I should really post something science related

July 28, 2016

Really I’ve been meaning to, Dear Reader.

I’ve been distracted by a couple of work related things.

But I do want to draw together a thought from the Democratic convention speeches this week and the profession of science.

We are stronger together. Science works best when it is collaborative…we all parrot this truthism at one time or another. And we do collaborate. Within our laboratories if nothing else.

There is also competition. No doubt, no doubt. Very pointed in some ways. We’ve talked about the long odds of making it through to the professor chair, of getting the grants funded and of getting the paper published in just the right journals.

It’s tempting to go low.

Michelle Obama says she always goes high when they go low.

She’s right, you know? In the short term it may cost you a bit. Missing that opportunity to do dirt to your professional competition may let them advance in some small way beyond you. Maybe a not so small way.

I’m convinced, however, that taking the high road tends to work out better in the long run.

My confidence in this was wavering a tiny little bit in recent times. It’s nice to be reminded that people who act the ass eventually are going to pay a price. You can get by for a little while but eventually, eventually, you are going to run out of those willing to give you a benefit of the doubt. Run out of friends and supporters. Run out of collaborators.

Because when it comes right down to it there are many scientific collaborators out there to work with. If you develop a bad reputation, they will choose others.

It took until this week to see a full slate of unreserved admiration and respect for the political life of Hillary Clinton on display. To my recollection anyway. It took a long time for her. I don’t know that she always took the high road but she sure didn’t take many low ones, especially given the vitriol directed at her over the years.

So I’m not saying take the high road because it will lead to immediate recognition and reward. It may take some time. It may never occur.

But hey, at least you can look yourself in the mirror every day without flinching.

11 Responses to “I should really post something science related”

  1. emaderton3 Says:

    Is there any kind of irony that I received this while watching Hillary’s speech?


  2. Neuro-conservative Says:

    people who act the ass eventually are going to pay a price

    In my subfield, the most successful people are generally the most sociopathic (or at least narcissistic). I have never seen any karmic come-uppance for any of them.


  3. Jmz4 Says:

    By what measure are you gauging their success? As cynical as we may get, there’s really no point in doing science as a career unless you’re proud of what you accomplished scientifically, not professionally.


  4. My PhD advisor always gave people the benefit of the doubt (but never forgot a doublecross) and always shared information/reagents/protocols when asked. PhDAdvisor definitely preferred to collaborate rather than compete, and was motivated by the desire to do good science rather than to be first. PhDAdvisor never worried about being scooped–moving the science forward was more important than being first, and the publications would come either way.

    My postdoc advisor didn’t really trust others. PostdocAdvisor gave lip service to collaboration and working together, but tried to manipulate things to benefit our group rather than for the good of the whole team. Some collaborations run like this were successful, but many were one-offs. PostdocAdvisor hoarded information and worried about being scooped all the time.

    I would argue that both of them had fairly successful careers, but PhDAdvisor was much happier and enjoyed the job much more. People were more likely to offer PhDAdvisor advice and protocols, which helped the group a lot. On the other hand, PostdocAdvisor had more “higher impact” publications and a better funded lab.

    My style is more like PhDAdvisor’s, and it has worked for me so far. If I have to become an asshat to be successful, why bother?


  5. dr24 Says:

    Dude, on twitter, you call people names, mock, deride, etc. etc. etc. You of all people extolling the virtues of taking the high road is awfully ridiculous.


  6. chemstructbio Says:

    Headline: DM takes high road, starts submitting manuscripts only to CNS (and dumps the rest in PNAS).


  7. Grumble Says:

    “If I have to become an asshat to be successful, why bother?”



  8. EPJ Says:

    The comments almost look like a multiple choice test, so I should add this:

    All of the above and more.


  9. AcademicLurker Says:

    I was just about to hold up a competitor’s paper for publication, trash a grant application in my field and steal the ideas, and mock up some fake western blots. But I was so inspired by this post that I’ve changed my mind.


  10. Zuska Says:

    The biggest and best benefit of taking the high road is not some future payoff or eventual demise of your enemies, but being able to go to sleep at night knowing you did not behave in a way that demeaned yourself. In the heat of things when the desire to fight fire with fire is strong, this truth will feel weak and elusive but afterwards, the soul satisfaction is, as they say, priceless.

    This is not to say that sometimes fire, appropriately wielded, is not the right response.


  11. The Other Dave Says:

    I remember when this blog explicitly reminded everyone that science is a job. As with many other jobs, you can get ahead by being an asshole. There is no scientific meritocracy or professional justice. I have never seen anyone get their just desserts. Go ahead and be an asshole successful scientist.

    But remember that’s all you’ll ever have. You might be envious of those PIs with all the grants, but maybe they write all those proposals because they have no friends to otherwise distract them. It’s easy to be envious of seminar speakers with lots of great data and invitations to present all over the world. But would you also like the lonely days of travel and endless awkward dinner conversations with short-term acquaintances?

    When I look back on my career, which many would categorize as middling-successful, I don’t fondly remember any particular paper or grant. I think about vacations with my family, the friendships I’ve made with lab members who I still visit (and who visit me), the silly parties and grateful students and funny mistakes. I’m proud of my accomplishments, sure. But in the end they have value only because they’ve allowed me chances to meet great people and do fun things.

    A few years ago I remember a Nobel laureate at a party we had after our local ‘Neuroscience day’, where he was a speaker. About halfway through the evening, he ended up sitting and eating by himself while groups of other people chatted and laughed elsewhere. I felt sorry for the guy. It’s useful to remember that a Nobel can get you dinner invitations, but not necessarily anyone to sit and talk with.


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