The Laws of Gelada (How to be a grad student)

Irving Herman‘s Laws for graduates can make good little scientists. How can we make misbehaved big scientists?1 The original Herman rules have Hx numbers my versions are down under Gx.

H1. Your vacation begins after you defend your thesis.

G1. (Force yourself if necessary) to take some time off.2

H2. In research, what matters is what is right, and not who is right.

G2. In research, what matters is good and useful answers, and not who gives them.3

H3. In research and other matters, your adviser is always right, most of the time.

H4. Act as if your adviser is always right, almost all the time.

H5. If you think you are right and you are able to convince your adviser, your adviser will be very happy.

G3. In research, your adviser is probably right more often than you.

G4. Assume your adviser is wrong if you do not agree with him.

G5. If you are right and are able to convince your adviser, everyone gains. 4

H6. Your productivity varies as (effective productive time spentper day)1,000.

H7. Your productivity also varies as 1/(your delay in analysing acquired data)1,000.

G6. Your productivity varies and is not necessarily tied to effort.

G7. Keep on top of routine tasks, but do not be ruled by them.5

GH8. Take data today as if you know that your equipment will break tomorrow.

GH9. If you would be unhappy to lose your data, make a permanent back-up copy of them within five minutes of acquiring them.6

H10. Your adviser expects your productivity to be low initially and then to be above threshold after a year or so.

G10. Realise your productivity will not be high initially. Aim to be more productive, but always allow for variation.7

H11. You must become a bigger expert in your thesis area than your adviser.

G11. You must be more passionate about your thesis area than your adviser.8

H12. When you cooperate, your adviser’s blood pressure will go down a bit.

H13. When you don’t cooperate, your adviser’s blood pressure either goes up a bit or it goes down to zero.

G12. Do not care about your advisors blood pressure.

G13. Cooperate with your advisor. You will get more out of them. They should know a lot that you care about. Thats why you picked them isn’t it?9

H14. Usually, only when you can publish your results are they good enough to be part of your thesis.

H15. The higher the quality, first, and quantity, second, of your publishable work, the better your thesis.

G14. Ideas are only good enough for your thesis when you are proud of them, you can do things with them and you can communicate them to others.

G15. The more interesting you find your results the better your thesis.10

H16. Remember, it’s your thesis. You (!) need to do it.

G16. Remember, it’s your thesis, your research.11

H17. Your adviser wants you to become famous, so that he/she can finally become famous.

G17. Care about your work and find it important. Do not chase fame.

H18. Your adviser wants to write the best letter of recommendation for you that is possible.

G18. Be aware of politics, sell what you do well.12

H19. Whatever is best for you is best for your adviser.

H20. Whatever is best for your adviser is best for you.

G19. Think hard and decide what is best for you.

G20. Listen to authorities (like your advisor), but do not be ruled by them.13


A few years ago Irving Herman, a physicist at Columbia published a set of laws for graduate students in Nature. To be fair he does say that some of his comments are slightly exaggerated and should not be taken completely seriously. However he also claims these as laws. Which is a very strong rhetoric. On my side my laws can also be slightly exaggerated and are usually highly idealistic, but if you are not idealistic about science you are probably better in a different career anyway.

I came across these recently in Eric Weinstein’s twitter and his comments were the spark and much of the inspiration for this post. I have included his comments on specific laws below. Here is his overall opinion:

New Topic: Thoughts on Prof. Irving Herman’s “20 Laws All Grad Students Should Follow” or “On Being Science ‘Help’ ” as published in Nature. Tweet

I am delighted that colleagues in academe are starting to write down the ‘meta-rules’ of new science that select against strong scientists. Tweet

My goal as taxpayer & scientist is to get you, the young scientist, out of Irving Herman’s dystopia before he can help you become ‘better’. Tweet

and he concludes:

Yet being a scientist isn’t about any of this idiocy. This is about survival in universities & why basic research must reform or leave them. Tweet

A PhD is hard work, but…Practically taking time off can renew focus, give perspective and thus generate more ideas. More importantly, you are not a robot or slave. Take time off to remember why you are doing this crazy thing.

Herman’s Law 1:”Your vacation begins after you defend your thesis.”
Weinstein’s Excercise:Translate into German without use of a dictionary.

Eric Weinstein Tweet

It is often better to be productively wrong than unproductively right. Liebnitz/Newton’s Calculus was wrong (and many, most noticably Berkerley spotted this) but those who ignored or were ignorant of this did better maths for 100 years.

Of course you should treat your advisor with respect, especially for the work that he or she has done. They do have more experience and know more, so they are probably right. However they are also better at arguing than you. Give your intuitions confidence and be persuaded out of them by reasoning not authority.

(“in other matters” your advisor is just another human being, saying that they are mostly right there is crazy!)

3. In research and other matters, your adviser is always right, most of the time.
Just who is this guy? Nature? Physics? Columbia? Anyone?

Eric Weinstein Tweet

Herman’s Law #4. “Act as if your adviser is always right, almost all the time.”
That would be ‘Science … with Benefits’…wouldn’t it?

Eric Weinstein Tweet

Productive time is essential, but what is it? It is certainly more than time spent in the lab/office. Learn what helps make you productive. Maybe a weekend of surfing leads regularly to great results on a Monday. Routine tasks do need to be done. Keep on top of them so you can relax and think, do not hope you can get PhD students on day to do them, or become a lab assistant for your supervisor!

Agreement for both of these, it is good to put a little time into insurance against disasters.

Coming back to the “productivity is complicated” idea. Sometimes you have to get lost, following blind alleys for weeks or months to chase up the great result. It is easy to be productive by finding more routine tasks to do, is that your ambition?

If you are passionate about your area you will of course think about it and study it more. You should be doing all this for passion and not because your supervisor says that it is interesting.

Cooperation is a good thing. We do need to work together, to help find the right or useful ideas and communicate them. It is useful to achieve other goals however, not as a goal in its own right.

Find out what is important to you, what you feel are the big questions. Chase them. Take into account the opinions of others (such as journals) but remember they can be wrong.

You are paying for this and working very hard on it. Take pride in it, make it your own and do the best job you can. For yourself not your supervisor.

It is good to show your work achievements and ideas in the best light. Do not however do something for no other reason than it looks good.

The summary of this post. To be a good scientist is to respect authority while questioning it.

19. Whatever is best for you is best for your adviser.
20. Whatever is best for your adviser is best for you.
So,we may catch Pyonyang yet?

Eric Weinstein Tweet