Why the grass is always greener once you hit grad school

Let's be honest: the past two weeks have been horrible. On Thursday and Friday, for example, I worked for over 24 hours straight (who needs sleep) on a single project. You may have noticed BioE's silence - no, when I don't have time to sleep, shower or go to the gym, I generally don't find time to post either. Yet during the past two weeks, or two years, I have never once wished I were back in the lab. This Experimental Error post pretty much sums it up:

Growing up, we were the smart ones. We were the valedictorians and the science fair champs, the celebrated nerds who read books for fun and asked for extra homework. Even in college, the brainy kids majored in science and engineering, and the kids who couldn't do math studied economics. We thought we were the only ones taking this education thing seriously. . . .

We thought we would rule the world. Then we got actual science careers.

I realized recently that if I examine it in a day-to-day sense, I have one job in science. It's not curing malaria, which is what my grant says it should be. My job, in essence, is to move small amounts of liquid from one place to another. That's it. . . .

If you ever want to see scientists get nervous, ask them how many actual lives their research has saved or improved. They'll say something like, "Um, ... that's not really ... uh ... what my research is about."

Read the rest, and see if you agree.

The fact is, I was doing something incredibly tiring and often frustrating, but it wasn't boring. Labwork is often boring - you can only read so many papers while you run gels. The rote, mindless tasks only go away when you're a PI (and then you have to sit on committee meetings, write grants, and play faculty politics. Have fun with that.)

No, I'm not saying everyone should leave science, or that people shouldn't go into it in the first place. But I am a little worried about the science education campaigns that strive to make science careers - and therefore labwork - sound as thrilling as a high-speed car chase. The truth is, science is mostly boring. Unless you really love what you're doing, you won't be able to stay motivated during the long dry spells when your confocal is misaligned or your laser isn't calibrated or for some reason the entire cleanroom is contaminated with DNAse or trace bits of plasmid, and you don't get a single piece of usable data. There's not a linear path from grad school to curing cancer, you can't make it go faster by working harder, and most of the time you can't make experiments work by working harder. And if you can't tolerate that,* you won't really ever make the kinds of contributions that help people - you'll just squirm when people ask you about your research, and feel dissatisfied with your career.

The bottom line? If you can't stand enforced unproductivity, or long periods of time with no positive reinforcement, or not being able to explain the relevance of your work to anyone except another specialist in your field, then do yourself a favor and get out of lab research. I did, and I'm not sorry - that grant money is much better spent on my scientist friends. They'll do much more to contribute to world health and happiness than I ever could.

Ok. Now back to trawling terms of service on websites. Which, believe it or not, I like better than putting little labels on tubes. At least most of the time. :)

* even the great Feynman struggled with his motivation. His solution was to turn research into play. With the caveat that that's a little harder in molecular biology, where you have to number hundreds of tubes and plan intricate experiments in advance, if you can keep the spirit of play in what you're doing, you have a very good shot at a successful and happy research career. If you're constantly fleeing the lab TO play, though, well. . .

And yes, posts shall be forthcoming in March. Promise.

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