I very recently came across a blog entry which was about a PhD candidate quitting a few weeks/months shy of completing the degree due to frustration with the way academia works in general.

Now you may agree or disagree with the notions put forth, but both the anonymous letter and the long row of comments it has attracted certainly provides an interesting and lively discussion, relevant to many academics if not all.

One particular subject it got me thinking about is the choice of projects, safe-and-uninteresting vs daring-and-interesting. For those who do not feel like reading the discussion in the blog, essentially it's about how many researchers go for projects that have little to no impact practically, in fields where a lot of the "interesting" work is put forth. Such projects are essentially after small incremental additions to the literature, more often than not special case scenarios, or replication of previously demonstrated results with other methods than previously reported.

I am currently at a large conference, and I started reflecting on this subject. I noticed how the "better" speakers claim of excellence, or ground-breaking research, the-whole-picture type projects (e.g. "mapping out the entire human kinome", or "developing antibodies for each and every human protein"). Currently I am sitting with my iPad observing people passing by my poster from some distance. Just like I suspected most people just pass by and barely even stop to read more than a sentence. That's how poster-sessions work you might say, but I am confident that a major contributor to this is the fact that the project I am presenting is inherently not that interesting; it's about a rare disease, effecting mostly elder patients, and does not involve the newest and hottest instrument or technique. I can only imagine that editors and reviewers will be equally unimpressed with the manuscript when we submit this study.

That being the case I got into thinking whether or not it's actually worth getting into such a study. I feel like I have put a lot of time and energy into something that's not really my field of study and not liekly to have a rich "return-of-investment". Before I go to my supervisor and have a serious chat about this I would like to get some feedback on whether or not this is a common phenomennon, within the biomedical sciences/academia in general. As scientists-to-be is our primary responsibility to ourselves, to our bosses/departments, or to science itself?

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    I really like your questions but I often feel that they deserve a discussion rather than a simple answer.
    – Bitwise
    Sep 17 '13 at 15:34
  • @Bitwise thanks. The problem with easily and readily answerable questions is that they rarely hold any long term value, I feel. Nevertheless, I try to formulate my questions to try and avoid discussions as much as I can, while keeping the questions as open as possible.
    – posdef
    Sep 18 '13 at 13:18

You have different but overlapping responsibilities to all three; you can't say that one "overrides" the others.

You have the responsibility to do "good science." By "good," I do not mean "high-impact" or "prize-winning" or anything like that; I mean "ethical": you carry out your experiments or calculations without trying to achieve a desired outcome to support a preconceived model or explanation.

You owe your advisor and yourself the same level of professional conduct: do the science properly, and let the results be what they are. You also have the responsibility to respect and properly use the resources your advisor provides: money, facilities, and time.

Finally, you have a responsibility to yourself: do work that you feel satisfies you, and that keeps you motivated. Don't do research in an area just because that's what's "hot" right now; fads come and go, but good research survives that. Second-rate research likely won't survive.

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    This is such a great answer. In my opinion, it covers all the right motivations. But unfortunately, I sometimes feel the same as the OP: that this view on science is somewhat Utopian. I know (some of them very respectable) academics who I feel do good science but for the wrong (in my opinion) reasons: they want to do quality research so that they could publish, as opposed to publishing because they made an interesting/important/valuable discovery they feel should be shared with the community.
    – penelope
    Sep 17 '13 at 11:51
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    I can't judge motivations. Some people want to do good in the world, some people want the fame and notoriety. I can't reject a sound scientific paper just because it's been written to improve someone's profile, rather than for the sake of furthering scientific knowledge and possibly improving society,
    – aeismail
    Sep 17 '13 at 12:34
  • No, of course. A good paper is a good paper. But, I've started to read the blog post that motivated the OP, and while I can't agree that current scientific output is becoming mediocre because of the wrong attitude towards science, I sometimes feel that it is limiting the creativity and potential research directions. But anyway, sorry, I'm not trying to start a discussion.
    – penelope
    Sep 17 '13 at 12:41
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    As I mentioned to to Peter Janssons answer below, I happened to revisit this question after a some time... Your answer is ethically and theoretically sound, almost as a textbook answer. However, I cannot shake that feeling that it is also (at least partially) unrealistic, almost as if it's self-contradicting; is it at all possible to meet all three criteria throughout your graduate studies? Interesting mini-discussion with @penelope btw... I have admit that I agree with her(?) regarding this description of science being inherently disparate from the reality in this field, utopian almost...
    – posdef
    Dec 30 '13 at 17:28
  • @posdef I'll let you know in a couple of years if it's completely unrealistic or not, but as for now, judging by my views (I refuse to do something I'm not enjoying at a big level, and I refuse to shape my long term work plans by upcoming conferences), what my advisers say till now (they seem happy with my work) and what my colleagues know of my approach to science (apparently: "I am one of the pure ones", they said)... it's possible. And, as they say, change should come from within, so I'm sticking to my Utopian views for as long as I can hoping they'll rub off on people around me.
    – penelope
    Dec 31 '13 at 1:38

