Robert Neubecker

In my post-Ph.D. career, I’m putting my grad school angst to good use

My phone rings right when I’m about to leave work, as if the person on the other end has been debating the call all day. On the line is a graduate student. At first they are hesitant to talk, but they loosen up when I assure them their question is reasonable and their dilemma is common. The emotion in their voice makes it clear that just going over university guidelines won’t be enough. We talk for about 30 minutes, discussing the details of their research. But I am not the student’s supervisor or academic adviser. I am a research integrity officer—and I relate to this anxious voice because, not too long ago, it could have been me.

Six months before my Ph.D. thesis was due, I faced a dilemma. The data I had collected over two and a half years made me seriously doubt my main hypothesis, which was based on previous research in my lab—dutifully carried out but perhaps misinterpreted. In my time as a graduate student, I had always worried about unknowingly breaking research rules, such as being too attached to an idea or overselling my findings. This tendency to ruminate led to many philosophical discussions with my patient, supportive supervisor about how scientific research is—and should be—conducted.

Now, I had to make a decision: Would I continue down the path I had laboriously cleared for myself, even though I suspected my conclusions would be flawed? Or would I embark on an investigation of the uncharted territory my results pointed toward, knowing that I might end up with no meaningful data on which to build my thesis?

After a summer holiday on the beach spent thinking and discussing my doubts with a friend and fellow researcher, I chose the latter. Running out of time seemed preferable to producing flawed conclusions.

I spent weeks in the darkness of our microscopy room, collecting preliminary data to convince my supervisor that our previous interpretation was wrong and a very different conclusion made more sense. I was terrified that nothing would come of it, but I also felt the excitement of discovering something novel. I ended up with a less coherent thesis than I had envisioned, but I was proud that it told an honest story about the way science goes sometimes.

I recall the thrill of results that may cause you to forget about rules and formalities, as well as the sincere wish to do things right and not undermine the reason we do research in the first place.

Then it came time to find a job. Long before starting the hunt, I had decided that a research career was not for me. Although I wholly enjoyed my Ph.D. experience, I recognized that my tendency to ruminate made me an inefficient scientist. So I looked for opportunities that would keep me out of the lab but still close to research. While trawling through job listings, I was surprised to come across one in which I would be paid to grapple with the same questions that had haunted me during my Ph.D. The title was something I had never heard of before: research integrity officer.

So, what is a research integrity officer? I get closer to answering that each day. I teach courses about good scientific practice and keep myself informed about ethics policies that may affect our researchers. I answer questions from Ph.D. students and professors alike, providing assurance and guidance as best I can. It helps that my own research experience is fresh in my mind. I recall the thrill of results that may cause you to forget about rules and formalities, as well as the sincere wish to do things right and not undermine the reason we do research in the first place: to get as close to a truth as possible.

The main thing I have had to get my head around is that I cannot know everything. Like the researchers I counsel, I have to keep educating myself, keep an open mind, and be humble. I seek advice from legal officers, more experienced administrators, and—not least—the researchers themselves. In this way, I hope to contribute to a more honest, transparent, and accountable scientific community—just what my anxious graduate student self wanted.

Do you have an interesting career story? Send it to SciCareerEditor@aaas.org.

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