Dr, No: Science career roadblocks

It was the dreaded monster looming on the horizon, which is where dreaded monsters like to loom. It was a class so difficult, so intellectually punishing, that undergraduates shuddered at its very name. It was the reason upperclassmen could reliably be found in the chemical engineering student lounge at 3 a.m., working on problem sets next to congealing pizza, their eyes hollow. It was called, simply, “Thermo.”

I avoided Thermo by changing my major from the horrifying chemical engineering to the slightly kinder but shoot-there-are-still-a-lot-of-anal-premeds molecular biology. After that, my path to a career in science looked nice and smooth, and that path would begin with a different class, a class whose very name sounded a thousand times more friendly and inviting: Introduction to Molecular Biology.

Say, isn’t that So-and-so? I thought he or she would still be working the counter at Blockbuster.

Because scientists love graphs, or maybe because premeds love graphs that show how superior they are to everyone else, each exam in Introduction to Molecular Biology included a grading histogram. That’s how I was able to calculate, following the second midterm (there were three midterms, so it wasn’t that much friendlier than Thermo), that in a class of more than 200 students I had earned the sixth-lowest grade.

I was in shock. I thought I had done decently on the exam. Then again, I was a naïve college sophomore who also thought my Monet poster made me worldly, that Walmart was the greatest store in the world, and that my metabolism would never slow down. Still, here I was, only a month into my career as a molecular biologist, and I had hit what seemed like an impassible roadblock.

Whether you’re taking an exam, angling for a promotion, applying for a grant, or asking whether it’s okay to touch that postdoc’s butt, you’ll hear “no” a lot in science. Roadblocks can thwart you at any stage of your career—in fact, sometimes they’re all you can see. Here are some of the more common ones people face during their careers in science:

ROADBLOCK: No Exposure to Science. Some scientists are lucky enough to grow up in homes where science is discussed at the dinner table (“Honey, you’ve burned the steak again, which is called the Maillard reaction”). But to others, the concept of becoming a scientist is as foreign as growing up to become a cloud.

ROADBLOCK: No Lab Experience. It makes sense: An employer doesn’t want you to walk into the lab and say, “Oh wow! A real lab! I saw one of these in The Incredible Hulk!” They want you to have a basic familiarity not only with some of their expensive equipment but with the general concept of lab work. Otherwise you’d end up in your supervisor’s office, complaining about how weird it is that not everything works the first time, outraged that you have to calibrate and clean equipment yourself, and asking, “Can’t we just use gamma radiation to make a supersoldier already?”

ROADBLOCK: No Jobs. You’ve cleared the first set of roadblocks and obtained some kind of degree (presumably by earning it as oppose to by theft). Now you’re sitting in your kitchen in footie pajamas, surfing ScienceCareers.org and Monster.com. Hooray! There’s a job opening at an exciting company … above your level. Ooh, here’s one … below your level. Okay, here’s another one … in New Jersey. But this one—aha—the job that matches your strengths and experience perfectly, the job that sounds like it was invented in order to appeal to you and you alone … is an unpaid internship.

ROADBLOCK: No Confidence. Perhaps you’ve had a teacher or authority figure who said you’d never amount to anything. “Oh yeah, stodgy old Mister Carruthers? I’ll show you. I’LL SHOW EVERYONE. Someday I’ll be an exhausted postdoc making a cool $32,000 a year, with a second-author paper in a journal no one reads, and then YOU’LL ALL SEE.”

THEM: Say, isn’t that So-and-so? I thought he or she would still be working the counter at Blockbuster.

YOU: Think again, fools! I made it out of this one-beat, dead-horse town, and now I’m living the sweet life in a four-person lab where not only do I have my own laptop, but I’m in charge of watering all the plants!

THEM: Clearly we misjudged you. And have you lost weight and obtained an attractive face? Let us have a drink and then sex!

YOU: Thanks, but I’ll pass. I have a progress report for a grant due tomorrow.

THEM: Ooooooooh.

