by Eva Amsen

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

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sciencesque February 12, 2007 - 12:46 PM

But could you be a secretary for the rest of your life? Nothing against the clerical occupations, but I’d go mad waiting for the phone to ring day in and day out. I was at a talk a couple of weeks ago where the speaker relayed a story about a conversation he had with an engineering friend of his. The engineer said that he didn’t know how the scientist could work at a job where there was no certainty, no “right” answer waiting for you at the end of your calculations. To be a scientist, you need an enormous amount of bravado and self-confidence to face the unknown as we do. Even if the experiment gave nothing, it was probably exciting on the way there.

Shelley February 13, 2007 - 12:44 AM

Meh. I’ve been unemployed for months at a time. Doing nothing is better than working forever and getting nothing back. Sleeping in, surfing the net, maybe go for a walk. We do science thing this cos we’re silly not cause it’s better in any way.

I get a lot of people saying “but you can still put it in your thesis right?”. Um, no. When you don’t get a result (or, in my case, get a really terribly bad one) you can’t use it anywhere or for anything. No thesis chapters, no publications, no research milestones, maybe just a sentance on your yearly report and the prospect of repeating the damn thing.

Kurt February 12, 2007 - 9:07 PM

I worked a jack-of-all-trades (see: no job description!) desk job for 8 months when many a time, I just sat and surfed the internet. And let me tell you, knowing what several months of surfing the internet feels like, I’m damn happier doing shitloads of work for nothing. Sure I’ll cry for many days afterwards, but during that time, the time that you’re feeling productive and expectant and hopeful, and productive! And that’s a way better way to be.

Having said this, I would like to offer my condolences. An actual *nothing* result sucks hard, and I would never wish it upon anyone. (It’s funny, because I feel like people outside of the sciences never truly understand the concept of “no results” or even the “non-result.”) Sending good vibes your way.

Larry Moran February 17, 2007 - 10:56 AM

I used to purify proteins as a graduate student. A purification took two weeks and it was a lot of work and a lot of late nights in the cold room. At the end of the two weeks I might end up with nothing to show for my work so it was back to the drawing board to try some other column.

Eventually my supervisor got tired of me and gave me a Ph.D. for trying!

Sometimes failures are valuable learning experiences but, in my opinion, that cliche is overworked. Success is a much better learning experience!

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