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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Top Five Reasons Why Science Sucks

I know you're thinking, "Dude, aren't you like, doing this science thing man? How can you diss it?"

My friend, I've been in this business for five years. Not quite a battle-hardened veteran yet, but certainly no starry-eyed puppy.

So I know what I'm saying. I'm not denying that some parts of science are fun. Like when an experiment works out perfectly and the data matches your expectations. And those entertaining, bawdy intellectual discussions between fellow researchers.

Then there are... the other parts.

Fresh Brainz counts down the top five reasons why doing science sucks!

5. Moolah: The Lack Thereof

Few people do science for the sake of getting rich. Even so, I think people fail to realize just how little money they will make by this career route. This is especially painful when you're in graduate school.

When I saw my first student stipend, my heart sank. It was about the same as the salary of a factory worker. I'm telling you, being a geek, I had always thought that money didn't matter to me.

I was wrong. That hurt.

Should you intend to do science, there will come a day when a "less educated" friend drives up to you in a shiny new Honda, complete with an impressive job title, exclusive club memberships and wads of dough.

While all you have is instant noodles to keep you alive.

Did your eyelids twitch there for an instant? Please think twice.

4. What Job Security?

I know some Singaporeans look down on contract work. They prefer to be offered a permanent position.

Here's the real deal: in science there is no such thing as a permanent position. Research assistants typically get 1-3 year renewable contracts.

Post-doctoral fellowships last three years each. Even assistant professors are on three-year contracts. Only tenured professors get some semblance of permanence.

Very, very few scientists become tenured professors.

Your performance is always being assessed, so it's hard to tell how long you can stay employed. This is one reason why researchers always try to save money when they can.

In Singapore, administrators drive big cars and eat at fancy restaurants, but scientists - even the directors of research institutes - take public transport.

3. The Devil Is In The Details

When I was a little boy I loved drawing, so my mum took me to an arts class.

I drew stars as little dots because I knew they are faraway suns. My teacher insisted that they should be drawn with five corners, because "we" see them with five corners.

Well I don't. And I have never drawn stars with five corners ever since. I told my mum, "I don't want to have more arts lessons. If I learn too much about it, I will not love art any more."

Unfortunately, doing science is all about details. You have to check all of the nitty-gritty bits about your research. Previous work, the methods: technology, reagent, protocol, experiment approach, conclusion... lots and lots of painful details. There are often exceptions and ambiguities.

It can become too much sometimes. BORING!

Ultimately, Mother Nature is the Boss. A complex, messy model that is supported by evidence is always chosen over a simple, elegant model that is unsupported.

Amidst all these rules and details, is there any room for creativity in science?

Pffft, sure.

It's like manoeuvering a unicycle on a tightrope.

2. Failure Inc.

Do you like failure? How do you like it ten times in a row? Or 100 times? Science is about the cutting edge. Which means that there is no guarantee of success.

To make things worse, experiments usually have numerous steps. If you're lucky, failure strikes you at the first step. If you're not... there'll be a massive amount of troubleshooting to do.

Many times in your research career your self-confidence will be tested to its limits. In fact, my own morale was so devastated after my qualifying exam that I created Fresh Brainz out of sheer frustration!

The public fantasizes about smart people in white lab coats having a quick answer for everything. They have no idea how much work is required just to understand a tiny detail in science.

I think this is the main reason why scientists loathe creationists / intelligent design theorists so much. Those assholes think that "doing science" is sitting on a high pedestal and criticizing everything that scientists do while producing absolutely no experimental evidence of their own.

No it isn't.

1. Where Did My Youth Go?

And the Number One reason why science sucks is - the long duration of training.

Young, chirpy idealists enter the profession with dreams of greatness. A few years as an undergraduate. A few years of graduate school. A few more years as a first post-doc. Then the second post-doc...

Year by year your youth trickles away.

One day you will look back and discover that while other people were spending the best years of their life building their families, gaining wealth and generally having fun - you were alone in the lab accompanied only by flasks of bacteria.

Always waiting... waiting for stuff to equilibrate, incubate or terminate.

Not like I am trying to be discouraging or anything. ;)


Anonymous said...

That is a sucky way to view you live and profession.
I'm in my last year of a science Degree and love it, when experiments go wrong its almost as much fun because you then have to figer out what went wrong and do it again. Anyway people of the world do science anyway dispite what this article says.

ah said...

@Anon 1:16

Yeah, this article is a bit pessimistic, but it is accurate.

