Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Why? For the giant microbes!

Life in basic science research isn’t always easy. The road to becoming an independent scientist is long and hard. It usually takes five years (or more) for a PhD, where you are expected to produce good, solid science and write a few good papers. After that, you don’t just get a job. You disappear in to the wilderness as a post-doctoral researcher, and work insanely hard under a lot of pressure (that’s if you want to make it as an independent scientist of course). If all goes well, and you do manage to do “exciting” and “brilliant” science, you finally get an appointment as an assistant professor, and start to establish your independent career (which involves endless work hours under immense pressure).

All this while, you’ve lived barely above poverty. When you’re still renting a small one-bedroom apartment somewhere, and driving the old used car you managed to buy, your friends from college have bought mansions and earn a hundred thousand a year. Ah, but you have flexible work hours, don’t you? Well, that is true. You work a flexible 70 hours a week.

But why do perfectly intelligent people go down this road? Why sacrifice a perfectly simple software programmer’s job, or an MBA and riches for a life in science? There are many different reasons. Almost all of them involve a passion for science and discovery, and a love for learning. For me, there’s one little thing that drives me most.

The days of actual discovery are few and far between. They are occasional sparks in otherwise hard, unforgiving days. But every once in a while, you do make a discovery, and are sure of it. At that moment, you are the only person in the whole wide world who knows about it. You rejoice and reflect. And then you announce it to the world.

But that one moment when that knowledge is only yours, and you know that you can share that knowledge with the world is absolutely priceless.

(There’s also one purely material reason I love being a scientist. I can buy stuffed toys that look like disease causing microbes, and find them absolutely lovable. Now, isn’t that picture below a beauty? (That’s HIV. There’s more here)


Anonymous said...

Great post.....going down the same path, so I share these feelings.

So, do we get to read about the big announcement in Science/Nature/Cell ? :-)

(the far-too long in the field cynic in me believes we also go through all this for that elusive 'big' paper !)

Btw, the only thing better than buying a stuffed microbe is getting it free from a vendor at the national conference.

Sunil said...

bongopondit....nothing in cell/science/nature just as yet :-). My publications have all been in good journals, but a notch below these three (you can guess what they are).

I love freebies from vendors. USB sticks, monitor cleaning brushes, T-shirts, even the donuts. The big perks of our lives!

CuriousCat said...

Nice post Sunil, and I sympathize because I am in "the wilderness as a post-doctoral researcher" as you put it. And the reason I am doing this (being unable to buy the cuddly viruses) is that I might be poor, lonely, depressed and overworked, but one thing I never will be is bored!

How do we know said...

No kidding.. and where do u get these cute stuffend toys?

I quite like the perspective in this post.

Sunil said...

curious cat....absolutely. Every day is interesting, even if you're trying to repeat experiments or troubleshooting, you're still thinking (or should be) :-). I'm sure even you can afford the cute stuffed toys...they cost ~6$ each, and are great :-)

How do we know....the link is right there in the text. And you can buy them online.

Glad you liked the perspective. It's not always easy being in science, but it can be very satisfying.

blue dot green said...

A passion for architecture, the joy of working in a creative environment and the responsibility to contribute positively to the built environment, makes up for all the frustration oflow pay, long hours and unethical developers!

Nice article and glad that you like what you do!

Sunil said...

blue dot green.....glad you like what you do too.