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I would like to do first-class research. However, how do I actually accomplish that when my supervisors design not-so-great experiments and I don't have the resources to do more independent work?

In many fields (e.g. psychology, neuroscience), graduate students work in a group (i.e. lab) studying topics that their advisor finds interesting. Each student might have their own thesis topic, but all of the work is focused on the same big question or general research topic.

Typically the data collection is mostly dictated by the senior researchers, as it is very expensive. Once it is collected, the lab might spend several years analyzing it, especially in bigger projects. This means that the potential of a project is mostly determined by the experimental design. If there is something wrong with it, not much can be done afterwards and the results must still be published.

So what can a young researcher do in these fields if the experimental designs (decided on by the advisor or other senior researchers) are lacking? Especially if I have done most of what I think is possible post-hoc (e.g. with the statistics)?

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Though I am not familiar with the specific field you are referring to (neuroscience &c.) one big question presents itself:

Did you actually talk to your adviser/other students about the "problems" you perceive in the experimental setup? Are these actually "problems" or maybe (just maybe) an insufficient understanding on your part?

If it is indeed a problem of experimental design I would propose to contact the ones responsible for the design and try to work something out - i.e., additional experiments or (if possible) looking for external data.

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    Indeed! Although there is certainly always the possibility that the most-senior people are somewhat incompetent, it is at least equally likely that the most-junior people misunderstand something. Given the self-selection mechanism for asking questions here, it's hard to guess which is manifest, etc. If junior people are skeptical, asking for explanations, and following-up (even if the explanations are cryptic!), surely won't hurt anything, and may be usefully informative. – paul garrett Jun 2 '15 at 21:56
  • While it is possible that the student is misunderstanding something, bad design of experiments is very common. See for example nature.com/nrn/journal/v14/n5/full/nrn3475.html (titled "Power failure: why small sample size undermines the reliability of neuroscience"). – mmh Jun 3 '15 at 7:26
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There is no easy answer for this (I speak from experience having been in this situation).

I found some of the thoughts at the following link helpful:

http://sphinx.mythic-beasts.com/~mark/random/mediocrity/

Good luck!

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