Having started my first ever “proper adult job” a week before I graduated, I thought I knew loads about science and working in labs. Whilst I knew certain techniques and broadly understood the literature, the last 9 months have proved there was much still for me to learn (and still is). Below are the key observations I have made during my time as a Research Technician; I hope this insight can aid any confused science graduates-to-be as the end of semester looms.
Science is fast and science is slow.
I look at the clock now and its 5pm. I still need to wait for my membrane to finish blocking, add the antibody, update my lab book and write a list for tomorrow. This all feels very slow.
However, 2 hours earlier I was in tissue culture with a deadline hanging over me. Drugs had to be on cells at set times, otherwise authorities would not be happy. Treatment over and I had to rush to lunch with it being my first chance all day. This? Slow? Not so much.
But this fast and slow contradiction isn’t just a day-to-day phenomenon. The entire field falls victim to the speed hold-ups of science. The amount of literature published daily is huge, with novel findings flooding in from all fields of science. Technologies are now available that can sequence your genome using a device no bigger than a USB stick, we can cut and paste DNA inside cells with ease and microscopes can image structures on a single cell at the click of a button.
However, the amazing discoveries published daily hide the months and years of hard work behind each finding. Then, result in tow, there’s the rigorous editing and peer review before publication, until finally it is in the public domain (should someone with the same result have not beat you there).
Science is good and science is bad.
Experiments failing, cells getting infected and negative results are up there with the bad times. However, donning your lab coat, successfully knocking out a gene or managing to make cells express a fusion protein you designed and created yourself does help balance the scales. Every job has bad days and good days, but the fact you are actively researching the unknown and making a difference to future discoveries is very motivating.
In a wider context, the arguments of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ science will always be present; are published studies reproducible? Should we be genetically modifying organisms for the benefit of others? Who owns the data if you have your DNA sequenced? Science is undeniably making strong progress; however, this speedy progress may leave some people confused and unsure so it’s important time is taken to check results at every step.
Science is planned and science is random.
Every morning in lab begins with a list, and every day ends with one. Organisation and time management are hugely important qualities in research scientists; a list of jobs carried out efficiently can take hours, while the same list approached in a haphazard manner could last weeks.
However, no matter how much planning, you cannot always escape the random. Protocols that have previously been successful may suddenly cease to work without any explanation. Results may not show the expected, and it’s your job to interpret this; the unexpected result is not the wrong result, and this may eventually lead to an interesting and unexpected finding.
Weekend working is an unfortunate eventuality of working in research.
Science is sociable and science is isolating.
There is something satisfying about being employed at a “proper adult job” where your colleagues understand the terminology you spent 3 years and £27,000 learning. Everyone working in my lab is lovely and wouldn’t think twice about answering a stupid question I may have, or remedying a mistake I realise I’ve made only too late.
However, the unpredictability of science means it can gain control over your social life. Alongside late evenings catching up on computer work after a full day of labs, researchers will be all too familiar with weekend dates with the lab. You can plan all you like, but if cells need splitting or deadlines loom following a failure earlier the same week, there is no avoiding it.
But… don’t panic!
Its contrived to say, but life goes fast. 10 months ago, I was unemployed, finishing my degree and planning to go around the world for a year. Now I sit in my office contemplating all degrees of future science career paths while I wait for my frozen antibody to thaw.
But, as much as it zooms by, don’t feel you must jump into any decisions career-wise; don’t fear trying something and not liking it. My advice is try out science, try out publishing, try out patent law, try out HR. Just try.