On why

The other morning, between about 7.30 and 8.45, I had a long, involved and very realistic dream. In it, I visited the MRC LMB in Cambridge, to discover that it had been partly rebuilt into a modern, if not downright space-age, version of a boarding school I once attended. Where my real-world lab had been, however, hadn’t been refurbished and so I made my way through the twisty maze of passages that linked the gleaming whiteness of the new bit to the old bit to say hello to my erstwhile boss. He wasn’t there however, so I sat down at one of the Macs and started writing a blog post.

Way to go, subconscious mind.

As you might imagine, I was reasonably disappointed to wake up and realize I hadn’t written the post (or, if I had, I hadn’t saved it anywhere accessible). But I remember quite clearly the subject of the post, so here you go.

A few years ago, when I was thinking about getting more into writing, I learned that a certain editor of a certain magazine for scientists wasn’t interested in articles from ‘whiny postdocs’. I thought that was a bit rich, but you know what? He had a point. Maybe not so much here at OT, but certainly in other places and in a lot of cartoons (hello Nik!) there is a lot of whining going on.

And maybe it’s because the sun is shining and the spring bulbs are turning their faces to the sky and the birds are coughing in the trees, but I feel like looking on the bright side. I used to say that the day I stopped enjoying doing science, specifically the day I stopped seeing the beauty of immunofluorescent stained cells or failed to be wowed by looking down a microscope at cells in culture would be the day it was time to quit science. As it happens, I got out of the doing of science (professionally, at least) while I was still enjoying it, so I never suffered that kind of disillusionment.

But the thought remains: if so many of us–of you, perhaps–whine so much about science, why do you still do it?

After all, there are many good reasons not to continue–the pay, the conditions, the antisocial hours, the sheer drudging tedium of some of it and the huge amounts of disappointment. What keeps you going?

Why do you stay at the bench?

Extra credit will be given for examples.

About rpg

Scientist, poet, gadfly
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18 Responses to On why

  1. Bob O'H says:

    But the thought remains: if so many of us–of you, perhaps–whine so much about science, why do you still do it?

    because otherwise we’d just be whining about something important.

  2. Benoit says:

    Because every day I learn something new. Not just new to me, new to anyone in the entire world. That is too cool.

  3. Mason Kulbaba says:

    I have a very selfish reason- I want to learn as much as I can before I die.

  4. rpg says:

    Benoit, that is very cool indeed.

    Mason, I think any reason is going to be inherently selfish. I’m not sure anybody reading this blog would be able to say “for the betterment of the human race” and keep a straight face!

  5. Katie PhD says:

    I whine a lot, but I stick with it because I’m determined to finish my PhD (which I started almost 7 years ago). I think that’s the case with a lot of grad students who become tired of being at the bench or re-think their career goals. But postdocs really have no excuse. They should love every second they’re in the lab…right? 😉

  6. I do it because I like doing experiments. It feels like I’m able to play around all day. And to me the disappointments are always counteracted by papers that are accepted or experiments that show exactly what you hypothesized (or something completely different; that’s maybe even more fun).

  7. Hmmm.

    ‘Cos I’m a fifty-year-old man, with two children to support, and I don’t know any other way to earn a crust…?

    But of course I’m not ‘at the bench’, having moved to primarily teaching with only the very occasional foray back into the lab to mend malfunctioning microscopes.

    Actually, if I were to consider my entire scientific career, and exclude, say, the last five mostly teaching years, then of the quarter century that leaves I would only have spent about four or at most five years ‘at the bench’. And three of those would have been my PhD, and I usually only did experiments two or three days a week. In many ways I reckon that’s how I lasted so long in research – had I had to do 50 hrs a week of uninterrupted benchwork, I would have been out of science for good in my mid-20s.

  8. Because I can’t think of anything better to whine about.*

    *not true. I can whine about anything.

  9. Antipodean says:

    Everybody whinges about their jobs, RPG. Plus you’re back in England where the phrase “whinging for England” originates. You may be in an enriched environment?

    Science isn’t about benches or microscopes, it’s about applied methodical doing and thinking. That’s what I would miss the most: the applied problem solving.

    Forgive the rose tinted glasses from this side of the equator- I have finally jumped the postdoc-faculty barbed wire broken-bottle-topped fence into gainful employment.

  10. Steve Caplan says:

    Because scientists aren’t creative enough to do anything else?!

  11. Eva says:

    Like Katie, I only stuck with it to finish the PhD. I like science a lot better now that I don’t have to do the pipetting.

  12. And: what Eva said. 🙂

  13. A strange mix of being both too overqualified and too inexperienced to do anything else.

    (Only half joking…)

  14. NLB says:

    Because I have spent 30 years of my life being paid for my hobby! Mind you, it’s a bit tough on my wife and kids. Fortunately I went straight from my first postdoc (LMB Cambridge) to a lectureship and have never looked back ( or whined).

  15. Michelle says:

    I stick with it bc having worked in the real world for 14 years I found the real world all too boring. Nothing new ever happens. In science, everything is new and never boring. A selfish constant quest for self enlightenment that I can then pass on to other like minded selfish questing people.

  16. Dr 27 says:

    Like I mentioned on my tweet, even with a bipolar boss, I still keep going (and enjoy it very much) when I’m playing with my big toys and getting beautiful results. I get seriously excited when I’m working on my own, for long hours, and can see the fruits of my labour. That keeps me going. But mostly, liking my discipline. That is one thing I didn’t like in my postdoc, which I think it’s a bit contributor to why I disliked it so much (and it was so obvious, especially to my boss).

  17. Jason G. Goldman says:

    It’s all worth it for those brief moments when you’re staring at your data and your stats and you discover something new – a tiny bit of the reality of the universe that, for a moment, nobody else knows to be true except for you.

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