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Some advice for getting started

Today's blog is from Tori Madden. Tori is a PhD student at the University of South Australia.

I recently read a book called “Advice to a Young Scientist” by P.B.Medawar. It’s pretty thought-provoking, and it was a good orientation for me, as I begin my PhD journey.

He covers a pretty wide range of topics, but I will indulge myself by elaborating on the ones that held the most interest for me…

Medawar has obviously been involved in quite a bit of collaborative work, and he advises that only particular personalities are suited to collaboration. If you like and admire your colleagues, then you may find collaboration useful and enjoyable. But, he warns, be aware of yourself: everyone has some annoying habits, and if you are familiar with your own, you will have more grace when you discover annoying habits in those you work with. He also notes that certain combinations of people have greater synergy than others. If you end up in a collaboration that is unfruitful, it is important to pull out, so as not to waste everybody’s time. Of course, how to do this well is a completely different matter: it is definitely easier said than done.

In collaboration, always give credit where credit is due. Regarding ideas that belong to someone else, or that came out of a collaborative process, be careful not to claim that you came up with them. And remember that being secretive is unhelpful to the progress of science: as GF Rotterton (Cofounder of General Motors) said, anyone who shuts his door keeps out more than he lets out. Medawar himself advises: “tell everyone everything you know”.

There may be times when you find yourself involved in something that looks morally compromising. Of course, the best thing is to avoid these situations in advance, but if you only realise it part of the way through, his advice is to get out as fast as you can. Truthfulness is essential. When you make a mistake, correct it quickly. Those results that you published but couldn’t replicate, that test you thought was properly applied but later realised it hadn’t been – correct your mistakes. Write to the journal that published the work and explain, and apologise. Everybody makes mistakes, but those who continue to pretend that they were right when everyone knows they were wrong lose their reputation and their colleagues’ trust. In addition, countless other studies could be based on one published result that was obtained erroneously. Medawar urges us to consider the consequences, and always to act truthfully.

Of course, we need to know ourselves and our values before we can hope to uphold them. Do you know your own moral principles? Our research group recently did an exercise aimed at helping us to define our values in life. We started with 200-odd “values” words and ended with 10, listed in order of priority. Easy, you say? I challenge you: try it.

To us young and inexperienced researchers, Medawar tells us to study something that matters – to the world, and to us. He warns against following fashion or fads when choosing topics for research. Possibly his most important reminder is that “the intensity of the conviction that a hypothesis is true has no bearing on whether it is true or not". Be ready to learn and adapt... If an experiment does not hold out the possibility that you will be required to change your views, can it really be a relevant or useful experiment?

And, on those countless hours that most of us spend poring over papers, he says: read selectively. Don’t use excessive reading as an excuse to avoid actually doing research. Get out there and start answering your question!

He offers further advice: on how to present work, on writing well and on appropriate handling of those delicate social situations when the man across the table declares that Post-It notes have been scientifically proven to cause cancer of the fingertip. My advice to you is: read the book. It is short, but worthwhile.