August 23, 2011

There's no PhD in Team

by flickr user sunnehh
One thing I've noticed after transitioning to my new job is that my team is actually a team. People genuinely want to help me when I have questions because our success is really determined more as a team than as individuals. We all have to depend on each other to complete various parts of projects as they come up, and it's nice to have a support system, especially as a new employee.

Contrast this with a typically research group. In most groups it's less a team and more a group of individuals. Yes, in the good groups people behave nicely and will help you out. But how many times have you seen that turn into them jockeying for an authorship spot on your subsequent paper? I've seen it happen a lot, often from people I never expected. As a PhD student you have to prove that YOU have what it takes, not your group as a whole. So you're always looking for ways to distinguish yourself and get as much credit for yourself as you can. I was in a lot of meetings where someone felt very angry and slighted just because the presenter did not give them verbal credit for their help with an experiment or for having given the presenter the idea that got them through their roadblock. They wanted that public pat-on-the-back so their advisor would be aware of how nice and helpful they were (and probably to help make up for their failed experiments or perceived lack of results.) I totally understand why things are this way, but is it still appropriate in today's market? Let's ignore the fact that there are no (maybe a few?) jobs for chemists, isn't there a big push toward collaboration? Most schools are pushing collaborations between researchers and departments and they love to toss around the buzzword "interdisciplinary". So should there be such strong individualism when the culture is moving toward one of teamwork? Aren't today's problems getting harder to solve as a single scientist isolated in a lab somewhere? The problems are bigger and more complex, and it's often impossible for one person to have all of the knowledge required to complete a single project.

I feel like scientists would probably get a lot more meaningful work done if real teamwork was encouraged, but a lot of it probably comes down to the economics of research. You have to prove that you deserve all that money, so you have to have your name on all of those results. Am I wrong?

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