Full Chapter List - So You Want To Be A Physicist... Series
Part I: Early Physics Education in High schools
Part II: Surviving the First Year of College
Part III: Mathematical Preparations
Part IV: The Life of a Physics Major
Part V: Applying for Graduate School
Part VI: What to Expect from Graduate School Before You Get There
Part VII: The US Graduate School System
Part VIII: Alternative Careers for a Physics Grad
Part VIIIa: Entering Physics Graduate School From Another Major
Part IX: First years of Graduate School from Being a TA to the Graduate Exams
Part X: Choosing a Research area and an advisor
Part XI: Initiating Research Work
Part XII: Research work and The Lab Book
Part XIII: Publishing in a Physics Journal
Part XIV: Oral Presentations
Part XIII: Publishing in a Physics Journal (Addendum)
Part XIV: Oral Presentations – Addendum
Part XV – Writing Your Doctoral Thesis/Desertation
Part XVI – Your Thesis Defense
Part XVII – Getting a Job!
Part XVIII – Postdoctoral Position
Part XIX – Your Curriculum Vitae
Now where were we? Oh yes! You have now started with your actual research work. You and your adviser have agreed on at least the general type of area you will be working in and you have started to do a lot of literature search of what is going on in that field, what is known, what is unknown, what are the hot areas of study, etc. One important note here is that to NOT be rigid in one particular area especially during the early years of your project. In many cases, you and your adviser are still exploring an area of study before both of you narrow down into the exact, specific area that will eventually end up as your thesis research work. The best thing you can do right now is to gain as wide of a knowledge base as possible. If you are working in tunnelling spectroscopy, don’t try to limit yourself with just one family of material. If a wide range of material is available and open for study, go for it. You’d be surprise how something that may appear at first to not be important, might turn out otherwise later on. Trust me on this.
What I would like to stress in this installment of this series in the ”ethics” of doing research work. I will illustrate this from the point of view of an experimentalist, but there are elements here that are also relevant to theorists. In general, the ethical practice of doing research applies to every field of science, so use what I will be describing as a ”case study” and apply it appropriately to you line of work/study.
When I used to conduct physics laboratory session for undergraduates, one of the practice I tried to instill onto my students was the writing of everything they did and observed during the experiment into a laboratory book. I want them to acquire the skill of writing these observations clearly, to write down what they are doing, why they are doing it, and their observations, even to the extend of writing down what they are thinking regarding the data they collected. Was there something peculiar? Are there something not working correctly? Are the data consistent with something else? Are things just making no sense? Are the equipments malfunctioning or not giving the expected results?
Not only that, I wanted them to write all of these in INK, and I prohibited any ”erasing” of anything they wrote in their lab book. If they think they made a mistake, just cancel it out, but leave it legible. Now was I being psychotic for insisting things like this? I hope not, and I will explain why. In doing research work, it is imperative that you record almost everything clearly. In most cases, it is for your own good, so that if and when you need to figure out what you did later on, you just don’t have to rely on your memory, especially if you want to know what you did then, what parameters were used to make such a measurement, etc. However, there is also another important reason for such a record. While this doesn’t occur very often, when it does, you’ll be glad you have such a record. In certain cases where it is necessary to establish who did what, and when, your lab book is often used as official evidence, especially in the court of law. If you work for an institution, be it governmental, academic, or commercial, the lab book is the property of that institution (i.e. you can’t take it with you when you no longer work for that institution). If there are disputes, questions, issues, etc. arising out of your work, your lab or record book is the definitive evidence in such matter.
This is why you should always write your entries with a date and in ink. You want as permanent of a record as possible. In addition, if someone else comes in and want to reproduce your work, this is the ultimate source to see what was done exactly.
We have seen cases where improper or lack of record-keeping created serious consequences. The infamous Schon debacle at Bell Labs is the most recent example. The fact that he could not show any written record of his experiments (he could not produce any lab books of his experiments) created a serious doubt on the validity of his work. This resulted in his fall into disgrace – he was fired from Bell labs, a large portion of his published work were retracted, and his alma mater withdrew the granting of his Ph.D degree.
Now granted that things like this do not occur very often (luckily), but many smaller forms of double-checking do. It is never too early to make sure you keep a careful record of what you are doing. Even if you are a theorist, it is always a good idea to make sure your work and ideas are kept in a record book. Not only will this allow you to go back and remember what you did (or why you were doing it), but it allows others to understand what you did and when you did it. Besides, if you win the Nobel Prize and become a world-famous physicist, they’ll want your doodling to be put in a museum or some place! :)
Moral of the story: keep as complete of a record of your research work as possible.
ADDENDUM: I know I sometime have an uncanny timing, but this is ridiculous!
In the just released online edition of Nature (22 September 2005), a news report about the embattled japanese researcher has indicated that his lack of record-keeping is casting doubt on his work. The report says that
“A respected Japanese scientist who failed to produce laboratory notebooks confirming his published results now faces a furore over the credibility of his findings. On 13 September, the University of Tokyo’s School of Engineering held a press conference to say that Kazunari Taira, a professor at the school who specializes in RNA research, had not provided raw data to verify his team’s results. The RNA Society of Japan has also questioned some of Taira’s methods.”
So kids, I’m NOT making this up when I say that you’d better start learning to write everything down on paper when you are doing something related to your studies/work. It may be a boring and tedious task, but when stuff happens, you’ll be sorry that you didn’t.