I recently received in my work e-mail inbox a weekly University announcement talking up a little getaway titled "Dinosaurs and Disasters: A Fun Family Day with Scientists."
That got me to thinking just what would a fun family day with scientists all entail? How does one easily capture the essence of being a scientist? I think it would go a little something like this.
Well first off you'd have to start out your scientific career as the lab gopher. You'll be elbow deep in every imaginable chemical as you clean it out of beakers and flasks doing dishes. Then when it comes time to say doing the most mind numbing job imaginable in lab (from pouring plates, to transferring colonies, to autoclaving tubes) you can move up to lab grunt.
A lab grunt comes in many flavors from a grad student to a lab tech and they live on the whim of their advisor/boss/maniacal evil genius. He can, if so choosing, order that grad student chained to their lab bench,never allowed to leave for anything aside from a quick five minute bathroom break once a day. Forget about sleep, sleep is for the weak. And you can be easily replaced by any of 1,000 other people looking for a PhD.
You may think that all that work (and complete lack of a break) would get you your degree quickly so you can move on, but you'd be wrong. You'll be doing so many other side projects that have nothing to do with your own research and before you know it you've been working for $12,000 a year for 10 years with nothing to your name but a ton of debt, ten almost accepted papers, and a horrible pipette callus.
But lets say you lucked out and got one of the rare laid back PIs and you actually did get out with a PhD. Guess what, you get to start all over again in the crap shoot as a post doc hoping that they don't require your soul as part of the job requirements because in science there are no Faustian moves to trick the devil by putting someone else first. For you will take the job by always putting someone else first and promptly be abandoned by everyone in your life as well as your house plant and Persian rug.
Now that your spirit has been thoroughly crushed and you are jaded to all of humanity you are offered a professorship complete with tenure track. All that human interaction you shunned since you began this science track suddenly comes to bite you in the ass as departmental meetings are more like vipers nests, each professor out for blood. They may want to cut you down because you got better lab space than you, or you got the better student, or possibly just because they also hate every single human on the face of the planet and rejoice in destroying dreams.
Not only do you have to fight off your colleagues that are baying for your head, there is also all that money you have to bring in now. If you hadn't already sold your soul to the highest bidder you certainly will now. Offering whatever data a company needs to go ahead and push a product and working the statistics to say anything just so you can get out as many papers and money in order to stay on your precarious tenure tract (because by this point you've completely forgotten how a beaker works and know you'd never survive the lab work).
But suddenly a ray of hope. After you've locked yourself off from anyone who has ever talked to you, chained your own grad students to their desks, and scratched the backs of so many big-pharm companies you can't sleep at night (all the better to get more grant writing done) they finally give you tenure. You're safe, you don't have to watch your back, no one can get rid of you no matter how much you screw up.
At your tenure party just as your having some cake and everyone's laughing you finally crack. All the decades of pressure and back bending turn you into a gibbering mess. You spend your final years hiding in your closet jumping out at any student that dares come to your office to ask a question and threatening to turn the department head into a small white rabbit with your magical powers.
And that kids, is a fun family day with scientists. Please ignore the sobbing head of biology on the way out.