Also some more problems that Mr Lim has not yet encountered:
6. Dealing with lousy supervisors.
Because there are a heck of a lot of really crappy ones.

7. Some people are just not cut out for science, and never will be.

8. Being scooped.
Worked for years on a hot topic and then your results get published but your name is not on the paper (another group publishes first). There are no prizes for coming second.

9. Publish or perish.
Cliched, I know, but very true. The pressure that builds from a barren year of no publications can be immense. The pace can be terrifying. The target is one first author paper a year - but a lot of people publish more than that.

10. Punishing hours.
Also see 9. And there is always someone working harder than you.

For some balance, here's some good stuff:
1. Intellectual exploration. There's no greater rush than really making a big breakthrough.

2. Colleagues.
They are quirky and fun.

3. The challenge.
It sure is a big one.

4. Logical problem solving.
No other job presents you with such a complex problem.

5. Conferences.
They are great fun plenty of beer and crazy people, but unfortunately they only really become available at postdoc level and above...

6. Job mobility.
If you want to see the world and still get paid - job mobility is excellent. USA - Europe - Asia. Even the developing world is offering places these days.

7. You get to manage your own time.
Er... like me, I should really do some tissue culture...


Lim Leng Hiong said...

To anonymous,

My article is a tongue-in-cheek rant about the suckiness of science. Did you notice the "comedy" tag? The Devil is in the Details my friend!

Anyway, there is a kernel of truth in what I'm saying. I know you're not convinced - as an undergrad I wouldn't believe it either. You simply have to experience it yourself ;D

To A.H.,

You are absolutely right. Those are good reasons why people continue to do science despite the painful bits. Thanks for sharing those additional points!

csbartus said...

and ... science sucks because two other important reasons:

1. they are looking to know the world in the Western way, from outside, instead of inside like in East.

2. scientists are mostly sold their soul out to capital.

or maybe, just because there are no more moral considerations since the last century ...

metaprogram yourself and build a new canon @

Lim Leng Hiong said...

To csbartus,

I've checked out your website - I find some fragments of scientific and philosophical ideas, but I don't understand what you mean.

Anyway, thanks for coming to Fresh Brainz and best wishes for your new blog!

Anonymous said...

supervisor sucks sucks sucks...they:
-use students for their own benefit
-think they are the king
-give you no credit for your work
-make you feel little
-etc etc etc

Anonymous said...

I agree-- have lost my 20's, have no money, am in debt as i couldn't afford to live on my phd stipend, have ruined relationships because i spent too long in lab, have a sucky boss who isn't letting me graduate, get no respect from society (we're not "real" doctors), have no decent-paying job prospects (you can make more as a secretary with no degree than as a post-doc). run, run, run away now, while you can, before you get sucked into the phd-no-future vortex.

Lim Leng Hiong said...

To Anon 8:14,

Reality bites. Here, have another beer.


Anonymous said...

Who needs science ?

We've managed to live for thousands of years without it.

Anonymous said...

This guy isnt being pestimistic just realistic. I did my PhD and have to say it was the most miserable years of my life. Science work is highly technical and requires alot of training yet you get paid squat, you work like a dog and get treated like shit. You also missed out

1 working with nerds with absolutly no social skills.yes no work banter
everyone is miserable.

2 Snobbery When you worked in academia u realize just how snooty everyone is and theyre all backstabbing b*Stards.Oh srry i mean "competative atmosphere" cough

3 Dont expect to get much respect for your science qualifications when you eventually get fed up of being a slave and try and do something else.

Total waste of time doing science the Phd no job vortex indeed.

Anonymous said...

One reason that has not come up and I think is big:


When you are strict and interpret negative data in the right way you get credit for nothing while many next to you choose only the experiments that work and make a big story about 10% percent "significant" differences. The worst is when some of these works get published because the scientists have a big name. Not fair at all and it takes all the motivation away. Yes, time will take care of proving studies like these useless, but when you are fighting every day to stay alive professionally it matters very little.

Anonymous said...

Its all true. Science sucks. I have a degree, masters and PhD in the subject. I also started a postdoc but left after a year. Can only manage to get a dead end job in IT - bottom of the pile, that's me. DONT DO IT. And if you've already started on the long road to nothingness then good luck, but you won't need it as you're probably heading for the same destiny me regardless.

unemployed scientist said...

