Scienceblogs is abuzz with discussion over the difficulty of melding family life and an academic career in science. Having worked for several years as a tech in an ambitious neuroscience lab, I’m amazed that post-docs even contemplate a family life. Most post-docs and grad-students I knew worked 60 hours a week (or more) for piss-poor wages. They came in on the weekend, and would often find themselves in the lab at odd hours of the night, feeding cultured neurons or Aplysia spawn or monitoring some other experimental variable that doesn’t have to sleep.
I now realize that today’s post-docs are our struggling artists. They sacrifice the possibility of a normal life for the possibility of knowing The Truth. They don’t mind long hours because they know their work is meaningful.
But I’m curious why science takes so long. I know this is an incredibly naive question, but why do post-docs have to work so hard? What is it about the scientific process that forces the average researcher to come in on Saturday (and sometimes Sunday)?
My own limited experience tells me that one of the main reasons science remains so labor-intensive is failure. Perhaps I was simply inept, but an astonishing amount of my time in the lab was spent repeating failed experiments, or repeating successful experiments that failed on the second try. After awhile, I became obsessed with knowing why certain PCR’s or Western’s or whatever didn’t work, but it was all to no avail. Even when everything was fresh and sterile, I would still find myself staring at a blank gel after 10 hours of hard work.
Does the cheap labor of post-docs (and the even cheaper labor of lab technicians) stifle the drive to reduce experimental failure? Or is experimental failure just a necessary inefficiency, a side-effect of doing science? If post-docs were paid more, would their be more interest in increasing scientific productivity?
I certainly don’t have the answers to these questions, but I hope other scientists might venture a few guesses.