A grad student Q&A with Peter T. Kissinger
What 'Dear Abby' did for relationship advice and other wisdom about life, DDNews columnist Peter T. Kissinger seeks to do with a Q&A-style piece aimed at answering some of the (presumably) pressing concerns of grad students and postdocs
As an educator, DDNews columnist Peter T. Kissinger gets (and overhears) a lot of questions and concerns from graduate students. This month, he’s assembled a sort of “Dear Abby”-style Q&A with some answers to those burning issues, particularly as they relate to the graduate student view of the faculty and the faculty view of their graduate students and postdocs. As Peter (or PTK, as we will abbreviate him from here on out) notes, “Opinions will vary, and those in this column are not established as safe and effective by any government agency. The purpose here is to stimulate thought and not propose remedies that will apply in all cases. The old have been giving advice to the young for millennia; it’s just in our phenotype to do so.”
Student: My professor is not helping me, and I am afraid to talk to him/her.
PTK: There have always been faculty members who ignore students seen as unproductive. Instead of teaching them, busy faculty give up on them. Some may patiently wait for the student to “figure it out.” Other faculty may be more nurturing. The latter is harder to accomplish in a large, more established group. The same can apply with postdocs who were often accepted after never having been interviewed. If they are not self-starters, some faculty will grimace and just hope the problem will “go away” or get on track. Faculty often don’t engage with people who do not appear to take initiative.
Remember, the Ph.D. is a credential demonstrating independence of both effort and thought. If you do not demonstrate both, you are not a real Ph.D., and that credential is not going to save you. On the other hand, faculty are people too, and they can be highly stressed with their formal teaching, travel and search for funding. The stress varies as a function of time. Building a relationship between professionals at this level is not simple. It is quite different than at the undergraduate level. The student is transitioning into a colleague. Transitions have challenges.
Many believe that working with a well-established group will help their career; it will not. You will be judged by what you have done and keep doing. There is no way to have a relaxed life in science or neurosurgery or flying in air combat. Stress with resiliency is a requirement, not an option. Graduate school is a transition from being a follower to being a leader and problem-solver. Some students will stay in the ground state and not get fully excited. The transition time varies from person to person. I subscribe to personalized medicine and personalized education, N=1. How many graduate students will join the top 10 percent of scientists? Not more than one out of 10! We are not equal, in spite of notions to the contrary, but we must learn to work together.
Student: My project is not working out very well after three years. I am frustrated.
PTK: It is not a good idea to put all the eggs in one basket that might get dropped. Success does take optimism and enthusiasm. If that gets lost, it leads to drudgery. Students should consider a portfolio of projects, at least a couple of which are less challenging, to help them pick up some steam. A good cook can get the meat, vegetables, salad and dessert all ready to go at the right time. A good scientist must balance a number of things at once. When the work goes slow or is delayed while waiting for something, get going on another project, start writing a review article, catch up on reading. Do not use the delay as an excuse to waste time that will never come back to you. We do not want graduate students to be technicians, waiting to be told what to do. Many students have developed projects on their own and showed some success to their professor before s/he even knew the student was trying a new approach. If it turned out to be silly, the professor need not even know it happened. Get going. Successful people are energetic and resilient. They fail constantly. Try, try again. This can be hard to realize after over 12 years in school where tasks were more specifically laid out. In research, we rarely know what will happen next.
It is indeed a sign of trouble when students and faculty are not talking as professionals. Fear is a terrible thing for some people, while others find it stimulating. Changing projects and groups is not that rare. “But I’ll lose a year!” You will not lose a year. You’ve already spent it, used it and learned from it. Look forward. When you are 90 years old with a lot of synthetic body parts already installed, a year spent 65 to 70 years earlier will appear to be a few minutes. Graduate students have an advisory committee and should not hesitate to get advice from all members of that group.
Student: I’ve worked on a project, but another student is getting all the credit.
PTK: Are you sure? Why? Are you shy? Did you not write up your work professionally in a progress report? Are you obsessing over getting a chapter in your dissertation? Teamwork is encouraged, and it certainly is possible to have the same work count as a part of several dissertations. Jealousy, fear and greed are in our DNA source code. There are famous cases where Nobel prizes were contested in the same manner. This happens with patents constantly. It seems to start at about age 2. For some it settles down around 40, for others it never ends. Faculty can forget the role that student A had vs. student B, or at least the students can imagine it is so. The mentor and mentee are likely both missing something that can be settled with a chat.
Student: I came to the USA to get a job, and there are no offers after three postdoc positions.
PTK: Are you a scientist or are you a technician? Have you learned to write and speak competitive English? Can you “own” a project and deliver results? If not, your Ph.D. plan was weak from the beginning, and now it will be very hard to make up for that mistake. Students and postdocs must realize right from the beginning that weak communications cannot often be corrected by good science. In fact, communications skills provide the maximum options. I believe that many faculty are not properly guiding their foreign postdocs in this respect, perhaps assuming this point is already understood. It should be obvious, they say. Trust but verify.
