Category Archives: Career Concerns

Misconduct and The Wire

Season five of the critically acclaimed TV show The Wire tackles the issue of journalistic fraud and misconduct. In particular, Scott Templeton, a young ambitious journalist at the Baltimore Sun, writes a series of articles where he embellishes details, conjures up quotes out of thin air and ultimately fabricates events. His articles win him wide praise among those in the journalism community. He also garners the Pulitzer Prize, one of the highest accolades one can earn in the field. Even though flags are raised by some of his peers at the Baltimore Sun, at the upper management level, Scott Templeton’s stories are celebrated with enthusiasm.

Of course The Wire is fictional, but at the time The Wire was written, there was precedent for such journalistic falsification. Stephen Glass at the New Republic, Janet Cooke at the Washington Post and Jayson Blair at the New York Times had all been found guilty of journalistic misconduct associated with either plagiarism or fabrication in effort to advance their careers. Cooke was even awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her stories, which she eventually returned.

The reason I bring this all up is because I saw a very strong parallel between the fictional events that occurred in The Wire surrounding Scott Templeton and the actual events that occurred with respect to Jan-Hendrik Schon. In both cases, their notebooks were empty, there were claims by both that their information (e.g. data and notes) had somehow been corrupted and their sources were a closely guarded secret. While working at Bell Labs, Schon famously claimed to use the evaporator in Konstanz, Germany, so that he could “work” in isolation, making it more difficult to for others to reproduce his methods.

The question as to why this kind of misconduct takes place is an interesting one. In the case of Jayson Blair, Wikipedia says:

On the NPR radio show Talk of the Nation, Blair explained that his fabrications started with what he thought was a relatively innocent infraction: using a quote from a press conference which he had missed. He described a gradual process whereby his ethical violations became worse and contended that his main motivation was a fear of not living up to the expectations that he and others had for his career.

As can be gleaned from the quote above, there is little doubt that there is a certain amount of careerism and elevated expectation that is tied in with these instances of misconduct. That these and similar cases occur with relative frequency and happen in different fields suggests that the root cause is societal — an emphasis on perceived career success rather than valuing honesty and hard work. Because this is a sociological problem, all of us have a role to play in correcting it. The solution to the problem may require us to emphasize different values: integrity, meaningfulness of labor and honest motivations. Often these are not the qualities that advance one’s career, but this is because of a lack of emphasis on these values. Perhaps they should.

While the Wire is a fictional show and some readers are no doubt a little fed up with my frequent references to it, I do think that one can learn a lot from its main themes. As Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried, said:

That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.

In Favor of Graduate Years in Lab Versus Data-Taking at a Synchrotron

I’m at Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS) this week taking X-ray data, and being here makes me reflect a little on the lab skills I picked up as a graduate student. There are a few reasons for this.

I had tagged along on a couple synchrotron runs in my first year of graduate school and had trouble gaining a conceptual understanding of what was happening during the experiments. For those of you who don’t know, a synchrotron or beam time run is where you go to a X-ray facility to take data, usually for about a week. One usually tries to maximize his/her beam time resulting in very little sleep during these runs. Anyway, part of my conceptual trouble stemmed from the fact that it was difficult for me to understand how the many electronic and X-ray optical components enabled me to take data. For example, how are the X-ray photons hitting the detector turning into the counts on my computer screen?

Despite the fact that I had not been to a beam time run for about five years prior to about a month ago, I somehow now have a much better understanding of the basics of synchrotron-based experiments. I also know exactly why I do as well — it is because I spent those five intervening years toiling away in a lab doing experiments, troubleshooting and picking up some basic laboratory skills.

This made me realize that the graduate years spent in the lab are some of the most important in the development of basic experimental skills. For me, if my experiments had solely required the use of a synchrotron facility, I doubt that I would have picked up many of the basic skills I have today (which can still be vastly improved!). Of course, this is personal and can vary from student to student, but I really do think that time invested in a lab of one’s own pays off in the long term. Synchrotron-based experiments are valuable in that they allow one to take data usually not allowable in the lab. However, for a graduate student to not spend time in a lab — or not to be based at a synchrotron facility if a lot of synchrotron work is needed — may hurt in the long term. This is because synchrotron experiments only last for a week and happen in spurts, while lab work is an everyday activity. Since these beam time runs are so infrequent and an understanding of experiments only happens when one is doing them, an adequate acquisition of basic skills takes longer than it should if one is relying on synchrotron-based experiments.

