Enough with the criticism already

Ever wonder why scientists are odd? For the record, I don’t think scientists are really odd, any more than any group of people can be called ‘odd’, as Micheal Crichton said ‘in my experience scientists are very human people.’ Leaving aside Crichton’s issue with redundancy ( are there any other kind of people than human ones? ), he felt the need to justify that scientists are really people. Which we are.

During my short time here in the Blogosphere and in the Twitter universe, I have seen a variety of subtle and unsubtle opinions about what scientists are. Ranging from ‘cool’ to ‘elitist’, ‘entitled’ to ‘bereft-of-any-sort-of-social-skills’, as a scientist, this is all odd to me. I don’t know if I really *feel* like a scientist (whatever that means) – though on paper I am one, I have a PhD, I run a scientific research group, I work at an HEI (Higher Education Institution). I, maybe surprisingly to the late Dr. Crichton, am pretty painfully aware I am a human.

I do think the winds have changed in the last few years, its definitely more hip to be a scientist than it was when I was getting my PhD (even though that wasn’t so long ago). A few years ago if I went to a party and people asked what I did, and I didn’t lie, the usual response was ‘oh, huh‘ accompanied by a pretty brisk walk away. About a year ago, I tagged-along with a friend of mine to a party in London. Upon the confession I was a scientist, I (mostly) heard ‘how cool’ or ‘it must be so great to have a job you are passionate about’. It’s nice to be ‘cool’ for the duration of a random party. But this full swing of the pendulum from wow you are really dull to you are passionate and cool in a mere few years is, to me, odd. The implication is that science is the coolest job ever – and that you must be passionate, rather than the slightly more realistic just good at it in school.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike my job – I think it’s a ‘cool’ job but I am not sure it is the coolest job ever. It is also not without its pitfalls. Like any job, not all of it is honey and roses, in fact there a whole large bits of it I dislike or find rather boring.

Science entails a lot of failure and sitting in front of your computer (or pencil and paper) and grinding through details. Many famous scientists have said this:
Einstein “Genius is 1% talent and 99% percent hard work…”
which he stole from Edison “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

But they said this after they were famous. Perhaps they did before too, to be fair, but no one cared because they weren’t famous. This is inspirational stuff, but when I am sitting at my desk looking at my latest grant rejection letter, it’s not easy to take solace in Einstein’s words. I am not Einstein and am not over-turning hundreds of years of classical physics and I doubt, sincerely, I am going to.

The truth is, as a working scientist you get rejected (and fail in the lab), and you get rejected more of the time than you succeed. Not only do you get rejected, but you are told often why you are rejected. This is, really (and I mean this), a good thing. When rejected for a grant for instance, often the criticisms are telling you what the reviewers want to see and how you can improve. In fact, I just had a paper accepted (barring revisions) this week (yea!) but there are a whole heap of revisions. In fact most of these suggestions have been extremely useful, in the end it has improved the discussion of our work. The criticism isn’t personal, it’s science – when I referee other people’s papers I do the same thing. That is the business side.

On the other side, damn does it get old sometimes. Especially when you get 2 or 3 rejections in a week, so I have to remind myself that I have a good job, which I like and that it is ‘cool’ and that

I will have a good attitude

You just have to steel yourself to it somehow, but this it not always so easy. You have to steel yourself because it really isn’t personal and not only that in the same week you probably have to start a new grant where you spend the first 2 pages telling the reviewers how wonderful you are. All of this assessment is (usually) ultimately a good thing (really), but sometimes I just want to say:

Enough with the criticism already!

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain is a bio-physicist in the Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford (UK), but she blogs in a personal capacity. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain
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11 Responses to Enough with the criticism already

  1. Dani says:

    I love everything you wrote above. You couldn’t be more right! I’m a science undergrad, and people always ask me what do I want to major in, and when I say physics, they’ll either look puzzled, uncomfortable, or they’ll just walk away. Lately however I have come across a few people that acts like it’s the coolest thing in the world. Overall it has gotten down to this: people will either hate it or love it A LOT.

  2. Austin says:

    I usually just tell people I work at the University…!

    I must admit to a deep-rooted distrust of the word ‘passionate’ as it appears in (far too many contemporary) job ads. Though as I loathe the language of jobs ads in general, that’s not much of a surprise.

    I’m definitely in the “Got into this ‘cos I was good at it in school” group myself, school there for me covering both the last two yrs of high school and University. I did Chemistry at University because it was my best subject at A level, and a PhD because people (including my dad) told me that was what people did after a B.Sc.

    I’d say that my academic colleagues are all deeply interested in science, and ‘passionate’ about their work to varying degrees. Or perhaps, most are genuinely passionate about science as a method of interrogating the world, and as an enterprise – I think it’s that thing about ‘being part of something bigger than you are’. Being passionate about the day-to-day grind of the job is, as you say, a bit more of an ask… and some days rather more so than others.

  3. Antipodean says:

    Being a professional scientist seems to require coping with being told to fuck off 80-90% of the time. Jobs/Papers/Grants etc.

  4. This is so true! I’ve just been asked to do a sci-comm thing about ‘Failure’ and I’m like, dude, how much time do you have?

    • Its hard to talk about failure and be upbeat – even though it kind of is – so much luck to you – tell me when it is and I will cheer you on!

  5. Great post, couldn’t agree more. The funny thing about this job, which I’ve never been able to figure out, is that on the one hand you develop a rhinoceros hide to rejection and criticism – but at the same time, the rejections (and occasional successes) can still feel deeply personal. I guess we’re all suckers for inconsistent reinforcement!

    I always find the grant rejections the hardest. It’s one thing being told that my manuscript is crap or that an experiment has flaws. It’s another to be told that an entire body of ideas/work I’ve proposed, and my track record, is a steaming pile and not worth funding. Added to that comes the pressure of supporting a research group, and then the stress factor just goes up and up…

    I have this fantasy about winning the lottery in which rather than retiring to a Spanish villa, it means I can spend the rest of my life doing the experiments I want without ever having to apply for another grant, ever again. Sad, yes! Proof that I am a dork scientist at heart (massive yes).

    • Actually, Chris, that fantasy about the consequences of a lottery win is a common one among scientists – see this post of mine from last year, ‘Job or Vocation?’.

      Agreed about grant rejection being the hardest to take. I was so bad at dealing with it that I never developed the proper ‘armour’… which probably explains why I’ve mostly drifted out of research.

  6. I used to keep a folder full of rejection letters and suchlike. It was always significantly bigger (n=many) than my folder of acceptance and congratulatory letters.

    Eventually I decided this was an unhealthy pursuit and I recycled them all. Surprisingly, it didn’t really make me feel any better about myself, just cleared out a small space in a crowded filing drawer.

    I’m sure there’s a point to this story, and I’m equally sure I don’t know what it is.

  7. John says:

    Sylvia: “I am not Einstein and am not over-turning hundreds of years of classical physics and I doubt, sincerely, I am going to.”

    Alberto E: “The woman who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The woman who walks alone is likely to find herself in places no one has ever been before.”

    Care less about cool or uncool and more about whether someone or something is genuinely interesting or not.

  8. Kyle Griffiths says:

    Yes, this kind of language is overused in advertisements and is pretty ridiculous when you look at it. On the other hand, it’s possible to learn to project enthusiasm in communication, and I think it’s vital in all kinds of professional relationships. My friend, an independent dance-theater artist in San Francisco, who probably faces about as much rejection as any scientist, once pointed out that we are naturally attracted to people who display enthusiasm, and I believe it.

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