Student: Should I accept a postdoc position or not?
PTK: For many, being a postdoc is a point in life with the least threats (no exams, no dissertation) and the least responsibilities (no grants to get, no faculty meetings, no committee meetings). Therein are the dangers. You can chill out as a postdoc, relax and let your guard down with circulating epinephrine and cortisol at the lowest possible levels. Scientific suicide is not that hard (the pain is only felt longer-term). On the other hand, you can learn entirely new things beyond your Ph.D. and prepare for your own independent future development. You can draft new ideas. You can concentrate fully on research and publish more. You can help mentor graduate students and get practice at leadership, which always means teaching. A postdoc who doesn’t add new skills and new ideas to their repertoire has wasted a substantial taxpayer investment. Accept a postdoc position not to hold territory, but to boldly advance and take more of it.
Student: I find I no longer enjoy lab work. What should I do?
PTK: How often is your principal investigator in the lab running experiments? Is s/he even safe in a lab? Few scientists are at the bench more than five years after their Ph.D. Quite a few are in technical sales or service or working as patent agents or selling real estate or writing babble for trade magazines, as I do from time to time. Many manage science, or better, lead it or teach it. There is a lot of flexibility here. Likewise, many with the M.D. degree never examine or treat a patient. They just go to meetings at a health insurance company or work at the FDA or watch clinical trial data go by from their prayer towers at Big Pharma and biotech. I’ve also met M.D.s as financial analysts. Knowing that the liver is not located between the ears is helpful. The M.D. credential does tell us they did damn well in undergraduate pchem. A Ph.D. degree likewise does not assign you to a life of preparing solutions or executing mice. The opportunities are broader than many graduate students and postdocs realize.
Student: What are the secrets to success?
PTK: There are three. All good things come in sets of three: bears, pigs, musketeers, stooges, stages in a mass spectrometer, acts in a play, wishes with a magic lamp, wise men to a birth—win, lose or tie…
Are you ready?
1. Discipline (control, effort, health, learning, ethics, precise language, listening skills)
2. Tolerance (respect different points of view or ignore them, debate civilly)
3. Thrift (spend less than you take in; laugh often, it costs nothing)
The most successful life has purpose or meaning. This is a big topic, but an excellent start on it can be found in a David Brooks Op-Ed in the New York Times at http://nyti.ms/1rZtH5u, as well as in the many associated comments in response. Here is another wise thought from Calvin Coolidge: “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
Student: What constitutes a good scientific paper?
PTK: The reader will decide. The majority of papers are never cited. Some view citations as a quality assessment; I’m not convinced. An ancient criterion for review is “can this work be replicated?” If critical details are left out, you are off to a poor start. Science advances through repetition and confirmation. Without belaboring the point too much, consider the example of a paper published in Nature in January 2015. This one attracted me from the attention it received in the popular press. I looked at the supplementary material referring to LC/MSMS of a potential drug in mouse blood. There was no mention of how the mice were sampled or the volume sampled. The LC column, mobile phase and flow rate were not fully specified. This aspect was not central to the paper, but it suggests that anyone studying the pharmacokinetics of the drug in the future would have to start over.
There are many language challenges in science now that the activity is far more global. Many students and postdocs are not native English speakers, and many native English speakers can’t write with efficiency or clarity. Don’t wait till the end of your studies to figure this out. Start early. Write progress reports month by month. Ask for help from fellow students. In the end, this investment will pay off. Without it, you will find obtaining employment in science to be very difficult and you will NOT advance in the profession. Professors are very frustrated by drafts of papers or dissertation chapters that require heavy editing. They share the blame if they’ve not emphasized writing as a top requirement before accepting a student or postdoc. All of us who write recognize that our skills improve with reading. I suspect that those who can’t write well in English also could not write well in Mandarin or Hindu. Writing starts with discipline. Some say that people who write are driven to careers in law and those who don’t are driven to careers in science or engineering. Like all generalizations, this one should not apply to you.
It is very possible to “publish and perish” by taking ethical shortcuts. A Ph.D. obtained in this way and followed by a publication withdrawn from the literature is a Ph.D. not worth having.
Student: Why do you speak of T-shaped people?
PTK: This is a convenient metaphor for good scientists, meaning that they are deep experts in a field, but also have a broad perspective on its significance. I’ve have met a number of top scientists with global reputations and inevitably find them interested in music, visual arts, theater, poetry, history and so forth. While breadth doesn’t guarantee depth, and vice-versa, it does seem that productive people avoid being very narrow. They almost certainly have more fun. Seeing how your research fits your subfield is one thing, but thinking beyond that to other disciplines in science and beyond is both smart and fun.