Last Friday, while talking with a group of both lab- and non-lab friends, we addressed and explained the biggest frustration of labwork: spending two weeks working all the time (meaning: weekends, nights, not just 9 to 5) and ending up with nothing.
The concept of “nothing” was interpreted as “not what you want/expect”, and the non-lab people tried to reason that that is still something, but what I was actually talking about is doing a two week experiment where along the way something goes wrong (but you don’t know what) and there is literally nothing to see on the final exposed film, on the final agar plate, or in the final graph. The kind of experiment where your positive controls don’t work either. You just wasted two whole weeks of your life on absolutely nothing. There was maybe a little bit of extra lab experience, and when you inevitably repeat your experiment it will seem easier, but that hardly makes up for all those missed meals and missed hours of sleep and time that could have been spent doing more lasting, meaningful things.
Before I started my PhD I worked as a secretary for a few months, and days went by where the only thing I did was sit at my desk and wait for the phone to ring. I couldn’t believe they paid me for that — I didn’t do anything! Since the goal of the secretary job for me was to earn money, I actually got what I wanted while not putting in any effort. Grad school is exactly the opposite: I can spend hours, days, weeks, working as hard as superhumanly possible, end up with nothing at all, and realizing I actually pay tuition for this!
For more: see the description of the grad student in this column by Ian Brooks