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Field Report 9: The Spy Tries to Get His Facts Straight


My work is humming along nicely. I am getting regular assignments as an online science journalist, the nonprofit has me on contract to do about 30 hours a week of lesson development, and I'm rewriting a freshman lab manual for a local university.

I owe the last assignment to a recent policy change at the university. As the professor who hired me, and who is not named Dr. Jones, said, "Our incoming freshmen know absolutely nothing about science or writing, so the new labs can't assume any prior knowledge AND we have to teach them how to write!" Dr. Jones seemed genuinely perturbed at this latest sign of the degeneration of our youth, probably because it created unwanted work for him just as he was about to retire. "Why should we have to teach writing in a science department?" Personally, I think that teaching scientific method in conjunction with writing is a positive change.

So I started the project with a lot of enthusiasm and found the work surprisingly enjoyable. In addition to writing out the step-by-step instructions (boring), I got to research and write short historical introductions to the labs (fun) and make all the illustrations (fun). And since the labs covered areas that I had no previous experience in, I learned some new things. For example, I now know more than I ever thought I would about how a sundial works, and I will give you a hint: They are much more complicated than you think.

With the help of a couple of the department's teaching assistants, I produced my first lab activity. Dr. Jones was quite pleased with it, so I felt quite confident heading into the second activity. As I expected, the writing went smoothly and I delivered it to Dr. Jones in a couple of weeks.

Then a bump appeared in my apparently smooth road to professional success.

I received an e-mail from Dr. Jones containing the ominous line: "This write-up has some SERIOUS problems." When I asked him to send me an e-mail elaboration of the trouble, he said that there were too many to list and I had better come by and talk. Uh-oh.

With my heart in my shoes and my tail between my legs, I went for our meeting. I couldn't believe that I had made such a mess of the write-up. I thought I understood the material and I had had the grad students check it over, too. Certainly we couldn't all have missed anything that big.

Without getting into too many of the gory details, I will say that I had made a mistake and that the error had propagated into several connected statements. To me, it was a simple transposition of yes for no, or up for down, and easily corrected. For Dr. Jones, it was a threat to the entire educational process and a potential stain on my permanent record. At the very least, my statements would mislead many students; at the worst, one of the bright ones might "catch me." I'm still not sure, but I had the distinct impression that this professor felt that students could place faculty members under citizen's arrest for making mistakes. O, that it were the case!

At this point, I had two options: I could be angry, defensive, and pouty ("I can't believe you are making such a big deal about such a little mistake! Why don't you take this job and shove it?"), or I could just swallow the bitter feelings and correct the mistakes. As much as I wanted to pout and quit, I chose the professional route. After all, I had made a mistake.

At least, that is what I did in Dr. Jones's office. At home, my wife got an earful about "that jerk Dr. Jones and his stupid pedantic overreaction." She was very sympathetic. She said, "You just hate it when anyone criticizes you." Unfortunately, this is true.

But after I had vented all my rage, I was ready to get back to the writing. Despite being "stupid" and "pedantic," Dr. Jones had corrected the mistake and suggested a simple way to explain the idea that had given me trouble. I worked with it a bit and soon the whole section clicked into place like the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle. Dr. Jones was very happy with the final product, and we have since produced three more activities together. I still think he is a bit pedantic, and he probably still thinks I play too fast and loose with the facts, but the combination of our two approaches seems to work.

The entire episode reminded me of something a friend of mine once said, "The only important thing that writing a thesis taught me was that I have an infinite capacity for making mistakes." And being a freelance science communication consultant has taught me that it is important to swallow my injured pride when I do.

The Spy is a scientist living and job-searching somewhere in the Western half of the United States.

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