Science Is Just Another Profession

May 21 2009 Published by under Careerism, Conduct of Science, Tribe of Science

Mad Hatter has an excellent post up today concerning her attitude towards science. As she so eloquently puts it:

My dirty little secret is that I don't love science. Don't get me wrong--I'm very happy with my job and career path and I'm excited by my research projects. What I mean is that I love getting to work on interesting and challenging problems, but they don't necessarily have to be scientific problems. I don't have a specific passion for science, nor do I feel that being a scientist is my "calling," so to speak.

More inside the crack.

I've heard some scientists say that those who don't love science have no place in academic research. I say that's a load of crap. Science is not a deity at whose feet only the most devout and ardent are worthy to kneel. And in my experience, the people who love science are, on average, no more talented at it than those who simply enjoy being scientists and have a desire to succeed.

Absofuckinglutely! Science is a profession, like any other. The idea that one needs to treat it like some kind of religious calling is pernicious bullshit.

52 responses so far

  • becca says:

    Aww, shucks. You're just saying that cause you'd make an awful monk.

  • Alex says:

    The idea that one needs to treat it like some kind of religious calling is pernicious bullshit.
    Preach it, brother Physioprof!
    Um, I mean, good point, colleague.
    This point cuts multiple ways. To the extent that people act completely shocked when science can be as crappy as any other job, it is an admonition to them. OTOH, some people act like it should be even crappier than any other job, and it should consume every waking moment (and you should have more waking moments than people in other jobs who somehow manage to sleep now and then), and this is also a refutation of that bizarre notion.
    It's a job. It's going to suck at times, but it shouldn't be something for which you are expected to bear any burden and put up with any amount of bullshit.

  • Luigi says:

    I think one can absolutely be a 'successful' scientist even if you don't absolutely love it. Just like smart hard working people can get by at lots of things. But I don't think you can be a great scientist unless science -- the rigorous and methodical pursuit of new knowledge -- gives you a mental orgasm.
    I have yet to meet a really successful and brilliant scientist who doesn't live and breathe their stuff.

  • antipodean says:

    If it were a profession we'd have professional salaries.

  • Anonymous says:

    "I have yet to meet a really successful and brilliant scientist who doesn't live and breathe their stuff."
    Yeah, but in which profession can you be really successful and brilliant without living and breathing the stuff? I'd argue that it's a common characteristic of all brilliantly successful people.
    I think Mad Hatter said something a little bit different, that she enjoys working on interesting and challenging problems, and science happens to be the focus of the one's she's addressing now. There are challenging problems everywhere (for example, how to fix the California budget mess. That one makes me ill. If I were in charge of that one, I'd quit).

  • Luigi says:

    Yeah, but in which profession can you be really successful and brilliant without living and breathing the stuff? I'd argue that it's a common characteristic of all brilliantly successful people.

    Good point.
    Still, I'd hate to think any grad students or postdocs reading this will get the idea that simply punching the clock is good enough to have a career as a scientist. It isn't. Not because science is inherently different, as you say. But rather because you still have to compete (for jobs, grants, students, etc) with all the people who DO live and breathe their stuff.

  • Anonymous says:

    "But rather because you still have to compete (for jobs, grants, students, etc) with all the people who DO live and breathe their stuff.'
    Yes, and the more people in the competition who "live and breathe their stuff" the harder it is to compete if you don't. At least scientists don't have the problem of artists/writers, for whom the competition can include people who will produce the work for free.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Still, I'd hate to think any grad students or postdocs reading this will get the idea that simply punching the clock is good enough to have a career as a scientist. It isn't.
    Yes but there is a big difference between clock-punching and the all encompassing monastic vocation myth.
    If you want to win prizes and shit, yeah, it helps to have a vocation. But if you just want to do your thing, create good solid work, etc...something less than a monastic vocation suffices.

  • Agreed.
    Not to mention that not everyone who "lives and breathes the stuff" is any fucking good at it. The adage 'practice makes perfect' is load of horseshit. Practice doesn't make perfect--often it only reinforces bad habits. Perfect practice, on the other hand.....

