Lab Philosophy

Mentorship and Science

We want to work with people we can call colleagues, who will continue working with as our careers mature. For this to work best we need to be willing to tell each other when we don’t understand something, and also be willing to challenge each other when we’re wrong or make mistakes! We do our best to do good science and challenge our own theories and ideas.

We are also ardent about work/life balance. Our science is better, smarter, and more careful when we’re happier. But this is still a job, and the work has to get done! So take the time to rest when you need it, and ask for help when you’re stuck.

We are 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 we should be comfortable with trying new things. Voytek has become semi-famous for being 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. And because newer scientists usually do not have the luxury to “fail” much in their early careers, I do my best to protect trainees against this.

But “failed” experiments are not failures! They still advance our knowledge and understanding. So don’t take shortcuts, fabricate or falsify data, or plagiarize; accept that something might not have worked, learn from it, and continue moving forward. When things go wrong, it’s not you going wrong; when things go right, it’s not you going right. Science is harsh and 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 defined by this job; 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 (or business/life/whatever) is iterative and that no one can learn from anything if you don’t show them what you’ve done.

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, do so online!

We’re major proponents of good data visualization. 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. Clear, striking figures that show your ideas and explain your data and results can say so much more than text alone can do.


“What if my undergraduate grades are terrible?”

We get this question a lot, partly because Voytek has been so vocal about his struggles as an undergradaute student.

To be totally frank, if your grades are poor, you’re going to have to work harder to compensate for that. You have to accept that. In academia, your grades can 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 (usually) enough to live on and pay your bills. You’ll need this time to excel and 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 their 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, postdocs, really anyone 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 Voytek first applied to graduate school, he was rejected outright, without so much as an interview, at 4 of the 5 universities he applied to (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 he applied, he was required to submit an undergraduate transcript, which hurt his chance. It gets tiring! And 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 Voytek began his PhD he was struggling to write even a single scientific manuscript; he couldn’t understand 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. One of Voytek’s favorite papers was rejected from 13 journals before being published, but ultimately that paper opened countless doors for Voytek’s scientific thinking and professional career.

Learn to be aware of your limits and to not overemphasize your failures or underemphasize your accomplishments. By being open and honest, you can maintain control over the psychological effects of your career, while also reducing the impostor syndrome felt by those who look up to you, because your honesty and openness gives them a more realistic view of what a path to career success can look like.

And remember that this is a job, and it does not define who you are!