Advice from a young scientist to younger scientists

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“Scientist” by MrDream is licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 3.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/

When I started my scientific career, as a PhD student, I can easily recall the huge enthusiasm that I got. The idea of research resonated very well with my expectations from life.

Devoting our life to work on scientific endeavors seems to be a very noble and fascinating thing to do. Nevertheless, as anything else in life, there is always a gap between expectations and reality.

Looking back, almost ten years later, there are several things that have changed regarding my mindset. On one hand, I am still very enthusiast about exploring new ideas and challenging myself with new research questions, I presume, that is part of my personality now. On the other hand, I faced also the challenges that this imperfect world imposes to the scientific work.

For example, there is always a futile debate on how scientific productivity should be “measured”. It sounds completely preposterous to think that the generation of knowledge can be measured. However, as anyone else in the world, scientists must make a living, and their work must be evaluated in terms of wealth. Then they receive a “fair” payment for the work done.

Nobody tells us how important is to get a fair salary and a suitable job environment to do research when we are students. Actually, the fact that we started a scientific career implies, in many cases, that we are not driven by money. The scholarship that an average PhD student gets is barely sufficient to cover his or her living costs. Nevertheless, we are willing to spend 3, 4 or even more years working hard to finish our thesis. We are people with conviction.

However, everything changes when one is on the other side. Right after we defend our thesis in front a committee and get our degree. Then, we start to worry. What comes next? The truth is that the options are limited and continuing with an academic career means a lot of struggle. This is probably due to the fact that the job that a scientist does is rather odd with respect to an average person’s job.

To account for this, I think it is easy to believe that if we ask around to random people if they believe that science is important, they will most probably answer: Yes. If we ask people if they believe that governments should spend more of their budget on science, I am more or less sure that the answer will be mostly affirmative as well. However, if we ask people how the performance or the quality of the scientific work is measured, I am almost certain that most people will not come up with an even slightly right answer.

I elaborate. In academia scientists develop some so-called “products”. This roughly speaking means that we must develop certain pieces of work that can be easily quantified. In most of the cases, this quantification is reflected in our salary. These products include: journal publications, patents, supervised thesis, courses taught and research funds granted. The more numbers we get from these items, the more we are recognized due to our work. In this case, universities are expecting that the quality of our work is accurately judged by peers, when submitting all these items to a reviewing process. The truth is that this does not necessarily happen in such way. Academia is imperfect, as any other organization driven by human beings.

There are certain flaws that can easily discourage a young scientist. We are sometimes unaware of unfortunate practices that prevail and remain hidden in the scientific community all over the world. Probably, it is not as dramatic as when children discover that there is evil in the world, but it certainly produces a lot of frustration and anxiety. Some examples:

— There are plenty of stories of people, all over the world, that manage to inflate their numbers, without actually making valuable contributions to science.

— There are some cases when top researchers are basically managers that completely delegate the scientific work to their students, who are supposed to be just learning how to do research.

— There are cases when top researchers are actually top fund-attractors. In most of the cases, these people are much more valuable for an institution than a person that works hard but is unable to “sell” his or her research to motivate external funding.

We can also find the case when some researchers adopt an antagonistic position against some of the products that are expected from them. Some examples:

  1. Some people claim that journal publications are not important, and that the research efforts should be focused on something else.
  2. Some people refuse to do patents or industry links, since they consider that the value of knowledge should not necessarily be translated into industrial assets.
  3. Some people do not like to supervise thesis. They are simply not patient enough as to teach and help a PhD student to sharp his or her research skills.
  4. Some people are terrible at teaching and they have actually no conviction for good education. They see teaching as an unfortunate duty that acts as a distraction from research.
  5. Finally, some people are against the requirement to attract funds. They believe that the scientific work is important enough as to be fully subsided by governments.

After plenty of hours of reflection, I adopted a position on these matters, which I believe is pragmatic. Instead of embracing an antagonistic position, I decided to take the “system” at face value. I cannot foster a major change in the way science work all over the world. I cannot even change the rules of my own institution: get rid of the ones that I find unfair and leave the ones that are more beneficial for me. That would be too egocentric, considering that as I mentioned before, there are different opinions from people that would also like to promote their own views and interests.

My position is to work hard on the things that I enjoy the most, as well as on the things that are part of the best interest for my institution. I basically adopt the view that Albert Camus suggested in his book “The Myth of Sysyphus”. While in an ideal world I would devote my whole time to do research, to solve problems that I find interesting and to perform experiments that I particularly enjoy; in reality my time is partitioned in all the aforementioned duties. Nevertheless, I always try to get the best experience from each activity. This implies the following.

  1. I publish as much as I can, as long as I am completely happy with the quality of the research. I do not attempt to inflate my numbers by publishing low quality research, or results that are questionable. I do this even if I cannot reach the exorbitant numbers of some people that are apparently looking for a Guinness kind of record. If I do want to increase my numbers, instead of violating my own rule, I simply work harder.
  2. I am quite open to register patents. Originally, I was never motivated to do research to develop something of commercial interest. On the other hand, it would be truly a pity that the development of knowledge remained only as a theoretically sound idea. If we think about the work of Tesla, Graham Bell or Flemming, we could easily conclude that the transfer of knowledge is rather important, not only to be economically exploited, but also to foster the development of our countries.
  3. I take very seriously the supervision of PhD students. It is true that it is sometimes a bit frustrating to adapt to the natural slow pace of a PhD student, since they are indeed in training. Most of the times I can do the job of a PhD student in a much faster way. However, this is not because I am overly smart, but because someone else, i.e. my former supervisor, had the patience to teach me. So, the least I can do is to display the same patience and kindness that my supervisor displayed when I was a student. Moreover, I truly enjoy the moment when my students sharp there skills to such extent, that I start to learn from them. Then I gain lifelong colleagues whom I can collaborate with for the many upcoming years.
  4. I enjoy teaching, at graduate or undergraduate levels. Actually, I do not feel ashamed to teach undergraduates. I have learned during the last years that one can truly master a piece of knowledge only when one is able to explain it at the most basic level. I have also learned that we should not have high expectations about the interest that students pay to our course. We will not be their favorite lecturer and some of them will even forget most of the things we taught to them. That is life, we did exactly the same thing when we were students! However, we can also remember those teachers that were a true inspiration for us and that actually prompted us to develop our careers in one particular direction. As a tribute to my past inspiring teachers, every lecture I give I try to be that source of inspiration for someone else.
  5. I work hard to attract funds. This point is not easy at all, since it is probably the most difficult duty to accomplish. It is actually unfair to dismiss the work of fund-attractors, since the scientific work is actually a very expensive activity and to convince someone to support it is rather difficult. My plan of action for this duty is to try to obtain as much funds as possible. I indeed decided to enter to the competition to get financial aid to develop the research that I firmly find important. However, there are some premises that I try to follow: i) the quality of the research must continuously grow according to the funds granted: the more financial support, the more ambitious the research; ii) I will not renounce to my convictions explained above, by devoting all my time and efforts to money matters; and iii) I will not “promise” things that I cannot accomplish, since I categorically refuse to be a charlatan.

I hope that these ideas and values, that I have been developing in the last years, can be of help for all those young scientists like me, that eventually faced the existential crisis derived from our expectations and the sometimes upsetting reality. This is for all those scientists that are wondering if it is possible to develop a successful career while simultaneously keeping their values. For all of them my conclusion is that our duties are a very small price to be paid to be able to do what we enjoy the most.

For all of you, all the best.

Jonathan C. Mayo-Maldonado

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