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Yet Another Law

It’s been too long since I added another to my list of “Lowe’s Laws of the Lab”. They’re something I came up with in graduate school, late one night in the lab. Looking back on them, I can tell I was in a bit of a bad mood when I put them together, but that doesn’t narrow things down very much. I wasn’t at my best for four or five years there, from what I can see.
Today’s law is: You are in real trouble if someone knows more about your project than you do. That’s a realization that hits people at some point in their graduate school career – preferably not much past the midpoint. It marks the transition from being a student to being a working scientist. After all, when you’re still a student, other people are expected to know more about what you’re doing than you do yourself; you’re supposed to be learning from them.
But that has to change at some point. It’s not that you suddenly get as smart or as experienced as the better grad students or post-docs in the group, let alone your PhD advisor. More talented people might be better at your project than you if they devoted all their time to it, but they’re not doing that: you are. No, you get to where you know the ins and outs of your own project, your corner of the research world, better than anyone else. With that comes the realization that no one else is going to get your project done for you, and no one else is going to get you out of grad school. If you don’t reach that level of involvement and expertise, something has gone wrong, and things will continue to go wrong for you.
That’s because you need that experience if you go on to a further career in research. If you’re going to be any good at your work, you have to be willing to become the expert on what you’re doing, and not rely on others to have things figured out. Because what if they don’t? This happens rather often, which is another valuable lesson that grad school is supposed to teach you. (Independent work isn’t just for PhDs, either. Experienced Master’s level employees at a drug company are expected to work more and more on their own as time goes on, too, and will be considered more valuable the more that they can do so).
I don’t mean that it’s a good thing to bull around the place, telling everyone that you know best what to do and to get out of the way. You never stop learning the research trade; anyone who thinks they’ve seen it all is mistaken. But I am saying that the opposite sort of behavior is a very bad sign. “What do you think about this?” is a fine question to ask people, but it should never shade over into “Tell me what to do”. And “I don’t know; that’s his department” or “I never got around to understanding that part” are statements that should get any lab head or project leader removed from their position. If you don’t know these things, who will?

16 comments on “Yet Another Law”

  1. Moreover, I’d argue that it should start in graduate school. As more students do projects with multiple collaborators (i.e., chemistry grad students sending their compounds for in vitro pharm eval), a chemistry student preparing for a career in pharma would best know the biological basis of the target being tested and the method used, just as the pharmacology student should know something about the chemical synthesis.
    All too often, I go to meeting posters of students and have them respond to my questions with, “well, that was done in another lab,” or, “well, it was a kit we bought.” Having been trained very early in pharma by an awesome MS and BS, I greatly respect the breadth of knowledge required to succeed in your biz and the fact that one’s degree does not absolve one from responsibility for that breadth. *off soapbox*

  2. ss says:

    I am a grad student after a career in industry and the only thing I can say is ” Amen”

  3. clostrium says:

    I am going to print out your law and stick it on my lab bench! (for several reasons..)
    1) I just started grad school. the note will remind me when enough is enough, when I should quit.
    2) Get my annoying more senior collegue off my back! SENIOR= more experienced = do your own lab work!!!! (if u cant figure it out–> QUIT)

  4. MolecularGeek says:

    I’ll echo the Amens. Seeing people panic before their candidacy exams or their defense always struck me as a little silly. They have already passed the classes where other people are the experts and can judge on mastering the “known world”. If you have made it to your defense, you ARE the expert. Nobody else in that room ought to be able to trip you up with a relevant question about the work you have done.
    Then again, I was playing with a related idea this weekend with my fiancee. In a department that requires lab rotations, I would expect that a grad student coming to me about joining my (hypothetical) research group for their thesis/dissertation ought to be able to lay out a couple possible projects that they would like to and why they would see my group as the place to work on it. That’s not to say that they would neccessarily end up working on them without some revision to plan, but there’s something inside me that rankles at a grad student showing up and expecting a project to be assigned. Learning to think like a researcher and not a student needs to start early, in my book.

  5. Chemist of Sorts says:

    This philosophy is fine and good, and it is hard to disagree, but it leads to a natural problem. What do you do when you ‘know’ more about your project but the bossman still tells you to go in directions you disagree with. One argument is that if your ideas have merit, you should be able to convince your advisor of this. However, at some point in a project, direction becomes more speculative and to some extent, a matter of taste. As a grad student, I have to do what the boss says to keep him happy. On another level, if I am going to fail, I want it to be because MY ideas didn’t worked not somebody elses. When the boss says to do something that I don’t think will work, I usually say my peace and then go do it. Sadly, this has lead to 3+ months of wasted effort in the past, but what else can you do? The point of this all is that you should become the worlds expert on your project only if you have a supervisor who is willing to accept the consequences of that and give you control to make your own decisions, ie allow you to grow into a supervisor role. Otherwise, you are best to take a passive role.

