The Pressure of Being A Scientific “Trainee”

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a runner. No, not like I just like to run. I am a runner. It is at the essential core of my identity. If I had a choice, I would spend all day, every day, running outside on secluded trails, far away from my lab experiments. The happiest day of my life wasn’t when I graduated or published my first paper or got married; it was the day I set my marathon PR.

The thing I love most about running is its simplicity. The sole objective is to put one foot in front of the other. Ideally as fast as possible, if you happen to have a competitive streak like me.

With running, you get out what you put in. If you train harder, you get stronger and faster. It’s that simple. Steady progress is the norm. Sure, sometimes this can backfire and you get injured (a concept with which I am exceedingly familiar). But most of the time you recover, and then continue to make steady progress once again.

Scientific research is quite the opposite. You can work your butt off, logging 12+ hour days for years and years, working nights and weekends, and still end up making literally no progress on your project. Seriously.

Sometimes there are technical difficulties that are impossible to overcome. The techniques you’re using don’t work properly in your system; your signal to noise is always too low; your animals never behave properly.

Sometimes the phenomenon you’ve been studying the whole time ends up being a meaningless artifact. Time to throw everything out!

Sometimes you finally overcome all the hurdles to get the answer to your question, and it ends up being a boring result that no one actually cares about. Or maybe a result that (surprise!) someone else already discovered years ago.

Sometimes you make an actual interesting finding, which generates clear hypotheses for new experiments, but the results of those new experiments contradict the first experiment. And then you do more experiments to try to figure out which results are true and they yield more and more contradictory results that just muddle things up even further.

All of these seemingly disastrous scenarios aren’t the exception; they’re the norm. Very few projects have a clear trajectory from start to finish. I believe that anyone who claims that’s how all their projects have gone has just gotten really lucky, or maybe they’ve only taken on very easy projects.

Conversely, I know many brilliant, hardworking scientists who have almost nothing to show for years of work. (I’m not sure if they’d be flattered or insulted by this description.)

But that’s not really the problem; that’s just how science works. It takes time.

The problem is that most scientific research is done by “trainees” (graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, like me) who are expected to finish our projects in a certain amount of time. We trainees aren’t actually being trained so much as we are in a race to avoid getting kicked out of our chosen careers. 

The quicker you finish your project and publish papers, the better a scientist you’re assumed to be. If it’s been too long and you haven’t published anything, then academia assumes you’re a failure. Even though scientists should know that this is normal.

If we trainees can publish lots of papers within the few years that we’re given, then we’re rewarded with tenure-track jobs at universities where we can run our own labs for the rest of our careers. If not, then no job. No job means you’ll likely have to give up doing basic research forever, since almost all basic research is conducted at universities, and university labs are almost entirely staffed by trainees. There are hardly any positions for trained scientists who don’t care about having their own labs but just want to continue doing the work they’ve been trained to do. (Why? I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that trainees are cheaper to hire. Or maybe it’s just tradition.)

Sure, supposedly there are plenty of jobs for scientists in other fields, such as for-profit research and education and policy and so on. But not so much for basic research.

For basic research, you either get your own lab, or you get out. And getting your own lab relies on being a trainee in the right environment with a good project who happened to be successful within a reasonable time period. There’s no room for error. There’s no room for normal sciencing: running into obstacles, working hard to overcome them, slowly but surely making progress. There’s certainly no room to take your time learning new techniques and skills, despite the fact that we’re supposed to be trainees. There’s only room to get it right as fast as possible.

This, in a nutshell, is what I think is really messed up.

I can see why university hiring committees feel like they should hire the person with the most papers in the shortest amount of time; those seem like indicators for future success. But I would argue they mostly indicate that you got lucky or received a lot of help (note: this doesn’t mean you aren’t also smart and hardworking and awesome). What about everyone else?

I could go on for MANY more pages on how I think the whole academic system is messed up and should be reformed, but the bottom line I’m trying to convey right now is: Most of the scientists with actual power (NIH reviewers, university hiring committees) don’t seem to appreciate the reality that experimental research is super slow and that judging trainees on superficial measures of their productivity (number of papers in a few years) is an unreliable measure of competence.

It’s frustrating to work for months or years on projects that don’t go anywhere. But it’s far more frustrating to be considered a failure for simply doing what scientists are supposed to do.

When experiments don’t work, we try again, work harder, think more carefully, persevere. Keep putting one foot in front of the other. But it’s not like running. In the lab, it often gets you nowhere.

For any young or aspiring scientists out there, I hope this post doesn’t turn you off from a potential career in scientific research. Research is a long and challenging process, but it’s ultimately rewarding. It’s the academic system of research that’s the problem, and I truly hope it will improve so that future generations of competent, passionate scientific trainees can continue their careers in basic research instead of getting kicked out as soon as they’ve been trained.

In the meantime, I’m going out for a run.


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