The Worst Parts of Scientific Life

The lack of posts in the past 3 days was caused by our departmental retreat, that takes place on the cape (i.e. Cape Cod) in March ... we usually aim to have the retreat during a blizzard, however this year we only had mild rain. All the talking and drinking with my peers in the Cell Biology department, made me think of a couple of posts that appeared in my previous blog ... The Worst Things About Science. So here they are (in no particular order):

1 - Being scooped. There is nothing worse than working your ass off for 4 years (much of it in the coldroom) when BANG! a paper comes out making all your work useless.

2 - Begging for money. When scientists are not working, eating, sleeping or at some seminar/conference, they are ... writing grants, fellowships ... aka begging. Their applications can be summarized as follows "I'm so great, my work is so important, look at how sexy my results are" but in reality they meant to say "if you don't give me this grant, my lab is going to sink into a deep black hole and my career is over!"

3 - Having a family. Being a scientist basically means being a workaholic. Why? Partially it's out of wanting to get things done, but mostly it's because of pressure ... "I need to get this last experiment done for my labmeeting/grant/paper/meeting with the supervisor" ... and if you think that scientists take the weekends off, think again. Most scientists I know work at least one day out of every weekend. In the end this workschedule (for some >60 hour workweek) leads to little time for unimportant things such as watching TV, and important things such as having a family. This is worse if you happen to be female, "pregnancy? I need to get my paper out!". This is a great frustration - and coupled to the fact that many institutions (such as my own) view scientific labor as cheap and plentiful, there is no economic incentive for the situation to improve - although it has been getting better as of late. The NIH's salary guidelines, to which most postdoc salaries are pegged, significantly increased a couple of years ago, but more can be done.

4 - The pyramid scheme. Why do we tolerate the low pay, the long hours, the pain? (OK it's not that bad.) The reply goes like this "Dear student/postdoc/underling, one day you'll be a great PI (principal investigator, i.e. professor) and all your hard work will have paid off. I went through this, we all have to go through this stage, so now it's your turn to go through hell." All I have to say is ... Ponzi scheme.

5 - Reviewers. OK after a year(s) of work you compile enough data and a fancy model for a story/paper/article/publication. You send it in to a reasonable journal and they send it out for review. That's when the complicated song and dance of peer review starts. Some reviewers like it, some don't, some are reasonable, and some ARE OUT OF THEIR MIND. "That is a nice piece of work, but instead of just the moon, the authors should also get to Mars, Jupiter and alpha-Centauri before a) they can reasonably prove their assertions b) the manuscript can be acceptable for publication c) my bigshot buddy can publish his work and d) hasn't this been publish previously?" The editor (i.e. God) then has to officiate this poker match. Their rule of thumb can be summed up as "don't flinch". The moment that the editor sides with the manuscript's authors, the paper gets published ... and so their power rests in maintaining the status quo. The worst outcome of this exercise is that if the manuscript gets rejected, you then submit it to another journal AND HAVE TO GO THROUGH THIS TORTURE ALL OVER AGAIN. By the end of the protracted process (almost as long and painful as giving birth, I'm told) the paper gets published and you've survived a nervous breakdown and many sleepless nights ... only so others can FORGET TO CITE YOUR WORK WHEN THEY PUBLISH.

6 - Getting reagents from other labs. Aaahh, the other song and dance. "Dear so and so, I really loved your paper (barely read it), interesting results (well actually they're pretty mediocre), we would like to test this idea (if I don't get this last piece of data that lousy reviewer #3 asked for, I'm screwed), could you send us a small amount (but not too small) of antibody/DNA/protein/cell line ... I promise to share any interesting results I get with you." Then if you're lucky they write back telling you "I need X, Y and Z's permission"/"I'm working on this same topic (i.e. get lost)". After a month and several emails (if you're very lucky) a poorly marked tube is sent to you. You use it only to find out that they sent the wrong thing. You inform them. They tell you that their staff changed and they can't locate the reagent. Then one day it finally arrives, it's what you asked for - great! You perform the experiment and ... a negative result.

7 - Tenure and other milestones. The most bizarre event I've ever seen is the "tenure process". It's a time of great stress, where Gandhi like figures turn into little Attilas. Magically your boss who use to be on your side is on your back. "Why weren't you here in the lab last Sunday night?" People flee the sinking ship, your boss looses 10lbs and half of his/her hair. Then it's over, your boss survived or he/she's moving to the University of North Dakota. Then there are the other big milestones, the PhD thesis (i.e. procrastinate ... procrastinate ... furious writing ... 84 hours straight of writing), getting a professorship job (more begging ... and who know's where you'll end up). Each involves a distinct set of painful tasks which leads to many sleepless nights. Ahh, what fun it is to be in academic science!

