Improving Science

Science is, and must change.

I mentioned in a previous post that we got a bottle of Whisky to a PI of my department who refuse to give trimestrial science “output” reports.

Well, this little thing actually gave birth to an initiative we started with a few colleagues called “Improving Science“. After a few meetings and dinners, we decide to do something at our own level at the university here to improve the way the system works.

I presented all these ideas today, in front of a committee composed of 3 institute heads, and representatives of PhD students. The short talk was followed by a discussion, in which  the institute heads actually agreed with most of our ideas, and said they were thinking about it and try to implement them.

The good thing is that, in fact, they are already conscious of the problem, and having meetings about it. Nevertheless, I cant help feeling slightly frustrated because these things just take forever to change.

We had 3 mains points that we thought needed improvement.

-The evaluation of the PhD training. Right now, we only have a very final evaluation, and poor follow-up during the training. Implementing a mid-term meeting is necessary.

-The paper requirements are off the roof. PI’s required from us to publish 2-3 to 6-7 papers in order to graduate. Which means we have to split projects, do low-risk research, privilege quantity over quality, and so on. This is the thing I hate the most about the dutch system. Not to mention that people are put on them because they “need them”, without contributing to them very much, or at all. We proposed to lower that requirement to 1 good paper. It should be enough to get a PhD. Which would allow us to have more time to “play” with science and go on riskier projects. It still feel like going against a wall of habits, traditions, and dutch academic culture.

-The last point was about offering more opportunities for non-academic careers training. As most of the PhD will leave academia, the university should feel responsible to offer training in teaching, journalism, industry, policy making, or collaborate with NGO’s.

Well. I’m happy we actually took initiative, and presented our ideas. I deeply hope they will be used, and implemented as soon as possible. The next generation of scientist should be able to grow in better conditions then what we have now, although it’s not all bad of course.

My PI told me today I should not feel responsible for this. This is very weird to me. It’s everyone’s responsibility. It’s only like this that the system can change. From the top and bottom. These elements, such a the sky high publication pressure, the high amounts of burn-outs and depression, the selfishness of people demotivate and drive me away from all of this. And I still love it. But I hate it so much as well. I thought it was possible to feel like this only when it comes to people. 

I apologize for writing such a long post. I needed to get that out of me, I think.

Advertisements

Book review: How to change the world

Hi all, 116

Long time I haven’t written a book review, but here we go. A few month, when I was going trough my “PhD dip” (more on that later), this guy, a PI from the lab, recommended me to read this little book.

“How to change the world” by John-Paul Flintoff. 

 .

 .

The timing was perfect, as I started reading it in times were I thought there was nothing I could do to improve academia and science. Well, the book proved me I was wrong. And since then, we started, in our institute, a little initiative to improve things.

I would recommend that book to anyone, because it’s a very good rampart to resignation or resilience. The book it structure in small chapters, starting with “How to start to make a change”. First, it will show you how to overcome defeatism, explain strategies, and how to take the first step. I will also help you to identify what exactly needs change. And then, help you to make your idea beautiful, fun, appealing, etc … many important factors that come into account when one wants to change things.

I loved reading that book. It was a perfect, short, simple, motivational read. I would recommend it to anyone that is slowly sinking into resignation, or thinking of giving up. Because on should never stop fighting or give up on important matters. Especially not in the societies we live in, where it’s easy to do so.

A paper. A day

a aper

I am now, very officially, in the last year of my PhD. In about a year, a big chunk of results will be published, and I’ll be defending my thesis in front of a committee. One of the things I don’t do enough, in preparation of this, is to read. It’s difficult to find time for it -especially during busy days-, but I decided I just have to take it, anyway.

I ambitiously decided to read 1 paper each day, until the day I defend. With a few exceptions authorized, I am not a robot. Hey.

I’m not very good at keeping resolutions, but that one, I’d really like to. I also see it as a bit of a challenge. So, to keep track,and also share it, I decided to create a Tumblr. account especially for this: https://www.tumblr.com/blog/drosophilista

Basically, I’ll post each day the paper I’ve read. Not sure I will have time to incorporate notes. But I’ll tag is at open/closed access. Good way to estimate how many papers I would miss if my university didn’t have a suscription to all main journals.

I started already last monday, and have been quite diligent since, so let’s hope it continues like that. How much do you read ? How do you do it ? I’m interested to hear your experience, so please leave a comment !

5000 words, 3.5 years, and …

and now it really starts. La merde. The past week has probably been one of the most hellish week of my PhD.

See, the last 3 years, a.k.a., phase 1, I’ve been happily working on a research project. Starting almost from scratch, developing hypotheses, performing lots fo experiments, and slowly building up enough data for a good research paper, making the final figures, and writing (summarizing) it in 5000 words. That was the good, innocent and enjoyable part of being a PhD student.

Then came phase 2. Submission. And rejection. And submission. And rejection. And submission. And rejection. And submission. I don’t know when it will end.

Nooooo, I wasn’t cranky. No, I wasn’t sad. No, I did not feel like my main job had become formatting stuff in Word. And counting character numbers. And converting PDF’s. And all of this meaningless s*****, just to be done for one or two days, before it came back, again, without explanations. Or standard letters. No, I did not half-joke with my supervisor I would open a bakery after my PhD and be done with all this non-sense. No, we did not have that depressing debate at university, about non-existant career perspectives, burn-outs, and universities being ruthless and terrible employers.

So let me make it clear: I know that no paper ever gets accepted just like this. It’s normal that it gets rejected, and reviewed, and edited. Nevertheless, it’s hard, because this is my work. My project for the last 3 years. Week-ends and late evenings. Overall, very hard work. And I find it impossible to stay calm, neutral, unaffected, placid, and objective in that case. We are people, not emotionless humanoids.

