Lab rules

July 3, 2018

I left academic research one and a half year ago and I had time to think about this time spent there (10 years!), the good and the bad, the differences with the industry,… There would be a lot of things to say, but from a limited viewpoint, my own one. An in-depth social survey of the field would actually be necessary to understand the different mechanisms at stake in modern research. An almost impossible task given the size of the field and its various forms. Each area of science is a country, with its own language, its own culture and its own politics. I just want to write down some notes, a kind of elementary rules to survive and thrive in the world of modern research. I do not like some of these rules because they implicetely give credit to some aspects of modern science that I do not like. But before being able to change the parts we do not appreciate in the job, we have to be accepted in it by your fellow researchers. This is the purpose of these rules.

  • rule number 1: become a paper producing machine. Research is a machine oriented towards the production of articles.  Everything from grants to promotions to collaborations is calibrated on the papers you produce. This is not necessarily easy to accept. You may think that you have to write a paper once you have well rounded results with a consistent theory and the associated experimental data. This was probably the case decades ago. This is not the case now. You have to set objectives of production: one or two journal articles a year, one conference proceedings, review papers, posters, talks, meeting presentations to complete your stock. And you have to build your research plan around these objectives: which data are required, who will your coauthors be, which aspect of your research topic you will deal with it. From there, you establish your cooperations, your experimental plan, your simulation time… Papers are the blood of your work, without it, you cannot exist.
  • rule 2: networking. Modern science is not a solitary work. Even if you think that you can do it only alone because of concentration, consistency, whatever excuse not to talk with others. The myth of the solitary genius is wrong. Yes, all popular articles focus on individuals, nobel prizes and most other science prizes are awarded to individuals. But this is just for the image of science, to consolidate the myth of the genius in the society. Modern science is made by collaboration. First, because you need other viewpoints, even when you think you have the solution. Science is a community activity. It is its essence, its core feature. More practically, you will get grants only when you are able to build collaboration, you will get prestige when you will be able to leverage a network, you will get students, hardware, computation time one you will be at the head of a team, interdisciplinary, international and inter-cultural. So chat with your fellow, propose ideas that can attract them to your work. And keep contact. You will see that conferences are far more useful when people known that you are the entry point for a big network of scientists. Your field of research is like a big party: the more fresh blood you have, the more fresh blood will come and the bigger the party.
  • rule 3: lobbying your ideas. You have a revolutionary idea, you have the corresponding theory, the associated data, a well-rounded, clear, scientifically accurate paper, you publish it and nobody pays attention. This is normal. An idea, even with convincing arguments, takes years to be accepted. People have a limited attention span for your topic because of the multitude of their own projects. They do not have time to go deeply in a paper to understand a new idea. They first have to get used to it. So you have to exercise an intense lobbying: explain, explain and explain again. Never lose patience. It is even more difficult when it is about a controversial issue or project or whatever crazy experiment you want to propose. Never hesitate to propose it. Everybody will say no way. Do not stop, come again and again and you will see resistance fade away. This is purely human psychology. Scientists are not pure rational machines. You have to overcome many psychological obstacles in the fead of your fellow scientists and all it requires is time.
  • rule 4: proper communication. You have the formal scientific communication, which is the foundation of research. This is where the knowledge resides in and it has to follow very strict rules in term of structure, clarity, logics, accuracy. Never ever try to lower these standards. But you have other channel of communications, more informal: talks, seminars, coffee-machine small talks. This is where you have to develop the story of your research. Make it exciting, entertaining; it is the gate to your world, to your research; this is where your colleagues want to enter to participate to the big party that you organize in your small area of science. Like all stories, it requires a proper narrative structure, its moments of tensions, its cliffhangers. Work on it, it is a funny, human activity.

Thinking of other rules?

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