Thursday, November 26, 2009

Lessons learned in grad school, continued

When the advisor does not want to admit (s)he is wrong even after seeing the data

I wish I had such simple answers to this question as I did for the last post in this series.

I'll give you some suggestions. You'll have to do the experiment (and other readers can comment).

1. If you are a grad student, you should first go to your committee.

First, meet with each committee member one-on-one and present the data along with the context of why you think your advisor is reluctant to see the light. Be compassionate, not arrogant. Try to see it from your advisor's perspective. In my experience, it is usually because said advisor him/herself generated the original data, and it is published. They probably won't retract the paper, but what you're saying is essentially implying that they should.

Second, do whatever additional experiments your committee members suggest.

Third, have a committee meeting. Hopefully - and this did work for me - their mere presence will shame your advisor into agreeing to let you pursue your project and/or publication.

Finally, and this is really sticking your neck out, you can threaten to give the data away to some competitor to work on. Sometimes you can shame your advisor this way, by triggering a competitive/possessive reaction.

If these steps don't work, you should consider trying some of the more advanced steps below.

And/or you can shelve the data and promise yourself that you will work on it sometime later in your career. This is what most people try to do. In the short run, it's better for your career. But it's bad for science, and it's bad for you in the long run, and it might come back to bite you in the ass. You can't cite the truth if it's not published.

2. If you are a postdoc, things get a little more complicated.

First, the Safe route. In theory, you can do essentially what a grad student does, but some of it is more informal since you don't have an official committee.

Talk to other faculty at your school; talk to other experts in your field. Get suggestions on what other evidence would be required to convince your advisor. Sometimes you can overwhelm even the most stubborn, insecure person with enough data.

Second, if this is not enough, you'll have to push harder and broader. Get yourself invited to give talks at meetings and other schools (like job interviews!). If your advisor won't pay or won't let you go, call it a vacation and pay for the trip yourself.

It does help, and here's why: Because people will see your data; they will hear your arguments; and you will get useful feedback. And if you do a good job, word will get back to your advisor that s/he should be proud of the solid work you're doing. Sometimes you can overwhelm even the most stubborn, insecure person with enough praise.

Third, if you are really screwed, your options are to a) publish the paper yourself, without your advisor, and this will most likely mean you will have to b) leave (and take your project to someone else's lab).

There are many drawbacks to this route. Your career will likely be over, or you will have to take a series of postdoc positions or teaching/research-track positions, because you will probably not be able to get the coveted Cell, Science or Nature publication on your own.

But, your work will be in the literature. People will see it. You will drive your field forward, whether they are ready for the future or not.

And hey, if you're a postdoc, chances are good that you're screwed anyway. Might as well make a mark on the world on your way out the door.

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At 10:42 AM, Blogger JaneB said...

First step - discuss, calmly and professionally, with the PI what the alternative explanations might be and what other experiements to do, what sort of evidence they need to consider re-evaluating their initial conclusions. PIs are people. People are attached to theories/world views. It takes work to change views, especially if you have invested time in it (it takes a lot of yourself to make a paper, right?). Accept that it will take some of them some time... especially in a complex field or one where new methods are always coming along, being flavour of the month, then being debunked or found to be problematic...

If that fails (more than once or twice - PIs are human and are allowed to have a slightly different 'protected core' of ideas - but if yours are SO different to theirs or the evidence is SO compelling, through multiple lines, then you have a problem), start looking for a new PI, whilst moving on to the steps YFS suggests

At 11:09 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

JaneB- you're right. But I was assuming they had already tried the logical route of talking. In my experience, this is never enough. Hence the list of alternative protocols.

At 1:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm one year into my postdoc and still doing experiments for my PhD paper... will it ever end??? Very frustrating to work for an ambitious and stubborn PI.

At 5:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Most PIs are too egotistical to admit they were wrong even in the face of compelling data. they get into this mindset (perpetuated by timid students/postdocs who are "yes men") that they are smarter or more insightful than any trainee of theirs could ever possibly be. They are immensely threatened by trainees who are independent-minded and not just there to be their lab techs.

Publishing on your own without your PI is very dangerous. I did that. The PI's words were "I still don't believe you are right on this, so if you want to go and publish it on your own by all means go ahead, just leave me out of it cos I want nothing to do with such a paper." So based on what he said I did go ahead to publish it on my own (with my co-authors), and it got published in a high-impact journal. And then the PI fired me and we have not spoken since.


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