The student who couldn’t say “Yes”

On a blog about how to be successful in academia a scientist recently described a student who always said “Yes” and a postdoc who always said “No”. The postdoc left academia while the student quickly published several papers. The lesson being: to be successful in academia you should always say “Yes” to your principal investigator with the enthusiasm of Daniel Bryan:

Unlike this student, while in graduate school I couldn’t bring myself to say “Yes”. In my second year in graduate school I already had a first author publication, multiple first author publications in the pipeline, and a 5 year grant from the NIH, but I lost it all because I couldn’t say “Yes”.

At first saying “No” worked out really well for me. During my first year in graduate school when my advisor was out of town for a couple weeks so he couldn’t keep an eye on what I was doing, I downloaded some RNA-Seq data sets and started analyzing them. This analysis led to me getting a 5 year F31 grant from the NIH and publishing a paper my first year.

However, my lab and department did not view computational work as “real” science, and only believed results which came from random experiments that only worked on the 100th time of changing concentrations, cell lines, time points, etc. People who did computational work were seen as “lazy” and were constantly asked when they were going to start doing some actual science. It’s no wonder the only two bioinformatics investigators in the department both left the first chance they got.

I wanted to work on projects that utilized and built upon my computational skills, which are not only relevant to all fields of science, but are relevant to anything, really. I envisioned supporting the computational results I had found with yet more computational results that included so much data that they would be incontrovertible. My lab and department had other ideas. They preferred I perform random experiment after random experiment until I got one that appeared to work in a single cell line, for a single sequence, under perfectly tuned conditions.

With clear paths to prove my hypotheses I just couldn’t bring myself to say “Yes” to these shots in the dark and I continued doing my computational work. And I thought I would get away with it — after all, I had my own funding and was publishing well while other students in the department had neither funding nor publications (the outstanding graduate student award was won by default since only one person graduating had published, and only published a single paper). But when it came time to give my qualifying exam my PI and department laid the smackdown. I was told I couldn’t work on the grant which was funding me and wouldn’t be getting a PhD for that work. Still unable to say “Yes” to my department I left my MD/PhD program.

I guess to be successful in academia I should have said “Yes”. I should have said “Yes” and worked long into the night on some random experiments my investigator wanted me to do like all the other lab members. I guess I should have just wished upon my lucky stars that one of these experiments would have worked and led to a decent publication. I guess I then should have hoped my reputation for saying “Yes” would lead to a decent postdoc position. And then I guess I should have again said “Yes” and performed whatever experiments that investigator wanted. And hopefully this would have led to more publications and the privilege of being able to say “Yes” while in a tenure track position.

And maybe I would have gotten a tenure track position, or maybe I wouldn’t have. Or maybe I would have but then couldn’t get funding. Who knows. Whatever the result, it would have been after years of performing random experiments that didn’t increase my skill set. And besides, I find politics, meetings, traveling, writing grants, and dealing with reviewers all very annoying, so it’s unlikely all that saying “Yes” would have led to a job I enjoyed.

But these what-ifs are pointless because I didn’t say “Yes”, I said “No”.

I said “No” and left my MD/PhD program.

I said “No” to immediate job offers and instead opted to work on projects I found interesting. From my experience a new data portal for TCGA data was sorely needed, so I dabbled in web development and made OncoLnc, which now gets 60K hits a month.

I then said “No” to another wave of job offers. I saw the preprint movement as a way to finally wean the scientific community from their dependence on greedy publishers, so to help out I made a PubMed for preprints, PrePubMed, which was recently cited by Nature.

My friends then asked me if I’ll finally get a job. I said “No” yet again and learned about granularity testing and made a mathematical discovery, GRIMMER, along with an accompanying web application that recently proved extremely useful.

Saying “No” has led me to have so many interesting projects to work on that I feel like I need to clone myself. But as the scientist said, saying “Yes” led to the graduate student publishing five publications over several months. You can read about how that worked out for her here.