I’m almost a doctor, can I help you ?
A PhD project is an enriching but demanding experience. It is the moment in which early career researchers get faced with the uncertain reality of a researcher’s work. This discovery can be unsettling to say the least. In this constant uncertainty, it can prove very difficult to feel like we are delivering our part of the social contract and that we are having a positive impact. Therefore, It is primordial, especially for early career researchers, to find meaning to their work and to carry out activities which help getting a sense of usefulness.
The art of not knowing
Research’s goal is to shed light on untrodden paths beyond human knowledge. This happens by ceaselessly building hypothesis based on previous observations by mean of logical reasoning then laying experimental plans, collecting and analysing data. All this in the anxious expectation of seeing whether our hypothesis still stand. Often, this last part can actually feel like bending over remnants and gravels trying to collect what’s salvageable to build back on and keep this cycle alive. That is if there is even possibility to conclude on our hypothesis. Quite frequently, we get to realize further parameters need to be monitored. Other times human or material errors can throw off weeks of preparation and force to do an experiment again, further delaying the reach of the so sought-after “truth”.
Science is commonly perceived as giving definitive explanations to phenomena. In reality, researchers mostly work by constructing reductive models based on assumptions in order to give probabilistic answers. The conclusions that can be formulated are limited both by the gaps in the experimental model and the uncertainty tied to the experimental data. The latter is linked to experimenter error or potential material flaws as well as analytical equipment’s accuracy.
Therefore, it is essential for a researcher to be able to navigate its work realizing and accepting the uncertainty of its findings and making it transpire in its claimings. This is essential for the healthy advancement of scientific research. However, at the individual scale, researchers might feel like they are not making any impact on society by giving partial and indefinite answers.
Estimated impact in 1,2… lost signal !
The need for validation is very human. This is tightly linked to the reassurance it provides that we are accepted into society, valued as one of its functioning gears. The exchange money to this is participation to society’s maintain at least and, hopefully, to its betterment. As stated before, it can be very challenging to obtain this feeling in the context of research. How can one assure the public, stakeholders and eventually himself that public money used to fund its work will actually make a difference and result in a positive impact, if any impact at all, on society ?
This is true in fundamental research but this can also be the case in projects with more direct applications, in which researchers, usually, are mostly involved in the early phases of development of a technology. All which concerns the production steps and its delivery usually is carried out by others: industrials and stakeholders. Therefore, most of times, researchers are not in direct contact with a concretization of their work.
This sensation of unachieved, disconnection from society and usefulness can put a dire strain on someone’s motivation and mental health. Gladly there are ways for a researcher to mitigate and overcome these.
A need for concrete
It is important to note that, most of times, research work goes in parallel with a teaching activity. Education is, without a doubt, one of the primordial pillars of society. Through this activity, one can directly witness the result of its work in the progression of its students. This is one of the reasons why early career researchers should be encouraged to take part in the management of lab work and tutorial classes and even some part of lectures. Education can also take place outside of the University benches. Public reach-out and pedagogical actions are also wonderful opportunities to put one’s knowledge to good use.
Secondly, it is primordial to accept that each research project is but a small step towards the explanation of a phenomena or the development of a technology which requires the convergence of a myriad of researchers efforts distributed in time and space. Communicating on its work during events (congresses, seminars…) can really help integrating this fact as we get a sense of working together with others, giving more weight to our own work. This can also help in valorising even our negative results and errors as for others not to reproduce them.
These two actions taken together both contribute to create an healthy understanding of the reality of research and making public’s expectations aligned with this reality.
Finally, it is of paramount importance to realize that one cannot fulfil itself solely through its work. The impact of a person, of course, goes far beyond the border of its profession. Public and political engagement are other ways through which to contribute to society’s wellness for example.
Researchers are continuously faced with a sense of uncertainty and unachieved inherent to their work. Often, the incapacity to provide definite explanations to phenomena and firm answers to issues can make them feel in debt towards society and make them question their usefulness. It is important for researchers and the public to realize that scientific research requires trial and error by numerous teams to reach, often, partial explanations. All effort towards this common goal is valuable and this requires time. Researchers, however, can have a quicker beneficial impact by participating in public education and scientific communication activities but also by acting outside of the limits of their work.