It is obvious that real life does not always turn out what we expect it to. It applies to all the elements in life. Many things like school, work, career can be always perfectly planned but also can be instantly shifted, delayed or worse shattered, because of just like what COVID-19 has done to us all!
When I was in my undergraduate biotech program, I had so much interest in microbiology I thought I would one day have a PhD in virology and make vaccines. But opportunities came around and I took the risk to studying tissue engineering; as to this decade is still the state-of-the-art for growing/regenerating tissues. Although only few tissue engineered materials have been commercialized and reported successful in clinics, extensive research in the field holds a huge promise and carries an interesting multidisciplinary elements. And that's how I ended up in biomedical engineering.
Research and academia are the exclusive lone world where reality can be very far deviating from the expectation. They resemble a petri dish where cultures of perfectionism (or at least the demand to be one) dictates the success of people working in it. Because of that, expectations they set on average are already quite high, plus the expectations that the public has for them, making it hard to see what realistically happens in research and to justify why some expectation are just not realistic.
So, here are some common expectations that often persist in research and their possible realities (PhD student edition):
1. to prove that my hypothesis is true
Hypothesis is produced from careful thoughts, logical association and vast experience in one's particular field. Hypothesis is proven through many observations leads to generation of a theory. And if a researcher can possibly secure a funding to carry out a project, there is a high chance that the end result is as expected.
Reality: The results of a project does not always address or support the hypothesis. This is because science changes gradually as more findings get discovered and new knowledge emerge and progress. There is always a possibility that a project shifts focus, changes direction, partly or completely overridden by new ideas. More often, hypothesis cannot be proven true 100% due to different environment and other factors. Which is why sometimes the same results from the same experiment cannot be produced, when done by different scientists.
2. To publish research articles every year
Most research role lasts for one year. Internship, honor's thesis, master's thesis, they all last one year. My contract as a research assistant got renewed every year. In research, people seem to see a lot can be done in one year and it is usually expected that we publish something from a year of research.
Rapid publication is also possible in a lab resembling a paper factory; where each personnel is stationed for each experimental procedures and supported by endless funding, then of course you would have the freedom to pursue any flowing research ideas. If reviewers demand more experiments, all you do is appoint someone who is in charge for that experiment - though authorship might be shared between many names.
Reality : Good science takes time. While publication every year seems doable with sufficient funding and collaboration, we sometimes have to account for experiments that are just not working. Researchers sometimes have to look back on their hypothesis, troubleshoot, rethink, and redesign. Additionally, we think about the circumstances like access to equipment & lab space, personnel experience, resources availability, and we often overlook the time taken for these to be arranged. Also, we cannot really predict the time taken between the publication steps; from submissions to revision and to finally getting acceptance involve a set of work that may depend on funding availability. Having a publication strategy also helps when you know the type of findings you want to report with the amount of data you have.
3. To research about anything
Research can be done on anything as long as it is still along the line of the proposed project. As simple as in performing a titration experiment, a very science-driven school kid can also play with different types of acid-base pairs or pH reading methods, if they want really want to. For us PhDs, when one path does not produce the result, then we can pursue another experiment path. We have a university with a world-class research facilities that should support us (e.g. running those samples that cost few hundreds dollars or trying out few antibodies that cost thousands of dollar per mL).
Reality: As much as our curiosity drives us to keep exploring and answering research questions, researcher have to pay attention when things start to deviate from the original plan. Even when we can justify this change, anything we do must be approved and means most to our supervisors and funding bodies. In other words, MONEY is the key. Without MONEY (funding) and resources, lab based research will not thrive. Access to these are partly supported by the university and depends on the grant money owned by the supervisors. As a PhD student, the grant money is what pays the reagent and lab supplies for the project. For some people, having this grant even without a scholarship seems to be a privilege.
4. To LIVE THE ACADEMIC DREAMS
Academia is filled with bright minds, ideas, invention, and collaboration. The new knowledge emerging from research really is going to be impactful when shared and made available to everyone. The perfect academic life consist of planning and doing experiments, analyzing data, writing grants and papers, giving and attending talks/seminar, discussing and arguing intellectually about some theories. Students have the privilege to experience that and the science is really everything that students need to worry about.
Reality: In 2019, Nature PhD Survey revealed that the level of satisfaction of PhD student is worsened as they go further into the program. Though, intellectual challenge was the biggest enjoyable factor of a PhD life and that academia is actually a chosen career path by 56% respondents, the decreasing level of satisfaction is much to do with emotional strains contributed by anxiety or depression, uncertainty about future jobs, struggles in balancing work/life, funding limitation, harassment and discrimination (in gender, race or age), and overall, the unmet expectation that really PhD should be just about the science. While these twisted truth have still been reported now and then, PhD programs around the world have evolved and universities have provide many ways to meet students' needs.
5. To discover something GROUND-BREAKING
Public: "What do you get from research?"
Science news highlights everywhere be like:
"Novel gene-editing tools that allows cutting and pasting gene"
"The first image of black hole captured"
"Artificial Intelligence can detect COVID-19 in the lungs"
School kids: "Yes, that's what research is about!
Reality: Research is not always about discovering something new and in fact, it does not have to be novel to be important! Research indeed aims to add something new to the field, but that can start small and not necessarily translated into world-wide application. All big discoveries starts from small discoveries, from basic science that are much less impactful. For example, your research can be about identifying a gene (the culprit) that is responsible for chemotherapy resistance in cancer cells. The ultimate goal is of course to improve cancer therapy, but depending on the stage of the study, you can expect to be screening lots of genes or drugs that can take your whole 4 years of PhD.
MANAGING EXPECTATIONS AS phd student
So, allow me to conclude this post by quoting from my favorite science book, Lab Girl by Hope Jahren:
"Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life."
I believe that those of you who are currently enrolled in a PhD program and choose to pursue career in research, the core reason is because you are science driven. To pursue science, you need passion, curiosity and determination that will eventually guide you to make a mark in research. Every research question you pose should aim to help science prove itself about how it can make the world better. This is only possible when you synchronize your mind, hand and heart in you anything you do.
Of course you would expect the challenges, frustration and humility that come along as you enter the research world. These are the extra spices that strengthen the taste of the academia, the emphasis that working in research takes the effort and the courage; knowing that as you level up to be the research leaders or professors, you have the responsibility in setting and meeting those expectations. You know you will get there, but it is up to you how you [want your future students] go through the journey and make it all lifelong learning experience for everyone in research.