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Credit: Hal Mayforth

The Top 10 Worst Things About Working in a Lab

I have found that, no matter what the context, I will click on nearly any article with a number and a superlative in the title. I don’t really need to know anything about cheeseburgers that I don’t already know, but call an article “The Eight Best Cheeseburgers You’ve Never Heard Of” or “The Five Largest Cheeseburgers That Appeared in Films,” and suddenly I’ve got a bit of required reading to do.

And now, so do you.

Sure. That’s why you have no social life. It’s the lab work.

Maybe you’re an ordinary person, not a scientist (we call you “Non-scis” behind your backs), and you’ve just clicked here for some light lunchtime reading. But if you’re a scientist, perhaps you can relate as we identify … drumroll please …

The top 10 worst aspects of working in a lab.

10. Your nonscientist friends don’t understand what you do.

Even when talking about their jobs to outsiders, your friends in other professions can summarize their recent accomplishments in understandable ways. For example, they can say, “I built an object,” or “I pleased a client,” or, if your friend works on Wall Street, “I ate a peasant.” But what can you say? “I cured … um, well, I didn’t really cure it, but I discovered … well, ‘discovered’ is too strong a word, so let’s just say I tested … well, the tests are ongoing and are causing new questions to arise, so … yeah. Stop looking at me.” At least you’re doing better than your friends with Ph.D.s in the humanities, who would answer, “I put sheets on my mom’s basement couch.”

9. The scientist who is already the most successful gets credit for everything anyone does.

If you discover something, your principal investigator (PI) gets credit. If you write a paper, your PI gets credit. If you submit a successful grant proposal, your PI gets credit (and money). And what do you get? If you’re lucky, you get to write more papers and grant proposals to bolster your PI’s curriculum vitae.

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

Oops! You could pay to replace this one broken piece, or you could hire another postdoc.

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

As anyone who works in a lab knows, things that work perfectly for months or years can suddenly stop working, offering no explanation for the change. (In this way, lab experiments are like Internet Explorer®.) This abrupt and inexplicable failure changes your work to meta-work, as you stop asking questions about science and start asking questions about the consistency of your technique. You can waste years saying things like, “When I created the sample that worked, I flared my nostril in a weird way. So this week, I’ll try to repeat what I did last week but with more nostrils flarin’!”

6. Your schedule is dictated by intangible things.

Freaking cell lines, needing to be tended on a regular basis regardless of your dinner plans. Freaking galaxies visible only in the middle of the night. If it weren’t for your lab work you’d have such a vivacious social life! Sure. That’s why you have no social life. It’s the lab work.

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

Have you ever had a breakthrough in the lab? Yeah, me neither. Sure, I’ve had successful experiments, which usually means that the controls worked and no one was injured. But a real, eureka, run-down-the-hallway-carrying-a-printout, burst-into-a-room-full-of-military-personnel-and-call-the-President-even-though-it’s-three-in-the-morning breakthrough? Not yet. Unless you count the programmable coffee maker that, after much cajoling, made decent coffee at the appropriate time. Maybe I should publish that.

4. Your work is dangerous.

People say their jobs are killing them, but you work with things that could actually kill you -- things like caustic chemicals, infectious agents, highly electrified instruments, and angry PIs.

3. Labs are not conducive to sex.

Unless you work in a sex lab, which may or may not be a real thing, it’s unlikely you can convince anyone to crawl under your lab bench with you (“Just ignore the discarded pipette tips, baby”) and, as protein biophysicists say, put their zinc fingers in your leucine zipper. But hey, prove me wrong, people.

2. You have to dress like a scientist.

When I worked at an amusement park, I had to wear a purple polo shirt tucked into khaki shorts with giant white sneakers, so I suppose things could be worse. But some of our (scientists’) uniform choices are pretty unflattering. Disposable shoe covers look like you stepped in two shower caps. Safety goggles trap humidity as though you’re cultivating a rainforest on your face. And white lab coats with collars and lapels make men look like nerds and women look like men who look like nerds.

1. You can feel time creeping inexorably toward your own death.

If you think I’m being melodramatic, you were obviously never a grad student or postdoc. As a grad student or postdoc, you spend longer than you’ve planned working on something less interesting than you’d believed, all while earning less money than you assumed reasonable with an endpoint that’s less tangible and less probable than you thought possible.

If this was the kind of article with a “Comments” section, you’d scroll there and see people berating the spoiled scientist for complaining about his work when there are far worse jobs in the world. You’d also see anonymous nastiness, blatant ignorance, and a rant about Ron Paul.

Luckily, there is no “Comments” section (thanks, Science!), so I can preemptively tell you that yes, I know there are worse jobs than “scientist” -- “baby thrower,” for example, or “cow exploder.” But this is Science, so if you want to read about the top 10 worst aspects of being a cow exploder, go borrow a copy of Cow Exploder Digest. And wash your hands after reading it.

And yes, I know that there are great aspects of working in a lab as well. You get to work with your hands. You experience the beauty of a well-designed experiment. You can even ask questions about the universe and, occasionally, answer them. But since these last points were neither in list format nor preceded by an overreaching superlative, I’ll understand if you’ve already stopped reading.