Science versus career: a trade-off

Within the last 24 hours I heard two complaints from two different students from very different institutions. I received a call last night from an agriculture student. He was in a tricky situation and wanted my advice. His dissertation work had ‘failed’. He wanted to develop a technology, a machine with some agricultural application, but it didn’t work. He had himself put in tens of thousands of rupees to make a machine, but it failed to work. Now his mentor was asking him to cook up some data and pretend that it worked, without which he said the degree won’t come. The application of the machine being season dependent, if he had to rework with refinement, he would have to wait till next year. The student was reluctant to give false data but simultaneously was terribly upset because not only he would lose the money he had put in, but also lose one full academic year.  

The other case was of a girl having completed her PhD desk work, was awaiting a paper to get accepted and preparing to complete the thesis. Typically at this stage, the post doc applications begin. The girl’s complaint was that during some phase of her work she had a major difference of opinion with her boss which strained their relations. Now she wasn’t sure whether her boss will give her a “good” letter of recommendation, without which she though she couldn’t get a post doc.

In both the cases I could sense that the students were terrified by the thought that their career could be completely destroyed in one stroke by their supervisor. In the first case the boy talked to me directly on phone and I tried to find out how thorough he was at his work. If the experiment failed, did he analyze and try to reason out why it failed? He said he was confident about his data and could say why their earlier thinking was wrong and why things cannot be done that way. I said, “I am ignorant about your field the only thing I would suggest a science student is this. You stand firm on your position and complete your report. Don’t cook up data only to please your boss. An analytical view of a failure is also a contribution to science. Try to convince your boss that you have sufficient work to make a dissertation, but avoid the temptation of cooking up data.”

The girl in the other case was not even ready to discuss her problems personally with anyone in academia. She was afraid that the ‘anyone’ may turn out to be a friend of her boss. If I get any chance to talk with her I will tell her more or less the same thing. If you think you are right, remain firm on your stand and don’t compromise your science for someone’s whim. If it is about post doc, communicate your problems frankly to your potential post doc mentor. It might work. There are alternative ways of doing good science and finding a career.

Frankly speaking I am not sure my solution will protect the careers of the two students, my solution is primarily to protect science from misconduct. Clearly in both the contexts there is an unfortunate tradeoff between doing good science and doing a successful science career. The two are way different and in instances like this, diametrically opposite.

My main concern goes much beyond the two cases. In science, one needs to be careful about experimental designs, accuracy, errors, biases, logical traps etc., but being confident about having done well on this front, it is necessary to stand firm on one’s position. Compromising on it to please someone like the mentor, the thesis examiner, the reviewer of manuscript or some established elite in the field is against the spirit of science. Conformity bias is a major hurdle in the progress of science and in both the cases this is exactly what is getting encouraged.

Now if the students’ fear is true, and complying with what their boss says is the only way of getting on to the career path, then the system is selecting against scientific spirit. My personal advice to the two students would be that if you are afraid of someone ruining your career, you are actually not fit to do science. You should find some other career for you, perhaps better than this. But what actually matters for them is ground reality and not my utopian advice. If taking a firm stand prevents them from getting their degrees or further positions, the system is filtering out at an early stage the right kind of mindset for science. If students are made to compromise their own stand in order to make a successful career, the future of science is bound to be bleak. With this trend academia would become completely devoid of the scientific spirit in no time.

I had related earlier one of my experiences as a reviewer ( In this case I differed from the authors in the interpretation of their experiment. Difference of opinion is fine. It’s a milestone in the path of healthy science. The authors could have counter-argued and defended their interpretation more clearly during revision and rebuttal. But I was the “reviewer god” of that moment. They didn’t agree with me but also didn’t want to displease the reviewer God. So in effect, they muddled the entire argument further and the residual clarity was also lost. I would have been happier to see them say “We beg to differ on this issue and we defend our stand with better arguments in the revised manuscript”. I would have recommend acceptance on such a stand, even if I didn’t agree. But the peer review culture is so degraded that many authors avoid any argument with the reviewer. This tendency makes publications easier but science more difficult.  Today’s science institutions as well as science publishing is taking such a shape that if you want to make a successful career in science then you need to compromise with the spirit of science.

The problem lies with the institutional culture, individual mindset and the norms of career path. Clearly there are individual mentors that encourage students to think and be independent at an early stage. But this is left to individuals. There is nothing in the system to ensure this. Solving individual cases or helping individual victims is not sufficient. The system and the norms of a typical career path need a rethinking.

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