If they're not in a valid legal contract, they are meaningless.

Real-world example added March 13, 2019
You must have a grant these days in order to get employed in academia, even if the position announcement says you don't need one. One guy at a fourth-rate school in northern West Virginia noted for its abysmal-quality research told me his search committee got over a hundred responses to their assistant professor advertisement. Five of them had grants. Only those five were considered. Two other schools told me the same thing: one had 57 applicants, three of whom had grants; only the three with grants were considered. Even self-described “bottom-feeder” schools often have a policy of not hiring anyone without a grant.

That wasn't true twenty years ago, and anyone telling you that you don't need a grant to get an entry-level academic position in the sciences is giving you out-of-date information.

If you do have a grant, don't lie about it. I know one guy who “forgot” to tell the search committee that his R01 grant had a co-principal investigator. When the school found out, they tried to get him to ditch the co-PI. He tried to do that, but NIH wouldn't let him, so the school withdrew the employment offer and hired somebody else, and the co-PI told him he would never collaborate with him again.

The unanswered question is: how are postdocs supposed to get grants? The answer is that they remain postdocs for a decade or longer until they get one; or they send out a thousand applications and hope to get lucky.

2. Cutting corners

Davros from Doctor Who smacking his forehead
Oh no, I forgot to do the controls!

I throw this in because I really like this picture, but it's true: I've seen many occasions where whole projects, representing years of work, failed because people were too lazy to do the frickin' controls.

Example: one guy found that the enzyme his boss was studying was reduced by 25% in some particular disease. The boss, of course, thought the finding must be true, because it backed up his theory, so he used it to justify plowing forward. But what was really happening was that 25% of the cells were dying.

The sad thing was, both of them knew that was the explanation the whole time. But admitting it would have been too uncomfortable for them, because they would have been forced to change their hypothesis. If you can't change your hypothesis, you're not doing science.

3. Hypothesis-driven research

It sounds nuts, but write down everything: lot numbers, how much you weighed out, why you are doing the experiment, when it was dropped on the floor, and how you cleaned it up. Take pictures of your cells, no matter how crappy they look, and weigh your animals at each stage. And make your assistants do it too. Otherwise, sooner or later you'll be doing hypothesis-driven research: hypothesizing that you might have added ten micrograms instead of one, or that you added cyanide to your cells instead of sodium chloride.

Once we got an experiment to work the very first time. That had never happened before, and once we got over the shock we found we couldn't repeat it. So we began hypothesizing about what we really did. It turned out that an assistant had added 10 times the normal amount of one solution by mistake. But she also kept good records, and thank goodness she did, because the paper we were following was full of typos. I put her in for a big raise after that.

Time is the biggest enemy in science. In the nine to eighteen months from when you submit a grant until you find out whether it gets funded, if by some miracle you're still employed, you will almost certainly have discovered enough stuff as to render your original hypothesis obsolete. Most likely you won't even remember what you proposed to do. That's why writing down what each experiment found, and indexing it, is so important.

4. Don't worry about people stealing your ideas.

No one outside of science cares about the disease you're studying until they catch it themselves, at which point it's too late for them. No one in the real world cares whether there really are such things as black holes or whether fruit flies contain vitamin C. The only things people care about are sex and social status. And the only reason they care about social status is so they can get more sex.

The corollary of this is, as Oscar Wilde put it, don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to shove them down people's throats. Truer words were never spoken.

Unlike in academia, in industry labs they keep your notebooks after firing you. Don't worry about leaving anything valuable behind: no one ever tries to read them. Only once was I asked to recover stuff from somebody's hard drive after they left. What the boss wanted wasn't data—he wouldn't have been able to make sense of it—but a lost manuscript.