  • DuWayne says:

    Still, I'd hate to think any grad students or postdocs reading this will get the idea that simply punching the clock is good enough to have a career as a scientist.
    Just like when I worked as a supervisor and then as a business owner in the construction field, I'd hate to think that anyone expecting to work for me would have the idea that punching the clock was good enough to work for me for more than a few hours. I didn't expect anyone to live and breath the work we did, but I sure as fuck expected them to give me every damned bit of themselves, when they were on my dime.
    The people who did, got treated well by me and a couple found trades they happened to excel at, and who basically did live and breath it, had my support going into business for themselves (ironically, both being better business people, they have been far more successful than myself). On the other hand, people who couldn't give me their all - people who thought all they had to do was punch a clock - they had no place on any job of mine.
    There isn't just two extremes. I have done a lot of jobs that I absolutely loved and I have done jobs that really sucked ass. My clients couldn't tell the difference, because even on the jobs that I not only didn't have a passion for, but absolutely hated, I did exceptional work. It had nothing to do with what I was doing and everything to do with a profound belief in doing my absolute best at anything I do. If I'm getting paid to shovel shit, then I am going to be an exceptional shit shoveler. If I'm getting paid to develop new clinical approaches to treating addiction, which I will be someday, I will give it no more effort than I would give the shit shoveling. Not because I like shoveling shit or don't have a profound passion for addiction, but because I don't do anything half-assed.
    I doubt I'm alone in that.

  • DuWayne says:

    That is, I don't do anything half-assed, with the occasional exception of grammar and spelling...

  • qaz says:

    Wow, DM, I'm disappointed. I'm with Luigi on this one. I would have expected a more nuanced discussion of this issue from you.
    If someone is just in this for the money, they're probably smart enough to be doing something else for a lot more money. If they're in this for the perks, they're probably going to get a lot more perks elsewhere. Sure, the science life is pretty good once you get tenure, but it's a hard row to hoe. Much as I'd like to think that science is a profession like any other, it's not paid as a profession like any other. Pretty much everyone I know in academic science has turned down a job paying >1.5x their science salary to do this.
    What I see is that some people love the science of it - for me, that feeling when you actually discover something, that there is a new discovery in the world and you're the one who found it (or you and your collaborators) - that's a rush like nothing else. If you're one of those people, then you'll put up with a lot of crap to do your science. Some people love the challenge of the lab and will put up with a salary cut for it.
    To me, the issues of "science is a profession" and "you got to love science" are different issues. The profession of academia (*) demands crazy amounts of time and effort. It has weird rules (which get discussed in depth on this blog). Those rules could be improved (which also gets discussed on this blog). But the real issue is if you can do the science, you can do something else. So if it ain't fun, don't do it. Whatever you're doing with your life, if it ain't your bliss, go do something else. I think that applies to Science as much as anything else.
    * Yes, I know there's more to science than academia. But the issues don't seem to be with industry or policy or editing or even pure teaching or the other non-research-academia scientific professions.

  • Hope says:

    I think Luigi (#4) said it best – that’s been my experience as well.
    I love science. We’ve been together a long time. But it’s always been an open marriage.

  • Mad Hatter says:

    I'm certainly not making any claims that one can be elected to the National Academy and win the Nobel Prize by punching the clock. Hell, I don't think one can get through grad school by punching the clock!
    But just as one can publish in CNS or in perfectly respectable field journals, one can run a 30-postdoc megalab and work on 50 different things or run a smaller lab and do a few things well. People will settle into a spot in this spectrum based on their level of "devotion," among other things.
    All I'm saying is that it's possible to have a career in science without perpetually being in the 99th percentile in terms of fervor. And if I were ever unable to do science anymore, I'm not gonna feel like I have nothing left to live for.

  • But just as one can publish in CNS or in perfectly respectable field journals, one can run a 30-postdoc megalab and work on 50 different things or run a smaller lab and do a few things well. People will settle into a spot in this spectrum based on their level of "devotion," among other things.

    The axes of CNS versus respectable field journals and 30 post-doc 50 thing megalab versus smaller lab few things are orthogonal to level of "devotion".

  • Luigi says:

    All I'm saying is that it's possible to have a career in science without perpetually being in the 99th percentile in terms of fervor.

    You realize that this conclusion is obvious based on purely mathematical grounds?

  • MBench says:

    All I'm saying is that it's possible to have a career in science without perpetually being in the 99th percentile in terms of fervor.

    I think this is the mid-career version of a problem I've encountered in grad school and as a post-doc. Namely, that career advice skews towards the "top-ten-or-bust" group and actively discourages those who don't feel the need to be super-PI's churning out CNS publications. "You don't have what it takes" is what you get out of many of these career sessions or talks with (well-meaning) PIs. "Just because you enjoy science, are pretty good at it, can write and talk effectively, and have some interesting ideas doesn't mean you can "cut it" in academia. You have to live it and breathe it and be in the lab at 2:30AM on a Sunday morning otherwise forget about an academic career." That's BS -- you can make a career in academic science, get funded, contribute to human health and knowledge, mentor young scientists and teach bright students without being pathologically obsessive about your work and your career. It's true as a grad student, true as a post-doc and true as a PI too.

  • That's BS -- you can make a career in academic science, get funded, contribute to human health and knowledge, mentor young scientists and teach bright students without being pathologically obsessive about your work and your career. It's true as a grad student, true as a post-doc and true as a PI too.

    Absofuckinglutely!

