The birth of academic disciplines

Progress is driven by new scientific questions, which demand new ways of thinking. You want to go where a question takes you, not where your training left you. … New disciplines eventually self-organize around new problems and approaches, creating a new shared culture. This shared culture coalesces into the next essential training regimen for the next generation of scientists, and with luck, some of these people will overcome their training to open up more new fields of inquiry. —Sean R. Eddy

Source: “Antedisciplinary” Science, PLoS Computational Biology

It’s okay to be stupid, as long as your stupidity is productive

One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time. No doubt, this can be difficult for students who are accustomed to getting the answers right. No doubt, reasonable levels of confidence and emotional resilience help, but I think scientific education might do more to ease what is a very big transition: from learning what other people once discovered to making your own discoveries. The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries. —Martin A. Schwartz

Source: “The importance of stupidity in scientific research”, Journal of Cell Science, 2008.

What constitutes the typical publication?

Few of us will ever write a classic paper … The papers that represent great leaps forward are few in number. The majority of our collective publications, and hence scientific progress, comes from incremental insights in which the context is provided by the ongoing struggle to resolve a number of outstanding questions in a field. … [T]hese experimentally solid papers are “timely, targeted, and temporary”. That is, they address unanswered issues that are on the minds of those in the field, they target specific issues amenable to experimental or theoretical resolution, and in some ways their impact is temporary, because subsequent papers using the emerging insights and new methodologies will supersede these solid papers. Yet these solid papers are the foundation for progress most of the time. —Virginia Walbot

Source: “Are we training pit bulls to review our manuscripts?”, Journal of Biology, March 9, 2009.

On the challenges of writing a dissertation

The major problem with writing a dissertation is the management of emotions. Few students have ever attempted such a large project prior to undertaking their dissertations. They will encounter ups and downs, optimism and pessimism about their progress. My best advice stems from very basic knowledge about the psychology of learning: break large tasks into small tasks and set your goal to finish the small tasks in a timely fashion. —Professor Jerry Marwell, Department of Sociology, University of Wisconsin–Madison

Source: A Dissertator’s Primer, The Writing Center at UW–Madison

The Really Hard Science

Social scientists sometimes take flak from physical scientists for not doing “real science.” If you’re a social scientist and you’ve experienced this, you may appreciate the following excerpt from “The Really Hard Science” by Michael Shermer (Scientific American, September 16, 2007):

Over the past three decades I have noted two disturbing tendencies in both science and society: first, to rank the sciences from “hard” (physical sciences) to “medium” (biological sciences) to “soft” (social sciences); second, to divide science writing into two forms, technical and popular. And, as such rankings and divisions are wont to do, they include an assessment of worth, with the hard sciences and technical writing respected the most, and the soft sciences and popular writing esteemed the least. Both these prejudices are so far off the mark that they are not even wrong.

I have always thought that if there must be a rank order (which there mustn’t), the current one is precisely reversed. The physical sciences are hard, in the sense that calculating differential equations is difficult, for example. The variables within the causal net of the subject matter, however, are comparatively simple to constrain and test when contrasted with, say, computing the actions of organisms in an ecosystem or predicting the consequences of global climate change. Even the difficulty of constructing comprehensive models in the biological sciences pales in comparison to that of modeling the workings of human brains and societies. By these measures, the social sciences are the hard disciplines, because the subject matter is orders of magnitude more complex and multifaceted.

The remainder of Shermer’s essay discusses the relationship between theory, observation, data, and communication. Definitely worth reading, if you’re interested.

What They Didn't Teach You in Graduate School

What They Didn’t Teach You in Graduate School is a practical guide to life as an academic. The authors, Professor Emeritus Paul Gray and Professor David Drew, enumerate the keys to success in a semi-categorized list of memorable (and often humorous) “hints”. Topics include the dissertation, getting hired, conducting research, publishing, and tenure, to name a few. Doctoral students would do well to read this book and refer to it often as they progress through their programs and enter the professoriate.

