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Outside the Lab Profession, Training and education

Everything You Wanted to Know About a Career in the Lab* - Part II (*But Were Afraid to Ask)

What constitutes a good scientific paper?
The reader will decide. I, for one, don’t like sloppy work seasoned with hype, excess superlatives, and even more excessive insignificant figures. I know these tendencies well, having practiced them more than once myself!

Some view citations as a mark of quality, but I’m not convinced. A more important point for me is whether the work can be replicated – science advances through repetition and confirmation and, if critical details are left out, you are off to a poor start. Consider the example of a paper published in Nature, which received a lot of attention in the popular press. I looked at the supplementary material referring to LC-MS/MS of a potential drug in mouse blood. There was no mention of how the mice were sampled or the volume sampled and 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 future would have to start over.

Clear, concise writing is also crucial. 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 many generalizations, this one should not apply to you. Don’t wait until the end of your studies to become an effective writer. There are a lot of great resources available to help develop writing skills in Purdue’s Online Writing Lab program. In the end, investing in your communication skills will pay off. Without it, you will find obtaining employment in science very difficult and you will not advance in the profession.

The very worst thing you can do when preparing a paper is to fabricate, falsify, or plagiarize – academic careers and whole companies have been destroyed by research misconduct of this type. One of the most disturbing aspects of scientific work is the tendency to commit to presentations and publications in advance of having carried out the work to be described, creating huge pressure between students and faculty. If the data don’t fit the plan, go with the data; back out of the commitment or change it. No matter how much pressure you get from a professor, it is you who would be held accountable in an investigation. It is very possible to “publish and perish” by taking ethical shortcuts.

My advisor covers my drafts with red ink. What should I do?
Write more! Read more! Think about the structure of what you are reading. Do you like it? Why? Why not? Writers write, rewrite, edit themselves, and seek help from others. Perhaps, before you hand anything to your advisor, it would be smart to share it with another willing student or postdoc. Remember that novelists, biographers, and journalists all have editors.

There are many cases where it is better to let a file sit for a day or three before hitting “SEND.” You will make the text better and save yourself from embarrassment or worse.

A common writing problem with young scientists is the tendency toward hyperbole – I’d certainly like to make many of my early publications disappear for that reason. It is not necessary to glorify your own accomplishments – the reader can decide if your accomplishment is faster, better, cheaper, more accurate, more sensitive, and truly amazing.

Aren’t patents more important than papers?
Not necessarily. Graduate students are typically very confused about patents. They will say “I’ve filed a patent” when what they mean is that an invention disclosure was filed with the University’s Technology Transfer Office, who will decide whether or not to pursue filing for a patent or trademark protection. At other times, a bona fide patent application is confused with an issued patent. For example, there is much confusion about a US-published patent application versus a US-issued patent. The former is the publication of a previously confidential patent application and the latter is the result of patent application approval by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). The former typically occurs 18 months after the first patent application filing; the latter can take longer than a PhD.

Whether you collect patents or publications or art, a few truly impactful examples are better than many ‘rabbit pellets.’

There is much more to say here, but I’ll leave you with the fact that a very tiny number of patents bring any economic return to the inventors, with an estimated 95 to 99.9 percent of patents leading to no financial gain whatsoever. Likewise, very few scientific publications are widely cited, with many not being cited at all. Whether you collect patents or publications or art, a few truly impactful examples are better than many “rabbit pellets.”

Is it better to be a specialist or generalist?
I often refer to “T-shaped” people. This is a convenient metaphor for a good scientist, meaning that they are deep experts in a field (vertical), but also have a broad perspective on its significance (horizontal). A T-shaped professional can interact across disciplines and see synergies with other fields and endeavors. I’ve met a number of top scientists with global reputations and inevitably find them interested in music, visual arts, theater, poetry, history and so forth. Although breadth doesn’t guarantee depth (and vice versa), it does seem that the most productive people avoid being very narrow. 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. Your T will be n = 1 out of >7 x 109.

“Try to learn something about everything and everything about something.” – Thomas Henry Huxley

My lab has too many meetings and they are too long OR We don’t have research group meetings at all
Many articles and books have been written on the topic of professional meetings, because so many find the subject annoying. The recommendations are quite consistent:

  • Have an agenda and a purpose, with no surprises.
  • Be on time to start, and finish on time.
  • After 90 minutes, productivity drops exponentially as exhaustion sets in; shorter is better.
  • Invite people who need to be there and who will contribute.
  • Wrap up with a conclusion and directive for next steps.
  • Prepare brief minutes to update the larger team.

Common meeting mistakes:

  • Dominating the conversation yourself or letting others do so (listening is the harder skill).
  • Running late.
  • Inviting people because you think they will be offended if not invited, but have no need to attend. (You can’t win here. If you don’t invite them, they will be offended. If you do invite them, they will say the exercise was a waste of their precious time – so don’t invite them.)
  • Tolerating fiddling with smartphones and the like, or worse, doing it yourself as the organizer.
  • Drifting off topic and losing control of the agenda (the organizer must manage the meeting, not just book it).
  • Slipping into an emotional, accusatory tone. War must not break out.