5. Getting advice.

Get advice from others, then ignore it. I've lost several projects that would have been great if I hadn't listened to my co-workers. One time I discovered a role of one particular protein called Wnt in the brain, years before anyone else. I mentioned it to a molecular biologist, who ridiculed the idea. It couldn't be true, he said, because that protein is only involved in development. I talked to my boss, who thought the idea was stupid. Years later, someone else re-discovered it and confirmed what I'd found. They got a Nobel Prize for that.

6. All theories are wrong.

Theories are always false; we just don't know the reason. Their purpose is to help us think about what experiments to do. The purpose of experiments is to prove that a theory is wrong. Theories are artificial boundaries, like the styrofoam cup you keep your coffee in. Science only progresses when a theory is proven wrong. The only things that are true are observations.

A branch of science in which theories replaced observation would not be science, but a religion. It would be a house of cards waiting for one observation to bring it down.

Hypotheses and theories are invented to be disproven. A lab where the goal is to make somebody's hypothesis work is a lab that is headed for bankruptcy. I said this before, but it's important: if you can't change your hypothesis, you're not doing science.

7. Peyton Place.

Peyton Place was a soap opera from the 1960s where everyone backstabbed and gossiped about each other.

If you're in a lab where people are gossiping, complaining, accusing each other of fabricating results or sabotaging their experiments, making up vicious rumors about each other, sending each other nasty emails, or throwing analytical balances at each other, it means the lab is a Peyton Place. A lab where this happens is being badly mismanaged, and sooner or later something is going to go horribly wrong. I've seen each of these firsthand (and I was the one who got stuck fixing the analytical balance). Don't wait until your lab shows up in the news.

8. Sitting on your butt.

If your experiments aren't so exciting that you lose sleep over them, you're wasting your time. Between experiments you should be forcing yourself to learn new techniques.

When you think about possible experiments, the mind automatically runs through what techniques you know. If all you know how to do is run Westerns, all your ideas will be based on doing Western blots, and your creativity will be fatally impaired.

I know one guy who worked for ten years in a lab packed with expensive equipment without bothering to learn how to use any of it. He sat around wondering what to do. When it came time to get job interviews, he was in trouble.

The guy's supervisor did nothing, and I didn't know how to help him. He would start experiments, hit an obstacle, and give up. It was a classic case of a good person falling into a failure mode.

9. Passive-aggressive colleagues.

One time a colleague wrote a grant and gave it to his supervisor, who made a few little suggestions and gave it back, saying it was ‘nice.’ Then at a meeting he casually mentioned that this guy's grant was going to be triaged, which means it was so bad it would be thrown in the trash without being read. I was incensed: this guy was passive-aggressively destroying the career of someone he was responsible for.

This happens all the time: the guy had a good, fundable idea but couldn't write his way out of a paper bag. In the end, I helped him re-write it, taught him a bit about the topic he was planning to study, and got him a co-investigator. And his grant got a better score than the supervisor.

Nag them until they tell you the truth. You might worry that they'll get mad and try to harm your career, but by lying to you they're already doing that. The only difference is they're smiling about it. In science, if people are smiling at you, you're in trouble.

10. What doesn't kill you can maim you for life.

Another time the boss of a small company took a passive approach to training. One day a vial full of liquid nitrogen exploded, and a young technician lost an eye. The boss was racked with guilt and shortly afterward the company went under.

The most dangerous things in a lab are those safety bureaucrats, because they think everything is dangerous, so people ignore them. You need to know what is really dangerous and what is not, and make sure bad things can't happen.

11. Interpreting criticism is like interpreting dreams.

I used to get recurring dreams that my parents were planning to murder me. I wrote it off as just some more bad memories from my childhood, but in fact it meant that the University was planning to break up our department. Interpreting reviews is like that. There's truth there, but the meaning is hidden.

A reviewer typically skims through your paper casually. At that point they decide whether to accept it, and they go through it more carefully trying to find something to justify their decision. When you see stupid nitpicking criticisms, that's what's happening.

