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Ask Slashdot: Advice For Budding Scientist? 279

New submitter everithe writes "Dear Slashdot, I am nearing the end of my undergraduate years and hoping to continue on in academia, probably focusing on condensed matter physics. Recently I've noticed some alarming pessimism among Slashdotters about the state of science — that fraud is rampant and that people honestly trying to do science are less likely to be recognized and obtain tenure. Obviously I am very interested in doing real and useful science, but am worried that this could conflict with my ability to put food on the table. My question is, how bad is it really, and do you have any advice for how one just starting out might survive in such an environment?"
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Ask Slashdot: Advice For Budding Scientist?

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  • Accepted norms (Score:5, Informative)

    by DaneM ( 810927 ) on Saturday April 07, 2012 @06:16AM (#39605459)

    While I can't provide much specific information, I can tell you some general advice.

    Background: My father is an internationally prominent plant scientist and former air pollution researcher. He's also worked at several universities in important positions (department head, etc.). One things that he's mentioned repeatedly (if not often) is the fanatical importance that most scientists and university personnel seem to place upon what's "accepted." Bluntly, this is a pretty blatant problem of inflated egos (endemic to universities and such, in general), but highly educated people are also quite good at pretending they're being rational, rather than emotional about decision-making. The essence of the problem is that if you come up with an idea that's contrary to the current "status quot" belief, and if you promote it shamelessly (as you should), you'll prick the egos of others and be ostracized, criticized, and (if possible) discredited. Furthermore, the success of a scientist seems to be about 40% skill/talent and about 60% political adeptness. Of course, an ethical and self-aware scientist will put away his pride and fear and publish good work regardless of what others think--and sometimes that will pay off in the end. Below is how it might do so.

    I can't provide specific examples of theory-based conflict off the top of my head, but I can illustrate the power of politics (i.e. university politics, scientific community politics, etc.) in science by noting that because my father was able to obtain more grant money than his superiors at UC Riverside, the university decided to close down the department that he headed: the air pollution research department. Of course, this meant a prolonged job hunt and a big move for my dad and his family (including me). (UC Riverside's leaders thereby got rid of the "troublemaker.") If you aren't aware, Riverside is about 60 miles outside of LA and obviously has air quality problems to rival nearly anywhere else. A lesson to be learned from this is that no matter how good a scientist you are, and no matter how good you are at procuring what you need to do good work, ultimately it's the ego of those who provide you with land, labor, and capital that will determine how successful you are. Therefore, it's proven extremely important to foster good will amongst those who can help you do good science. The ethical way to do this (as far as it's been demonstrated to me) is to use your science to help people with real-world problems as much as possible, and show others that helping you is in THEIR best interests.

    My dad now works as a farm adviser (associated with UC Davis), and it's proven very useful to go out of his way to help his "client base" (farmers, primarily) see the value of what he does by helping them to increase their production, and thereby their personal wealth. Essentially, it's good to do a good job, but it's better to "go the extra mile" to bring your good work to those who can make profitable use of it. This strategy has seen my father summoned (from the US where he lives) to China, Italy, Chile, Brasil, Uruguay, Japan, and probably others that I don't recall. By inventing means to help farmers grow their crops cheaper and more reliably (including new methods of testing for nitrogen levels without a mass spectrometer), he's made himself indispensable to the industries and institutions (universities, etc.) that he serves. It hasn't made him "rich," but it has given him job security and a good living for his family.

    So, the bottom line here is something like:

    Do the best possible work you can, but make sure it's actively helping people who need it. That way, when you annoy the scientific community or your academic "superiors," you'll already have people to guard against you being politically maneuvered out of position, since losing you will also cost them money and other resources. Science for the sake of science is good and useful (eventually), but in order to keep it up, you have to provide others with very good reason to help you keep at it.

    I hope that helps.


  • by Samantha Wright ( 1324923 ) on Saturday April 07, 2012 @06:24AM (#39605489) Homepage Journal
    Molecular biology really depends on what organism you're focusing on. Worm researchers, for example, are all really nice people because there's an unbroken lineage and it's a relatively small community. If you were studying mammals, you shouldn't be too surprised that things were a little more cut-throat. Anything remotely medical is unfortunately very competitive, a product of self-aggrandisement that it really doesn't deserve. I obviously can't speak for your particular experience, but coming from a very medicine-heavy school that had a radically different culture between the (faculty of medicine) biochemistry department and the (faculty of arts and sciences) biology department, it seems to me that such is the trend. If you're going into pharma, you're really just asking for it even harder. :) Pick something considered less glamorous by prime time television, and you'll find less careerism and more curiosity.
  • by Epimer ( 1337967 ) on Saturday April 07, 2012 @06:34AM (#39605533)

    And the reason why nobody gives a second though to patent infringement in academia is because research use of patented inventions in academia is subject to an exemption from infringement. It's perfectly legal.