  • Luigi says:

    WHoa there MBench. Before you ease back on your laurels, remember two things:
    1) There IS a bottleneck/hurdle for getting good science jobs. The pipeline is leaky, remember? That means most people drop out. Or are weeded out, for whatever reason -- some fairly, some unfairly.
    2) Average effort/productivity for the entire population of professional scientists includes values from all the old lazy worthless fucks Comrade Physioprof so often disparages.
    What this means is: You *DO* have to be in the top 10% to survive, at least at first, or you'll never have the opportunity to become an 'average' scientist. Don't let the populist pablum spouted here mislead you. If your model is someone who has already 'made it' and is kicking back, you'll never get there. You can't put in the same effort as people who've already crossed the finish line and are 'walking it off'.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    I think the term "love" skews the perception of how one relates to one's vocation. I performed many different jobs in my life time, none of them more enjoyable than my job as a scientist. Nevertheless, my devotion to every one of those jobs was absolute and complete. One cannot do a half-ass job and enjoy it, let alone maintain it. There is something to enjoy in any given job and the difference between different jobs is the level of joy one gets out of it. Clearly, the more joy one extract from one's job, the more one invest in it. The joy is the main reward. Other rewards (awards, fame, recognition) are just the cream on the cake.

  • Mad Hatter says:

    @CPP #16--Yes, I realize the flaw in that particular illustration, but my general point, which is that one can be a scientist at different levels within the spectrum, still stands.
    @Luigi #17--It became obvious to me only after I'd been in academia long enough to have the perspective, not when I was a trainee and was being told all the things MBench #18 lists in his/her comment.

  • qaz says:

    Part of the issue (I think) is that one often conflates "put in 150% effort" (even if you only get paid for 100%) with "do the crazy stuff I do". For some people that 150% entails being at the bench at 2:30 am. For others it means coming in on Saturday. For others it means slow and steady but never letting up. Whatever it means, there is a bottleneck to get to the top ResearchU faculty spots and to get funded at them. If that's your goal, then it's going to be hard to do that without 150% effort. More importantly for this discussion, it's really really unpleasant to put in 150% effort if you don't love what you do. (Or at least really enjoy it.)
    That all being said, I think the real problem with the "you have to love science meme" is that there's a lot more to science out there than two-R01 / fight-for-CNS / top-research-U tenure-track faculty jobs. And those other science jobs are JUST AS IMPORTANT. I think this all comes back to the discussions we've had on this blog before that going to become a permanent research tech in some lab so that lab can't run without you or going to an undergraduate college where one is primarily teaching or becoming a program officer at NIH or going into industry or policy decision-making are not failures and must not be seen as such.

  • Luigi says:

    I don't like the '150% effort' meme either, because it implies that long hours and/or maximum effort are enough. They're not. Unsuccessful grad students and postdocs often mistakenly think effort = success, and whine on about how it's so unfair that they are not rewarded for their efforts. But effort does NOT equal success. The two things are not even necessarily correlated, and you're focusing on the wrong thing if you're focusing on effort. The only thing that counts is productivity. Some people work smart and focus intensely in the lab. They don't necessarily do a lot of experiments, but they do exactly the right experiments, and they go home at 5PM and enjoy their family and hobbies or whatever and are very successful. Other people might spend 115 hours a week in the lab grinding themselves into powder and not accomplish a damn thing because everything they do is done inefficiently or misdirected at some impossible or irrelevant goal.
    Most successful scientists, of course, are somewhere in the middle. We're not exceptionally brilliant, but we're not totally clueless either.
    The key is to recognize what it takes YOU to meet YOUR professional goals.
    I, for example, am easily distracted and like to dork around on the internet when I should be writing grant proposals. This might be a career-killing liability, except I also know I have two other proposals already under consideration and the deadline for this one is not for another month and a half. I can also focus pretty intently when I need to, and work completely off a laptop that goes everywhere I go, which means a 3 AM inspiration this weekend can be leveraged immediately. And I have a knack for picking good research projects, which means the stuff we work on usually pays off. So I'm OK.
    Still, I guess I probably shouldn't be dorking around on the internet. How the hell do you manage to blog and survive as a scientist, DM? There seems to be no shortage of posts, and when you aren't posting it seems like you're reading (and commenting in) a bazillion other blogs. Unless you're finding some depth in the ramblings of your colleagues I don't, it seems science blogs are OK for entertainment but they really are not professionally useful (except maybe for providing an anecdote for some undergrad class once in a while). I might as well be at the movies. Seriously, dude, are you a superman or is your field really easy? In which case: enlighten us. Are drug/addiction researchers really mostly all morons?

  • Danimal says:

    See, we can agree on somethings.

