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.

10 ways to insult a scientist

Although the scientific world is relatively civilized, people developed subtle ways of insulting each other without really saying it. Here is my top 10.

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1- Does mainly applied research. The rivalry, despise, and even haste between “fundamental” and “applied” researchers is just as legendary then the one between New York and New Jersey, France and England, Mac and PC’s. Somebody coming from the “fundamental” side will use the sentence “does mainly applied research” if they want to say “Basically, does no research at all“. Baaam.

2- Is a good teacher. Can be the correlate of ” … but, is bad at science”.

3- Has been tenured since a long time. Sounds positive at first, but actually means this person has been like a mussel on the rock. Inactive, boring, and aggregating foam on the back. Motivation to do novel and innovative research is close to zero.

4- Publishes in specialized journals. Sneaky one. Although publishing sounds like a good thing, the “specialized” part of this sentence actually means low-impact, low-interest or low-quality.

5- Is often gone on conference. Generally said of big wigs. Actually means they spend all their time attending meetings and doing PR, rather then taking care of their lab and research.

6- Research is mainly based on correlations/descriptions. That’s an other way of saying that the research lacks depth, or mechanistic details. Ouch.

7- Is good at bench work. Implies that this person is basically a technician, and is not interested/capable of sitting down to read, write, or think. You never want to hear this about yourself.

8- Is present during work hours. Again, seems like a nice comment at first, but this is actually a hidden way of saying “is present only during work hours”. Means this person is never in the lab late or during week-ends. Possibly implies low motivation level, or low output.

9- Is a nice person. Hum, like in other relationships, the adjective “nice” is generally used when nothing else is applicable. Smart, pretty, funny, etc … In science, the “nice person” is the one people like to hang out during lab outings; and chat with, but not about science. So it basically means not-very-good-at-science-but-nice-person, again.

10- Is too busy to attend seminars. Missing a seminar here and there, because a crucial experiment is going on is understandable. But some people might always claim being too busy. This means, uninterested in anything else then there own little subfield, and lazy to walk up a few floors to the seminar room.

 

So, do you recognize some of these ? Isn’t science a cruel world to live in, after all ?

PI Quotes – 9 – “The most important experiments are the ones you don’t do”.

Some of the people I worked with have been a great inspiration for me. And overall, I really like to take a few steps back to think about how science works in general. The other day, trying to decide between which experiments to do first, I thought about what a great supervisor once told me: “The most important experiments are the ones you don’t do”.

In the same lines, Louis Armstrong once said that the most important notes were the ones he didn’t play; and Rodin said that the sculpting process was about removing the stone that was not part of the sculpture.

 

It is unsettling a first, but let me explain. In the case of scientific research, we all know that we have only limited amounts of time to discover new things, and make a point of it. Very often, I find myself in front of an ocean of possibilities, curiosities, and things that a want to try and test. One option to tackle this is to get students and let them help you. The other is to make choices, more or less rationally. Choosing, not what is the most important, and what is a bit less important, and leave it on the side for later. Only so that you uncover the main path, or the critical experiment. By the way, people now call this the “money experiment” or the “money figure”. Not sure I approve that appellation, but you get the idea.

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Being in the second-half of a PhD means doing this on a weekly basis, and I sometime regrets early days of innocent and random wanderings trough experiments. I am a least grateful that my PI let me do that for a while, if only it could last a bit longer …

The thrill

When people ask me why I do a PhD, I never really now what to answer … Is “because this is what I like to do” not enough ? But what do I actually like about it ? Some days, I am really not sure anymore; but then comes that moment. A defining moment reminding you why you like doing science. I think it applies to me, and I am sure it is true for many other scientists.

It’s the thrill.

The thrill when you suddenly think that are on the path of discovering something new.

It’s that moment of solitude that you generally don’t immediately share with anybody else. It’s that impression of having something truly great and novel, and the certainty that you are the first and only one in the world having that thought at that precise moment. These are the most magical and precious moments I had in my science life …

Of course, there are different kinds and levels of thrills. 

The intellectual thrill happens only when two neurons that never connected before suddenly do so. You have a new idea, no data to support it, but it sounds brilliant to you. Sadly, after a few days of evaluating the idea, or “submiting it for internal review” to you colleagues, you often leave it on the side of the road because you realize it was more science-fiction then science.