Yep Science sucks. I have BSc, MSc, PhD and 7 years experience. I did applied research which meant lots of report writing for the government, but then I had fewer publications. Now, despite being a top specialist in my field, I have too few papers to get grants and am effectively unemployable (been unemployed for 4 months). Also in some countries (such as where I live) as a post-doctorate you get paid untaxed grants, which means you don't receive any unemployment benefit. A 1 month english teaching course, and I will be earning the same that I earnt with 9 years of higher education.

Also, publication is much more dependent on networking than on proper science. There are papers in top journals that are just not worth the paper they're printed on, whereas if you actually SAID that, you'd never get another thing published.


Francois said...

This article is very true!

I love science and innovation very much, I imagine how great life is to be paid to innovate something new..


as a scientist your life depends on the GRANTS. So the institution who gives grant DICTATES your research! We got paid peanut (the same as factory worker) to work looong hours on complex subject with the additional obligation, to publish it!

As a PhD or Postdoc, EVERYONE IS YOUR BOSS! Your supervisors, people from industrial partner or any institution who gives my case I have to report to 6 people every week!

After being a PhD student for nearly 4 years (god knows when they let me finish it), I become really really sour person, I wasnt the person I was before. I understand really the true meaning of Permanent Head Damage aka PhD.

I am 32 yo PhD student, no house, no career, no savings, work 7 days/week, I have lousy car though for buying rice and sausage.

Oh yes of course I don't have girlfriend, I have no time for social life and girls literally CRINGES when they hear that you are PhD student..

Leave academia as soon as you can.
if you are an engineer, get Master in business and few industrial certification (PE,PMP,) and find a sales engineering or project management related job, its the recipe to success..

Dont ever think about academia,never never never..

Anonymous said...

I agree with most of the comments. Doing a PhD is a complete waste of time. Be sure that you'll spend loooong hours doing absolutely meaningless crap that noone cares about.

It's funny when they say: "publish a nice paper in this nice journal, wow, you'll be successful". Wait, would you care defining successful first? Do you mean happier? Oh. You meant nothing. I see. Ok. So just spend years writing a hell of a lot of crap that noone cares about, and in the future you'll be... hmm... oh, yes. Successful. Great. And you may even get more working hours. Wouldn't that be awesome?

Problems that I see on a PhD:

1) The chance you get some topic which really matters is spurious. And even if it matters, chances are that you won't personally benefit in any way. Too many chances. No control. No gain.
2) Most of the people are boring as hell and they don't have anything interesting to share (this probably depends on the field, I can only talk from my own experience).
3) It is a disturbingly unsociable job. Be aware that you'll need to put emphasis on boosting your social life outside your job.
4) Continuous feeling that you're wasting your life doing crap. We only got a life, better do something that you can enjoy or at least someone in this world can enjoy.
5) You may increase the human knowledge, but in a mediocre amount. Which means what you're doing is mediocre. Do you settle for mediocrity?
6) You are no longer a student, but you're still treated like one. You are forced to do stupid irrelevant tasks just because you need them to obtain the PhD. Just a ridiculous example: In my case I have to take additional lectures about a topic which must be unrelated to my research. My choice is limited to what can be done in my university. I don't need any of the knowledge that they can give me, so they basically tell me: "waste your time doing this useless crap. We think it's good for you, because... uh... knowing more things is just... good. Right? And if we don't force you to learn something that you want to learn, you won't do it by yourself."
7) You learn to despise your work. The usual PhD or post-doc, after writing a paper, they don't want to see it ever again.
8) You enter into a job which is regulated and constrained to certain rules. There's one way to do things and you have to follow it. I believe that alone gives an idea of how bad is a PhD.

And one good thing.

Doing a PhD sucks so badly and is so obviously so lacking of utility, that you'll eventually go through a depression, and you'll ask yourself: "is that all that there is?". You'll being asking yourself what it is that you really want, and you'll begin to realize how to reach there. You'll suddenly see more possibilities than you ever saw before. Unfortunately, you'll also realize that everything that you did from college to the PhD was probably a waste of time. But the good thing is: if you go into this depression and you overcome it, you'll be a lot more wise, more careful and you'll know yourself, and what you're worth, far better than before.
The bad thing of the good thing is that you probably don't need to spend 4 years in college and 3 on a PhD to reach that point, and it could be done much faster.

This said, I hope that everyone here stopped their PhDs or decided not to do one and get the hell out of academy as fast as possible.

As Gandalf said: "fly, you fools"

Anonymous said...

I think you meant to say "figure" Mr. Science degree