Science: a path of perseverance

A career in research takes a special kind of person

Image: Synthetic Biology Research at NASA Ames / Alexander van Dijk

Science is for lovers. If you don’t love it, then you’re better off finding a different career path: one with financial freedom, glamorous clothes, and the opportunities to wear them.

If you’re really set on it though, let me walk you through the life that lies ahead.

From Joe Bloggs to Dr Joe Bloggs PhD

First is your degree, usually a BSc in a general subject. But then, rather than diving into the job market in search of renumeration, we scientists usually spend another year doing a Masters course, and/or struggle through another three in order to get a PhD. That’s where I am now.

If you’re going to survive your PhD, be prepared to stock up on chocolate, caffeine, comfortable clothes and hand cream, and bring it all to your new home, aka “the lab”.

You might, if you’re very lucky, land yourself a decent project where things go pretty well. By this we mean, of course, that only 50% of your work will have to be binned. You’ll also need to pray for a supervisor that both knows your name and bothers to come to the office.

If you’re lucky enough to have both these things fall into your lap, then congratulations: you’ll likely complete your PhD with only a moderate amount of pain. If not, well, that’s what the chocolate’s for.

From lab lackey to Principal Investigator

You’ve finally submitted your PhD thesis and become a Doctor – now it’s time to land yourself a position in a research lab. Three years-plus of a very average salary – and without the student discounts you’ve got used to – but with the dream of becoming a Principal Investigator – a PI – and finally setting your own agenda.

If you’re wise, lucky, smart and lucky, it’ll happen. You’ll be PI, and boss of your lab. “Hurrah,” you say! After all, this is the job you’ve been working so hard for. But…

Of course there is a But. With two-letter titles comes great responsibility. Also, a ridiculous amount of bureaucratic red-tape, ballooning teaching commitments, a never-ending hunt for money, late-night grant writing, paper reviewing, student tutoring, project administration, and management of supplies. Oh, and a tiny bit of lab work.

The motivation

With all these disadvantages to the life of a scientist, why are scientists generally so happy in their work? To the uninitiated it must seem bizarre – how could anyone enjoy that kind of life? –  but the truth is that we learn to appreciate every small victory, however fleeting. Every time a simple experiment works out, we exhale in relief.

We know how easy it is for things to go wrong because we’ve seen it happen a lot along the way. No matter how many times we follow a procedure, and no matter how simple it appears to be, we keep in mind that science is a demanding lover with eccentric requests and tricks.

We learn to take joy, or at least contentment, from decent results, understanding that every win, as small as it looks, is a step towards our goals as researchers, and our goals as curious humans.

The importance of being surrounded by people who understand our struggles cannot be underestimated either. Scientists hang out with scientists because of a shared language of experimentation: the inside-joke we made in the lab, playing with liquid nitrogen despite burning the tips of our fingers, the excitement of a Christmas ball, or the experience of a soporific conference where whole days are split between wine and research presentations.

Science is, above all else, a path of perseverance, stubbornness, and unshakable souls. Let us find happiness in our lunacy, and may you join us if you discover your sadistic side.