  • qaz says:

    Re: "the 150% effort".
    Very well said Luigi (#24). You are absolutely right. I was using "150% effort" as a shorthand for "finding your way to real scientific productivity". I suspect that this is also what the PIs meant when they told Mad Hatter that "you have to love science". But I think we both agree that there is a very hard to describe demand that working at the forefront of science places on us researchers that differentiates the productive scientists who succeed from those who don't. Teaching students how to find that productivity is (IMHO) the hardest thing I do.

  • But effort does NOT equal success. The two things are not even necessarily correlated, and you're focusing on the wrong thing if you're focusing on effort. The only thing that counts is productivity. Some people work smart and focus intensely in the lab. They don't necessarily do a lot of experiments, but they do exactly the right experiments, and they go home at 5PM and enjoy their family and hobbies or whatever and are very successful. Other people might spend 115 hours a week in the lab grinding themselves into powder and not accomplish a damn thing because everything they do is done inefficiently or misdirected at some impossible or irrelevant goal.

    URRITE! And there are some scientists who are in constant motion, but they seem to be incapable of moving towards any goal. I call this Brownian motion. They never get anywhere, and are doomed to failure.

  • whimple says:

    The only thing that counts is productivity
    That's an excellent point. Remind again what a good metric for productivity is? 🙂

  • becca says:

    So, uhm, dumb grad student questions for the hivemind...
    How do you hone skills at determining what at the most critical experiments to do? How do you get yourself out of a rut when you can tell you're just spinning your wheels experimentally?
    And perhaps most importantly, how can you tell when you've got enough data for a paper? That's pretty much the only productivity that counts at the end of the day, unless I've totally missed something (well that and the amount your immediate boss *perceives* your productivity as...) .

  • daedalus2u says:

    I disagree with anon 8:24. It will be harder to compete “doing science” with those who live and breathe science, so those who don’t live and breathe science shift the competition to other areas where living and breathing the science isn’t necessary or even advantageous.
    The problem is, there is no need for competition in doing science. We are no where close to exhausting the amount of science that can be done. Every human could be a scientist for centuries each working on completely independent projects and the amount of science that needed to be done would not be close to being exhausted.
    Competition is only necessary to acquire resources that are limited. Competition is neither necessary nor sufficient to accomplish good science. To the extent that competition limits resources to otherwise productive scientists it limits the productivity of the entire scientific enterprise.
    Competition in “science” isn’t really about competition doing science, it is about competition acquiring resources which can then be used to do science. Prevent your rivals from acquiring resources and you have out-competed them and will accomplish science before they will.

  • qaz says:

    And yet, competition has always been a part of the scientific endeavor. Look, for example, at Newton and Hooke, or Newton and Leibniz, or Priestly and Lavoisier.
    Scientists are human beings. We're primates. We compete for resources with which to do the science and we compete for the rank that comes from successful discovery.
    I certainly think we could reduce the unpleasant competition for resources that we've built into the current system. I suspect we could reduce the unpleasant competition for CNS papers that exists within the current system. But some level of rank competition is inherent in the primates we are.

  • Luigi says:

    Those are all really good questions, becca, and I'd be totally lying if I told you I definitely knew the answers. I doubt many successful PIs do. We are just better at stumbling along through this murky wood. Remember we were all you once not so long ago.
    Perhaps the only difference is that we've developed the willingness, after admitting we don't know a good answer, of spouting off authoritatively anyway...

    How do you hone skills at determining what at the most critical experiments to do?

    Stay focused on the questions you set out to answer. The first step in any project is thinking up a good question. It is tough to say what a good question is. It is easier to say what bad questions are. Bad questions are questions that people already know the answer to ahead of time. Don't waste your time with those. Drugs influence behavior. Transcription factors regulate gene expression. Mutants have phenotypes. Stuff like that. You need to go deeper. Here are two structurally similar drugs with wildly different behavioral effects. Why? That's a good question. Bad questions are also ones that you can't answer scientifically, typically because they will become mired in semantics or require technology that doesn't exist. 'What color is God's hair?' is a question like that. Other questions are bad because they are not actually questions. Electrophysiological recording from striatal neurons in culture is not a question. Mec-alpha positive cells in the liver of newborn rat pups is not a question.
    Once you have a good question, ask yourself before every experiment whether the experiment will help answer the question, and whether there is a better way. If the experiment will not help, don't do the experiment. If there is a better way, use the better way.
    Remember we are in the business of answering questions. Figuring things out. The answers are what are important. Good scientists are good at getting lots of answers to interesting questions.

    How do you get yourself out of a rut when you can tell you're just spinning your wheels experimentally?

    See above. You know those computer software logic diagrams? The ones with boxes and arrows covering all possible outcomes and leading to another step? Try to make one of those and follow it as much as possible. If you can't diagram stuff out like that then you need to rethink your experimental approach. Thinking like those diagram should become second nature. You can apply that thinking to anything...
    http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=1077

    And perhaps most importantly, how can you tell when you've got enough data for a paper?

