Friday, February 25, 2011

For all the angry postdocs

Yesterday one of my colleagues forwarded us this blog and it continued a discussion among us lab members, which arises from time to time. How to be happy as a scientist? I don't want to say it is easy, because I find it myself very difficult, but I think I recognize the problem.
So let me start with what it takes to be a successful scientist. I specifically want to call it a successful scientist, because I think there are many good scientists but being a careful and reputable person doesn't necessarily guarantee success. This is, in my opinion, the nature of the problem, of the unhappiness, of the resignation and all the anger. Many of us start as idealists. We do not engage in research, because we want to get paid high salaries or aspire wealth. If one wants to become a business man and work for big corporations, it seems to be clear from the very beginning that the job description requires a certain degree of recklessness. Not that all businessman are bad people, on the contrary, but to be successful they have to have a certain cleverness to obtain an advantage over a competitor. Our society somehow accepts, and I am painting it black and white, that doing business results in a winner and a loser.
Science, on the other hand, is crowded by hopeless idealists. We want to do science for the purpose of science. We want to change the world and make it a better place. Personally, I favor this attitude above the careless business world. However, we have to realize, that we also expect society to pay for this pleasure. To face the truth, science is very expensive and although it actually can change the world, and it immensely did within the last 150 years, it does not guarantee direct success or sometimes pays off only after a long period of time. That means that our society has to invest a huge amount of money possibly without seeing any results. As we all know, now more than in other times, money is very limited and so is research funding. This results in a heavy competition between scientific fields, projects and individual researchers. Of course, that makes us, the idealist scientists, unhappy.
So what does it now take to be  a successful scientist. As I see it, in addition to being a careful and analytic researcher one also has to be a clever businessman and politician. One has to make the right decision at the right time to get the best results and gain an advantage in the battle for funds. Perseverance is always mentioned when talked about science, and truth to be told some of the most important discoveries probably wouldn't have been made without a person dedicated to a miniscule detail. However, one also has to know when to stop an unsuccessful project, not to waste time and resources. As scientific advancement is not directly predictable, to find this balance is one of the most difficult conflicts we have to master. Finally, if we make discoveries we have to be able to sell them to other scientists and the broad public. This is a very integral part of our job and unfortunately it is unfair and subjective. That leaves us with many uncertainties that we think we don't deserve then after all we generally give up a lot for making scientific discoveries.
Ultimately, to become more happy people we will have to learn to cope with this unfairness. Maybe we should be more open and have a look how decisions are made and executed in industry or politics. I don't want to call for reckless businessmen because scientists still should have the vision of a better world. I want to call for realists, and believe me, I will have to shed a thick portion of idealism. What gives me hope is that there are examples out there, for instance the PI (principle investigator) I work for. She is a politician and businesswoman, but she also cares about people, their success and foremost about science. So let's not become angry and disappointed, but let's try to be more realistic.


  1. sylvia!
    too bad i cant write what i truly think... maybe some other time...

  2. are you putting this in your next grant proposal? :D

    seriously though.. do you think you are a happier person, now that you have come to the conclusion that you should not be angry and dissapointed, but realistic? I don't want to be a downer, but i think it takes more than that to assuage negative feelings. There is always a personal aspect, and that's what lacks here.

  3. well, just thinking to be realistic doesn't help of course, and becoming realistic probably takes a lot of effort, but I think it is better than giving up and becoming angry

    Of course leaving science is always an option and to be honest I think it also takes a lot of courage to change course. but to make this decision because of anger and the system, I don't know if that will lead to more success

    so what I want to say is to change personality and try to go new ways and incorporate different ideas and yes that is tough but I think worthwhile

  4. In general I am not a very realistic person, which caused me a lot of pain and disappointment throughout my life. So yes, in a way I think that being more realistic to begin with will be less painful and in turn lead to more happiness, don't you think?

    also it might helps to make the right decisions?

  5. John meets a stranger who asks him for a hundred dollars to pay off hospital bills. Moved by the story he pays the money. As the stranger spends the money on whatever addiction he has, he comforts himself by thinking the John's trust in his lie makes him feel better about the world.

    Is it weakness that drives the man? Is it a lack of realism? Is it love?

  6. When I started my diploma thesis (2006), one told me: Over 90% of your experiments will be for the trash - at the end -. I didn´t believe and also not understand. I was even angry at the first moment. It was not very encouraging. Still I decided to stay.
    I was purifying for 1 year this stupid Neo1p - at the end, it was just autoclaved!!!

    So, to have money to survive we have to be payed for our work, and for that we have to be successful (publish our results). If not, you have no funds, ... and maybe even do not get a job somewhere else (not talking about industry - no chance)... this is realistic and hard, HAHA (And how not to be angry, disappointed or sad??)
    Sonia from my lab said; "That´s live" or "LIVE is hard" ;C
    Anja (from Stuttgart) HALLO, I wish you a lot of success!!!!

  7. one more thing: with great power comes great responsibility. lots of people have the power, but not the responsibility... and thats the problem... or one of the problems.
    and not only in science, unfortunately. i think being too realistic in a way makes you even more angry and sad. a certain blindness/ignorance/or whatever you want to call it. maybe even "i am the best" is required to succeed...

  8. I hear what you are saying, but still I think it doesn't help to be angry. Of course there is a lot of reason to be disappointed, but exactly that is what I mean. Being more realistic in first place maybe makes us choosing another pass. As CaT said she will show her kids the blog to prevent them being a scientist, isn't that make them realize how hard it is. If they still want to go that route they probably prepare to fight.

    I think we cannot only blame the system but also our own attitude. of course the system is less then ideal, but we have to accept that and try to work with it....