Wednesday, September 19, 2007

It Can't Be Done

At various times in my academic career, I have proposed a research project to a colleague or a graduate student, but the project has either not captured their interest, or the project has been deemed impossible to do or not worth doing. That is fine. I am perfectly willing to face the fact that not all my ideas are interesting, feasible, or sane (or that I am easy to work with).

The main topic of this post involves situations in which I went ahead and did a project anyway -- with different colleagues or students -- and then the original, dismissive colleagues/students get upset. Perhaps I could have worked harder to 'sell' them on the project, but if someone says to me "That project can't be done" and is not impressed with my arguments for why/how it can and should be done, I am going to work with someone else. It can be good to work with someone who makes you reexamine your ideas and forces you to make a compelling case for the research, but the collaboration will only work if the other person does something other than seeing the negative side of everything and creating unnecessary obstacles.

In one case involving a student at my previous university, I spent considerable time getting the student started on a project so that he could get far enough into it to see that the research could be very interesting and significant. After a year, he decided it was "too difficult", involved too much tedious work, and was not worth his time. He moved on to another project and advisor, and I did the original project with an undergraduate who completed a senior thesis, published a paper, and went on to success in graduate school and beyond. A couple of years later, the first student told me that he was upset that I had not invited him to return to the project once it was further advanced and was clearly going to lead to something. He said "So you wanted to keep the glory for yourself?". It was clear from discussing the situation with him that he remained unconvinced that it wasn't somehow my fault that he ended up with a dead-end project with another advisor.

I know that some students might not have the necessary perspective to make a decision about which dissertation project will have the highest impact, but at the same time, I am not going to force a student to do a project that they say they hate.

Similarly, a colleague I approached about an interesting project thought the project not worth doing. It was not just a casual dismissal of the project -- we had a number of conversations about it, and the colleague did a lot of background reading and thinking before deciding the work couldn't be done. Other colleagues and I did the research anyway, and it turned out to be extremely interesting (even more interesting than I first imagined). The colleague who dismissed the project is now upset that I did the work with others, although we remain on friendly terms.

How hard should I have worked to involve this person before deciding to work with others? How hard should I work to convince a student to work on a project that they are inclined to reject?

Sometimes I get asked by others to work on projects with them and I say no, most typically because I don't have time. I really hope that if I say no because of erroneous pessimism about a project, that I would know that I had let slip a good opportunity and would feel wistful, but not bitter, about it.

17 comments:

Ms.PhD said...

I never say never. I just say "not right now" or "not right here" or "not by me."

I passed on one project because my thesis lab didn't have the right equipment. I never regretted it since, because here we are, 10 years later, and still no one has done it! One of my better decisions, if I do say so myself.

I gave up another project to a labmate because I couldn't stand the collaborator (sexist pig). She got a very nice paper out of it and I was a little jealous, I will admit. But it was my choice, and there's no way of knowing if I could have done what she did, even if I had taken the chance.

Given the same project, not everyone will take it in the same direction. Some people go over hurdles, some go through them, some go off in a different direction.

I was recently working with someone who was bitter about exactly what you describe- passing up a project that he thought was uninteresting, only to witness someone else launch a very successful career out of it.

To me, if they don't know a good project when they see one, or they can't think creatively about how to solve even the most apparently insurmountable problems, that's their problem.

On the other hand, I have had long experience with people saying no until they see some preliminary data, then they change their tune. Most people don't want to do the dirty work or risk something too new. So I usually don't ask unless I have a tasty carrot I can dangle.

But don't feel bad if you didn't sell it hard, unless you think that other person would have been a better collaborator than the one you ended up with, who may have been more enthusiastic but under-qualified.

I do wonder though, if that student was on the paper when it did eventually come out? If not, then maybe the bitterness really is about the glory, not the project. Seems to me he should have been a co-author if he really did the early experiments for it.

There is a large dose of tedium in most good science (and most jobs, for that matter). Students who don't understand that are going to be in a world of hurt later on.

Female Science Professor said...

In the student example, the original student contributed no data, no ideas, no work, nothing to the project. There was nothing to justify including him as a co-author. The paper represented entirely the work of the undergraduate, one other colleague, and me. The undergrad was of course the first author on the paper. Being a minor co-author on a paper is of course glorious..

Anonymous said...

In the first case, if someone works on a project for a year, and then someone else continues it and makes it work, I would think sharing authorship would not be out of the question, assuming some actual work was done during that year, even if it did not directly end up in the final product (since the search for viability is important too).

In the second case, if the other person really thinks you did something wrong, I'd assume they're unrealistically self-centered. I would tend to think, though, that it is just a matter of feeling regret for not having made a better decision, but without any ill feelings against you.

In other words, I don't think anyone expects you to work hard at convincing them that your idea is doable, at all.

Anonymous said...

oh shoot, I didn't scroll down so I didn't realize you had already explained the 1st-case student's complete lack of involvement. sorry!