The first comment that comes to mind is "If I knew what I was doing, it wouldn't be science". Much of the science will out of necessity be at a basic (and therefore perhaps perceived as uninteresting) level. Ground breaking work originates primarily from two things: luck or huge funding (thinking of human genome as an example). As a PhD student you are not likely to tap into huge funding although your advisor may do so and your PhD might then get a ride on that gravy train. It is not the norm. Luck is not something one can hope for either. It is of course possible to argue that finding a good research question can be a third alternative but again getting the results to break through or the money to fund it usually ends up being the limiting factors.

Along the lines of aeismail's answer, a PhD is about so much more than just a flashy product, it is about learning the basics of science, the attention to detail, the ethics of research and the research process. this does not preclude high profile results but more often than not it is about basic science and about providing or contributing to a firm basis upon which higher profile science is built. Put differently, with out that ground work the rest would not exist. So there is a drive in all of us do do as best as we can and that this some day will reach the headlines. but, I would argue that doing high-quality science is something almost different to high profile science. There is not necessarily an equal sign between the two. And with research you do not necessarily know when or where the breakthroughs will appear.

As an example, I worked with a group of colleagues trying to prove an hypothesis through experimental work. We found something completely different and hitherto unknown and it was not by design. this gave us a publication in Nature (whether this is the pinnacle of good science I will not say) from a project that otherwise would have been looked upon as fairly middle of the road.u

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    I happened to come back to this question and re-read the answers given. I have to say that I must have missed the quote: "If I knew what I was doing, it wouldn't be science." It's a bit sad how accurate that statement is somedays... :)
    – posdef
    Dec 30 '13 at 17:20

As scientists-to-be is our primary responsibility to ourselves, to our bosses/departments, or to science itself?

I'm not even sure what this phrase means. IMHO, the only principles are

1) Do what you find interesting and try to get good of it.

2) Never publish junk (BTW, no medical research that works is junk: even if the disease is rare and affects only few "old people" and you found a cure, you improved this world quite a bit; the junk is something that either doesn't work or is perfectly clear from what everybody knows already and I should say that many papers involving "hot techniques" fall into that category).

3) Watch out a bit so that your can live and support yourself and your family on your salary (but don't try to fight for promotion, etc. beyond that level).

4) Never tell other people that what they are doing is not worth doing unless you can easily do it yourself and never listen to anybody telling you something like that unless he can demonstrate that he can do it himself better and faster than you.

5) Don't envy anybody. There is always a bigger fish in the pond (a lot of them, really).

As to "losing belief in academia as something useful to the world", since the linked letter uses quite a strong language, I'll use equally strong one to answer. It is not greedy and irresponsible academicians that make the beautiful world worse but the rather disgusting world that makes academicians greedy and irresponsible. We work for God but have to deal with people and I can quite understand the attitude of Wernher von Braun, which, if I understand anything about him, was "I'm here to get us all to the Moon and my time is short, so if you make it impossible without sending people to gas chambers, it is your moral problem and not mine". Whether you want to share this attitude or to protest against it most fervently is your choice. The point is that this is not a choice a scientist invented and forced upon the world but the choice the world invented and forced upon a scientist. So, I don't buy the rhetoric about scientist's responsibility to the humankind unless I see some reciprocity. Making the most brilliant rocket engineer of all times a Nazi is quite an unforgivable crime and it is not the only one the academia can charge the humankind with. So, if somebody insists that we are not up to expectations, I'll retort that the world should be grateful that the scientists still work for it at all, not judge them from the viewpoint of idealistic moral standards or their utility for its purposes.

