*I should say here that this is Biochemistry from how I see it at this stage in my career – there will almost certainly be people that feel differently, and it will almost certainly be different for other scientific disciplines (or maybe not!). I should also point out I wrote this after a particularly frustrating day in the laboratory….*
My partner recently described me as a “science bipolar”. He says that some days I come back from the laboratory literally bouncing off the walls, loving science, and other days I’m in despair, wondering what I got myself into.
That’s just life as a scientist. You share a love/hate relationship with your work. There’s the agonizing frustration of trying to get an experiment to work for 3 months before realizing one of the reagents (our word for the ingredients/chemicals that go into our experiments) isn’t working. Or there’s the mystery of why exactly repeating someone else’s experiment doesn’t give you the same result. It’s difficult not to take it personally.
But then, when an experiment does work, when you get a really exciting result, it makes it all the sweeter, and you remember why you love science.
It’s easy to forget something though. Science is hard. I know it sounds like a completely ridiculous and obvious thing to say, but it is. Perhaps I should say being a scientist is hard. It’s not enough to be logical and “good at science” – you could have been top of your class, but it’s not enough.
In The Laboratory
You have to be precise and organized. Its no use having a “that’ll do” attitude – Biochemists often work with microlitres (that’s 0.000001 litres) of liquids at a time, and slight inaccuracies can throw your results off. What’s more, the liquids are usually all colourless so you can’t even double check you’ve put the right thing in the right place. You have to make sure you have all the equipment and reagents you need before you start, and that someone hasn’t used everything up without telling you.
For the sake of efficiency, you often need to run several different experiments at once (particularly when nearing the end of your PhD….). This means planning your time down to the minute, and often working longer, non-standard hours. If you’re a successful early career academic working 9 to 5 every day (without coming in at weekends), tell me your secret.
At school, all practical work comes with instructions, and they have usually been tried and tested many times. Reassuringly, there are many experiments in the real world of science that have been done numerous times before, so there is usually someone you can ask about it, but the experiment nearly always needs “optimizing” for your conditions, your reagents. Sometimes you have to come up with a protocol from scratch, which takes common sense, a fair bit of trial and error, and above all, patience. And the self-control not to stab yourself with the pipette when it doesn’t work twenty times in a row.
Alternatively, there’s the confusion of why an experiment does work twenty times in a row but then suddenly stops working….
Of course, this is all part of the fun – it’s the problem solving that can be immensely satisfying, and is what scientists spend most of their time doing. However, it can be very frustrating.
You have to be independent. Sometimes your supervisor isn’t around. Actually, for some people their supervisor is never around (particularly if your supervisor is a Professor and needs to teach undergraduates). This means you are normally chucked in at the deep end at the beginning of a PhD. The learning curve is steep, but it blows my mind when I compare the knowledge I have now compared to when I started.
Talking to People
Get rid of that image of a scientist as a recluse with no social skills. You have to be good at communicating with people. As a scientist you’re usually required to give presentations on a regular basis, as it’s the only way other scientists know what you’re up to and are able to offer help and suggestions.
At conferences involving scientists from other universities, you might need to present a poster, or another talk. And this is no place to be insecure – although most scientists will be helpful, there will always be some that are out to pick holes in your research. As a scientist, you need to stand your ground, and network, network, network, as you never know where your next job/employee will be coming from after your 3 years of funding runs out.
I remember one of my first ever conferences – a guy in the final year of his PhD was giving a clear, interesting presentation on his data. Just as this talk was starting, I noticed an academic sidle into the lecture theatre. He didn’t sit down, just leaned against the wall with a determined look on his face. After the talk had finished he immediately shot his hand into the air to ask a question. Except it wasn’t a question – more of a statement really. That the speaker’s data was all rubbish and he didn’t believe a word of it. Now, science is all about discussion and rigorously proving your data to skeptics, so the principle of this is fine – what annoyed me was the way he did it. But what really got me was that he then left and didn’t come back. Almost as if he had specifically come in just to show up this particular speaker. Clearly, none of the other science was interesting enough.
*Not all scientists do this, that was an exception rather than the rule, but I feel compelled to point out that there are people like that in science*
The thing is, the communication is where it gets really exciting. You get great ideas for experiments from people, form collaborations, or you just get downright excited by their data and what it means. The trick to being successful in science is networking – a lot of great science has come out of scientists meeting over a pint.
There is a freakish amount of pressure to publish
You have to be good at working under pressure. The only measure there is of how “good” you are is how many papers you’ve published in journals, and how noteworthy they are. Published papers means you attract money from funding bodies, meaning you can expand your lab, hire more people, and then get more published papers. It’s a circle that you need to get into if you want to be at the head of your own successful lab.
Journals have a weird objection to publishing “negative” results. We call something a “negative” result when a hypothesis doesn’t turn out to be true. So therefore you have to come up with a positive, strong and exciting story from your research on a regular basis. I would argue that the negative results might be more useful as it would mean other scientists wouldn’t go barking up the wrong tree studying the same thing. But I don’t run the place.
What a lot of people don’t realise is the time scale involved in producing a Nature-standard paper. It takes years (in Biochemistry anyway), particularly if there is any animal work involved. Moreover, you often can’t do it by yourself – you have to collaborate with other research groups (which is another reason you need to be a good communicator).
Once you have a story together, you really have to work hard to get it published. You have to be savvy at “selling your story”, and your data needs to be watertight if you are aiming for the top journals. Once you have sent your paper off, if it is accepted, it will almost always come back with a to-do list of extra experiments to do that will convince your reviewers that the story is true. The real nightmare is when these experiments don’t work – it really is sod’s law… Sometimes the paper will bounce back and forth between the scientists and the journal a few times before being officially published.
Of course, the paper can just be rejected straight off.
Scientists have been known to be dishonest and manipulate their data to fit the story; though I should point out this is rare. It’s easy to get judgmental about this, until you realise the sorts of pressures scientists are under (I’m not condoning manipulating data, I’m just saying that there’s a reason for everything).
The thing is, you don’t have much time. A PhD lasts 3-4 years in the UK (that’s nothing, I promise you), and then your contracts after that will probably be similar lengths until you set up your own lab.
But when you do publish – well it’s a feeling of relief and elation (and time for the pub).
And don’t get me started on when the media get hold of your research
The media will often embroider your research with an attention-grabbing title like “Drug X cures cancer”, when often it has just had some promising results in cells in a culture dish, or in a mouse (neither are the same as having that drug in a human, it just tells you that it might be effective). The media will jump on things (and sometimes scientists oversell their results), which means that when two groups of scientists have conflicting ideas and results (e.g. can you or can’t you drink wine occasionally when pregnant, or what is causing global warming), the non-scientists of the community lose faith in scientists. It’s hardly fair really.
So we deserve more credit. After reading this, you probably think I don’t want to be a scientist anymore, but I really do – being an academic working in science is a relationship rather than a job. I always love it; I just don’t always like it. There’s something inherently cool in having your own project, your own puzzle to solve. There’s always those moments when you get your results and you think “Wow, cool”. *Does excited dance*.
And that keeps me going.