Yes, this is all normal. And it will eventually go away, because, yeah, experiments need to be done. The classic 4 phases I described previously. (I’m almost in phase 4, by the way).

 It is a bit less normal that subjective (or do I want to say, profit and hype-driven) editorial decisions control your scientific career. And by this I mean, it is even less normal that an impact factor, which is nothing more then a stupid number, is almost the only, yes, only, indicator, on paper, of the quality of your science.

And you know the part that revolts and disgusts me deeply ? It’s that we, scientists, do nothing about this. Or let’s say, almost nothing. “It’s the system, you have to play the game, it’s a phase we all go trough, you’ll never change it, bla bla bla …” .Yes, we are scared people, collaborating with an unfair and stupid system that ultimately drives good scientists in an other direction. Or should I say, kicks them out as soon as they are not productive enough. But why should it matter when you have tenure, or publish enough, or get grants … everything’s fine, right ? And why should it matter when you know the expiration date of your career already ? Haha.

Now, the question that I haven’t figured out yet is, can I comply to these unwritten rules ? Can I accept and play that game ? When do you stop looking at yourself in the mirror ? Frankly, I have no idea. I’ve written on this blog mostly positive things about science (1,2,3,4, and many more). They remain true, and I do still enjoy all these things. This hasn’t changed.  But is the price to pay really worth it ? That’s the million dollar question. Bah. Future me will figure it out. For now, I have to get back to the paper factory sometimes called university.

And, if I ever make my way in there (less then 10% chances, yes), dear bloody system, I am coming for you. I’m not alone. And you don’t know who you’re messing with. Like all revolutions, this one will start when the last straw breaks the camel’s back.

 

–Sorry for slight excessive dramaturgy, I really needed to rant write this down and get it out of my head.

Thinking about post-PhD life

There is no week, literally no week, since the beginning of the year, without discussions about what life will be after obtaining the PhD degree. Most of my friends started their PhD around the same time then me, and we are all reaching this phase of starting to think about what’s next. So here are some of the options:

The obvious (and easiest ?): Do a post-doc.

It’s an attractive option for many reasons: staying in academia (and enjoying it’s perks), starting a fresh and exciting new project, getting more experienced, gaining and sharing knowledge, teaching, travelling, meeting new people, and so on …But: 1 out of 10 post-docs (at the best) will make it in academia. So, why not make an exit earlier, and not risk being disappointed, discouraged, frustrated, jaded, and rejected by a ruthless academic world.

Plan B’s 

First, I guess they should be called plan A’s, since they concern most of PhD students. There are lots of things to do: Research and development in industry, science communication, teaching, project management. Science policy, global health. But also, owning a bar, a restaurant, a bakery, a bed and breakfast, a travel agency, a book store. Raising goats and making your own cheese.

I have plan B’s and plan A’s. And no idea what will happen (I mean, who does, really ?)

I enjoy research right now, which is easy to say when things go well, and when hard work is decently appreciated. So why not continue with a post-doc and go for it. Academia. I’d love to have my own fly lab some day. With an awesome fly room, full of flies, books, drawings, discussions, crossing schemes, and laughs. I have a picture of this in my head. But sometimes, luck can fail you. Life might get in the way. So, you can only hope for the best. Especially do your best, and never regret not giving it your best shot.

Closed doors generally open new ones. A this stage, i think it’s important to at least think about those things. Develop other skills. Writing this blog, developing the lab’s website, tweeting,  made me realize I like that kind of stuff. I love making my powerpoint slides and telling people what I do. All these skills I develop “on the side” might become truly useful someday.

Well, that was a short summary of things that go trough our minds these days. Nothing deep or insightful, but I guess i needed to write it down.

Science Stereotypes -5- Challengers

2010-02-04-questions

The challengers can stay hidden for quite a while at conferences or institute seminars. They will sit quietly trough most of the talks; but while have intermittent and impulsive needs to provoke speakers.

  • They will ask questions in such a way that it makes the speaker look like a 5th-grader, or like a incompetent abuser of taxpayers money.
  • They will typically revoke the entire data set on the basis that they ”just don’t believe it”, or that the contribution to the field is just as high as the latest season of  “America’s Next Top Model”.
  • The challenger might also interrupt you every 20 seconds during your poster talk, or interrupt you discussions to challenge you on very detailed technical questions about your experiments.

How to deal with them ?

The fact that they might lack basic manners, courtesy, and diplomacy, does not mean you should loose those qualities. Try to stay professional, composed, and logical. Especially if you’e answering one of their weird questions, statements, or opinion in front of a larger audience. You don’t wont to look like a jerk as well.

Science Stereotypes -4- Loners

Loners constitute an other crowd present at any science event, and like the celebrities, and raising stars, they are quite easy to spot.

images-1

  • They generally stand alone in corners or secondary rooms
  • They play games on their phones when everyone else is socializing or hanging out at the coffee break
  • They might give awkward glares
  • They might try to form a little group of loners at some point

This is harsh, but nobody notices them, knows their names, or even really wants to. I believe science attracts and somehow selects for people with poor or akward social skills, so it’s better to get used to them.

As a nice person, you can make a communication attempt by reaching out to them with a basic conversation opener : “The coffee taste so bad here, no ?”, “How boring was that last talk ?”, “Hey, where do you come from ?”, “May I borrow your pen ?” … bla bla bla. Despite all the efforts, please do realize that it will still probably result in a 5-minute conversation with lots of awkward silences and little eye contact.