Global Girl said...

I get the feeling a lot of people in engineering (and probably science) say new things can't be done and generally come up with obstacles to a project rather than possibilities and solutions because they like being The Authority who can pass judgement. Not just may, *can*. I think a lot of those people are pretty insecure. You selling a project harder isn't going to fix insecurity.

Dr. Bad Ass said...

I am amazed by people who take a pass on something and then are bitter when others don't and are successful. As my DH would say, "That's them about them."

Meaning it has nothing to do with YOU and you shouldn't feel guilty about it.

James said...

I definitely wouldn't say you did anything wrong, but in such a situation, the other person could be thinking that you'd let them know if you have any new ideas. And it might be possible to avoid hard feelings this could cause. Imagine this conversation:

other: I'm convinced this project can't work / I'm not interested in this project anymore.

FSP: OK, maybe you're right, but since we haven't gotten anywhere yet, you wouldn't mind if I see if I can get somewhere with someone else, would you?

other: Not at all. Good luck.

- or -

other: Hold on, maybe I'm not that convinced, let me work on it a little more. [Then other either accomplishes something or doesn't, in which case take it again from the top.]

It seems like you're more in the clear this way. A year later when you have made progress, even if they were tempted to have hard feelings, they would probably force themselves to accept things and be too embarrassed to say anything.

EcoGeoFemme said...

If you worked harder to sell your project ideas to collaborators, they would probably say you were pushy!

Anonymous said...

People love to blame their failure (or lack of success) on others in every field, every area of life. Making others feel responsible is one of their niftiest tricks. Don't fall for it, you're too smart.

Drugmonkey said...

it's a lesson that people in science apparently need to learn over and over and over. What matters is who got it done. period.

kinda like the reality that ideas are a dime a dozen. everyone is smarter than the average bear and unless it is an unfrickenbelievably fantastic idea, well, someone else is going to have it too. the difference is, who brings the data and manuscript to completion.

if you passed on a good idea or failed to follow up your own good idea, well, too bad.

FSP, on how hard should you work to convince people to work on the idea? zero. if you've communicated it well enough that they gave it serious consideration and passed...too bad for them.

C said...

"The colleague who dismissed the project is now upset that I did the work with others, although we remain on friendly terms."

Are you sure that that is the reason behind the upset? That he/she isn't just cross with themselves for being wrong? Maybe he/she would have been less upset if they knew that you were carrying it out anyway with someone else? (maybe they did know, I'm just hypothesizing)

PhysioProf said...

The easiest thing to do as a scientist is pooh pooh a new idea because it "could never work". Some of the greatest innovations are those that "could never work". A big part of being a creative scientist is trying stuff that "could never work". My whole career is based on ideas that "could never work".

Anonymous said...

It's also easy to overestimate how much of a contribution negative comments are. For example, suppose Alice comes by Bob's office and says "Let's synthesize unobtanium using the Smith method." After several long conversations, Bob convinces Alice that the Smith method is incapable of this. A year later, Alice completes the synthesis using the Jones method in a collaboration with Carol. Bob thinks to himself "Alice was gung-ho to try the Smith method until my insight into it convinced her to try something else. Therefore I made a big contribution and should have been invited to continue collaborating when the possibility of using the Jones method arose." Alice thinks to herself "Yeah, Bob made a small contribution and deserves to be mentioned in the acknowledgements, but nobody would have stayed stuck on the Smith method for long, and Bob contributed nothing to the final paper."

In these situations, Alice is usually right, but it's easy for Bob to feel sorry for himself and overestimate how important his contributions were. This can easily lead to hurt feelings. It's helpful to make sure that Bob's contributions (such as they are) are clearly acknowledged somewhere in the paper. He'll get only a tiny fraction of the credit, but it can really help defuse the situation.

Anfa said...

You are an extremely articulate person. If a student/colleague walks away from a project after discussing same with an obviously intelligent, articulate, consistently employed and published academe, why on earth do you think yuou should put more effort into communication? Don't sell yourself short. It ain't you, honey. (But it's sure nice to see that you apply your logic and analytical skills to practicing good ethics and academic fairness. That's why I enjoy your blog so much!)

Anonymous said...

How is it possible that you had a student who worked for one year on a project, but contributed "no data, no ideas, no work, nothing to the project."

What was that student doing?

Female Science Professor said...

The student moved some research materials from cabinet A to cabinet B, reorganized his filing system, created new teaching exercises that assumed that every student knew as much about "Star Trek" as he did, kept creepy hour-by-hour notes on the lab white-board as to my activities (10 a.m. FSP on phone; 11 a.m. FSP meeting with student), and spent a lot of time complaining about how the research project I'd proposed he start was too tedious for him (but if I hired an assistant for him, he'd be happy to supervise that student). I repeat: no results, no data, ideas, no writing.

landsnark said...

Wow. Then you are possibly lucky that he hated the project enough to leave.