  6. Derek Lowe says:

    That’s definitely a big problem, and earlier in my career I experienced it several times. I’ve “submarined” chemistry before, working on my own stuff while also showing at least some work on the boss’s ideas. If your own stuff really does work that much better, you can eventually show a convincing head-to-head comparison.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Of course, there’s always the danger of working with a senior scientist, who not only knows less than you do, but who also strongly insists on meddling. There’s various degrees of meddling, most harmless, but in my humble experience and observation, the stronger the ego, the more harmful the meddling.

  8. heeler says:

    I definitely want to see more of your laws of the lab. we had a copy of it in grad school. my favorite went along the lines of “a good undergrad will double your work load. A bad one will take out a wall.”

  9. sks says:

    We had three ‘rules of thumb’ while doing research:
    a) initial stages : The boss knows everything.
    b) Midway : Well the boss sure does know something but then i am no less.
    c) well, the boss, huh? he doesn’t know nothing. I did everything while he just sat there. then you know you are ready to graduate.

  10. Jordan says:

    I agree substantially with your post. (Great blog, by the way — I’m having a good time reading through the archives.) There is definitely a point at which every grad student has to become their own expert, but students should also be careful not to do it too soon.
    I would also add (in reference to the comment about kits, sending out materials to other labs, etc.) that grad students can never “black box” their research — you have to know how EVERYTHING works. Used a 2D NMR? You should be able to explain how the pulse sequence works. Took a fluorescence spectrum? Draw a picture of the “guts” of the fluorimeter. Otherwise you’re asking for trouble when orals or the thesis defense comes…

  11. Chemist of Sorts says:

    Is knowing the how and why of a 2D NMR pulse sequence really that important? I can readily interpret a 2D NMR but I couldn’t tell you the pulse sequence. Isn’t that a bit like saying you shouldn’t be allowed to drive a car until you can sketch out a full schematic of the engine? I doubt any of my committee members could explain it either.

  12. eugene says:

    Yeah, but the pulse sequence for 2D NMR is laughably easy to remember. It’s just two pulses, one after another, and the time between them is varied. You can come up with a plausable explanation of how that works in the time it takes you to take a drink of water while you’re stalling. And since nobody at your thesis defense is going to know exactly how the variation in time between the two pulses gives rise to a 2D spectrum, you probably won’t even have to mention it.
    Same thing with a fluorimeter. I don’t know how it works but I did before, and in the time it takes me to take a drink of water, I’ll come up with: “It absorbs light of a certain wavelength and there is a detector at 180 degrees that measures how less light gets through. There must be another detector on the side at 90 degrees that measures the fluorescence wavelength. Of course, I could be wrong on this, but I’m imagining myself saying it with authority and everyone agreeing.
    Although, if you’ve got no clue, then it’s better to say: “I don’t know.”

  13. RKN says:

    you have to know how EVERYTHING works
    Ah, yes. The unwitting grad student never knows when, during their defense, they may be asked how the fluctuating quantum state of 1/2-spin electron orbitals in the d-shell of Xe might effect the operation of the Xeon excitation lamp in the flourimeter, and hence compromise the absorbance measurment at 480 nm!

  14. eugene says:

    “What kind of a fluorimeter? A Varian, or a generic type that doesn’t take into account intermixing from the unoccupied f orbitals?”
    “I don’t know that… What, you mean a Varia…. Ahhhhhhhhhh!”
    — Committee member gets thrown into ravine by invisible force.

  15. Jordan says:

    So if it’s not that important to know the principles behind your analytical techniques, what happens when you get anomalous or unexpected results and are challenged to explain them — and then it becomes clear that you don’t really know how they work?
    My background wasn’t in “traditional” synthesis or methodology, but I was still cautioned that I needed to be able to draw correct mechanisms for every reaction I used. It seems to me that this is a parallel situation.
    I’m not talking about expert-level knowledge of physical or analytical chemistry, just knowing what’s going on inside your instruments and how it can affect your results.

  16. Chemist of Sorts says:

    I am not saying that you don’t need to know how things work. For example, if you give a synthesis talk, obviously you should be able to draw all the mechanisms of the reactions you present. But the point is that eventually you have to draw the line. Should I be able to discuss the quantum mechanics of every bond that is broken? For 2D NMR, I can run one and identify most issues that might arise. I can recognize folded in peaks. I can pick out when you don’t see correlations due to dihedral angle issues. I can tell you the default coupling constant settings for HMQCs and HMBCs and I can tell you what they should be set to to see aromatic versus alkyl correlations. I can recognize when the shimming is off or when the sample may have paramagnetic contaminants. I could go on. But, that said, I cannot discuss the theory of a pulse sequence in a meaningful way. Like most people, I have had lectures in this, but for 99% of applications its simply not useful. How many folks out there (who are not NMR jocks) have altered the default pulse sequences? Should I every need this knowledge, I will just talk to the local NMR pro.

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