Science is hard, boring, and filled with failure

Or so say these links…

Now that I’m working with people in the publishing industry, which everyone seems to think is dying, I’ve met more people who assume that academic careers are more straightforward. I think only scientists appreciate how hard science can be…the results can be great, and very satisfying, but getting them can be a long, hard, slog.

While research had its moments, I never enjoyed doing it the way I enjoy writing. But I think in some ways they’re similar, in that they can both be hard fields that require a lot of effort to get established in – but if you love academic research or science writing/journalism, nothing else will give you the same thrill. Of course, much like former journalists who are turning to PR jobs, not everyone gets to be a tenured professor. But to the lucky ones who love their field and get to still be in it, there’s nothing like it.

Anyway, on to the links:

This New Scientist article describes some of the dreary details behind the cool discoveries, from the slow process of collecting data and processing it, often to find that there’s no golden result waiting at the end:

“Science is not a whirlwind dance of excitement, illuminated by the brilliant strobe light of insight. It is a long, plodding journey through a dim maze of dead ends. It is painstaking data collection followed by repetitious calculation. It is revision, confusion, frustration, bureaucracy and bad coffee. In a word, science can be boring.”

It’s a funny article, and all too true – most of the time, science involves doing lots of repetitive work, and one has to really focus on the potential cool result that beckons at the end, its siren-song enough to keep you in lab late nights and weekends as you do all you can to find it. And to be a successful scientist, that carrot has to be motivation enough for all the frustrations that invariably are part of the process. But when you have that result, that feeling that you have actually discovered something truly novel (no matter how insignificant it may be in the grand scheme of things)…that for a brief moment, you may truly be the only person in the world with that specific piece of knowledge…well, there’s really nothing like it 🙂

Which may explain how scientists deal with the inevitable failures. As this Wired story describes, failure is commonplace in science, and every once in a while can lead to an especially cool discovery. But that’s only after a painstaking process of trying to figure out why an experiment failed – starting with the technical reasons, and then looking for underlying scientific reasons. But often, even if it failed for a valid scientific reason that might have held the clue to a different, possibly more interesting result, that reason gets overlooked, and scientists just move on to something else. There’s a certain amount of luck involved…

This article also had a fascinating look at research into how scientists research – that was actually carried out in biochemistry labs at Stanford, which meant it could have occurred in the same building or the neighboring building to where I did my PhD! The results are interesting, and should ring true for any researchers in biology/biomedical sciences at least (I showed the story to my PhD classmates, and they certainly seemed to agree 🙂

Finally, one has to admire the passion and motivation of those who stick with academia – it’s a long, hard road. This article about Postdocs details how the process has also been getting harder:

“Science graduates intent on the journey to a professorship must first get through a postdoctoral appointment (or three), and sometimes a multiyear probationary period. In a 2005 survey, the average amount of time for holding a postdoctoral position was 3.8 years. All the while, salary is low and work hours are long.”

Also, the following statistics look pretty grim:

“The National Science Foundation reports that between 1972 and 2003, the share of recent doctorate holders hired into full-time faculty positions fell from 74 percent to 44 percent. During the same period, the number of science and engineering Ph.D.s in postdoctoral positions rose from 13percent to 34 percent.”


“Between 1993 and 2003, the number of faculty-level jobs at research universities without the possibility of tenure increased from 55 percent to 70 percent. Most foreboding of all, the probability that a Ph.D. recipient under 35 years old will obtain a tenure-track job fell to 7 percent.”

The article goes on to talk about ways in which the system can be reformed to get people to stay in academia, and to foster creative research rather than just publishing safe articles in order to get tenure, definitely worth checking out.

3 comments to Science is hard, boring, and filled with failure

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  • […] had told me that science was creative and innovative but this wasn’t the reality that I found.  But I had invested four years of school and over $35,000 of borrowed student loan […]

  • Dov

    Add to the difficulty of discovery the difficulty of dealing with science journal editors. Once you discovered something, then you have to be lucky to end up with an able and fair editor. The problem is, there are not so many of them. One example: my wife got three very positive reviews for an article. Then the editor rejects it, completely disrespecting the reviewing work of three anonymous reviewers who took some of their precious time to evaluate the article for free.

    Labs are full of such horrible stories with unfair/unable editors. Discovering is hard, but publishing your discoveries has become even harder.

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