Like most people, I am not good at this; I doubt you will be either. I try to improve my listening skills but, like most people, I still prefer to listen to myself! One principle that I strongly recommend as an alternative to meetings in business and academia is MBWA – management by wandering around. This means getting out and talking to people in their own work setting, getting to know them one-on-one or in very small groups, listening to their concerns, and sharing yours. If you do this once a day, many meetings can be avoided. In summary, some research teams will have no meetings; others will have too many. If you object to either, you are normal. Hang in there.

How can I get good letters of recommendation?
I’m asked this question by undergraduates every year when it is already too late. Sophomore year is not too early to start. Simply getting a good grade is not enough; you need to engage with your professors. I recommend that you:

  • Sign up for independent study with an undergraduate research component.
  • Meet with faculty outside of classes and discuss career options and your objectives.
  • Speak up in classes. Debate. Participate in extracurricular activities and muster up some enthusiasm.
  • Join organizations in science and/or engineering related to your interests. You can learn from and develop conversations with other professionals.
  • Take part in competitions or programs offered by the university or national organizations; for instance, student business plan competitions.

Too often, all I can honestly write about a student is, “Ms. Smith took my introductory organic class and received a B+.” Worthless! Consider the next version and how many conversations with Ms. Smith were required to obtain it. “Ms. Smith is one of the most enthusiastic undergraduate research students I’ve worked with in the last five years or so. She takes initiative, is very dedicated, and has contributed to three papers my group has submitted for publication. I recommended her for an internship at XYZ Company in the summer of her junior year and they reported that she was very productive. She will be able to hit the ground running in graduate school and be an asset to any group she joins. Unlike many chemistry students, she can also write.”

How long should it take to get a PhD?
I’d rather use words like “achieve,” “attain,” or “earn.” It is now half a century since I entered graduate school at UNC Chapel Hill. In that time, I’ve seen it take anywhere between three and seven years, and a median of five years feels about right for the chemical sciences. However, research is, by nature, a great unknown – think of breaking the sound barrier in the late 1940s or landing on the moon a generation later. If the time spent in graduate school is critical to you, let me suggest dental school. A life of looking at teeth seems less stressful and pays rather well.

Respect for others and a sound ethical foundation matter a lot everywhere.

How can we narrow the gap between the PhD program curriculum and the needs of hiring companies?
Classroom learning is overrated by both faculty and students; in reality, it simply can’t compete with real-world experience. Lectures are great for teaching, but much less so for learning. PhD students have been fabulously successful in industry for decades – how is this possible if there were no courses to orient them with industry or government labs? The answer is that the basic ingredients for success are largely the same in every occupation – curiosity, self motivation, teamwork and communication. Respect for others and a sound ethical foundation matter a lot everywhere.

That said, you should take opportunities to interact with alumni from commercial settings, take short courses with business schools, and (especially) read business-oriented publications. Resources for learning are all about us and waiting for the learner to access them. If you are interested, just do it! One place is Science Careers; another is Nature.

I find I no longer enjoy lab work. What should I do?
How often is your principal investigator in the lab running experiments? Are they even safe in a lab? A PhD does not assign you to a life of preparing solutions or executing mice. The opportunities are broader than many graduate students and postdocs realize; few scientists are at the bench more than five years after their PhD. Some are in technical sales or service, working as patent agents, selling real estate, or writing for trade magazines (as I do from time to time). Many manage science, lead it, or teach it.

A key point here is to find your strengths and interests and not be burdened by some vision impressed on you by others. Break the mold. Find your own way. n = 1 = you. For example, I was never that good at deep and narrow science, and was more interested in the application of science and engineering to solving medical problems. I would not have been happy as a “pure” academic, so I chose to start companies instead. To this day, I remain very “impure” and find this fun and rewarding, but I likewise very much respect those who have taken different forks in the career path.

Someone else is getting all the credit for work we did together
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? In my lab, teamwork is encouraged and it is possible to include the same work as a part of several dissertations.

Remember that jealousy, fear, and greed are in our DNA source code. It seems to start at about age two. For some, it settles down around 40; for others, it never ends. If you want to learn more about the many historic arguments over “who gets the credit,” look at the invention of the laser, MRI imaging, electromagnetic induction, and many others. Even Nobel Prize winners have been subject to claims that they took credit for another’s work. The more important the topic, the more likely war will break out.

Faculty can easily forget the relative roles of student A versus student B, or at least the students can imagine it is so. In fact, the mentor and mentee are likely both missing something that can be settled with a respectful chat.

Click here to read more FAQs from Peter. 

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About the Author

Peter Kissinger

Peter Kissinger is Professor of the Brown Laboratory of Chemistry, Purdue University, and a founder of Bioanalytical Systems, Inc. (BASi), Prosolia, Inc., and Plebotics, Inc. Indiana, USA.

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