Let Yourself in on Science’s Secrets


Having sailed into the clear blue waters that lie on the other side of the PhD viva voce examination, I feel a huge flood of relief. But I also find myself in an unusually reflective mood, possibly something to do with the fact that I am sitting in a tent (well, I do have my student debts to consider) on holiday--a place that is immune to hardcore scientific thoughts. A few minutes? reflection--a rare luxury if you are the type of person that gets sucked into frantic experimentation--can be as valuable as many hours of trying to think really hard. My wandering mind eventually comes to rest upon the subject of how you actually become a scientist. That is to say how, once you've made the decision to study a scientific discipline, you break through the mystique that surrounds it and become part of that scientific community. It's as if now that I've 'made it', so to speak, I can for the first time see the typical entry route for what it really is.

To become a legitimate part of any community, you have to be let in on its secrets, and this is no different for scientists. Now you might think that there is some very rational way to get to know science?s trade secrets. But this is just not so. The seemingly structured career path that leads to research is a cover-up. There's a mass of absolutely vital information that you can only acquire by word of mouth--or bitter experience.

The peer-review process for grants and refereed papers is perhaps the prime example of a science secret. I'm still trying to get to grips with the finer points of what is, or is not, acceptable to write down without being (scientifically speaking) unprofessional. For example, there is a fine line between making a 'jump-the-gun' statement and not exploiting data to the full, with both possibilities offering easy paths to unprofessionalism. Fortunately all my faux pas to date have been pointed out to me before I've pressed the 'send' button.

For someone like me who, in a previous business career, became used to finding definitive answers in the vocational training course manual, I was baffled to find that I had to pick up the threads of how science really operates simply by word of mouth. It's true that many academic institutions are making efforts to 'professionalise' their postgraduate training schemes with mandatory courses on presentation skills and the like, and glossy ring binders packed with user-friendly course notes--but these efforts are unlikely to leave you feeling fully informed. I understand that all professions probably have their unwritten rules, but it seems to me that the very continuation of science depends on scientists passing on the secrets of how their profession works to newcomers through informal contacts.

So, in science, it's not so much a question of who you know as who you exchange information with. Maintaining such contacts is the only way to tap into the constant flow of unwritten information that keeps the whole thing functioning. In practice, the missing information in my PhD training scheme was filled by scraps of information gleaned from more experienced scientists. Depending on how reliable I considered the source of information, this meant simply accepting what I was told or learning the hard way. A case in point was when I decided to ignore the unwritten rule that says 'if someone doesn't reply to your e-mails they probably don?t want to speak to you, so leave it' and made one approach too many.

Take my advice, accept just how quirky and intensely personal science really is and play along with it--it'll save you a lot of heartache. Some may argue that painful lessons are more likely to shape your scientific personality and lead to you finding your own little secrets. This may be true but, in my experience, painful lessons might also result in you unwittingly upsetting people along the way. And the last thing I want to get is an undeserved bad name for being a pain in the behind.

This tradition of transmitting information informally may be because scientists are just too busy thinking about their work to bother with preparing proper training manuals. Formal manuals would, in theory, level the playing field by giving everyone the same information, but would also depersonalise a career packed with one-off individuals. However, I think it's more subtle than that. Maybe it's to do with being selectively invited into the inner circle of scientists. I think it would be an interesting study for a budding psychologist to see if PhD students perceived by their seniors as no-hopers were left to flounder in the dark, whilst more able students were gradually let in on all the secrets.

Having completed my formal academic journey, I now see that science is a wonderful career for individualists, but a bad choice for loners. Scientists might be portrayed as geeks, but a successful one certainly has to be a people person, make no mistake. All this reflection has left me feeling determined to keep my ears wide open for new secrets as I hopefully prepare to step up to the next level, and the level beyond that. I?ll also make sure I do my best to pass on what I know of the science ?inside track? to any students I get talking to. After all, I might be the only one who gets around to telling them!

So now that I am a ?Doctor? and am officially ?in the know?, do I feel like a legitimate part of the scientific community? When I started out on my academic journey, way, way back in 1994 (I have always assumed my A-levels to be the start of this obsession with serious learning ?), I did not know that such a monstrous mass of study would fly by so quickly. Neither did I know that getting to feel like a proper scientist would take me much longer. In the aftermath of my viva I have realised what it all means--no more academic targets, only a long road of personal career development. But I still can't get hold of the 'Doctor' thing.

As I see it there are three possibilities to explain this unexpected impasse. Perhaps the magnitude of the title is too great for me to take in just yet. Or maybe my PhD years have desensitised me to the novelty of being a Doctor. And potentially most frightening, maybe the scientific community?s expectations of you are so high you never quite feel you?ve arrived.

I'll leave it to you to decide which is most likely.

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