The practical thrill happens when you get new exciting data. It is more solid then the intellectual thrill, and is obviously more exciting. That kind of thrill can influence your next experiments and interests, and actually change or embellish your research project.

This week I had an “in silico” thrill while analyzing some data. It’s somewhere in between an intellectual and practical thrill (I am more a wet lab kind of person). Maybe in a week I will leave it in the back of my head, or toss it away; but for the moment I am still obsessed with it …

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10 simple rules …

Just discovered this a few days ago … a little series of articles from Plos Computational Biology entitled “10 simple rules …

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Pretty interesting and nice to read, these articles are giving advice to people in science of all levels and areas. Among the ones I liked the best were:

Ten Simple Rules for Getting Grants

 Ten Simple Rules for Getting Published

 Ten Simple Rules for a Good Poster Presentation

 Ten Simple Rules for Making Good Oral Presentations

 Ten Simple Rules for Selecting a Postdoctoral Position (ahhhh)

 … and finally Ten Simple Rules for Graduate Students

In the latter, you will find the following recommendations:

Rule 1: Let Passion Be the Driving Force of Your Success

I could not agree more.

Rule 2: Select the Right Mentor, Project, and Laboratory

Essential, but also very very difficult to do. Often, it relies more on an impression, a gut feeling, a connection; then on a conscious or rational choice. Like Blaise Pascal once said, “Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ignore”, which in english would translate as “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of”.

Rule 4: Remember, Life Is All about Balance

True. True. True. We should not feel bad about it.

Rule 9: Build Confidence and a Thick Skin

For sure necessary to survive now and later on …

 

 

If you feel like reading more, all hyperlinks are already in the text. Ok, if you don’t feel like scrolling all the way up, here you go.

New things, old feelings.

My new years resolutions of writing regularly is sinking already; but hey … circumstances are exceptional. I’ve been busy sitting up a decent website for my lab, and busy doing things that were new for me.

Tout d’abord, my first student is graduating tomorrow. It’s strange, because not so long ago, I was graduating, and now I am sitting among the jury members. Not idea how this will turn out … probably fine tough.

And my student was so sad to leave the lab today, had a gift for me, and said she would not like to leave at all. Somehow, it made me feel like I had done my job right, despite the little obstacles on the road.

Ensuite, last week-end took place a 3 hours brainstorming session with our group, and our “homework” was to think about what the research directions could be, what the big questions of the field were, how we should approach them, etc …

Men this was tough. I never had to put that much thoughts in it, because it’s so easy to focus on your little PhD project, and keep the big picture blurry in the background. This was a good wake-up from the lethargy. And I realized abruptly how difficult that “job” really was. Making plans for things that cannot really be planned. Thinking about the conflicts between your ideal research plans, and the ones that take into account some strategy and avoid you crab nests. Deciding where to focus. And how much the costs in people, hands, and money would be.

Overall, I was relatively happy with the ideas I could put on paper under short notice, and maybe with more training and time, I could actually draw comprehensive and realistic research lines.

I’m so glad I’m not a PI just yet (maybe, eventually some day, but hey, …) and can enjoy the time where money comes in, and I get to worry only about my own projects. Ah, the luxury …

PI Quotes 8 – “Laziness is a great quality for a scientist”

Hi all,

After christmas break I dragged myself back to the lab (ok, I was happy to return) and though of  this professor who once told during a master course :

“Laziness is a great quality for a scientist” 

That was a bit unsettling at first, my overall felling being that scientist are in the great majority hard workers (but is it really work ? ;-)). For example, injecting 1400 adult Drosophila‘s today is not an act of laziness !

Actually, his reasoning was slightly more twisted: 

The more lazy the scientist = the less experiment he does

The less experiments he does = the better his choose the good ones to do

And he focuses on succeeding immediately to avoid unnecessary extra replicates or troubleshooting work due to inattention.

Beyond the witticism, there is some truth in the fact that good scientists are always the ones who can choose well the key experiments, and make them look perfect.

So, should we all just be a bit more lazy ? 

Food for thoughts … 

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