18 November 2013

Research culture shock

A couple of years ago, when the Ecological Society of America meeting was in Austin, a few students from my institution went to give posters. One of the women showed up in a dress and four or five inch heels, and one of the men showed up in a jacket and tie. This at a meeting where sandals are typical footgear.

The students did not understand the culture of the ecology meeting.

It might come as a surprise to beginning students that there is a distinct culture around academic research. And just like someone moving to a new country, there can be culture shock, and new students can have a hard time adjusting to the culture of research.

Here is my attempt to identify some of the key elements of research culture.

1. Science is not utopia.

I can’t say it any better than Dr. Rubidium did here.

There are people that believe science is above all the bullshit. Because science is facts and reason and shit, so scientists are totally above bullshit of any kind. Scientists have achieved a Utopian State Of Bliss which non-scientists can only dream of.

To those science-as-utopia people, I say this:

Come join us in the real world.

When I asked on Twitter about  what surprised them about research, a very common answer was that people were surprised by how big the egos are, and how much that drove science.

Students, this means that some of the crap you hope might not be an issue any more... can still be an issue.

2. There are hierarchies.

One example of hierarchy was in titles. It grates someone with a doctorate to be called “Mister” or “Miss.” Someone with a Ph.D. is referred to as “Doctor” if you’re using titles.

There are hierarchies of all sorts in academia. Some of them are formalized (academic rank: undergrad, grad, post-doc...), some are about individuals (tenured over non-tenured faculty), some are about institutions (university “tiers”), and many are informal. It pays to understand what the ladder is is and what rung you are on, even if your particular lab or institution doesn’t play the game of trying to climb the ladder.

3. Work ethic


Researchers have a strong work ethic. Being in the lab on the evening or the weekend is not seen as unusual in the slightest. Some labs essentially demand it. Personally, I don’t think such labs are healthy, but they do exemplify the attitude that anyone who wants to do research should not hesitate to come in at hours outside of 9 am to 5 pm, Mondays to Fridays, at least occasionally.

If you think being asked to come in on an evening or weekend is an unreasonable demand, always, you’re not going to be happy in research.

4. Reading the literature

Part of that work ethic that I just mentioned is an expectation of reading original journal articles. I think many beginning students expect that research is only about getting, and maybe analyzing, the data. It isn’t. Reading is part of the job. And not just the research in your field; there’s an expectation that you’ll be somewhat aware of what’s coming out in the glamour magazines, and that you will keep pace with science news generally.

Subscribe to the table of content alerts for the journals in your field.

5. Criticism is the norm

A lot of beginning students have a very hard time getting criticism. Sometimes, the reaction is that professors are just mean. It takes a while to realize that the criticism can be coming out a very pure desire for the work to be good, not just to tear down students.

Related to point #4 above, you’re not only expected to read papers, you’re expected not only to read, but to dissect papers. Pull them apart. What makes them tick. And what are the weaknesses? You not only have to be ready to take criticism, you have to be willing to give it, too.

6. Labs work in many ways, but many are tight knit

For many (but by no means all), being part of a lab is almost like being part of your own small tribe, or even a second family. It can be a very intense working environment, and it can, at its best, draw people together in a good, powerful way.

Maybe it’s no accident that academics trace lineages much like people trace their family trees.

7. Financial considerations

Beginning students have only the haziest ideas of the cash flow in academia. A very common question when I talk about publication and I show one of my papers is, “How much of that $30 for the paper do you get?’ Well, none.

Researchers fret about money. A lot. I think some researchers try to keep those issues away from students, but it bleeds out. I sometimes think students might be aware of money, but don’t learn how to manage money in research in any practical fashion.

Corrosive culture?

If there is something that is common to all of these elements of research culture, it is that all of them have to potential to be malicious when taken to their extremes. When I was giving a talk about this, I worried that I was being too negative. But the important thing to realize is that a culture need not lead to its worst behaviours.

A culture of a strong work ethic does not necessarily mean overwork.

A culture of criticism does not automatically lead to nastiness.

Being aware of the culture gives people a chance to recognize what might be places where to guard against falling victim to the more negative parts of that culture.

External links

Science Online Oceans science geek fashion show

Photos from here and by niznoz on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

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