  • Would you mind changing the example in your answer so it does not include Nazis and killing Jews?
    – Bitwise
    Sep 17 '13 at 15:29
  • I'll have to change the history then and, alas, it is beyond my power.
    – fedja
    Sep 18 '13 at 7:46
  • @Bitwise However, I can remove the explicit reference to Jews without altering either the main point or an example :). Not sure what good it makes (the WWII events are still widely known to everyone), but if you ask, I don't see why not :)
    – fedja
    Sep 18 '13 at 7:56
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    To elaborate a bit more, if someone sees a scientist only through his interactions with people and the society (which one of my friends calls "biped games") and judges him based on this, he may be right as far as "general human values" are concerned but he is usually completely wrong as far as the other side of human life and quest (for which I cannot find a better English word than "spiritual", though I agree that this word smells of church nowadays) is concerned. The quoted letter misses that side of the academia life entirely, and that is its main flaw.
    – fedja
    Sep 18 '13 at 12:10
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    @Bitwise The story of von Braun's life is, IMHO, one of the most tragic and most controversial stories as long as we are talking about the collision of a lofty quest with the surrounding realities, so I prefer to keep it. If you want a different example, the way Grisha Perelman "burnt out" over all those "ugly things" in academia (which I loath at least as much as that hapless graduate student, BTW) may be quite illuminating too. The student himself, possibly, falls into the same category, though I need to see his work first to make any opinion of this.
    – fedja
    Sep 18 '13 at 13:12

I think the points Peter is mentioning in his answer should be told to everybody before thinking about to start a PhD odyssey or at the beginning. Unfortunately, isn't. Especially, when the only bigger "scientific" project before entering a PhD was a bachelor thesis, many PhD students probably have rather big misconceptions about the essence and benefit of a PhD, personally and for the society.

In germany, during the much longer master thesis you gain more experience, how exhausting it is to produce incremental progresses that can be published.

So my first advise is, when you are unsure to enroll into a PhD program, rather think about earning a master degree and gaining more experience. After this you can still decide for a PhD, but with much more knowledge on your personal interest and ability.

The second advise I would like to suggest is that one has to understand, for academia much more than for industry, to have a successful academic career culminating in a tenured professorship depends on many factors you cannot control. The factors you can control demand discipline, a lot of work, but also searching and taking risks, e.g. by reading literature from neighboring fields or visiting broader conferences. Especially the latter becomes more and more important (in my humble opinion and being myself in the postdoc phase) due to increasing number of researchers and competition. The "safe-and-uninteresting" PhD work you describe is unlikely to facilitate you an academic career, only with extreme luck. So, at the lastest at the end of your PhD or beginning of the postdoc phase you should start thinking about and looking for interesting risks in your field. There is also a reason, why you only have a high likelihood or in some countries are at all allowed of being granted funding, when you have a PhD. Before, you are not really considered a full and independent scientist by the community.

To close this answer, my PhD work developed from initially incremental work over time towards quite interesting/exciting to me and maybe also very helpful to society at the end of it. The potential for this was enclosed in the object of my studies (I was aware of this) and the idea to realize it technically came up at a disuccion while presenting my poster with someone from a very different field. And I work in a field that doesn't need big teams to conduct experiments vs. clinical studies or particle physics demanding even bigger personal patience and sacrifices. I wrote an application and got funding granted. To write a successful application needs a lot of this sometimes very uninteresting and incremental work and experience one did and gained during his PhD (knowing your field, research methods, state of the art, communicate your results/ideas...) This is in my opinion the deeper and hidden essence and point of a PhD, also only a minority of PhD graduates will ever start writing their own research proposal for submission to a funding source. But it explains quite well to me, why so many Q&A's here stem from frustration/misconception of doing a PhD and it feels often like odyssey.

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