Workshop: Scientific Work — Some Comments About Science

People often tell me that my getting a Ph.D. means that I am smart.
I have never felt more stupid or incompetent.
PostSecret Postcard

Probably the first “serious” scientific work a young scientist does is a Ph.D. thesis (or the local equivalent). A doctorate is often necessary to work in research, however there are serious differences in the amount and kind of work needed depending on the domain and the university. So check the formal rules and regulations first and have a look at a few dissertation theses in your local library (there are often available online).

Unfortunately, a likely reaction when first doing research on their own is that young scientists feel stupid — like the person writing the PostSecret card (see quote at the beginning). In all likelihood, problems will arise when you start studying, you will lack skills and make mistakes. This might lead you to question your suitability for the job. After all, you did study the subject — you should be able to add to it by doing research, shouldn’t you? If not, you must be lacking “what it takes” to be a scientist, don’t you?

Actually no. Doing scientific work requires vastly different skills than the ones that (likely) brought you through your studies at the university:

Studying a Subject
Doing Scientific Work in a Subject (e.g., graduate school)
short-term, straightforward projects one major project for 3 to 6 years
no accountability
(not counting parents, partners, friends, …)
accountable to the funding organization (e.g., NSF, university)
learn established, existing knowledge research new knowledge
(relatively) free strong dependency relationship with adviser/superior (who grades your thesis!)
local community often international and/or interdisciplinary community

While you are still dealing with the same content (e.g., psychology) the way to work and the working conditions are completely different when you start doing (a) scientific work.

If you encounter problems, if things do not work out as planned, if you feel stupid or incompetent, that is normal — and supposed to happen. If not, you are (likely) doing it wrong.

When you were in school, you were (mostly) learning established ‘facts’. Things that were quite sure. As a student, you might have encountered current research, but still mostly the things with a lot of evidence behind it. It is when you are working as a Ph.D. student that you move into undiscovered territory. You are the first* to find out what works — and what does not. Where the strong currents are, and the shallow waters with the cliffs. Where good paths are, and where you get stuck in the mud.

This means that you might ask your adviser about a specific problem and s/he says (if s/he is honest): “I don’t know”. This does not mean that s/he could not find out (s/he most likely can, and more effectively that you), just that it has not been done before. And it is your job to make this experience, to solve the countless problems that come with dealing with a new subject.

If you do not try it out (based on your knowledge of the domain!) you will never find out. And if you try it out, unexpected things are likely to happen — failures, drawbacks, “that was not supposed to happen” or “oh fuck” moments.

Nobody can guarantee you success in science — it is a highly creative endeavor (have a look at the definition of creativity in OC2). And actually, most problems can be solved, even if they demand a lot of effort and persistence.

Being a Ph.D. student is an apprenticeship (as (TM) said succinct on “This is an apprenticeship, not a studentship.”) — most skills you need can be developed. Scientists are made, not born.

And it is important to keep the perspective, no matter the pressure you are under. After all:

“A PhD is a stepping stone into a research career. All you need to do is to demonstrate your capacity for independent, critical thinking. That’s all you need to do. A PhD is three years of solid work, not a Nobel Prize”
Maths–Eng/Female/18, in Mullins & Kiley, 2002

So, don’t be discouraged if things do not work out as planned first. If you want to know more about academic life, I can highly recommend the following sources:

  • Schwartz, M. A. (2008). The importance of stupidity in scientific research. Journal of Cell Science, 121, 1771.
    A beautifully written one-page article showing that feeling stupid is normal in doing science. Highly recommended. I did a posting about it on this blog, and the article is freely available here (isn’t science just great 🙂 )
  • Jorge Cham’s PhD Comics
    I could have done a whole presentation just by showing PhD Comics — but no-one would have believed me. A lot of these comic strips are — (un)fortunately — true.
  • Pausch, R. (2008). Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams. Carnegie Mellon University. / Last Lecture at Carnegie Mellon University
    Excellent book (and talk!) what you can do in academia.
  • Sternberg, R. J. (2003). Psychology 101 1/2 The Unspoken Rules for Success in Academia. Washington, DC: APA.
    Very useful, especially if you did not grow up with parents who did study. It does not only apply to psychology but also to other disciplines as well.
  • McBurney, D. H. (1996). How to think like a psychologist. Critical thinking in psychology. NJ: Prentice Hall.
    If you ever wondered what being a psychologist is about, this book is a very good source.

* More or less — unfortunately, mistakes are usually not shared (I tried to share mine) and non-significant results are not published. Which is a devastatingly stupid situation as different researchers try the same thing over and over again, not knowing that others already found out that it did not work. And given that in some disciplines probabilistic statistical tests are employed it is likely that some results are only significant because enough researchers have tried to find an effect that does not exist.

Next up: Either the short series about science as intermezzo or the next posting in this series about Requirements.

See also:

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