Long ago, most students entered research by thinking up their own project, albeit with advice from potential supervisors. That is rarely possible today, for many reasons. Instead, gifted students are recruited to research topics proposed to funding agencies by established scientists. More often than not, such projects slot into an overall strategy centred on an academic’s career or the ambitions of a research group. There are advantages in having the sometimes undivided attention of a “boss”, a structured approach to work within a broader framework, access to a group’s equipment and funding, and support from several co-thinkers. With the old style, there were risks in “ploughing a lone furrow”, such as abandonment by a disenchanted supervisor (the enchanted ones could be even more worrying). The single most important advantage of designing your own project, hard and risky as that might be, was one of possession from the outset. Such responsibility develops qualities that are otherwise not easy to get: independence of thought and action, time-management, resourcefulness, an ability to argue your case, and self-discipline – if you can really “hack” it. Except for the indolent and irrecoverably stupid, most people can, given some knowledge of where their subject is going and thesine qua non of curiosity. In those “old days”, the risks were more than offset by the advantage of ownership, and it was rare for postgraduates not to be successful, and the majority gained their doctorates within three years. Today, up to a third of enrolled graduate students withdraw or fail their degrees, and hardly any complete inside this reasonable period.
Funding agencies now demand guarantees that their outlay bears fruit. They increasingly direct lines of research, so that studentships follow previous funding. The funders are more accountable, and by the iron logic of the marketplace so too must be the recipients. The upshot is continual assessment of research performance by departments, the creation of “centres of excellence”, and the crushing of departments that do not measure up to an amoebic growth of criteria and guidelines. So, for anyone keen on testing their abilities to the limit and following their curiosity, the options are increasingly limited. Even if you have independent means, it is now a very rare department that encourages self-motivated research by students, or even by its established staff. In truth, most academics find it hard to be independent, because they no longer have the security that once guaranteed freedom of thought, action and expression. In Britain, if an academic began their career or earned promotion after 20 November 1987, they can be dismissed solely on grounds of redundancy, rather than “with good cause”, which was the rock on which tenure used to be based. “Gross moral turpitude” was, I believe, the operative and infinitely more expressive phrase in US institutions. So for your average supervisor the world has turned upside down. Now it’s a case of “publish or perish”, larded with citation and impact records, and bringing cash into your institution to boost its research assessment. There are very few academics with the energy, imagination, brass neck and wit to jump through all these hoops and remain sanely independent. So we see a growth of hidden but nonetheless unwholesome vices adopted by some to survive and prosper in this deranged environment. There are many victims, but the new researcher is most at risk. During the festive season it is customary to give and receive advice, as well as greetings. Here is some that concerns the vice that dare not speak its name –plagiarism – in the form of a bestiary to help you memorise potentially risky people.
- Chameleons Check out potential supervisors. The Science Citation Index will reveal their record of sole or senior authorship of papers (notreviews). If they are what they claim to be, that will dominate. Relative to that, how many times does their name appear within multi-author papers, of which they are not senior author? If the latter dominates, their reputation probably rests on offering technical facilities that they control, or the research talents of other people. You may find individuals who have a short publication list of either kind. They are either at the start of their career, or beyond all human help (except perhaps your own).
- Beavers Never let anyone else do any work for you, unless they are a kindly technician (who then deserves at least an acknowledgement). Where possible, keep your research materials under your personal control – in some institutions burial is a useful tactic.
- Curlews Be suspicious of a supervisor who shares your findings with the rest of a team; either you do that yourself or not at all.
- Moles Although communication with others is an essential aspect of research, until you are ready to submit a paper for peer review, do not reveal all in seminars and conferences. Pay particular attention to your posters. At every conference you will see people photographing them, whom you can safely assume are after your ideas.
- Hamsters Beware the friendly soul offering, without being asked, to read your first draft of a paper. Instead, plead with the most curmudgeonly academic around, the one who hammers your every utterance, for he or she will probably be honest.
- Tapeworms Do not allow your supervisor to routinely add their name or others in a research team to your papers. Authorship is not based on advice, basic training in research techniques or discussion of your work. That is your supervisor’s duty of care, and a good one should give far more than they take. Acknowledgements are the place to express gratitude for such assistance. Authors have to do real work, both analytical and intellectual, to deserve a place in the list.
- Squirrels Insist that your supervisor lets you read all drafts of their papers that bear on your own field, to check that your findings are not included, as well as to learn. If your work appears, you have a right to authorship.
- Weasels Be aware of the relationships among academics and post-docs in your department, and theirs with others in outside institutions. Keep an eye on “networking”, which often involves mutual sharing of information as well as gossip, particularly if joint bids for funding are in the offing.
- Ravens It is easy to be pressured overtly and subtly, particularly in a large research group. That may be beneficial, but can be to get you to toe the “party line”.
10. Wolverines Never tolerate anything that seems like plagiarism, manipulation, obstruction, exploitation, bullying or harassment. Best to confront politely yet firmly the person responsible, but that is not easy. Finding someone who can help is not easy either. Your institution may well have a policy of pastoral care based on designated individuals, who are deemed to be disinterested and trustworthy. In the real world there is a culture of protecting long-term colleagues, which extends throughout a university; you are transitory… In case of difficulty, ask to change your pastoral advisor. Other students of longer standing may know who is straight, or have similar experiences. Whatever, it is essential that you get honest support to resolve such problems. One useful tactic is to air your grievances as accurately as possible in writing, with a copy to someone that you can trust.
11. Diverse enchanted beasts The most difficult obstacle to ownership can be, oddly, the genuinely honest, kindly and enthusiastic supervisor. Because of their greater experience and breadth of knowledge, your work can easily become their obsession, usually because of their frustration with your progress. They will not steal your thunder consciously, but can easily end up driving you rather than the other way round. If you want to become their creature, fine. If not, then you have battles ahead, but they will serve both of you well!