Most people that do scientific research for a living seem to have mixed feelings about their job. Many that I know are routinely day dreaming of quitting. This contrasts with the well-established, romantic image of the dedicated scientist who loves his/her work above anything else.
So what is the real story? Do scientists really like, or even love, their jobs and what are the best and worst parts of being a scientist? Analyzing this might prove helpful if you are trying to sort out where you belong in the world of professional science.
This is my personal analysis of the best and worst parts of working in science for me. And the more I think about this the more I find a strange paradox: that the best parts of the job are also the worst parts too! So trying to decide whether I love science or not is like an internal kung fu bout.
In my work I have a very flexible schedule (although I know this is not universally true – it depends on your boss and circumstances). In many regards, it is a true blessing to be able to stretch and patch up your work around your day at your best convenience.
I come and go at the experiment´s pace, which often means that I can almost always sleep in, run my errands outside of rush hour, go to shows in the middle of the week, take vacation when it best suits me, get breaks in the middle of the day, and so on and so forth.
But it also means that more often than not, I have to work on weekends, barely take time off, have to stay long hours when everyone else is enjoying their TV dinners, have to forgo vacations occasionally for years on end, and on average end up working more hours that any regular office fellow.
Strikingly, I see many scientists end up spending a significant amount of additional extra time in lab just by sitting and pondering the misery of their long work hours.
Something different every day
Which leads us to another love/hate feature of my job: the lack of routine. It is remarkable how even I am doing the same set of experiments over and over again, science never gets repetitive. More often than not my days are different, and I learn, attempt, discuss and discover something new in each one of them.
But this enticing novelty can result in a chaotic lifestyle that contaminates everything that I do.
Give a good neat student some lab years and you might find them later in life unable to organize or schedule anything, uncertain about where they will be next year, month AND week. Letting go of long-term planning skills can lend to a chronic state of indecision and severely hamper your future.
But scientists do not usually worry about those problems-to-be, because they are trained for extreme troubleshooting. Creativity roams free in the realm of research, and thinking outside the box is the standard, often required, approach to any challenge.
This carries a pervasive, fresh sense of freedom that can be highly addictive and gives me the idea that I am doing something unique and important. Which I am, most of the time, but the truth is that creativity needs to be fueled and sustained by more tedious groundwork. It cannot be tamed or funneled at will, and that makes it a cruel, unpredictable measure of one´s performance.
Competition and collaboration
I find it gets very stressful to work closely by some of the most talented people the world has to offer. But it can also be very thrilling to be part of a team of experts. The interactive nature of science work is also an aspect that I enjoy, but at the same time it is one of the main sources of complaints and conflict.
In science you share everything, your tools, your materials, your thoughts your results, up to the final credit. This can generate endless disagreements and an inordinate level of frustration on occasion. I hate it when I go use a piece of equipments and it turns out it is filthy, contaminated with radioactivity, broken, or has even magically vanished.
And when someone takes an undeserved author ride on your pet publication, that’s a whole new set of stress!
These things happen everywhere to a certain extent, but it can be a serious drag if you happen to work in a place where disrespect like this is common practice.
There are small perks that I love about science, such as the travel opportunities/obligations, and the rewarding feeling of doing something influential to help society.
Granted, society does not always understand that or want to fund it, so you have to keep fighting to stay at the top and embrace the fad of the moment to be able to sustain your research. And add that to your pile of work-related stress.
The real reward….
But for me there is a clear best reason to love scientific research. And that is those moments, few and far between, of success. Of looking at my cells and illuminating a previously undiscovered biological mechanism. The thrill of being the first one, the sweet sound of all the pieces I so laboriously constructed falling into place, the soothing sense of confirmation, the delayed pleasure of publishing.
Then again, those moments are often sparse and random enough that I can´t really count on them to bring daily satisfaction. Often the reality is quite the opposite, with an assortment of negative conclusions that are hard not to take personally. All kinds of failure stand against one’s chance of success. Most of the time, experiments dangerously resemble all-or-nothing bets.
So how do you deal with these paradoxes?
Like a true ying and yang, most people´s reason to quit science is the very same one that can make you stay.
So the obvious, somewhat comforting conclusion is that you just have to tilt the scales yourself. The job will be what you make of it, once you weigh in your skills and preferences.If you make an honest effort to get to know yourself and evaluate the nuances of work, you are at the best possible position to decide if lab work is what you want.
In the end, consciously deciding to quit or stay does not necessarily change your love for biology, or exile you from working in the science field. It only guarantees that you will be successful, by ensuring that you do what best suits you.
Is science an addiction?
Non-scientists often wonder what working in a lab is like, and why scientists seem to always have mixed feelings about it. It seems like an addiction.
If you ask around, like I did, scientists will cite a combination of these reasons to love their work. Curiously enough, if you came back and asked, like I did, the same people what do they hate about their job, they might cite the very same characteristics:
-lack of routine
-working closely with others/competition
-work around the world
-doing something for mankind
-thrill of discovery/low success rate
-doing what you like/finding out there are many things you hate about it
-the meetings, grants
In the end, the specs are the same, and it is up to you to decide whether you love them or hate them. If you can´t help but do the latter then it might be time to get out.