Lessons learned in grad school, part whatever
This week I want to emphasize an important lesson I think everyone should learn before being awarded a PhD.
Do you want to get the right answer, or do you want to be obedient?
Lately one of my biggest concerns with ethics in science is the enormous pressure I see on grad students and postdocs, which leads them to fudge or even fake data.
I see this happening out of desire to be obedient, to be liked, and out of fear of being fired, or being wrong (or losing their visas and being deported).
So here is my two-step plan, because I think it's a major source of evil in science.
1. Do what you adviser says you should do, even if you're sure it's not going to work.
I say this for two reasons.
First, because YOU might be wrong about whether it will work or not.
Second, because then you can show them the data and show how obedient you were. And they'll never admit they were wrong without you showing them the data. They'll be much more likely to swallow their anger if they see that you did what they asked in good faith.
2. STOP doing what your adviser told you to do when it's clear that it's never going to work. Do what YOU think will get you the right answer.
There are two important lessons in this step.
First, knowing when to stop. This is a hard lesson and many people don't learn it until their postdoc is over and they're hunting for a new career. Don't be one of these people. Learn how to assess when you're making progress and testing possibilities, and stop and find another approach when you're just banging your head against a wall.
Second, knowing how to be brave and disobedient. This is a really hard lesson for most people in science, so there are options for how to go about it.
Doing what your adviser asks first is generally the safest route in this regard, although it might be the most inefficient.
Doing both your adviser's stupid idea and your awesome new thing at the same time can work for some people who are good at time management (not everyone can manage this).
Finally, doing your new thing at night or on the weekends when your adviser is traveling is the sneaky way. Notice that I did NOT say you have to ask them. DON'T ASK YOUR ADVISER. Just do it.
Most of the time, they will be overjoyed that you showed some independence and got the right answer. And if it's really a big deal, they'll claim is was their idea to do it your way all along.
What to do if you find out your adviser was wrong and they don't want to admit it even after being faced with data proving they were wrong?
That's a different blog post.
Happy pipetting, y'all. Oh and don't eat too much turkey.