Late night rant-- Who am I?
I think people get a terrible impression of scientists. Certainly cretins like George Deutsch make a mockery of us, as if scientific knowledge was this vast postmodern melting pot of weak ideas easily supplanted by the next uncredentialed toady fool with a metaphysical ax to grind. I mean come on, who the hell do you think you are, Mr. Scientist?
But popular portrayals aren't much better. Read on...
For instance, recall Ghostbuster's Peter Venkman (played by Bill Murray) who cooks his goofy parapsychological research, goading pretty young college students into believing they have ESP, and presumably coaxing his way into their pants, by implication. Can you imagine the gall of such behavior? Who the hell does that Venkman guy think he is?
Or, on the other end of the spectrum, CSI. Cops these days can do it all! Slap on a nice suit, interview eyewitnesses, collect evidence at the crimescene, take said evidence to the mobile lab, extract 30-year-old DNA from a carpet thread inside of a bleach bottle, throw it on a gel, and image it with one hand... all while sipping a latte and driving to court with the other, to obtain a warrant 3 minutes before the statute of limitations expires then lead a SWAT team into the lying perp's crack house, save the dying hostage, make the bust, and extract the confession just in time to exonerate some poor blind priest on his way to the electric chair for a crime he didn't commit. Science, apparently, is brash, sexy, completely incidental to other endeavors and pathetically easy to conduct by the seat of your pants. Jerry Orbach, you were a troglodyte by comparison.
Or consider your average Intelligent Design Creationist. ID, too, is sexy. ID purports to reveal the
This is not reality. If you want to do science, you're in the lab. You're in the lab a lot. Sometimes you forget what the sun looks like. You gotta pay your dues. That means laying your intellect bare for harsh criticism for years on end. Committee members and advisors constantly challenging you. Who the hell do you think you are? What makes you think you can succeed in this field?
A scientist makes a commitment to years of schooling long past what is legally required, and must possess a burning drive to push the envelope of our knowledge. A scientist is not generally reimbursed well, especially during graduate school.
And yes you have to "do it all", but not like it's done on CSI: Miami. Many days you go home reeking of monkey piss, or covered in rat shit and tempera paint (don't ask). All your clothes have grease spots from fixing broken equipment, chemical stains from a spilled reagent here and there, ketchup stains from some disgusting fast food choked down between procedures, or bleach spots from disinfecting the lab.
So with that in mind, I propose the following job description:
Position: Postdoctoral Researcher in Behavioral Neurobiology
Applicant should be able to demonstrate proficiency at the following:
Electrician, mechanic, carpenter, painter, plumber, computer programmer, graphic designer, engineer, janitor, accountant, author, publicist, editor, public relations specialist, communications director, animal trainer, veterinary assistant, surgeon, secretary, manager, and someday (hopefully) CEO.
Those are just the skills that enable you to do your work, which includes basic laboratory techniques, histology and immunocytochemistry, stereological analysis, molecular biology, behavioral analyses, statistical analyses. Chronic exposure to pathogens, carcinogens, and teratogens is a must.
Pay is not commensurate with experience. You cannot expect to earn 6 figures in your lifetime. Most likely you will not make $50,000 a year until after you are 30. Before that, in recognition of spending 12 years on higher education, you can expect post-doctoral pay to start at $38,500 with benefits that are worse than what you just had in graduate school.
Applicant must have developed at least one psychological disorder in graduate school, including but not limited to generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, social phobia, post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression, or dysthymia. The applicant must demonstrate that his or her physical health deteriorated in graduate school from lack of exercise and poor diet.
Applicant must be willing to put marriage on hold and live a minimum of 6 hours away from spouse for a period of three years. Visits home will not be more frequent that once a month. If your cats haven't forgotten who you are by the end of the first year, you're going home too much. Applicant must also have demonstrated a willingness to forego time with sick and dying relatives and skip out on funerals when required.
The applicant will be responsible for procuring residence on friends' couches and spare beds until welcome is worn out due to a lack of ability to pay two rents or general disenchantment sets in. During a dry spell, applicant may sleep in lab or on the floor in graduate student offices until somebody complains. Showers are provided adjacent to the animal colony. The applicant may unofficially crash in a physician's on-call room if he or she is able to fool security into granting access. All meals will be consumed in graduate student office, consisting of prepackaged boxed pasta meals or grilled cheese prepared over a portable electric burner using camping utensils. In the event that the burner is unavailable, hot plates from lab can be used. Trips to hospital cafeteria may be made in the event that an extra couple bucks are found. During final year, applicant may solicit funds from parents and move into an Extended Stay America where the air conditioner floods the room, the hot/cold water faucets are reversed, and the bathroom door locks from the outside.
So who am I? I'm tenacious. I can be ground down but never stopped. Repeated setbacks fuel my desire to overcome an obstacle and solve the problem. I am calculating; after dusting myself off, I plan a new approach before trying again. I show up to work every day because ultimately my job gives me a chance to improve lives. It isn't about money but the excitement of discovering something completely new and the prospect of alleviating human suffering. Sure I can withdraw into my work, oblivious to the world around me. But isn't that a good thing? Lives are improved by informed experts who fully immerse themselves in a problem. Does that make me arrogant? Maybe. Any headstrong person who speaks with well-earned authority can labeled "arrogant". Force-of-will is what it takes to succeed in this racket and to foster progress. And that is a good trait to have. Problems only get solved when tackled head-on.
I'm not satisfied with quick non-answers to hard questions. I possess both righteous indignation and humility in the face of ignorance. I reject the idea that religiosity automatically makes someone an expert on anything, especially matters of science. And I just might know what the hell I'm talking about. Who the hell do I think I am, spouting such arrogant, highbrow bullshit?
Back off man. I'm a scientist.