ROADBLOCK: No Interest in Science. You might think this is a nonstarter or, more accurately, a why-the-hell-would-you-want-to-starter. But just because you don’t feel the passion that appears to brighten the visage of your colleagues who can magically stay awake in seminars—even the talks without funny pictures—doesn’t mean you should abandon science and seek a career in something ridiculous like business operations management. You might just not be in the right kind of science. I’m going to say this part without any jokes because it is absolutely critical and often unappreciated: A scientist working unhappily in the wrong lab or on the wrong project might feel terrific working in a different lab or on a different project. In other words, you may doubt your qualifications as a scientist, but maybe the problem isn’t you—it’s it.

ROADBLOCK: No Results. Sometimes scientific research yields surprises! And sometimes scientific research yields … a warm, fat lot of nothing. Nada. Bupkis. Goose egg. Only not a real goose egg, because that would be delicious. When you work for years in masonry, you can point to structures that exist because of you. But you can work for years in science and have nothing to show for it besides a lot of dirty pipette tips. How can you advance when you can’t show evidence that you’ve succeeded at anything? Luckily, senior scientists recall what it was like to be junior scientists, and they understand that “no results” does not necessarily equal “no effort” and therefore “no job.” At least, most do. Other senior scientists have “no memory” or at best “no compassion.”

ROADBLOCK: No Funding. Somewhere far away, in a stone building filled with serious-looking people in suits or pantsuits, a bureaucrat who makes an absurd multiple of your salary declares that scientific advances are crucial for modern society but eff-all if they’re going to fund research. The assumption, of course, is that laboratories will continue generating breakthroughs that enhance public good on a purely volunteer basis—or, failing that, discoveries will be made by magnanimous elves who perform research while you sleep, humming traditional Nordic folk songs while they scribble in your lab notebook, scurrying merrily into the shadows when dawn breaks, and leaving flash drives in your shoes. This assumption is slightly unrealistic, so you may at some point find yourself saying, “I have a great idea! But I can’t try it because it costs more than zero dollars.”

ROADBLOCK: No Ph.D. You don’t need a Ph.D. to work in science. But in many settings, if you only have a bachelor’s or master’s degree, you may find a limit to how far you can progress. Your career may feel flat, unappealing, and unable to rise, like matzo. There’s no rule equating a Ph.D. with talent or intellect—only with exhaustion and poverty—but you simply can’t become a tenure-track professor at most schools, or a senior scientist at most companies, without a piece of paper affirming that you have indeed festered in a lab until your adviser had a whim.

ROADBLOCK: No Penis. Though policies are evolving, plenty of scientists are still denied jobs or promotions due to the lack of a clear and unambiguous penis. “Your results are exemplary,” their supervisors enthuse, “and you have truly made strides toward the acquisition and application of knowledge. But can you imagine the increased scientific validity of your results if you had, say, a penis?”

ROADBLOCK: No Roadblocks. Sometimes in science careers, all goes well. You graduate from a good college, have a productive postgraduate experience, and land a job you enjoy and find fulfilling and important. Also, your car runs on dark chocolate and your pet puppy vomits rainbows. It’s a good, good science career. But then adversity strikes, and because you’ve never had a roadblock, you’re completely unprepared. You’re floored by an unfunded grant, or a bad result, or an unexpected downsizing—and you have no skills to adapt to your new circumstances. As a result, you end up back behind the counter at Blockbuster, which is all the more sad because Blockbuster went out of business years ago, and there’s not much behind the counter of that boarded-up building except stale Raisinettes.

My first roadblock in science certainly wasn’t my last. Thanks to a lot of extra studying—and the fact that we had two other midterms—I lifted my failing grade in Introduction to Molecular Biology. I’m now a molecular biologist with a Ph.D., a job I enjoy—and, not to brag, a really sweet Monet poster. Framed.

And from what I hear, many of my classmates who braved Thermo are now chemical engineers. Roadblocks are just roadblocks—and though they appear scary on the horizon, they look pretty darn cool smashed to splinters in the rearview mirror.

Elsewhere in Science, 15 May 2015

A doctoral defense delayed by injustice—for 77 years