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
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!