On life in the lab and failure

In early 2009 I was asked by a group of students from a famous medical science research institute to go on retreat with them. It seemed a good opportunity to parlay my skills in presenting doctoral education issues in return for a nice trip to the country. Sasha, one of the students, offered me a lift and during the drive we chatted about the life of a research student in a large laboratory.

Sasha was a new PhD student, but was older than many of her comrades because she had worked for over a decade as a lab tech and had mad lab skills. But it seemed this knowledge was a two edged sword as it also mean that other students often pestered her for help with their experiments, which made it hard for her to get as much done as she would like.

While Sasha was confident in her technical skills she was clearly troubled on a number of other fronts. She was worried that too much time as a lab tech had affected her ability for creative thinking and theory building. Her family relationships (particularly her ageing parents) precluded long hours in the lab. She had little interest in the drinking and partying that other students indulged in and so did not feel like a member of the ‘in crowd’.

During the drive I was struck by what seemed to be a consuming worry on Sasha’s part that the other students, even the more established research fellows, would steal her research topic and ideas away from her. I have to admit I wondered about whether Sasha’s fear of her ideas being stolen were pure paranoia, fuelled perhaps by the social distance between herself and the other students.

But after spending a day with all the students I decided that Sasha was actually quite balanced, at least compared to some of her colleagues.

During my talk I was regularly interrupted by questions on the ‘stealing’ theme. Some questions related to plagiarism by supervisors and how to deal with it; others concerned worries about how and when to publish such that ownership was established before others could claim it. Even after the presentation several students approached me with accusations of stealing by their supervisors or their fellow students.

I answered these questions about stealing with the same kind of soothing sentences that I would use with students in the humanities or the arts, such as: “Every PhD is like a finger print: you may do the same topic in an entirely different way to someone else”. But they just looked at me sceptically, obviously too polite to tell me straight out that I didn’t understand.

Towards the end of the presentation the discussion turned to the topic of failure – what about if your experiments don’t work? Would you fail your PhD? Again I tried answering using soothing lines like: “you need to design your PhD so that a ‘no’ answer still means you have something to say”. One student put up their hand and said that was all nice in theory, but failure did your career no good.

Although I work with scientists all the time, this experience made me realise that I don’t know them very well. Partly I suppose this is because of my different background (I used to be an architect), but mostly it is because I haven’t had much exposure to the everyday working life of  the scientist. In an ongoing effort to come to a better understanding I finally sat down and watched “Naturally Obsessed: the making of a scientist”, a documentary about PhD students in science which was recommended by @acidflask on Twitter.

What an interesting little film this is. Basically the documentary follows 3 students in a lab in a university in New York City working on understanding the processes involved in the body storing energy or spending it. This was ‘pure’ research, but had obvious applications in developing drugs, for instance to fight obesity.

Throughout the film the students and their teacher talk a lot about the nature of scientific practice and the pressure to make discoveries before others and publish in the top journals. At one point one of the scientists remarks: “Some of the problems we are studying might never have answers – we just don’t know”. I couldn’t help contrasting it with my own experience of doing a PhD. I just observed classroom behaviour: there was no way I could ‘fail’ to get results because all I had to do was write about what I saw. I realised I had it easy!

Only two of the three students get a PhD by the end of the film, but it was the student who makes the breakthrough who ends up with a prestigious post doctoral post at the end, while the others end up in private industry (probably earning more money!). Other people have crticized the way the film presents this successful student as more obsessed than the others. But I can’t help thinking back to my trip to the country with Sasha and her colleagues and the pressure they all felt to perform. There’s a reason for this – obsession is obviously rewarded, as it is in so many other walks of life (architecture being no exception by the way – there’s a reason I no longer do it).

There is a worrying culture of silence around the issue of PhD non completion, probably because it is seen as a kind of ‘failure’. But perhaps a non completion can also be understood as a success? At least I think it is if the person is happier and has their life back. I have come around to thinking that offering advice to people facing this kind of pressure to help them to cope is not the answer at all. I would have been better off to ask these science students to carefully consider whether the costs outweighed the benefits and what they think ‘success’ in life really is. What do you think?

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