Workshop: Scientific Work — Requirements

We should distrust any enterprise that requires new clothes.
“Walden” by Henry David Thoreau

So, what is needed to do a scientific work? It does not matter whether it is a one-time event (like a bachelor/master/diploma thesis with no intentions to continue in science) or doing it professionally, the requirements are mostly the same.

What is important however is that these are skills that are needed, not inborn abilities you either have or will never have. You can learn these skills. However, make sure that you can do it within the required time. While I think that almost every student with a diploma or master degree can do a dissertation, I would not recommend it to everyone. There were people who had so many skills missing that it would not have been feasible for them. But I think this is the minority.

#1 Persistence

Science is great, but every work has its boring phases, especially when you work on it for years. The moment when every minute work feels like an hour, the kind of boredom where you just want to scream. This is normal and this will happen with any topic, no matter how interesting it was in the beginning. Because when you deal with a topic for a long time, there comes the time when you cannot see it anymore. Sometimes it just takes a break or a vacation, sometimes you have to punch through. Like Churchill said: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”, or to repeat the best quote I ever heard about the value of persistence:

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people 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. The slogan ‘press on’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.
Calvin Coolidge

Note that persistence does not mean trying to deliver perfect work — I do not think that perfect work is possible. As long as you learn (and you hopefully do this until you die) will learn from the things you do, so after doings something you will likely see things you could have done better. This does not mean that you have to scrap what you have done, just mention where you could improve it, and use what you have done to the degree you can use it (if something is seriously flawed you may have to refrain from using it, except as a learning experience). There is often a false dichotomy seen between perfection on the one hand, and crappy work on the other hand. That is to simplistic. Something can be “not perfect” and still usable. You are doing a qualification work — one you have to finish. Be critical about your work, but also fair.

#2 Stress Resistance

If you think that your studies so far had been stressful, you are in for a whole new level of stress. There are a lot of crises that can happen when you do scientific work, especially when you start doing your dissertation thesis.

In the beginning …

  • you can be overwhelmed by the new job
    In a new job, you have much to learn, many opportunities to learn, a lot of requests and you may not be sure what to do next — that’s okay. Give yourself time to get to know the job (and use this time!). Do not be a perfectionist — you should want to do well, but if you try to do even better, you will have a lot of stress that will get you nothing. Have your own agenda to try to get the necessary qualification to work in science. And above all — ask. If your colleagues or superiors have worked in Academia for a long time, they might not know what you do not know.
  • you might not find a topic
    Choosing a topic is not easy (we come to this later in a separate posting) — ideally you already have a pretty good idea, if not, don’t worry that much if it takes a while. It took me one year from getting to know the topic to conducting the first experiment.
  • you might be tempted to try to learn everything
    You will likely have access to a lot of learning opportunities — in house and beyond. Find out what you can learn from whom and what is worth learning to you now — some things are useful in the beginning of your work, others only later. Create a someday-learning-list with the things you like to learn but do not have the time for now.
  • the project work might take up all of your time
    If you are working in a national science foundation project or any other project where the work is already pretty much pre-planned and defined, this work can take precedence over the time available for your qualification work. A clearly defined work with external deadlines beats a fuzzy dissertation thesis project any time. You have to demand time for your dissertation work. Advisers often do not see how your work might suffer under external demands and you have to give clear feedback. Giving feedback and keeping your qualification work on track is your job here.
  • (if you work empirically) you might avoid conducting the first study
    Especially if you are somewhat of a perfectionist you might want to spend ages reading the literature and planning your study. However, literature cannot tell you the whole picture and you need the experience in actually conducting studies (there is much that is not written down or specific to the study you conduct). You need to know the literature (it is your basis), but you also need the data. If you are unsure whether you are really ready for a study, call it “doing a pre-study” and gather some data. It is great to test whether everything works as planned and you have much more valuable information to work with.

