Thursday, October 11, 2007

Good Times Bad Times

Inspired by one of Sunil's posts, at balancing life.

The key question is whether one can put a value on all the research that isn't published. Anyone who does research knows that there are good times and bad times, and that one has very little control over when those times occur. Postdocs need hot papers to get academic jobs-assuming, for the moment that we are talking about postdocs who want academic positions. Grad students would also like to publish high, but its less critical at that stage in one's career. It's usually the quality of one's postdoctoral work that is evaluated for jobs.

So what happens if one's well designed, innovative and technically superb project has no results? No publishable, sexy, revolutionary results? That the null hypothesis is true? It is extraordinarily difficult to publish negative results, especially since one can always encounter the ultimately dismissive critique that one hadn't tried everything yet. Does that mean that the two years spent on the project are toast? One's thought, analysis and expertise are worthless because they cannot be proved in print? Five more years as a postdoc?

So how then can we quantify effort and ability if not by publications? If its an especially technically difficult field, years of experience should count for a lot. If the idea behind the project is not mainstream (as Sunil discusses) and doesn't have any of the fashionably fund-able keywords, should one get points for risk-taking? The willingness to take on challenges without guarantees, at least the guarantees implied in "current-hot-topics" research, is uncommon and to be prized. So should CVs include a paragraph briefly describing one's project and the ideas behind it? Or will that just be seen as an attempt to flesh out the CV in the face of the conspicuous absences in the publications section? Probably.

After all new fields are created by people who can think out of the box. And sometimes luck only shows up late, and it takes three failed attempts to come up with truly revolutionary ideas. Or, the three failed attempts could reflect the complete absence of any BS-detector. Which is it? Does one always need to have a publishable side project, which will generate small reliable papers, thus demonstrating that one can actually do publishable research as well as study risky and unusual subjects? That one's out-there ideas are the product of intelligent thought, hopefully as demonstrated by the stuff that did get published.

Seriously though, is this a workable solution? Most postdocs I know do have two projects, just in case and to keep oneself occupied, particularly in immunology, where some experiments just take so long. Isn't it somewhat ridiculous to require people to have two projects? Or more?

Or, should one just ascribe it to the nature of the game, and let it go if things don't work out? After all, there are just way too few academic positions, and luck may just be another way to filter people out. Just because some intelligent and qualified people get thrown out with the bathwater, that doesn't mean that other equally intelligent and qualified people don't get lucky, publish and get academic positions. This way of thinking goes against everything I personally believe, because it just is not fair.

But who said life would be fair?

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