On the other hand, if you're working on some project just to stay employed, you'll be forced to write papers on ideas you know to be wrong. The bad reviews that you get are like a nightmare telling you to wake up and get the hell out.

If a reviewer criticizes you, it could be because they see you as competition and they're trying to demoralize you. But more likely it's because you didn't express yourself well enough. I practice by writing web pages, which force you to construct concise arguments using plain language, but there may be better ways.

Either way, it doesn't matter, because you're just dreaming it all.

12. Don't go into science if you have a choice.

If you enjoy solving impossible problems, like working until three AM to get your effing sound card to work in Linux, science is like that. If what you want is a nice secure job, consider doing something else.

A scientist is the sort of person who lies awake at night worrying about why matter and antimatter annihilate each other, or how bees dig holes in the ground (how do they hold their little shovels?).

Science in America is rapidly being destroyed by political correctness and by bureaucracy and well-meaning politicians. If you want to stay at a university, your best bet is to become a bureaucrat. As for industry, at least for biotech and pharma, they're all doing antibodies. It's great for them, because chemically antibodies are all the same, so almost no research is needed. So they rarely do much science these days.

In fact, the same advice people give to musicians applies to making a career in science: DON'T DO IT unless you can't imagine any alternative.

In academia, they don't care how smart you are. They don't care how much you know or what you can do, or how great your ideas are. All they care about is the prestige of the people who write your letters of recommendation, the prestige of the journals you published in, the prestige of your last institution, and how many millions of grant money you brought in.

In science, if you ever hit a bump that lasts for a year or longer, your research career will be screwed. This could mean a bad supervisor, working on an idea that turns out to be unsucces­sful, or working in a place that goes bankrupt, or being in an institution that's overrun by bureaucrats. Nowadays, going for a year or two without a paper in a top journal is fatal.

Pure research positions are rare. In Letters To a Young Scientist, biologist E. O. Wilson says you will work forty hours per week teaching and administrating, ten hours studying in your specialty, and ten for research. And no vacations, ever.

My dentist makes fun of me for never taking a vacation. The joke's on him. Well, the joke's on somebody, that's the important thing.

13. Don't forget to think.

It sounds crazy, but sometimes you have to think about the problem before jumping in and trying to solve it. If everyone else is working on the same topic, you may be sure it's a terrible idea. Sure, you have to pay obeisance to the herd, but you won't discover much by mindlessly following them off the cliff.

Sooner or later you'll be writing a grant and realize, as I did, two days before the deadline, that one or more of your specific aims suck. That's when it gets stressful. Don't just keep writing. Stop and think hard before writing another word.

I've seen hypotheses that couldn't possibly be true get funded. That proves that for every project there's a potential route to success. It's just a matter of figuring out the solution.

That brings us to E.O. Wilson's remark that high intelligence isn't needed to do good science. I think this is bad advice. What a high IQ gives you (so I've heard) is (1) the ability to exert sustained mental effort and (2) the ability to see what's coming and adapt to it. When your field doesn't change much, you can get by with a moderate IQ. When it does, you'll find your lab space gradually shrinking and your papers going to lower tier journals. Even tenure won't protect you from that indefinitely.

Example: when biology suddenly turned molecular, lots of old-style biologists who didn't learn it got squeezed out. I know one great old-style biologist, working at an internationally renowned institution, who didn't want to learn anything molecular. He's now teaching at a community college. Now it's happening again: biology is becoming data-centered and mathematical. Some biologists even today can't use a computer. They'll survive for a time by collaborating—always a good force multiplier—but eventually collaborators move on. The window can close on you surprisingly fast.


* Grants are scored from 1 to 9 in a number of categories, including innovation, approach, and research environment. The lowest score is 9, which means ‘terrible.’ The numbers are combined to make a composite score; as a rule of thumb, a score of 4 or higher in any category makes the grant unfundable.


aug 24 2018, 4:52 am; last edited jan 16 2019, 6:31 am. updated mar 13 2019, 6:45 am


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