Doctoral Cynicism

June Cotte, Associate Professor of Marketing at the Richard Ivey School of Business, wrote an interesting piece for the MarketingAcademics@AMA Newsletter, in which she addresses the cynicism frequently seen in doctoral students as they progress through their programs:

Many first-year students are remarkably curious, wanting to test new ideas every day to see if they are any good. They often possess open minds, a willingness to entertain both sides of an issue … and a tendency to avoid entrenched opinions. They are (mainly) not cynical.

… [T]hese students look so different from how they will be four or five years from now. Why? Often because the system, which I admittedly am a part of, teaches students the skills they need to critically evaluate research but not the skills to appreciate the inherent craziness and difficulty of publishing in top journals. I’ve seen students in seminars trash the work of some of marketing’s finest scholars. Why? Because there were trade-offs made during the research process (of course), and these students do not yet understand that this is inevitable. It’s easy to see flaws (it’s one of the first skills PhD students learn) but much harder to master the breadth of knowledge necessary to be able to locate a piece of work in the field and know whether it is innovative and important, even with its flaws (that’s one of the last skills most of us develop).

So, first-year doctoral students, as you read the papers … that you will discuss in your seminars, take a few minutes to appreciate what the authors have to say, in the context of what others have had to say about the issue, before you head to the meat of the paper looking for methodological flaws to bring up in class. Be wary of the path of the chronic “but-they-didn’t-do…” reader, for that way lies the sarcastic reviewer and the cynical professor.

In my first year as a doctoral student, I heard a similar sentiment expressed by an editor of one of the marketing journals: doctoral students tend to be poor company, because they’ve been trained to think critically but haven’t yet learned to turn this ability on and off. He said it often takes years for newly minted Ph.D.s to master this and start enjoying life again.

The Value of Notation

In An Introduction to Mathematics, Alfred North Whitehead speaks to the value of notation:

By relieving the brain of all unnecessary work, a good notation sets it free to concentrate on more advanced problems, and, in effect, increases the mental power of the race.

Before the introduction of the Arabic notation, multiplication was difficult, and the division even of integers called into play the highest mathematical faculties. Probably nothing in the modern world would have more astonished a Greek mathematician than to learn that … a large proportion of the population of Western Europe could perform the operation of division for the largest numbers. This fact would have seemed to him a sheer impossibility … Our modern power of easy reckoning with decimal fractions is the almost miraculous result of the gradual discovery of a perfect notation. […]

By the aid of symbolism, we can make transitions in reasoning almost mechanically, by the eye, which otherwise would call into play the higher faculties of the brain. […]

It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilisation advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.

Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle—they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.

Lest we become too enamored of notation, however, Abraham Kaplan, in The Conduct of Inquiry: Methodology for Behavioral Science, offers the following words of caution:

[T]he complexity of a notation does not of itself endow the notation with scientific importance. Behavioral science has suffered often from the illusion that a commonplace formulated in an uncommon notation becomes profound—rich with scientific promise.

What is a Ph.D.?

I recently read an article by Chris Golde of the Carnegie Foundation titled Preparing Stewards of the Discipline. As a doctoral student, I find her definition of the Ph.D., as outlined in the following excerpts, inspiring:

[T]he purpose of doctoral education is to prepare stewards of the discipline. …

A Ph.D.-holder should be capable of generating new knowledge and defending knowledge claims against challenges and criticism; of conserving the most important ideas and findings that are a legacy of past and current work; and of transforming knowledge that has been generated and conserved by teaching well to a variety of audiences, including those outside formal classrooms.

Students should understand that the Ph.D., at its heart, is a research degree. It signifies that the recipient is able to ask interesting and important questions, formulate appropriate strategies for investigating these questions, conduct investigations with a high degree of competence, analyze and evaluate the results of the investigations, and communicate the results to others to advance the field. …

Stewards have a responsibility to apply their knowledge, skills, findings and insights in the service of problem solving or greater understanding. Self-identifying as a steward implies adopting a sense of purpose that is larger than oneself. One is a steward of the discipline, not simply the manager of one’s own career. By accepting responsibility for the care of the discipline, and understanding that one has been entrusted with that care by those in the field, on behalf of those in and beyond the discipline, the individual steward embraces a larger sense of purpose.”