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How Scientists Know An Idea Is a Good One 140

Physicist Chris Lee explains one of the toughest judgment calls scientists have to make: figuring out if their crazy ideas are worth pursuing. He says: "Research takes resources. I don't mean money—all right, I do mean money—but it also requires time and people and lab space and support. There is a human and physical infrastructure that I have to make use of. I may be part of a research organization, but I have no automatic right of access to any of this infrastructure. ... This also has implications for scale. A PhD student has the right to expect a project that generates a decent body of work within those four years. A project that is going to take eight years of construction work before it produces any scientific results cannot and should not be built by a PhD student. On the other hand, a project that dries up in two years is equally bad. ... the core idea also needs to be structured so, should certain experiments not work, they still build something that can lead to experiments which do work. Or, if the cool new instrument we want to build can't measure exactly what I intended, there are other things it can measure. One of those other things must be fairly certain of success. To put it bluntly: all paths must lead to results of some form."
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How Scientists Know An Idea Is a Good One

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  • 4 years.. (Score:5, Informative)

    by dlenmn ( 145080 ) on Sunday March 17, 2013 @09:10AM (#43196387)

    A PhD student has the right to expect a project that generates a decent body of work within those four years.

    Four years? Ha! That's a good one!

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 17, 2013 @10:02AM (#43196599)

    It is highly dependent on local conditions. In France, PhDs are by definition 3 years long.

    The main point is unaffected by the value of this number, though, just that it exists and is hopefully a small fraction of a person's career.

  • Re:Luck... (Score:4, Informative)

    by SomeKDEUser ( 1243392 ) on Sunday March 17, 2013 @10:58AM (#43196857)

    Yeah, the trick is that you should always try to get funding for projects you have already completed, thus claiming a 100% success rate. Of course, this only happens in very large lab and has a bootstrap problem.

    On the other hand, the biological sciences are especially tough because experiments are hard, expensive and unreliable, and those doing them typically not so sophisticated with data analyses. Or else you are doing bioinformatics, which is either algorithmic research or also costly and generally inconclusive unless you do in vivo validation, in which case you are back to problem number one.

    But seriously, if you work with old-school biologists, do the world a favour, and teach them that a Gaussian error on a number of cells is dumb and wrong.

  • by cryptolemur ( 1247988 ) on Sunday March 17, 2013 @11:09AM (#43196911)
    Check out Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine: [] :-)

    Anyway, I was taught early on this is one of the main reasons to attend conferences -- after seeing an interesting presentation (or even poster) about stuff close to yours, you go for a beer or two with the presenter and hear all the failures they suffered and the wrong turns they took on the way. And share your own, too.

    The body of science is so much more than just the published papers, you know.
  • Four Years??! (Score:4, Informative)

    by period3 ( 94751 ) on Sunday March 17, 2013 @11:15AM (#43196925)

    Four years? Not in Canada - and presumably not in the US either. The department average in my program was more like 6 (I took about 6.5), and I've known people who have taken as long as 10 to complete their PhD.

    From some document I found on startpage:

    "Median time-to-completion of the PhD has nearly doubled during the last three 2 decades (from 6.5 to 11 years). "

  • Re:He tells us... (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 17, 2013 @11:43AM (#43197065)
    The PhD students working on something like ATLAS certainly were working on projects that took less than 8 years to construct. Yes, they contributed to a larger project that took much longer, but what they were individually working on had to still fit in the timescale of a PhD program. Either you are purposely misconstruing what was meant by the story,, or simply not thinking when you typed out basically agreeing that a thesis project needs to have narrower scope to match the time requirements
  • by bitingduck ( 810730 ) on Sunday March 17, 2013 @12:13PM (#43197233) Homepage

    "A PhD student has the right to expect a project that generates a decent body of work within those four years."

    For a Masters degree, this is acceptable. For a PhD, they had better be coming up with their own idea, a plan, funding, and then have their advisor and committee evaluate during the prospectus defense. Having their topic/project dropped in their lap so they can turn the crank is not what a PhD is all about.


    There are areas of physics where the cycle time for proposals is 2 years (from announcement to release of funds) with a success rate of less than 10% for even senior people (NIH has an even lower funding rate, and an expectation that most things get proposed a couple times before being funded). Many, if not most, graduate students in science can easily get funding to cover their salary through fellowships/RA positions/TA positions, etc, but the chances of a grad student writing their own grant proposal in most subfields is pretty small. Sure, there are areas where you can do good science with dimestore materials (and a few places that specialize in that), but that's a pretty narrow slice of science in almost any field. Some of the most successful faculty I've known at one of the top science/engineering universities in the world are successful because they let their post-docs be PI on proposals (which is relatively uncommon). Then if the project is awarded the post-doc starts the work as a post-doc and manages to spin it into a faculty job.

You will never amount to much. -- Munich Schoolmaster, to Albert Einstein, age 10