He said at the beginning of your scientific career it's like you are awarded your Captain's license and given a shiny new boat to command. Stretched out in front of you is the potential for a long, smooth voyage, but the way is dotted with precarious rocks, and you might just hit one on your way out of the harbour. "Science" he told me, "is 90% luck and 10% hard work". Needless to say it made me stop and think. The work we do as scientists is frequently reported in the media, and portrayed in popular films, novels and TV shows. But the question is does anyone outside of the world of science really understand what it means to be a scientist on a day-to-day basis? We are normal human beings after all, despite what Hollywood might often suggest.
What does it mean to spend your life in the lab?
If we did a Family Fortune (Family Feud if your from the US) style survey of things associated with science labs, I think a couple of answers might be top of the list; typical lab equipment like Bunsen burners (which a friend of mine who I showed around the lab was thrilled to see we actually use) and microscopes, steaming test tubes filled with colourful liquids, and the scientists themselves, burdened with the opprobrium of being somewhat boring, socially-challenged, with bad dress sense and sporting the obligatory white coat (which you'll be shocked to discover we don't generally wear, except to keep warm in the winter).
Whilst we are on the topic, so instilled is this view of scientists that often we are advised to never admit to being a scientist until at least the second date! Yet, at the other extreme is the view of scientists in their 'Ivory tower' as infallible and untouchable.
In my line of science (after all the term 'science' encompasses a whole range of different 'brands' of scientific work, and I can't speak for them all) the lab is typically a buzzing place, often literally buzzing or beeping or whirring, from some forgotten timer abandoned somewhere, or a piece of high tech machinery doing it's job. This generic lab could be anywhere in the world, since science is a worldwide pursuit. Outside the windows we might catch a glimpse of the Houses of Parliament, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Eiffel Tower, or Mount Fuji. But what's happening inside, in some ways makes this lab indistinguishable from the next. There are posters on the wall proudly displaying the lab's scientific achievements, coffee cups and photos of loved ones on the desks, people chattering and gossiping about their personal lives or that very human interest, the lives of others. Apart from all the lab equipment, this could almost be any other work environment in the world.
In keeping with our sea-faring ship theme, the 'Admiral of the fleet' is given the lofty title of Principal Investigator (or PI). He keeps the lab's research on course to achieve goals set out in the proposals submitted to the organisations that fund said research, the 'money-men' if you will. Running a lab is like running a small business, for which scientists are often poorly trained. In addition to guiding the research, the PI oversees the management of millions of dollars worth of funding, resources and equipment, training and mentoring students and staff of different levels, and is most often also the public front of the lab at conferences and seminars.
Depending on the PI, many of these tasks are often 'delegated' to more junior members of staff in the lab. Amongst them are postdocs, (who may be fresh out of their PhD or 10 years into their career), lab technicians/managers (who help with the running of the lab if you can afford them), research associates (who don't have a PhD but help out with the research), PhD students, and undergraduate students (who flit in and out of the lab depending on their study schedule and work ethic!).
The main goal of the work that goes on in the lab is to publish, 'publish or perish' the saying goes. In order to publish the work that we do in peer-reviewed scientific journals, we are expected to advance the understanding of our particular field of interest significantly and present that advancement in written form. To everyone outside the world of academia (and let's be honest, everyone outside your particular field of interest usually!) these journals are most likely overly complex and incredibly boring.
Most people will have been exposed to some of the bigger, broader journals such as Nature or Science, the scientists' holy grail; a publication in either journal can make for a highly successful career. We're also expected to present our work in oral form to a wide variety of audiences, though it depends on the scientist as to how important they think this is or how good their presentation skills are.
Day to day, as our ship sails on, scientists can be found at a number of different tasks; reading or writing the aforementioned journals, wearing latex gloves and concentrating hard on some tricky or mundane experimental task (or not concentrating hard whilst we discuss the latest episode of Survivor with our lab mates, and subsequently cursing as the experiment inevitably goes wrong), holding our breath as the result of a particularly challenging experiment, that kept us in the lab until 3am all week, comes through, or banging our heads against the desk as we realise our PI just doesn't understand how hard it is/how much we need a holiday/how much time we are going to sacrifice doing that last minute task they just asked us to do. There is also a significant amount of time spent in meetings, learning about your colleagues' research, or discussing your own, working through problems or celebrating triumphs.
Teaching is also a very big part of life in the lab, passing on our expertise or experience (good or bad) to the next generation of scientist, cultivating their and our own careers, often with an almost parental pride. The lab is always changing, as the migratory lifestyle associated with a life in the lab inevitably means that people don't hang around for more than a couple of years before moving onwards in their career. Staying in the same lab for too long is associated with the taboo (more often that not undeserved) of making you or your research appear stagnant.
A life in the lab has its ups and downs, like any other job. There is a certain flexibility associated with a life in academic research that allows us to disappear to the pub at lunchtime to watch a World Cup game, or escape at 3pm on a Friday. But there is of course the inevitable negative side. Experiments don't always run from 9 to 5 and cells don't take care of themselves, and the dedicated scientist can often be found slogging away into the early hours of the morning, and more often than not on the weekends as well.
A career in academia is not necessarily particularly conducive to building relationships with people outside of academia, since we go where the science is and work anti-social hours. It is also not particularly convenient for having a family. A rather depressing recent study found that the most productive and successful scientists are unmarried, without children. Until you reach the upper echelons of the academic elite you also suffer with what can sometimes seem like slave's wages for someone who has spent years in reaching the peak of educational achievement. This is why many junior scientists are moving into private companies to do their research, less freedom but better pay, and though alternative careers are becoming more accepted, anyone straying from the academic path is still often seen as a scientific 'failure'.
But even those who stay to doggedly pursue an academic career aren't guaranteed success, with an increasing number of postdocs and a seemingly decreasing number of tenure positions in Universities, it can take years to establish any kind of job security. The words of that famous scientist seem somewhat mocking as you put in 99% hard work and receive only 1% of the luck.
In the words of another pretty famous scientist, Albert Einstein, 'science is a wonderful thing, if one does not have to earn one's living at it'.