Posted by: thediygeochemist | January 27, 2012

The Top Ten Worst Things About Being an Idiot Working in a Lab

So, Adam Ruben has posted an article on his blog over at the Science site entitled The Top 10 Worst Things About Working In a Lab.

I think he’s either an idiot, a loser, or an author trying too hard to sell his book. Or all of the above. Go read the original article if you must, but please come back here and read what I have to say about each of his points. Because I have something to say about each of them–though, as you’ll see, not in the order he put them.

#7: Sometimes experiments fail for a reason. Sometimes experiments fail for no reason.

I’m starting with this one–and reason #6–because I generally agree with both of them.

It’s true, things fail for no reason, and as a result, we scientists end up being a superstitious lot. But really? This is supposed to convince you that science is horrendous? Sorry. This basic principle applies to almost every job (paid or unpaid) that I’ve ever had.

#6: Your schedule is dictated by intangible things.

Sure it is. But then, this is true in so many professions. I have accountant friends who are rarely home during tax season. I have lots of programmer-friends whose schedules are dictated by release dates–is there anything more arbitrary than that?

#10: Your non-scientist friends don’t understand what you do.
If this is true then you’re an idiot, and I hope to God you don’t try applying for an NSF grant. Because if you want an NSF grant, you’re going to have to figure out a way to do outreach–and you’ll want to be able to explain at least the basics of what you do to non-scientists.

I can explain what I do to non-scientists. Does this mean that, when I eventually publish my work–in, say, Environmental Science & Technology–my friends will be able to read and understand my paper? Of course not. But they have a good idea of what I study.

I’ve been able to explain what I do to my friends. Not the methodology, mind you–I’m sure the analytical chemistry would zoom over most of their heads–but I explain what I study and why. And they get it. And I could do the same thing with my research when I was working for SL, studying the thermodynamics of protein active sites. Did they understand thermo? No. Did they understand what I was trying to accomplish? Yes.

I have a friend who’s a mortgage broker. Do I understand what she does? Only basically. She looks at people’s mortgage applications and figures out whether or not they can get a mortgage–and from whom. Do I understand how she does this? Heck no. But I do know what she does. Same thing.

#9: The scientist who is already the most successful gets credit for what you do.

Yes and no. When I publish, I’ll be the first author; Dr. Hand-Waver will be the last author. And there may be several authors (DannyBoy and our collaborators) in between.

When my paper is cited in the future–and I hope it is–how will it be cited? Not as “Hand-Waver et al.” but as “Unlikely et al.” So much for not getting credit.

#8: Lab equipment is delicate and expensive. And you, you’re not so coordinated. Nope. Not so much.

This is true. But his point–that you can either replace things or hire another post-doc–is silly. If your PI writes the budget for the grant properly you’ll have money for equipment (which will break down and need replacement whether you’re a klutz or not) AND a post-doc.

#5: Science on television has conditioned you to expect daily or weekly breakthroughs.

I think he watches too much television. Me? I grew up in a scientific home where almost no television was watched. Plus I raised four kids. I know that any major development takes a heck of a lot of time.

#4: Your work is dangerous.

Oh, yeah. Really? Sorry, but I used to do volunteer work with policemen and firemen. Run into a burning building some time, Dr. Ruben, and then tell me if your work is REALLY dangerous.

#3: Labs are not conducive to sex.

I bloody well hope not! Here at MyU, we have these things called anti-harassment laws. I go to work to WORK, not have sex–or even find a hot guy to have sex with later. I like to keep my work and my personal life separate. But I have to confess…I think scientists are hot. But not Dr. Ruben. I don’t like arrogance.

#2: You have to dress like a scientist.

OMG. Look, most scientists I know DON’T CARE what you look like. If you don’t believe me, go wander through the halls at an ACS or GSA meeting–most of the people are wearing jeans and T-shirts in a place where they’re trying to make a professional impression on others. (Actually, for geologists, wearing jeans is “dressy”–they’d rather be wearing shorts.)

#1:You can feel time creeping inexorably towards your own death.

Jeez. What a loser. If you hate what you do that much, go do something else.

I love what I do. I’m not saying parts of it aren’t tedious (they are) or frustrating (work, @#$*#$% equipment!). But I can get over that: there isn’t a job out there on earth that doesn’t have tedious and frustrating bits to it.

When I was a mom, I changed thousands of diapers. I washed thousands of dishes and thousands of loads of laundry. Do I look back on those years and think, “OMG! What a waste of time! I wasted years of my life on boring tasks that got me nowhere!”

In fact, I don’t. I remember the walks with my kids, the silly times together, the joy of watching a toddler trying to do something himself, the thrill I got when the boys hit major milestones. It was a wild ride. It was an adventure.

And so is science. I love what I do. If you don’t, it’s time to change your attitude.


  1. Thank you. I’m the only one in my lab who doesn’t think that Adam Ruben is hilarious.

  2. Yes and no. When I publish, I’ll be the first author; Dr. Hand-Waver will be the last author. And there may be several authors (DannyBoy and our collaborators) in between.

    When my paper is cited in the future–and I hope it is–how will it be cited? Not as “Hand-Waver et al.” but as “Unlikely et al.” So much for not getting credit.

    Some PIs still insist on being first authors on everything that comes out of their lab.

    • Just out of curiosity, Lukas, what field of science are you in? Because this is definitely not the case for any of the scientists I know.

      • I’m in inorganic chemistry, and this common practice among old-school German professors, for example. Thumb through any copy of ZAAC and you will find examples like

        I don’t know how prevalent it is elsewhere or in other subjects.

  3. Read the original. And didnt hate it. I think you’re reading too much into it: he’s just being funny for chrissake! Do you have to take everything so seriously?

    • Your reply, “Do you have to take everything so seriously?” is one I’ve heard a lot in my life. Mostly from my ex-husband when I didn’t laugh at his jokes in which he made fun of me. It’s a lame remark usually made by people who know they are being offensive but who don’t want to apologize.

      I laugh. A lot. About a lot of things. But I abhor “jokes” in which a whole class of people is put down for adhering to a stereotype. (This might have something to do with the fact that I was the half-Asian kid growing up in a lily-white neighborhood.)

      Also, I do not like to perpetuate false stereotypes of scientists, because it feeds into the science-hating culture that is already far too prevalent in America. Dr. Ruben’s list is circulating amongst my non-scientific friends, one of whom has a teenaged daughter who is seriously considering being a scientist one day. If I salvage even one potential scientific career because of my rebuttal, I’ll consider the half hour I spent writing it a judicious use of time.

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