Emmanuel G Escobar
The prize-tag of science.
As students, we are constantly being tested. We can be assessed by the way we approach a task, complete a task or report the information we have gained from a study. Our hard work is rewarded by high marks, but sometimes it’s also about the reward of completing the assignment. Institutions, universities and companies need a measurement that indicates how competent a candidate research student, academic researcher or potential employee is for a given position. As a scientist, we are also being assessed, but in a different way. While we are given more freedom in our research and how we get to answer a research question, we are expected to be able to present our data to an audience and make the effort to ensure that the research will move on forward, be funded and go beyond what was originally planned. At the core of it, it’s ticking boxes of small accomplishments during the duration of a long term project and providing sufficient evidence of progress being made. We aren’t necessarily being graded, but instead pushed forward by supervisors, the university or our own uninhibited desire to do more research.
During post-graduate study, the experience may be somewhat different. We are in-between the feeling of being students and academic research staff. But importantly, post-graduate students are at the heart of a university, conducting new research and communicating it in conferences, seminars or in papers. We are given a great deal of responsibility, as a lot of our efforts bring more opportunities to ourselves and the university, ours colleagues and labs and may be useful when establishing long lasting collaborations. But the research is dynamic. Sometimes things go well and other times, being a post-graduate student can bring challenges, high expectations and a look on the demand placed on scientists by universities. And the research is competitive. It’s a race to produce conclusive work that is original and can be published. It is not easy to get into a doctoral degree, and many recent Bachelor graduates face challenges when applying to PhD programmes. Finding a suitable and interesting project may be one of the challenges, but it’s the degree of competition that limits the number of students getting funded. “A PhD is not cheap”, I was told by a lecturer in my last year of my Bachelors. The importance of getting into a PhD will differ throughout the applicants, but simply speaking, it’s the notion of winning a prize, in one of the most critical and demanding competitions for young scientists.
SO WE KNOW THAT THERE NEEDS TO BE A DEGREE OF COMPETITION TO GET INTO SCIENCE, BUT IS COMPETITION NECESSARY ONCE INSIDE?
A feeling of accomplishment and enthusiasm may arise when getting accepted into a PhD. While a self-funded PhD can give the same feeling, it is the concept of how opportunities are given to candidates that is important to this discussion. Employers have to deal with high number of applications and take into account what role the potential candidate may fill. When it comes to experience, a recent graduate may find it difficult to show evidence of experience and that may deter their chances of getting into their programme of choice. I don’t know how the application process works for the recruiting parties, but I would reason that if a PhD project is advertised, the candidate should be chosen based on their proven competence to perform the research and evidence of passion, commitment and other academic requirements. If the purpose of the degree is to further develop young scientists, and then experience is only relevant to what that student may learn from the project, rather than a measure of how the project would grow because of the student. For example, getting a PhD in fields that depend on cross-disciplinary research can be the hardest, because a few students may have completed a post-graduate degree or are professionals in another field. Not to generalise, but in research, the balance between training new students and advancing the science is often difficult to reach, and the way that it is handled, would depend among universities and lab groups. And of course, there is no doubt that these positions are limited and it’s the best applicant that deserves the place. But what happens to the other applicants and the ones that are deterred from applying because of the high competition? In a way, it’s science and how science research has always been.
Scientists have always fought to conduct their research, in olden days sometimes prosecuted for it, so we should honour that culture of research. I hope that PhD candidates that want to pursue the degree aren’t too disappointed upon receiving rejection letters. Several of my colleagues that have been rejected multiple times get to the stage when they give up. But in the end, when they remain committed, most of them found their place in science.
If you are a biologist, you may find it humorous why I am arguing against competition. Competition is everywhere in biology: different species of plants competing to get nutrients, competition during reproduction or as basic as competitive inhibitors in enzymatic reactions. When it comes to competition, it’s quite instinctual. It’s no lie; we encourage competition in several activities, so we can acknowledge the power of an individual or group of individuals when it comes to performing a task. But in science, are we masking accomplishment by rewarding winners and forgetting the losers? Although, I imagine that not everyone would consider themselves losers if a competition is not won, but for some of us, we may be falsely making the effort for the science, expecting to be refereed, judged and awarded. While doing a post-graduate degree, we are often given challenges such as poster competition, do the best talk or find the best way of communicating the research. Would we produce the same work if there was no competition or has our tradition to be competitive trained us to produce work equivalent to the reward we would receive? If we like something, we often place more interest and effort into it.
As a scientist I think it is important to have self-discipline and approach each task or question with an open mind. Even so, if doing several long experiments or analysing a large set of data, the same amount of attention should be given equally across the study. It shouldn’t be a race, were energy is saved at the start, running at an average speed and then sprinting at the very last stage of the race. When it comes to competitive events, especially within science it’s not about the winning or losing, it’s about the journey taken to produce the work and the power obtained from the information learned from it, otherwise referred to as experience.
When it comes to science and work being produced for a competition, all submissions should be displayed as accomplishments within science, not limited to the accomplishment of a small competition within a larger field. It is imperative that students know this and that they themselves reach out to their colleagues and those that share an interest in their work, because in science, you are never alone. Papers that are rejected may not be less original, but may lack input from other research directions. In summary, there is a lot of competition in science, and that competition creates limitations as to how many people can be employed by a university, or limit the factors that are considered to award prizes for science competitions or create high standards for publishing articles. Personally, I don’t like research being lost to only those that are familiar with the field. I want to create a hub where students and young scientists can come together, communicate their work and engage with fellow scientists.
Post-graduates students, you are the life-line of your university. You have the power to change the world, change how we think, and how to improve the way science is conducted. Do not be limited by the standards set by past scientists, policy makers and other authorities. Respect what science has done in the past and innovate it for the future.