[Life of a Scientist] What is it Really Like to be a Scientist: Expectation vs Reality
Updated: Sep 1, 2021
A lot of people tends to fantasize about the lives of scientists. If I'm being completely honest, I used to be one of them, until one day I ended up becoming a scientist myself. As a scientist, I get a lot of questions on what is my work actually like. It's actually a rather amusing experience. People always look at me as if I'm some sort of rare, endangered species when they learnt that I'm pursuing a career in academia. If you too are intrigued by the 'mysterious' life of a academic scientist, just keep reading.
Lets start with what I thought becoming a scientist would mean when I was still in college. Back in those days, I too was a young and green science student, studying this cool subject called molecular biology. I have chosen to major in this subject myself; at that moment, not even my parents understood what is this exotic branch of study about. As a student, all I knew was that this is a wide and deep field of study and I simply enjoyed my entire university life, getting lost in the sea of knowledge with great pleasure. Studying was tough indeed, but back then, science was simple, at least that's how it seemed.
Back then, being a young scientist was about learning all the cool and amazing techniques, following protocols and always getting my expected result in teaching labs. I too once thought that this would be the dream-come-true path where I will have both fame and fortune while doing the things I love as a scholar. It wasn't until I was in my final year of undergraduate study, when I started my final year project, that I start to understand that that is not how scientific research works at all.
It wasn't until then, that I start to realise that protocols don't always work, and 99% of the time we don't get results we expect. In fact, most of the time SCIENCE DOESN'T WORK. I struggled; I really struggled. I think that was one of the critical moment where I started to really think about my career path. Do I really want to do this for a living, knowing it is going to be a very difficult path and knowing this is going to be a very frustrating job? Yes, I hesitated. I believe most of us did. You would be amazed by among all the science graduates, how many of us actually choose to pursuit a career in science. Very few indeed. It is true that the more you know, the more you realise you don't know; especially for those who work in scientific research like myself. When we study basic science, more often than not we tried to answer a question, and ended up with 10 more of them. Scientific research is about constant studying, constant questioning and consequently more studying. It is a never ending cycle and yet the knowledge is so charming and any new discovery brings us so much joy and satisfaction, we are addicted to it.
Unlike other bachelor graduates, as a science graduate fresh out of college, there is hardly any job out there for us, especially not in the research industry. Most of the jobs requires a at least a Master's degree if not a PhD. Let alone how little we're getting paid. Yes, you read me right, most scientists are severely underpaid. I still remember my first graduate job was to work as a research assistant in one of the best universities in my country. I generally work 8 to 13 hours a day, I worked weekdays and weekends, even on Christmas, and I earn no more than a regular dish washer in a chain fast food shop each month. When you consider my long working hours, I was in fact earning less than minimum wage. And the living cost in a big city is so high that I actually worked 2 part time jobs at the same time, alongside my main job, to make a living.
Living, or working as a scientist is not all glamorous as some might have thought. Those outside of this circle imagine scientists being these geniuses who sat in their chairs and just came up with all these amazing ideas out of nowhere; and than they perform one experiment, wearing their cool white lab gown, and they became famous after a poof of rainbow coloured cloud exploded from a conical flask. Honestly guys, this couldn’t be any further from the truth.
The everyday reality of a scientist is full of sweat, pain and regrets. Ideas and inspirations don’t just come to us from a dream or after a good glass of whiskey. Scientific ideas originated from months and months of hard work, after we have read hundreds and thousands journal articles. And to turn our ideas, or hypothesis as we call them, into reality, a group of multiple brilliant scientist work for months (if you’re really lucky) or even years (which is the typical case), doing millions and millions of repeated experiments, spending thousands and millions of pounds, in order to prove just one point. Experimental data does not come in a rainbow coloured poof of cloud, I can assure you that. An average scientist usually spend at least couple of years to produce enough data to publish just one publication. People often thinks that science is what makes things work. Yet the truth is, as a scientist, 99% of the time science doesn’t work. Because it doesn’t work, we have to figure out how to make it work and serve a purpose for us, that, to me, is science. To me, science is all about the question of why and how.
I’m not saying scientists aren’t geniuses, because they are indeed brilliant people. But if I’m being honest, most of us are just stubborn idiots who are not willing to give up, because we just love it too much to do so. Also be prepared to meet some reeeeeally strange people, because weirdos aren’t uncommon in this field, in the best way possible! It is a kind of insider joke really, one of the most popular after-a-pint topic of argument among me and my fellow scientist friends, is whether it is working in this field turning us weirdos, or whether it is all the weirdos ended up in academia because we have nowhere else to go to.