    That said, it's probably imprudent to let mere facts get in the way of an anti-patent rant on here :)

  • by boristhespider ( 1678416 ) on Saturday April 07, 2012 @06:52AM (#39605579)

    and so risking repeating others, it seriously isn't that bad. There's a fashion for showing how cynical you are, and how the world's going to hell and everyone's on the make and blah blah blah. It really isn't particularly bad. What you do have is a *lot* of politics, which circles around getting funding if you're a professor, and circles around getting postdoctoral positions if you're not. This does lead to both a conservatism -- which, regardless of what people might tell you is the valid approach for science; something has to be tested to oblivion for people to believe it, even if that means you're likely risking your career doing something too whacky too young -- and to a regrettable amount of brown-nosing and nepotism. There's also a distressing focus on publishing and getting citations, so if you work in a field with a lot of interest but with relatively few people you'll struggle to attract as much attention as someone who picked an easier course. What I've found increasingly annoying recently is that my career is being judged by anonymous referees on journals who clearly just don't know what they're talking about -- I get the very strong impression that they're PhD students very early on in their PhDs -- and I find that offensive. But the point I would make is this is no different from any other field and any other job, and at least in academia you can be sure that the people you're working with are at least as smart as you are. Except some of the referees.

    From my experience in academia -- ten years now since I started my PhD -- the people you'll encounter are very smart, dedicated, professional in their attitude to their work; but you'll have to play the game to a certain extent, attending conferences, networking, making sure the right people know who you are, work in fields which are attracting funding but which aren't glutted or flashes in the pan (in my field that was probably braneworld cosmology; it attracted enormous funding for about five years or so and then it died out, and people who focused exclusively on braneworlds during their PhD find it a bit tough to get new positions), and make sure you put a professional face on all your work, and that you can always defend every choice you've made and every bit of work you've done. So, no different from any other job you want to do well in.

    As for money, no, this isn't the best-paid job, but I get extremely irritated when people complain about it, because it's also really not that badly paid, and we get fantastic benefits. Unless you're unlucky with your lab you have fairly flexible hours, you're doing a job you love (and you better had, because if you don't love it you'll be very much better off doing something else), and there's enormous opportunity for travel, which is fully funded. If you're lucky you get generous allowances while you're away, too. We got an absurd amount to visit Toronto when there was a conference there in the mid 2000s -- something like $60 a day to eat. So we ate cheap during the day and had plenty in the evenings for a big meal and some drinks. I think we even ended making money on it...

    So basically I'd say it's no worse than any other field. It can be very political given the funding situation, but that happens anywhere and in any job, and generally you've got the advantage that your boss isn't a moron, which is sometimes hard to say if you pick other career options.

  • Re:Physics? (Score:5, Informative)

    by Chase Husky ( 1131573 ) on Saturday April 07, 2012 @07:59AM (#39605743) Homepage
    Anything related to math, e.g., applied maths, theoretical maths, and statistics, is in high demand in finance, let alone other sectors, especially if you've got a base degree or focus that matches, e.g., an S.B./S.M. Bioengineering/Biology or an M.D. if you want to do principled biomedical work. In fact, with the right position, you could easily spend all day publishing biostatistics papers in Biometrika, Biometrics, the Journal of the American Statistical Association, and the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society on, say, models that analyze the effects of some treatment or drug under development, yet get paid more than someone doing the same thing in academia.

    Touching on your overall concerns and questions, here are a laundry list of things that I found useful during my graduate years, with respect to a career in academia:

    - Take some time to really figure out what you want to study and, ultimately, do in the future while you're in graduate school. If you don't have a firm plan, it's not a bad idea to stay in graduate school longer, provided you have grant funding from your adviser or a fellowship, to pursue other options or investigate other disciplines.

    - If you are committed to being a researcher, figure out why the top scientists are where they're at today and maneuver yourself accordingly. For example, within machine learning, people like Michael Jordan, David Blei, Zoubin Ghahramani, Bill Freeman, etc. are successful because they have a somewhat strong statistical background and statistics makes up a large portion of prominent pattern recognition schemes; if you were in, say, computer science or electrical engineering and wanted to be a prominent contributor to the field, it would probably be wise to pursue an S.M./Ph.D. Statistics or an S.M./Ph.D. Applied Math to ensure that your skill set is highly developed. With respect to condensed particle physics, on the theoretical side, you'd probably be well-served by pursuing an S.M. Mathematics, with a focus in differential geometry, topology, and algebra, while, on the practical side, having some programming knowledge wouldn't hurt.