After a while …

  • (if you work empirically) you might not have significant results
    Unfortunately, this is part of the job. So, if you first conduct a study and you are not sure whether it works, get more data than you need, get open ended questions, get any information you can realistically get that will help you in this situation to find out why it did not work and how to improve your work in the future. Sometimes things are really different than expected (find out why), sometimes it just takes a while until your intervention works as planned or until you have questions that are accepted by the target audience.
  • you might not have the time to work on your thesis
    You will never “have” time, you have to make it — and defend it. We come to this in a later posting about task and time management.
  • you might get scooped
    Unfortunately for you, but really fortunate for the advancement of science, this can happen. We all work with the same basis (prior literature) in mostly the same situation (current events, zeitgeist, etc.), so parallel creativity can happen. However, find out whether the work is really the same or whether there are (small but relevant) differences. And in general: publish as early as possible.
  • a project partner might quit
    If your work is dependent on a project partner, make sure you have a plan B if this project partner quits. Sometimes you have to modify your work a little (e.g., get another target audience, use different methods), but in many cases you can continue your prior work — differently. Nobody is more interested in your thesis than you are, make sure you are not dependent solely on one person.

During the end …

  • you might be overwhelmed when it comes to writing
    Actually, scientific writing is a craft that can be learned — and much depends on what you have done earlier. We come back to this in a later posting.
  • you might not have the time to write
    We come back to this in task/time management.
  • you might question the worth of your work
    Actually this is quite normal — you have spend ages working on your thesis — now you only see the final result. To quote Gaiman it’s like walking through a labyrinth and looking back and seeing only the way you took, not the other ways you could have chosen. Thus write down what you decide to do (and why) — you will have to do a lot of these decisions and you forget them later. And if you think that the work was to easy or simple — you have become an expert in the topic. Of course you know more now than you did in the beginning — this shows that you have improved, not that your work was worthless.
  • you might fear what happens during your thesis defense
    Normally you have to defend your thesis verbally and normally you do not fear this. There is no one who knows more about the specific way you did this topic and the approach chosen to deal with it than you. The worst that can happen is a proxy war between departments with your thesis as the battle ground, but frankly, I think this is very unlikely. But yes, it is normal that you are nervous before the defense, so prepare your presentation, test it in front of your colleagues and learn to present your work on conferences.
  • you might fear what happens after the dissertation
    Yup, that is also normal — I’m still dealing with it.

These crises can happen during a dissertation. What is important is that you something that keeps you up when the scientific work goes down. It does not matter what you do — sports, hanging out with friends, singing in a choir, work in student organizations, etc. pp. — just have a second and third emotional leg to stand on. Especially doing something with groups is often stopped quickly due to the demands of doing a scientific work. Don’t loose important experiences, but keep up something independent of the thesis — you will need it. You need social support and other sources of success when the thesis gets … challenging.

#3 Organization/Project Management

A scientific work is a complex work — you cannot have it completely in your head. You need to organize — a lot. Literature, ideas, studies, results, ideas about what it all means. It is great work but you need to be able to handle it.

Keep in mind that organization is not a merit on its own. It is easy to get lost in trying to find the perfect way to deal with the work, the perfect program, the perfect app. Don’t. Find something that works sufficiently. You are measured by the quality of your work, not by the quality of how you organize your work. Sometimes I think is it better to use something that delivers results yet is far away from what you ideally want, instead of having something that is almost perfect, with the almost part bugging you so much that you are distracted when using it.

#4 Affinity for Writing

If someone does a study, but does not publish the results, was research really done? Scientific communication happens via written papers — mostly. You do not need to be a bestseller author, but you should be able to write. Best thing about doing research is that it is scientific writing, which is a craft, not some divine inspiration (sorry muse). You know what you did, you know why you did it, you just have to write it down — and this is usually done in a standard format. We come back to this in a later posting.

#5 (frequently) Broken English

The language of science is usually broken English. Nobody expects that a non-native speaker has the same proficiency in English as a native speaker — this is what proof-readers are for. And you should use them, even if you think your English is pretty good. Your English will likely improve over time, and it will adapt to the literature you read (i.e., the literature of your community). There are often English courses specifically for academics available. Reading books in English (even fiction) and watching movies in English is also a great way to stay proficient in this language.

Final thoughts

All in all, the requirements are manageable for most people who have finished their studies. If you think other things are important too, write a comment.

Next up: Positions & Advisers

See also:

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