    Read read read the literature. Think about papers you admire, and emulate them. First make sure you've got a result worth reporting. A single sentence that, when you tell colleagues, they say 'Wow, that's interesting!' Papers are usually constructed around such sentences, and it usually takes a certain amount of figures to support such sentences. And of course the data need to be reliable, so that people have faith in your conclusion. Again, that goes back to reading reading reading. Compare your data to the best, and make sure the quality of what you are doing matches up. Strive for elegance. A single 100% convincing elegant experiment is always better than half a dozen half-assed bits of crappy circumstantial evidence. Beauty is truth.

  • qaz says:

    Remember we are in the business of answering questions. Figuring things out.

    Luigi#32, these are not the same things. Sometimes exploration is important. More often than not, the real science is done not by answering questions, but by knowing the right waters to go fishing in and keeping your eyes open. Then you get a question. (Usually the question is "Huh. That shouldn't do that.") But again, Becca#29, the key is finding the right balance between obvious and impossible.

    "Electrophysiological recording from striatal neurons in culture" is not a question.

    But "what happens to electrophysiological recordings from striatal neurons growing in culture" is. (It may already be an answered question, but it's actually a pretty good question.)
    If you get stuck in a rut, go back to the fundamental issues. Two pieces of advice that I've always found useful when getting out of ruts.
    1. Read the old literature. Those were really smart people. Many times they left open questions that couldn't be answered because they didn't have the technology or were missing some piece of the puzzle. If you have the technology now (or someone else has found that missing piece), some of those old papers have a lot of gold to mine.
    2. Tear down your rig before starting your next experiment. (Obviously this isn't really a viable strategy with current NIH funding cycles and all.) But the concept is important. Don't ask "what's the best question I can answer with this $100,000 piece of equipment I have in the lab?". Try to ask yourself "what's the right way to answer this question I find really interesting?"

  • Luigi says:

    Sometimes exploration is important. More often than not, the real science is done not by answering questions, but by knowing the right waters to go fishing in and keeping your eyes open

    I disagree. This old turn about exploration leads more people astray than anything else. The idea that great discoveries come from simply poking about is a myth. It just doesn't happen, or if it does once in a very great while by accident then it is folly for any of us to think we're brilliant enough to make it work regularly. You cannot simply go poking about hoping something interesting will happen. It likely won't. 'Seeing what will happen' is not a plan, and 'finding something' is not a compelling argument for funding your work. You won't publish. You won't get funding. You'll die bitter and worthless, rotting away in a lumpy chair with chemical-stained figures and uncombed hair. Four days later people will discover your body only because of the smell, and they won't know your name.
    When you go looking, you need to be looking for something specific. You may or may not find it, but if your question is important then at least you are guaranteed to answer an important question. Columbus was looking for a short route to the Indies. Lewis & Clark wanted to find the Northwest passage. They prepared very differently than they would have for a trek across Asia or a sail around South America. You can't just jolly well march out the door one day with a sandwich and a notebook hoping for the best.
    Qaz's analogy about fishing in new waters is misleading, and not actually supportive of his argument. Think about it. What are you doing when you're going fishing? A: Looking for fish. What do you do when you look for fish? A: look in a new place, not likely fished out, or with new technology. You bring very different things to catch fish then you would to catch octupi, or kelp, or whales. You don't bring a jet plane, even though jets are cool and useful. You don't bring a golf ball, or a computer mouse, or a bottle of ink. You have a hypothesis ('The fish are here and they can be caught by...'), and you have a plan.
    You don't just go 'fishing'. Forget that idea. Have a question that needs answering, and a plan for answering it. Know how you'll know when your question is answered, and prepare everything you'll need to know when you're there and gather the evidence that you've been. Then -- and only then -- set off...

  • whimple says:

    If you have the technology now (or someone else has found that missing piece), some of those old papers have a lot of gold to mine.
    I agree, and have done this a lot myself, however, this can be a dangerous approach even when it succeeds.
    1) You're not going to get funded to do the necessary exploratory work. People want answers to questions they're all thinking about right now, and trying to answer questions that people got stuck on years ago isn't mainstream. You are going to try to do what others before you have failed to do. Tried hard and failed. In the eyes of the funders, you're likely to fail too. Even with zippy new technology, this is a difficult funding barrier to overcome.
    2) Say you front yourself the cash to do the exploratory work anyway, and it succeeds! Now you can answer all those questions people were trying to answer all those years ago... but, these aren't the questions people today are thinking about answering. Reviewers aren't going to know what the value of these new answers is worth, because these new answers are coming out of context with current questions.
    It's much safer, although a lot less fun, to just do what everyone else is already doing. Maybe with your own personal spin, but still, being at the front edge of your field and moving the direction the field is currently going. Everyone knows what the value of that work is going to be. Very high likelihood of incremental progress is how science works today.

