My recent post on “Should you do a higher degree” has got me reminiscing about my time in the lab. From a surgeon’s point of view it is not as exciting as our usual day, it’s lonely at times, deathly boring and ultimately not what we want to do. So here is my guide to what sucked about science from a medics point of view.
1. Your project is probably going to be shit
I did not discover a new treatment for colon cancer or a new test for breast cancer. I did not end up with a fabulous publication in the British Journal of Surgery or Gut. My expectations were that I would contribute something great to the world of science which was insanely naive, but that’s what I was when I embarked on this project.
2. Bitches with an attitude
I worked with some really nippy cows, I mean really nippy. The idea that scientists are failed doctors is an erroneous one, they are not like us, they are genuinely interested in the signalling pathways of the cell cycle. We are just there to tick a box, find a protein and get back to our real work. You have to throw yourself into science world, do what they advise, dress like they dress and never, ever, refer to yourself as Doctor if you are there as a research fellow. I had one particularly nasty woman in my lab who let me waste nearly an entire day trying to find a chemical called “MilliQ H20″….it’s filtered water.
3. Coffee breaks.
The scientists work funny hours. They come in about 9am (we start at 7.30am) and have a coffee, followed by an official coffee break at 10.30. Followed by lunch at 1pm, coffee at 3pm and they leave about 7pm. All that coffee! All those breaks! Just get on with it and leave at 4pm!!! This is not how science is conducted. There is probably an etiquette regarding how this is paid for and supplied, which you will fall foul of, so bring your own coffee mug and don’t touch any of theirs.
4. All those meetings
They like having meetings a lot. They like to schedule them well in advance and ensure that they are well organised for them. This necessitates more meetings about the meeting. They don’t like to meet for more than an hour, so they will reconvene at another meeting rather than keep going. I do operations that take 10 hours sometimes and we don’t have a break, don’t mention this sort of thing to them.
5. Departmental presentations
Tedious. Your own research is at least moderately interesting to you, sadly you will be expected to attend weekly departmental lab meetings to listen to other people’s research; this is boring, unnerving (their stuff will look much better than yours), exposes your utter lack of science knowledge (what is SDS lysis?) it is just another coffee break excuse and there isn’t even a free lunch from a drug or device company.
This is painful, it takes ages. You must grasp the thesis with two hands and sit dow every day for several hours to write. It cannot, for example, live in your dining room hidden behind your piano. Thesis_final_Sept2004.doc is the wrong time to return to clinical work, I can assure you from personal experience that you will not be finished 6 weeks after you return to clinical practice regardless of the optimistic name of your current draft. It is finished when it is submitted. You can do the corrections from clinical work in 6 weeks no problem at all.
7. The unexpected set backs
I was going to do x,y and z within 6 months, but that turned out not to be the case. Be prepared for setbacks, disasters, things not working, colleagues not doing what they said, equipment not working etc.
8. It can be lonely
My experiments took ages to run, it involved me in a lonely, contaminated specimen evacuator hood for hours with nobody to talk to. You can’t listen to the radio or music because you are constantly counting and checking. It is dull; it strengthens your character though I am sure. I also missed patients, my colleagues, the nurses and the comfort of doing my job well.
9. The pay cut
I had no Mr KBW or children when i did my research, still it was a shock going from an old fashioned “Band 3” (an illegal rota and thus paid at basic salary plus 100%) job to basic pay. It was made more difficult because I had all those weekends off that I had previously been working and so had more time to spend less money.
10. The lack of a daily sense of achievement
In a job where we maybe fix someone or something on a more than daily basis, we are quite focused on goals and driven by the rewards and gratification that looking after a ward of people can bring. In science this daily sense of achievement is not there and even after 6 or 12 months it can be hard to see what you have achieved. Set small goals and reassess your progress frequently.
It isn’t all bad though, there were lots of things I did like about research too, the travel, my supervisor, no weekends and nights, the control over how I would organise my day (unimaginable to most surgical trainees), the joys of academic study. I would have no hesitancy in recommending it you wholeheartedly, if you remember my top tips above.