I figured that my adviser and labmates could help me learn to
conduct sound experiments and become a successful researcher, and I
could rely on published literature
to learn the specific techniques I
would need. As I began designing experiments to investigate the
symbiotic relationship between legumes and nitrogen-fixing bacteria,
my committee members applauded
my ambition to pioneer a project
far beyond the scope of my lab,
which focuses on plant-pollinator
interactions. They also warned me
about the challenges I would face.
But my need for independence
drove me to push forward with my
research plan. As a result, the first
4 years of my graduate career were
defined by a series of failures. My
head spun with possible questions
to explore, but I struggled to translate these ideas into feasible studies. Because my research interests were distinct
from ongoing work in the lab, I rarely asked for help. When
I did seek assistance, my labmates were often at a loss
because they didn’t have the expertise I needed.
During my second year, I solicited little feedback about
the research proposal I was writing for my comprehensive
exam—and I went on to fail part of the exam because it was
unclear whether the experiments I proposed would lead to
conclusive results. Unwilling to abandon my project, I spent
the next 3 months rethinking, redesigning, and rewriting
my proposal. I developed a clear vision for my research, but
the setbacks weren’t over. During my third year, I had grand
ambitions to genetically manipulate plants, only to discover
that after treating thousands of seeds, I obtained just one
plant I could use for experiments.
By my fourth year, my desperation to succeed over-
A few months later, I packed
shadowed my desire for independence. The only thing I
cared about was generating publishable data. I was dis-
appointed by my inability to conduct a successful experi-
ment on my own, but I knew that I
needed to take a new approach.
my car and embarked on a cross-
country road trip to develop the
expertise I needed. My adviser and
I had devised a somewhat unusual
solution: I would spend a 3-month
“sabbatical” in a collaborating lab to
obtain specialized training. I worked
extensively with other students,
constantly asked questions, and
offered to help with ongoing projects to learn everything I could. For
the culmination of my sabbatical, I
executed an elegant experiment that
would not have been possible without the dedicated help of the principal investigator, three graduate
students, and numerous undergrads.
But the experiment still failed.
Thirty percent of my control plants
were contaminated with bacteria. My data were unpublishable. I drove back to Pennsylvania with the same feeling of
desperation I had earlier in my graduate career. Even asking
for help was not enough to produce a successful experiment.
My adviser, on the other hand, saw this experience as a
groundbreaking success, emphasizing the extensive skill set
I acquired. A few months later, when I repeated the experiment in my home lab, I produced publishable data. By learning when to ask for help, I had found the perfect balance of
independence and assistance, which ultimately led to success.
Being an independent scientist doesn’t require me to
do everything on my own. I can address novel questions
without feeling obligated to master every aspect of the scientific process. Now when I get stuck, I don’t hesitate to
ask others for help, whether they’re across the country or
in my own lab. ■
Nicole Forrester is a doctoral candidate at the University
of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. Do you have an interesting
career story? Send it to SciCareerEditor@aaas.org.
“I … embarked on a cross-
country road trip to develop
the expertise I needed.”
Independent but not alone
Growing up, I idealized independence. I always wanted my own efforts to be enough, whether it was completing school assignments without help from my parents or moving into a new apartment by myself. When I decided to pursue a graduate degree, I wanted to develop a novel research program and quickly establish myself as an independent scientist. I sought out an adviser who would give me complete agency over my doctoral work while also offering strong mentorship. But I was naïvely optimistic about what I could accomplish.
By Nicole Forrester