  • You don't just go 'fishing'. Forget that idea. Have a question that needs answering, and a plan for answering it. Know how you'll know when your question is answered, and prepare everything you'll need to know when you're there and gather the evidence that you've been. Then -- and only then -- set off...

    This is a total bullshit dichotomy. What you have described is one way to do good science. What qaz has described is another way to do good science.
    Smart scientists diversify their portfolios with a mixture of both approaches, as well as some novel tool development. I am surprised that someone who claims to be so successful would be so stupid as to not understand this.

  • Luigi says:

    Smart scientists diversify their portfolios with a mixture of both approaches, as well as some novel tool development. I am surprised that someone who claims to be so successful would be so stupid as to not understand this.

    Sometimes, to answer a question, you need to develop new technology. And sometimes, questions are not yes/no type things. But there is always (or should be) an implicit question. I am surprised someone who gives such good grant-writing advice would be so stupid as to not understand this.
    Let's say you have a box. You want to look inside. Fine.
    But the inside of boxes are dark. Thus it is stupid to say you'll just look inside, unless your implicit assumption (hypothesis) is that there was something in there emitting photons. How likely is that?
    So you shine a light in there. Again, you need to recognize the limitations of that experiment, and possible outcomes.
    What if you have reason to hypothesize that there is actually a slanted mirror in there, making the box look empty? What do you do then? Maybe you poke a stick in there. Or you shine a light beam and see if it reflects. Or you X-ray the box. 'Looking' is not good enough, and looking over and over again or for longer and longer (unless you hypothesize some temporal variation) is even stupider. That's what I'm trying to stress. Too many grad students and postdocs spin their wheels not answering the question because their methods are inappropriate or because they're looking and looking and looking unable to realize that it's time to move on to the next question.
    Using high technology to do stuff in a lab all day is not science. Using fancy polysyllabic words to describe things is not science. Staring at shit all day is not science. Not even if you stare at it with a microscope or a high energy particle beam. You've got to be doing that things for a reason.
    My single best piece of advice for young scientists is to ask themselves over and over and over again all day for everything they do: "What will I know after I do this that I didn't know already?" If the answer is 'nothing', or is not anything you wanted to know, then for GOD'S SAKE STOP WASTING YOUR TIME (and someone else's money and likely patience).

  • My single best piece of advice for young scientists is to ask themselves over and over and over again all day for everything they do: "What will I know after I do this that I didn't know already?" If the answer is 'nothing', or is not anything you wanted to know, then for GOD'S SAKE STOP WASTING YOUR TIME (and someone else's money and likely patience).

    This is absolutely horrendous advice. Interesting and novel science frequently occurs as the outcome of an experiment in which you have no a priori idea what you will learn from the experiment, or even if you will learn anything.
    What you are asserting as the only way to do interesting science is just one way to do science. Maybe there is some kind of semantic disconnect here, as I really find it hard to believe that a genuinely successful scientist could possibly mean what you seem to be asserting.

  • Luigi says:

    I am as baffled as you are, Comrade. And in fact I was also hypothesizing a semantic disconnect. Except my hypothesis was that you had so internalized the process of asking (and then answering) questions that you didn't even recognize that you were actually looking for something rather specific whenever you went 'exploring'.
    Can you explain to me how an experiment with any possibility of yielding something new doesn't have some implicit question?
    Are you talking about making an observation? That's not an experiment. Making observations all day is not, in my opinion, science. Maybe that's our disconnect. Maybe you consider that science. If so, I think that's the crux of our disagreement. And if so, fair enough. 'Science' is a tough thing to define.
    But I still think students are better off learning to ask and answer questions rather than attempting to develop a knack for post-hoc interpreting observations in an interesting way.

  • Many of my most interesting studies were motivated by "I wonder what the fuck would happen to X physiological process if we manipulate Y cellular pathway using Z putative novel technique?"
    While this is a question, this would not satisfy your demand to an a priori positive answer to this question: "What will I know after I do this that I didn't know already?" The answer could turn out to be not a goddamn motherfucking thing.
    And after we do those kinds of experiments, most of which don't pan out, but some of which do, we obviously never write papers like this: "We wondered what the fuck would happen to X physiological process if we manipulated Y cellular pathway using Z putative novel technique, so we tried it. And, Holy fucknoly, you wouldn't believe what happened!" Rather, as do all scientists, we write that shit up all like, "In order to test the hypothesis that blah, blah, blah..."

