Lab Philosophy

Mentorship and Science

We want to work with students and post-docs whom we can call colleagues, with whom we will continue to collaborate as our careers mature. That means you need to find your scientific voice and be willing to tell us when you don’t understand something or when we’re making logical errors. We try to do good science and challenge one another and challenge our own theories and ideas.

We are ardent about work/life balance. But you still have to get the work done, which is at times harder, and at times easier.

You should be comfortable with failure because, in addition to our “normal” neuroscience work we also shoot for bigger, less certain projects. These projects won’t be on the shoulders of any one person, but you should be comfortable with trying new things. Voytek has become semi-famous for being so vocal about how many paper and grant rejections (“failures”) hide behind each “success” (see this Scientific America profile and this CBS piece). These kinds of “failures” often reflect privilege, which is unfortunate. Newer scientists usually do not have the luxury to “fail” much in their early careers, so I do my best to protect trainees against this.

Note that “failed” experiments are not failures! They still advance our knowledge and understanding. Have the strength of character to not take shortcuts; we do not abide fabrication, falsification, shoddy statistics, plagiarism, and the like. When things go wrong, it’s not you going wrong (though it may be your fault). When things go right, it’s not you going right (though it may be your fault). We’re still in the very early stages of neuroscience.

Science is harsh—anonymous peer review is harsher—so you will need to learn to accept the merits of criticism without internalizing it as personal failure. You are not your science. You are not your science. You are not your science.

A lot of science is boring, so you will sometimes need to do the grunt work of setting up and testing equipment, debugging code, and doing the same thing over and over and over again.

“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Some interpret this as a form of “lowering your standards”. The interpretation I prefer is one of a cost/benefit benefit analysis: if you’ve hit a point of diminishing returns, seek counsel or accept that science (business/life/whatever) is iterative and that no one can learn from anything if you don’t show them what you’ve done. It’s not an aphorism with which I always agree, but it is an important reminder.

Learn to network. Talk to other researchers. Email people about their work when you have questions. Don’t be shy. Or rather, go ahead and be shy but recognize that lots of people are shy and the only way to learn from them is to overcome your mutual shyness. (This advice isn’t meant as a Machiavellian ploy; networking allows you to meet smart people, which gives you new ideas and new collaborations. This, in turn, lets you do science faster and better. Networking is sharing, not manipulating.) If you can’t network in person, network digitally. Twitter, blogging, Reddit… there are numerous online communities with active scientists with whom you can talk.

Everything revolves around figures. Organize/save all your data in figures and make your figures clean and clear. Build your experiment with your data collection in mind. Collect your data with your analyses in mind. Analyze your data with your figures in mind. Make your figures with your talks in mind. Take the simple option wherever you can. We’re overachievers, but you need to learn to collaborate, leave questions unanswered, and when to walk away.

Listening to others’ opinions is very often useful, and very often not. Find the courage to make your own scientific judgements.

Grades

“What if my undergraduate grades are terrible?”

You’re going to have to work harder now. You have to accept that. Your grades will follow you for an annoyingly long time.

If you’re planning on applying to graduate school, I’d highly recommending taking some years off to work as a researcher in a lab. The pay isn’t amazing, but it’s enough to live comfortably and still pay your bills.

You’ll need a few years of excellence to overcome your grades. You need to prove to a graduate admissions committee that you’re capable of finishing your graduate work, and that you’re not the same person (academically) as the person who did poorly during your undergraduate years.

There’s also a social aspect: in order to get a job, and get into graduate school, you need letters of recommendation. It helps you if those letters come from people who know and understand you and your situation. For that to happen, you have to be open. I can’t emphasize enough how important letters are to a graduate admissions committee. Even “glowing” letters can sound cookie-cutter. Honest letters where the writer sounds like they actually know the person really stand out. Not everywhere, of course. Some universities have some minimum GPA cut-offs or other such nonsense. But not all do.

Again, you just have to accept those kinds of things.

Do everything in your power to leave a paper trail of excellence to overcome your poor grades. Your goal is to make those grades look meaningless. Your goal is to have your work speak for you so strongly that, when people look at your grades, they feel silly for even taking them into account.

Talk to school counselors, professors, post-docs, etc. Everyone you can. Find people whom you like and respect and ask them to lunch or coffee. Explain your situation earnestly. Don’t make or give excuses, just explain that life happened and you made the decisions that you did. Own your decisions.

When I first applied to graduate school, I was rejected outright—without so much as an interview—at 4 of the 5 universities to which I applied (including UC San Diego!). You have to be prepared for that kind of rejection to follow you for a while. For every graduate fellowship to which I applied, I was required to submit an undergraduate transcript. It gets tiring, and it gets frustrating, but eventually your work will begin to stand on its own merits.

The Imposter Syndrome

“[T]he internal experience of… [having] a secret sense [you are] not as capable as others thought”. (source)

Anecdotally, The Imposter Syndrome appears to be fairly rampant among academics. At some point during your career, possibly more than once, you will probably look at your peers and think to yourself, “I’m not as good as they are; I am not cut out for this.”

You can look at the accomplishments of those whom you admire and see nothing but a series of successes; you look at their CV and see page after page after page of amazing awards and scientific achievements. When I began my PhD I was struggling to write even a single scientific manuscript; I could not comprehend how anyone could have dozens, or even hundreds, of them.

To quote a more eloquent version of this: “The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.”

The reality is that hidden behind each success were an even greater number of failures. Therefore I have an entire section of my CV titled “Rejections and Failures” which notes every award for which I’ve applied or been nominated and lost, every grant or fellowship I did not receive, and noted how many times each paper I published was initially rejected by journal editors. One of my favorite papers was rejected from 13 journals before being published. Ultimately that paper opened countless doors for me.

So be aware of your limits but don’t let your under-informed perceptions of the world and of others cause you to overemphasize your failures and underemphasize your accomplishments. Talk about your failures and weaknesses. Embracing those things maximizes the probability that you maintain control over their narrative and psychological effects. Furthermore, by doing so, you ultimately reduce the effect of the impostor syndrome in others who look up to you, as they now have better knowledge and a more accurate model of your path to success.