So if you happen to be starting out as a graduate student and are interested in spectroscopic methods in condensed matter, I think this should be something to consider. Time spent in lab (especially when things don’t work!) does a lot for the development of one’s experimental scientific outlook.

Some Questions that Arose During My Graduate Years

Below are questions and concerns that arose during my graduate school career, many of which I still cannot answer. Most of these are specific to an experimentalist, but there are some in there that apply to theorists as well. Here is a list of some of these points:

  1. If I spend my time developing a new instrument and learning how to build a lab, knowing that my publication record will be delayed/suffer as a result, should I take on such a long-term project? Keep in mind that taking on a long-term project will instill me with the necessary skills to construct and design other experiments in the future.
  2. Related to 1: Are experimentalists who prioritize technique development (which may take years) over churning out papers with a few standard experimental techniques necessarily going to suffer as a result? Should the physics community necessarily prioritize one over the other?
  3. How much time should I spend trying to gain a broader knowledge of different subjects in my field and outside my field, knowing that while this may be a fruitful long-term strategy, I am likely to suffer in the short term?
  4. When is a good time to graduate? Is this dictated by the number of papers that I have published or when I feel like I am no longer growing a physicist in my current climate? Should I stay just so that the papers that are in the works get published?
  5. How much time should I devote to theory? Is it worth the time to learn quantum field theoretical methods and the like as an experimentalist? For a theorist: How much time should I spend getting accustomed to the various experimental techniques?
  6. How do I manage the two-body problem in the modern academic climate if my spouse is likely to get a job at an institution where I’m unlikely to receive an offer (or vice versa)?
  7. Is it possible nowadays to make a departure into the industrial sector and make my way back into academia at some point?
  8. If there is a prominent physicist I would like to postdoc with at an institution that does not have the “brand name”/reputation of a premier university, should I still work with him/her? What if the physicist is not particularly well-known, but is prominent in an non-mainstream sub-field?
  9. Are the papers one has published (number, prominence of journals, etc.) the only metric by which to measure the contribution of a graduate student? Have recommendations become more empty?
  10. Should one work in a field that is trendy/popular? Or should one search for physics in places that are less explored, realizing that one will necessarily receive a lower number of citations?

I suspect that many experimentalists (and maybe some theorists) have questions out there that are similar to these. On most of these questions, I think the safest bet is to take the middle path, but one’s natural inclination may be to lean one way or the other. For instance, I lean towards developing new spectroscopic methods (which I find creatively fulfilling), but this can take years, and publication output is not high during such an undertaking. In some sense, it is “safer” career-wise to just perform tried and true experiments on new materials.

I will try in the near future to answer some of these questions, but it should be said that I am far from being an authority of any kind on these topics. These are just some of the questions that inevitably arise in everyone’s mind during their time in graduate school in condensed matter physics, and I thought sharing my thoughts may help foster some conversation.

In some sense, it is a shame that questions like these have to arise in one’s mind at all during graduate school. Ideally, one would like to concentrate on one’s work and scientific output — however, the modern climate is such that these questions become unavoidable especially when one nears the end of a graduate school career.

Please feel free to share more questions/concerns in the comments.

Metrics Subject to Manipulation

Previously, I have cited the famous HBO series The Wire focusing in particular on the careerism vs. good science dichotomy. A closely related element that I failed to mention last time was the use of a single number or metric to measure productivity or effectiveness of organizations or individuals. This problem is addressed in The Wire is many different contexts. In our field, the manifestation is in the form of the h-index, which is used for faculty hires, for department and university rankings and for assessing research grants. (A researcher has h-index h if he or she has published papers with at least h citations.)

It is well-known that measurements of this kind can lead to a corruption of sorts because people are susceptible to trying to maximize their indices. There are even ridiculous websites claiming they can help you increase your h-index. In The Wire, this is called “juking the stats”. Statistics can be “juked” is various ways. Researchers can request others to cite their work (and cite their own work heavily), undeserving co-authors may be included for minimal work, and pressure to publish can lead to sensationalized work that is “half-baked”, etc.

The detrimental side of these indices and metrics is captured well in a couple clips from The Wire linked below. The first is in the context of the police department in attempt to reduce crime rates and the second is in reference to test scores at the grade-school level.

It seems to me that there is some awareness and push-back in the physics community with respect to these metrics, which I find refreshing. I also think most of us recognize that blanket numbers like these cannot measure the subtleties associated with one’s true scientific output. Nonetheless, as long as the “higher-ups” continue to use them, the longer they will have a strong grappling-hook on some.