  • Luigi says:

    I think, based on my previous comment, that you have internalized the question-asking, Comrade. In your example, though you didn't say it explicitly, you are using a particular technique. Thus, you are a priori making assumptions about what you think will happen. In other words, you are asking 'Will A, B, or C happen to X when I tweak Y using Z?' That's your question. It is not open-ended, as you assert. The mistake in not recognizing that, which I see all the time, is that some people start off wondering whether D will happen and then get frustrated when they end up not figuring it out. Or, more commonly, they conclude that D does NOT happen, when in fact it they have not answered that question. You may be experienced enough to not be fooled by that D possibility stuff, but your trainees might not be. I run into many who are not (but of course in much more subtle ways). It's important to recognize that.

  • qaz says:

    Well, Luigi, we'll have to agree to disagree. You chase your questions and I'll explore and I'll be in Scotland before you.
    I think that the real problem is that you've defined "answer a question" in a very specific way such as to make lots of really boring things that are actually answering questions not part of your definition. Similarly, you've defined exploration as searching randomly. Of course, exploration is not random searching. To say it is is disingenuous.
    Both exploration and picking-a-question can be good mechanisms for discovery and also very bad ones. Exploration doesn't mean "try something random". Anymore than "Hey, what happens when I do this?" is a good question. The trick when exploring is to find an experiment that is likely to produce good results. When one goes fishing, one doesn't just throw the line in the water, there's a skill to knowing where the fish are going to bite, and when. Just as in asking questions, it's really easy to ask a stupid one.
    My suspicion is that they are not as different as they seem. In exploring, one is always asking questions. I like to tell my students that we test a new hypothesis every day. Similarly, when "asking questions" - like "What is in this box?" You have to try [explore!] many different avenues.
    In my experience, the "you must have a question" meme tends to lead students down the wrong path, because "nope" can be an answer, even if it's boring. And because it's very hard to find a single question that's going to last even a year. I find that saying instead that "you have to learn how to design an experiment that's going to give you an interesting result even if your guess about how things work is probably wrong" tends to produce better experimental design.
    In behavioral neuroscience [my field], I can definitively say that most of the big breakthroughs have happened either (a) because someone was asking question X, noticed fact Y, and decided Y was much more interesting than X or (b) because they had reason to suspect that brain structure X was involved (in some way) in task Y. I guess the question is "what are the neurons in X doing in task Y?" but I've always been told by people who demand questions on grants and stuff that that's a terrible question. What happens when exploring is that you are always asking questions. But those questions come about anew on each day. And they usually entail "huh, is that what's going on?"
    Let's take Lewis and Clark and Columbus as examples. (By the way, aren't they called "explorers" not "questioners"?) L&C had a goal (find a route to the pacific), not a question. They didn't say "does this river lead to the pacific? No? Ok. We're done." What they did was try lots of different routes, with lots of flexibility to achieve their goal. When Columbus [and his successors] found that they had discovered a new land, they changed their goals. Actually, by your definition, an "explorer" who started exploring from Spain would as likely end up in central Europe as in the Americas. To call random search "exploration" is totally bogus.
    And finally:

    You may be experienced enough to not be fooled by that D possibility stuff, but your trainees might not be.

    It's my job to teach my trainees how to fish. I don't expect them to catch one on the first day. But by the end of their time with me, I hope that I've taught them how to explore in an intelligent and rational way that is likely to discover new things.

  • Anonymous says:

    if science is not your passion, then it doesn't make sense to get into it as a career since there are a ton of other professions that will pay a much higher salary and come with a lot less stress. Thus I would say that if science is not your passion - you could be equally happy and fulfilled doing anything else - yet you are choosing to make this your profession, you are being foolish.

  • diyet says:

    The people who did, got treated well by me and a couple found trades they happened to excel at, and who basically did live and breath it, had my support going into business for themselves (ironically, both being better business people, they have been far more successful than myself). On the other hand, people who couldn't give me their all - people who thought all they had to do was punch a clock - they had no place on any job of mine.

  • Bill says:

    "if science is not your passion, then it doesn't make sense to get into it as a career since there are a ton of other professions that will pay a much higher salary and come with a lot less stress. Thus I would say that if science is not your passion - you could be equally happy and fulfilled doing anything else - yet you are choosing to make this your profession, you are being foolish."
    Just because someone is not "passionate" about science, doesn't mean they would be equally happy and fulfilled doing something else. What are the "ton" of other professions that pay a lot more for a lot less stress? Medicine? You think there's no stress there??? Not to mention you owe 100's of thousands in student loans. Law? Not stressful at all, you just have to work 100 hours per week to establish yourself, doing something that is unbelieveably boring. Business? Maybe a couple of years ago, but I think most science types have little aptitude or interest in business. I think, for myself and possibly many others, science is fun at times, boring at times, but in the end, is the most interesting thing I could find as a career. Does that mean I'm in the lab at 2 am on a Sunday? NFW. The people I know that do that are mostly engaging in the Brownian motion that CPP aptly describes.