8 - The Model (or the Ego and the Id). Science is all about models - how does a cell know when to divide? The current model of the cell cycle with it's check points explains it. Good scientists generate good models which fit the experimental evidence and give further insight into the processes studied. However some scientists view their "model" as their own child, fiercely defending it with every psychological means necessary. A subset of those researchers go as far as substitute the model with their own credibility and thus defending the model (in their mind) is equivalent to defending their standing within the scientific community. Data that does not fit is easily discarded and opponents are belittled. As more people subscribe to the model, the model's champion experiences ego inflation. Finally if enough people believe this idea and will irrationally fight for it, that's when the model becomes dogma. Woe is the one to challenge this.

This whole model issue reminds me of a JCS T-Shirt I once received. The caption was:

Owner of the Idea
Chanpion of the Model
Victim of the Dogma

9 - The "Last Experiment" syndrome. About a quarter of all scientists at anytime are performing the famous "last experiment". This elixir supposedly will solve all the researcher's problems. Often it has been catalyzed by mentors, reviews or thesis committees (often with the chant of "just try this") and often looks deceptively simple. If the experiment gives a negative result, the researcher duefully repeats the experiment with additional "tweaks" in a futile attempt to get the damn thing to work. Often the desired result is needed to prove the "model" (see # 8) and so a negative result is greeted with a "just try it one more time, but this time why don't you try ..." Conversely if the experiment works, magically a NEW last experiments appears. Like a black hole, weeks and months disappear with nothing to show for it. Like a drug habit the thing just won't go away. To all those out there on their "last experiment" all I can say is "good luck".

10 - The artifact. Non-scientists may be asking, what is an artifact (in the context of science). Here is a good definition from Wikipedia. These artifacts have plagued scientists for a long time. Want to detect a protein? Use an antibody that "specifically" binds to your protein of interest. But whatchout, this antibody also recognizes (artifactually) a second unrelated protein. Have an assay to see if your protein polymerizes actin by measuring light scattering of the actin sample? Little did you know that the cuvet (i.e. container) that you are using has a scratch in it that can catalyze actin polymerization ALL ON ITS OWN. In the best case scenario, proper controls are performed and you catch the anomaly early. Worse, you spend 3 years on a project only to learn that the premise is based on an artifact. Worst case scenario ... you publish a paper using the artifactual results and your career is over. Artifacts that support the model (see worst thing #8) are hard to catch and harder to overturn. Moreover, results that disprove the model are often disregarded by the model's champions with the quip "those results are artifactual".


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I note that many of these apply mainly to academic science, as opposed to industrial. No begging involved over here, fortunately, and certainly no tenure (with both the good and bad aspects of that lack). The Last Experiment problem is universal, though.

[i]I note that many of these apply mainly to academic science, as opposed to industrial. No begging involved over here, fortunately, and certainly no tenure (with both the good and bad aspects of that lack).[/i]

I was about to say the opposite. The description of "Begging" is identical to my experiences of looking for a paying gig, and probably applies to any freelance or contract employee, science-related or not.

A very accurate view... :-) Thanks for writing this down, now I can just use your post to answer to all people telling me we researchers spend our days daydreaming and drinking coffee. Well, sometimes we do, but not always...

You have just served as the buzzkill for a graduate student looking forward to his experiments for the day. Maybe I should put together a resume for a nice sales job instead. Or maybe I will just look for a job as a bartender.

"You have just served as the buzzkill for a graduate student looking forward to his experiments for the day. Maybe I should put together a resume for a nice sales job instead. Or maybe I will just look for a job as a bartender."

This is called selection. Anyways other jobs have their dark sides. Science is not so bad in comparison (except the pay).

By Acme Scientist (not verified) on 16 Mar 2006 #permalink

"You have just served as the buzzkill for a graduate student looking forward to his experiments for the day."

You were still looking forward to experiments? Wow. How did you manage to hang on to your enthusiasm that long? My advisor confiscated mine at the end of my first semester.

about 1: What do you mean by "Being scooped"? If the paper that comes out coincides with your research, that is good, shouldn't it be?. If it proofs that your research line is a failure, then really your work has been useless.

4,5,7 are different aspects of the military syndrome "la veterania es un grado": people thinks that newcomers must suffer the humillations they suffered, even if such humillations have not proved to be educationally motivated. This is typical of conscripted soldiers, but it is amazing to see how generic this effect is.