Saturday, December 7, 2013

Rules for Academics (and "Martin's Laws of Research"!)

Over the years, I have made an embarrassingly large number of mistakes as I progressed through academia.  Some are normal mistakes, and others are quite cringe-worthy.  Gulp.

Don't get me wrong:  I did manage to get to where I wanted to be in academia, but it was a near thing, and took me a couple of attempts (I am not cueing the Violins of Infinite Sadness™; I am delighted to be here and grateful for the combination of fate and good luck that put me here).  In most cases, my problems were entirely due to my own choices. Okay, maybe it was a 50-50 split, but I do not wish to avoid my own responsibility for my, um, non-strategic and decidedly non-optimal decisions.  One of the things I try very hard to teach my students is the concept of ownership; it's critical in life, and took me a long time and much pain to learn.  

I don't have a time machine to go fix anything I did or did not do in the past, but I have learned a few hard-won lessons during my veering ride to where I currently sit with tenure at a small liberal arts institution. Thus, I have some "rules for research" I would like to share.  In addition, I also have some information from a former colleague of my wife Jennifer Quinn's at the University of Washington-Tacoma that I would like to share.  This is the kind of thing that all of my research students have heard repeatedly, of course, but I would like to share these thoughts with any readers of this blog.

The rules are not necessarily complete, nor do they necessarily apply to everyone reading this blog post.  One size emphatically does not fit all (boy, is that ever a rule for life)!  Still, I think it is important for any academic to think about these rules, and maybe to pass them along to other academics or folks considering a career in academia. 

First, some genuine wisdom from my wife's former colleague at the University of Washington-Tacoma (Beth Rushing, former Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, currently Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty at St. Mary's College of Maryland).

"Five Things I Wished I Had Known When I Was Beginning as a Faculty Member" 
1. There is a hierarchy among faculty members. Respect it.
2. You can be friendly with students, but they are not your friends.
3. Sometimes you have to say "no," close the office door, and/or work at home.
4. Everyone's job is important. Be nice to the staff in your program.
5. Your job is not your life.

These rules are perceptive and painfully true. Rule #2 in particular always cuts me to the quick. It is true that some students can become friends, but not initially.  It's a power differential issue, essentially.

And I am continually surprised by the number of academics who don't "get" Rule #4.  We are all supposed to be on the same team. Over and over again, I have seen academics seemingly look for things to fight about with colleagues and staff, which I guess take me back to Rule #1.  I think Marcus Aurelius had the best response to this issue:  "The best revenge is not to be like your enemy." Too often, we become the very things we claim to detest!

If I were to add anything to this list it would be simple: stand by your ideals in a calm fashion. We all have trouble with disagreements; learning how to be civil about dissent is an important and very useful skill.  It is also a rare skill in most human interactions!  I highly recommend this book for folks in academia.  It has a jarring title, but there is a great deal of truth in it, and it is very much worth reading.

From my perspective, there is a difference between honesty and tactlessness; many people confuse the two.  In addition, rudeness is not the same thing as strength, nor bravery.

Anyway, I like Dr. Rushing's rules.  According to my wife, they were taped to Dr. Rushing's office door while she was teaching and being an administrator at UW-Tacoma.

Me?  I have a few rules I have learned as I worked my way through academia.  Here they are.

"Martin's Rules of Research" 
Rule #1: There is one ego per lab (and it's not yours). 
Rule #2: Research projects sometimes appear to actively resist investigation (I take it a little personally).
Rule #3: Never forget that there is a "re" in the word "research." If you cannot repeat the experiment, it isn't science.
I teach all of my undergraduate research students these (and other) rules, and have some of them on plaques posted in my little laboratory.

For example, I have this famous quote up---it's very important for the most jaded among us to remember.

Absolutely.  That is what is so very cool and frustrating about science, in my opinion.  No other job is like it.

My Rule #1 is a maxim that few undergraduates "get," but it is painfully clear to anyone who has worked on a PhD.  Again, I cringe when I think about my own experiences, and that particular rule.  But sometimes the most painful rules are the ones that have the greatest influence on a person's development.  Still:  ouch. Needless to say, I do not have a plaque with that lesson posted!

Most of us doing research can appreciate Rule #2.  One can get very paranoid about this while working long hours at the bench.  I know I have, and only grudgingly have relaxed about such things. The little plaque under my sign is a gift from a former student of mine, Robert Jeters.  I used to put it outside of my laboratory, but people kept taking it.  So perhaps I now mean it is safer inside my lab than outside! 

Rule #3 is so very important, in my opinion.  I well remember a student in my lab many years ago excitedly telling me that she had a great result from an enzyme assay.  "Great!" I replied.  "Now it is time to repeat the experiment twice more."   The student looked confused. Years later as a postdoc, we had dinner and laughed about that incident.  The scientific method is both simple and unforgiving; at its heart is the necessity that others must be able to repeat your work!

This reminds me of the great Tiffany Ard's poster showing how toddlers inherently understand the scientific method and hypothesis testing.  I have her humorous poster depicting this set of cosmic truths up in my lab, in fact.

Honestly, I feed fairly low in the Trophic Web of Science. But I have watched many of my former undergraduate research students become wonderful scientists, and I hope that some of what I have tried to teach them has stuck with them, made them smile, and hopefully become part of their own world view and laboratory.

My rules are all based on painful lessons in my own life. Everyone is different, of course. You know the saying: your mileage may vary!


  1. On the "re-search" theme, your students may be interested in what Shoukhrat Mitalipov faced to get his work on human SCNT published. Nature insisted having the work duplicated by an independent scientific team. Of course, that was prompted by the earlier fraudulent work on human SCNT. I heard Mitalipov speak Friday, and took video.

    1. Feel free to send links, Bradley. I'm concerned over the lack of reproducibility in much of biomedical science.


I am happy to hear your comments and suggestions. I hope to avoid spammage. We shall see how that works out!