  • Dr. Feelgood says:

    Bah this is so black and white. My motivations in science? I like expensive technical toys and I like to fix things and I like to optimize them and make them work well. I like to measure things that other people seem to have technical difficulty with. I like schmooze donors and affect science policy at my university. I like to foster the work others and collaborate productively. I have my own research program and I enjoy it, but I dont live and breathe it.
    I have a life, I have motorcycles to repair, beers to drink, kids etc. I am also a successful and productive scientist. However, its the technical minutiae of what I do that keeps me going on a daily basis, not the prospect of saving the world. We all have things that float our boat. Usually they are the minor things associated with the major things we do.
    Does this makes sense?
    Doc F.

  • DSKS says:

    "Remind again what a good metric for productivity is? :)"
    I also agree with Luigi, but yeah, all we know about that all inclusive "metric for productivity" is that it's hidden in a tomb somewhere and heavily guarded by Templars.

  • Julia says:

    That's nice for Mad Hatter et alia, but I have to say, for this n of one, science is more like a calling than "just" a profession. If it weren't, by which I mean if I didn't looove it despite it breaking my heart all the time, I would be doing something different and more lucrative.

  • I_moustache_you_a_question says:

    I have to say Luigi I disagree, you're way off in saying you should NEVER go searching when you don't have a question. Sometimes its easy to do the searching alongside your hypothesised questions, i know ive thought hey im going to chuck some of this drug on these cells too and have a nosey to see what happens, might as well put on a few extra samples in my assay when i have room in the plate. Even if you have no question to answer by doing it, or have no expectation of the outcomes, this kind of 'playing' in the lab as i see it is vital to scientific discovery. Several times this kind of thing has led me to new research areas, and one very important one which led to a whole new clinical trial.
    But that kind of thing will never be the bulk of your research. You need to balance your work well, focus yourself on answering the good questions and doing experiments you expect will yeild good results and get you papers and grants, but ffs have a muck about too, see what happens, its fun and it just might lead to the next big unexpected discovery. Just try and manage your time and resources well so you don't spend any large amounts of time or money on something you don't have a good hypothesis for!

  • DuWayne says:

    But would you Julia?
    I love the challenge of walking into a job, not knowing what I'm going to encounter when I start ripping into the walls, ceiling or floors. I love the excitement of chasing down new and interesting problems - fixing shit I've never fixed before - because it's broken and the homeowner hired me to fix it.
    I do not however, love handywork and remodeling. Don't get me wrong, there are many aspects of it that are cathartic and I have done a hella lot of work that I am exceptionally proud of and with good reason. But I sure as hell don't love the profession. I chose it because it fulfilled certain catharsis and I was qualified - growing ever more qualified every damned day.
    I am now pursuing an education that will foster a career in science. I definitely have a passion for the human brain and have developed something of a passion for addiction, but I don't consider addiction research a "calling." I could do any number of things within the realm of psychology and be equally happy. And to make it worse - psych was in close competition with cultural anthropology, history (focusing on imperialism) or even sociology. Linguistics and communications would have been a competitor, but I am going to pursue a concurrent degree in linguistics to complement the work I want to do in addiction.
    Ultimately, the psychology of addiction won out, because I believe that my skills and abilities are better suited for that, than the other things that I have an interest in. Mind you, there are a lot of other things that aren't on the list, because I know I wouldn't be as likely to succeed in them. The list is only the things that interest me, that I also know I could actually build a career in. And as it stands, I am probably going to eventually earn the history degree, because I am working on the outlines of a book about empires. Won't get written until I retire, a long way off - but I have a passion for it and hope to write a history of empires, through the end of the Ottoman.
    That I'm passionate enough about, that I will be doing it without ever figuring on making any money off it...

  • Anonymous says:

    @Bill#45: Just because someone is not "passionate" about science, doesn't mean they would be equally happy and fulfilled doing something else. What are the "ton" of other professions that pay a lot more for a lot less stress? Medicine? You think there's no stress there??? Not to mention you owe 100's of thousands in student loans. Law? Not stressful at all, you just have to work 100 hours per week to establish yourself, doing something that is unbelieveably boring.
    but you gotta admit that medicine and law pay higher salaries than science. So if you're not passionate about science, and you are just as un-passionate about other professions, why would you do it if the salary is lower than that of other (equally stressful) professions?

  • moony says:

    Oh well..I believe in Louis Pasteur's saying that "chance favors the prepared mind." So I feel that if one has to get ahead in Science , competing for grants and research positions, one needs to work smart as well as hard...which according to me comes with passion for the work ur doin!So unless ur passionate about something...I,for one, cant see anything extraordinary happening!

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