    - If you're wanting to do research within academia, determine, as early as possible, where you would ultimately like to obtain a faculty position. This will dictate where you should complete your terminal degree, since, once you graduate, unless you do some incredibly amazing work in your early years, happen to work with someone very famous, or are nearing retirement with a large body of work, you will mostly be constrained to moving laterally, slightly up, or down compared to your alma mater's ranking. As an example, if you want to work at Stanford, it'd likely be good to do your Ph.D. at either Stanford, UIUC, MIT, Harvard, Cornell, or UC-Berkeley.

    - If you're unable to get into a really good school during your first round of graduate applications, and you know that you'd like to teach at one, either settle for a somewhat mediocre school to start out with, especially if they offer you a research assistantship, or pursue a second undergraduate degree at your alma mater. During this time, you should ascertain how the current crop of graduate students at the good schools got admitted. If it was based upon publications, find out what journals the "best" publications are in your field are being sent to and start targeting those venues, if possible, before you reapply. If it was based upon internships, try to do more of those at better institutions/labs. If it was based upon the "old boys network" and recommendations from a trusted source, surreptitiously determine, e.g., by looking at publication records, if anyone you're either working with or that knows you well happens to have either collaborated with someone at or graduated from a better university and if they can put you in touch. (I say surreptitiously because, if you chose the mediocre graduate school route, blatantly asking someone like your committee adviser about moving to better university, especially when that move is
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 07, 2012 @09:14AM (#39605997)

    Also from a working physicist: Fraud is not an issue. Getting and keeping a job is. My degree is in experimental condensed matter physics, from a mid-tier US university, about 15 years ago. Unless you come from a top-five to top-ten research university (in cond matt physics that is), getting a professorship at a research university is exceedingly difficult. As a young scientist, you would be competing against the worldwide pool of physicists for any tenure-track position at a US university. Pick a department you can picture yourself working at and look at who is there now, and where they got their degree. Many top-level departments, they rarely hire young scientists and promote to tenure -- they hire tenured profs from other universities (worldwide). So, if a tenured position is important, get into a top-level department. Visit them, try to identify (and visit) profs you might want to work with. Ask about where grads from that group have gone after a PhD, as such success is often more closely related to the prof you work with than with the department or university. Also, recognize that getting a PhD (and research) is not about demonstrating how smart you are, but about persistence and hard work.

    My second piece of advice is to be flexible. National labs, some large companies, and some smaller start-ups hire physicists, and the jobs are often better than tenure-track positions. If teaching is really important to you, you'll find many more smaller colleges available, but doing research can be very difficult, and the pay can be very low. There are many "excellent" colleges that encourage undergrad research, but tenure-track jobs at these colleges are also fairly competitive. Of the students who were in my PhD program at the same time as me, the majority have left science, though often for the semiconductor, software, or financial industries, and the majority of the rest are working at US national labs or in non-tenure-track research positions at universities.

    Staying funded in research physics can be challenging. Many people trained as solid-state physicists now working in other fields. The situation is similar (or worse) for people trained in other physics disciplines (high-energy, for example). But the knowledge, training, and world-view from a solid-state physics degree is very valuable to those other fields. My third piece of advice would be to keep this possibility in mind now, and don't discount other scientific disciplines as inferior or unworthy of study. A good knowledge (like at the advanced under-grad level or higher) of electronics, chemistry, and computational sciences would be especially important, as many people will look to a solid-state physicist for answers on such topics. It helps to be ready to be part of an interdisciplinary team.

  • by sackvillian ( 1476885 ) on Saturday April 07, 2012 @10:19AM (#39606323)

    I'm midway through a graduate program and here are the things I wish I was told before I started:

    • -- Your supervisor choice is of prime importance. They will dictate your research projects, your lifestyle, and most importantly, your opportunities to continue on. They write your reference letter, after all, and decide your approach to publishing. Pick a good one! Visit several, talk to their students (over beer preferably) - really, you cannot investigate this question too much.
    • -- Be ambitious about learning about different school's grad-payment policies. Do they require you to TA? Do you want to? Do they have minimum funding guarantees? If you bring in an external scholarship, do they dock your pay or match the funds? Of course it's not about the money but in Canada, I know firsthand that some graduate students will make fully twice what other students make and neither are well compensated.
    • -- Pick a school for its department rather than overall reputation. The supervisor choice is first priority but the second criterion should be the department, as departmental policy and reputation will shape your life in many ways.
    • -- Wherever you go, adopt the following policy: If I feel productive, I work. If I don't feel productive, I do not try to. There will be pressure to always be in the lab or in front of your computer, but the reality is that no human can work eighteen hour days for weeks on an end. So if you can't focus or your research is at an impasse, get out there and do something fun. It won't set you back academically and in the longterm, you'll be happier and healthier!
      • With that said, don't let the naysayers get you down. There are good people in academia and always room for a few more. Good luck!

Our business in life is not to succeed but to continue to fail in high spirits. -- Robert Louis Stevenson