In my opinion, being a scientist is about exploration, adventure and searching for the truth. It is not an easy job and often times there is no reward to our hard work; but when there is, the fruit is oh so sweet and it’s at that instance, you do not regret choosing to become a scientist. When we do experiments, what usually happens is we want to solve one problem, so we go ahead to read tons of paper trying to find a solution, and realize that we have just generated 10 more unanswered questions. What happens in teaching labs stays in teaching labs. The brutal reality is that it has nothing to do with real life research, and they are not the same at all. In teaching labs, we know the experiment would always work because someone has designed it and tested it for you. But when we’re doing real research ourselves, things almost never goes that smoothly.
What Does it Mean to be a Scientist?
As a scientist you will meet a lot of like-minded people, where you share your thoughts and ideas and try to push the advancement of science together.
Your research might have a great impact and might be life changing. However, do not expect to see the fruit of your labour while you’re alive. Most of the time it takes decades if not centuries before scientific discoveries are being translated into practices. This is especially true for those who work on basic science (like myself). The situation is probably better for computer scientists and engineers; but still, do not expect to see the wold shake by your discovery, because most of the time our discoveries are only very small steps and the impact is therefore very small. Even if it was a big discovery, you probably would not live long enough to witness it bringing huge changes to the society.
In a sense, doing scientific research is like gambling. A lot of the times you have observed a phenomenon, and you try to explain it. More often than not there will be more than one possible mechanism that could’ve lead to that observation. But with limited time and resources, as a researcher you could only make an educated guess and hope for the best. This is the reality of scientific research.
To be a scientist means you need to have a passion for science, and that flame of enthusiasm must stay lit. Doing research is, I won’t lie, a rather frustrating process. Most of the time your experiments won’t go they way you wish they would, and it takes a lot of perseverance for anyone to keep going. If there has to be one single take home message from this entire blog post, it is that to be a scientist is to have a never-ending love for science. I might have made it sounds complicated but at the end of the day, it really is just that simple. However, do keep in mind that that passion could easily go off as soon as you forgot the reason why you started it at the first place.
Reasons to Become a Scientist
There really are no better reasons to become a scientist other than the fact that you LOVE science. If you are desperate for knowledge and have unlimited curiosity, this is the job for you. You will also get to travel a lot and meet new people with similar minds. It is true that a lot of talented scientists grew up as 'weirdos' feeling that they don't belong. I was one of them. I was lonely when I was a kid, knowing there is something about me that is different from the rest of my peers and thus I had difficulties fitting it. It is not like it has bothered me, but things did get a lot better once I entered college and found a group of really good friends. It was in the science community that I have found my place.
Reasons to NOT Become a Scientist
Career structure. Now this really depends on what you want by becoming a scientist. If your goal is to become rich and/or famous, the honest and brutal truth is that this is not the field for it. Yes, a lot of people in this field are smart and brilliant; but it is also so competitive to a point that just being ‘smart’ is not enough for your to stay in this area. Only <1% of science major students actually end up building a successful career in academia and becomes a principle investigator.
As you advance in the hierarchy, you will find that you spend less than less time at the bench, and more and more time doing paper work. As you become a PI, you spend most of your time writing proposals and applying for funding. You don’t actually have to or have the time to do the experiments yourself. Your job is not to do the experiments, but to come up with new ideas, and supervise PhD students/ post-docs and have them do the experiments for you. For those who entered the field because they love doing hands on work end up going into the science industry and/or becoming a technician.
Income. Consider all the education you have received in order to become a scientist, the long working hours and heavy workload, as well as the enormous stress, most scientist are pretty underpaid. And when you compare the salary of a scientist who work in the industry and those who work in the academia, the former in fact earns a lot more than the latter.
Should You Become a Research Scientist?
To answer this question, what you should really ask yourself is (1) do you love studying science? (2) are you curious and always want to know why and how things work? (3) do you have the physical and mental strength to deal with long working hours and a high stress lifestyle? (4) are you ready to dedicate yourself to a career of reasoning and discovering, even if it means you might need to sacrifices your personal life? (5) are you prepared to live a simple life where you will earn enough for a living but not enough to be rich, in exchange for the satisfaction of being a pioneer in your field? If you answer is 'yes' to all of these questions, then why not give it a go and see what you can accomplish?