No scientist is an island

During the first year in the PMCB program we are introduced to the successes of hundreds of scientists through their research results.  We learn the details of the inner workings of the cell/organism as they were discovered by (sometimes) respected scientists in their day.  At the same time, we are learning how we will be able to use these or other new and exciting techniques to answer our own questions and become the (hopefully) respected scientists of our day.  (If you don’t know me, you don’t know that I have strong opinions and go on long-winded tirades often… I am especially put off by the totally inapplicable use of the word “sexy” to describe the great new thing in research.  I’ll resist the tirade here, but folks, please don’t.  Whatever it is, it’s not sexy.)

What we aren’t taught during first year, or ever in the formal classroom setting, are the stories of all the research projects that never worked.  Those important questions that didn’t get answered, or got answered after a scientist metaphorically banged his/her head against a wall for twenty years or so before someone else scooped them using some new (not sexy) technique to answer the question.  The stories are out there, they just don’t tell them to new PhD students, for reasons my fellow students will discover if they haven’t already.

In my humble opinion the key to having a successful PhD experience (with the least head trauma) can be summed up in two recommendations that I would like to share.  Some of my fellow students are beyond the first piece of advice being helpful, but I believe the second applies to all.  1) Choose a good dissertation project and 2) get help with the choosing and the details of said project as often as necessary by talking to anyone who will listen (with one reservation mentioned below).

There is a certain amount of risk you can’t get away from in terms of designing your dissertation project.  There is also a strategy behind designing a project that may produce publishable results no matter how it turns out (provided of course, that the experiments work and you get results at all).  It’s not always possible to design a set of experiments that fall into this category, but if it can be done you should jump on it, it’s ideal.  Your mentor, committee members, other scientists, and “older” students can help you with this; use them, and especially listen to them when they say “that sounds challenging”.  They know what they’re talking about – this sort of feedback should make you think – maybe even think twice about the project.

When I began designing my dissertation project, I didn’t take enough of that “this sounds challenging” advice to heart and should have designed a better safety net.  There’s almost always a small project needing to be done in every lab.  You know, that project no one has gotten to yet.  It isn’t enough for a PhD project, yet is interesting and could yield important results.  Do yourself a favor and make it one of your aims or work on it on the side.  Then you know one thing you’re working on is likely to yield fruit.  It will help your state of mind through the process, if nothing else.  If you’re really lucky it will flesh out into a full-on project and you could end up with two publishable projects.  It happens!

Which brings us to the second bit of advice; talk about your proposed/chosen project with any and every person you can get to listen (again, one reservation below).  This is another skill that, for me at least, was learned.  As recently as this, my fifth year in a PhD program I’ve learned to never be afraid to say “I’m stuck” to whomever will listen.  Most everyone needs advice from others at some point, and most are happy to take the time to listen and help you if they can.  (If you ask me, the ones who aren’t happy to listen and give you their opinion didn’t have good advice for you anyway, but you didn’t lose anything for trying!)  Just don’t let yourself fall into the trap of trying to figure it out for yourself all the time.  Sometimes that works and is a good learning experience, but more often it wastes precious time.

Don’t limit yourself when it comes to seeking advice, either.  Some great ideas were born of questions or suggestions from non-scientist strangers, friends, and family members that I thought couldn’t possibly understand what I was talking about.  Many times (more often than not?) they didn’t know what I was talking about but still could commiserate because they had been frustrated about something not working the way they wanted at some point.  That said, if I hear the “1000+ times to get the lightbulb right, don’t give up” speech for the umpteenth time I may very well kick the person that delivers it.

To sum up, pick a good project and build in a safety net. You’ll know you’re all set because you used all of the available resources and talked to all of the people who would listen.  Then don’t hesitate to continue to ask for help throughout the process.

The one reservation I mentioned above: don’t forget the danger of getting scooped is real in many fields.  You may want to hesitate to talk about the details of your project at meetings, at least until you know the players in your field.  Definitely talk to your mentor about this before you ask for advice about your new and inventive idea at a conference!

Fellow students of life: feel free to ask me for advice or commiseration anytime, I have lots and lots of karma to pay forward* and I’ll be around for awhile longer.

*In the spirit of this post I would like to take a moment to personally thank (in no particular order):  Rita Rand, Jeanne Sutter, Crystal Paredes, Brenda Donin, Karen McCracken, Anne Huntzicker, Cindy Morris, Cheryl Maslen, Allison Fryer, Mark Kemball, The OHSU School of Medicine Alumni Council 2009-current, Katannya Kapeli, Ray Hickey, Brenda Polster, Jennifer Johnson, Eric Stoffregen, Kristine Alexander, Deanne Tibbitts, Jennifer Redig, Katy Van Hook, Todd Triplett, Jean Summerton, Tiffany Devine, Liz Rowland, Katie Cobb, Shelley Winn, Jared Fischer, Pete Levasseur, Jarrad Scarlett, Wilmon Grant, Ayesha Batra, Jennifer Raymond, Daniel Marks, Cary Harding, a double thank-you to my very patient and kind mentor Melanie Gillingham, my boyfriend Tim, my Portland family, my biological family and everyone else I forgot.  You are all much appreciated, to say the least.

2 responses to “No scientist is an island

  1. Autumn,
    Thank you for the wonderfully thoughtful blog. Other students – take heed! This is great advice. Form your thesis advisory committee at the earliest possible moment and meet with them more often than required. Many students avoid meeting with their committee if they don’t have progress to show. Biggest mistake ever! Accept help whenever you can get it and develop a generous spirit of your own. It will always serve you well.

  2. Autumn-Great advice for students! For first years…I would include pick a question that you have the techniques to answer and where the answer is important, and thus publishable, regardless of whether the answer is yes or no. And don’t be afraid of those sure-fire, small projects-they rarely stay small for long and often blossom into successful and interesting PhD thesis projects!

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