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A Cure for Listlessness

CREDIT: Photo by Dan Koestler

Every scientific paper requires a rationale, a reason for the researchers to embark on the work they propose. If your rationale is strong and sensible, and the work that follows is good, you’ve just written an excellent piece of scientific communication. If your rationale is farfetched and ludicrous, you’ve just written a grant application.

And if a piece of writing has no rationale at all, then it’s probably my column, Experimental Error, published on the fourth Friday of each month at Science Careers. Hi.

If you’ve been reading this column for a while, you know that I often try to set up and explain the elements in a list, such as "The Top 10 Worst Things About Working in a Lab," or a list of rejected science journal titles. But sometimes the lists exist independently of any underlying motivation, floating in space, nebulous and purposeless, like Constitution Party nominee Virgil Goode’s 2012 presidential campaign, or Myspace. When that happens, I stick them in a Word document, which tends to disappear when my computer restarts itself because Windows installed critical updates. Thanks, Windows. Needed those updates.

This month, I’ve decided not to pretend that I have something grand to convey. I have no rationale. What I have is a bunch of lists about science and science careers. Maybe you’ll find one of them inspiring enough to tape to the door of your office next to the Thai restaurant takeout menu and the faded human genome poster from 2003.

Or maybe you’ll resent the time you will have wasted. Let’s find out!

I have no rationale. What I have is a bunch of lists about science and science careers.

The Top Six Things Grad Students Will Never Hear Their Advisers Say:

6. “Let’s have lab meetings when they’re most convenient for you.”

5. “My name doesn’t need to be on this paper.”

4. “If you TA this class, you should really be paid what I’m paid.”

3. “Hey, weekends are your time. I wouldn’t want to infringe on that.”

2. “Let’s not spoil this friendly chat with a lot of talk about ‘results’ and ‘effort.’ ”

1. “Don’t worry about fulfilling the obligations of my grant; go blaze your own path, noble explorer!”

The Top 12 Things You’ll Never Hear Undergraduates Say:

12. “I don’t care about the grade; I just want to make sure I understand.”

11. “My education is more important than trying to throw a ping-pong ball into a plastic cup.”

10. “I’ll do this simple arithmetic in my head.”

9. “I will now use proper grammar in an informal communication.”

8. “I will now use proper grammar in a formal communication.”

7. “There is nothing humorous about the professor farting.”

6. “You have my undivided attention.”

5. “I understood every step in the lab manual and will write my own report based on the data I actually measured; this report will be coherent, thorough, and will not sound suspiciously like my friend’s report.”

4. “I will don this protective laboratory garb even though no one is looking.”

3. “I’d like to order a beer that costs more than $1.25, please.”

2. Anything that ends in “please.”

1. “I could be wrong.”

Credit: Hal Mayforth

The Top Eight Scientific Companies You’ll (Hopefully) Never Work For:

8. Uncle Cracklin’s Homestyle Biotechnology Shindig

7. Rapid-Yet-Often-False Diagnostics

6. Phase I Pharmaceuticals (Motto: “We Quit While There’s Still Promise”)

5. Precision Laboratory Supply (Motto: “Screw You, Accuracy, Which Is Different From Precision”)

4. Faith-Based Immunotherapeutics

3. Engorgex

2. Bristol-Myers Squid (a less successful offshoot of the famous medical manufacturer; this one is focused solely on ailments of the cephalopod)

1. Bain Capital

The Top 14 Science Reality Shows:

14. Near-Field Infrared Spectroscopy With the Stars

13. Gordon Ramsay’s Fission Nightmares

12. So You Think You Can Graduate

11. The Biggest Laser

10. 18th Annual Neurosurgery Symposium With Keynote Speaker Flavor Flav

9. Real Housewives of CERN

8. Say p > 0.05 to the Dress

7. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, and She’s Doing Multivariable Calculus

6. America’s Next Top Model Organism

5. Man vs. Thesis Committee

4. I Didn’t Know I Was Adjunct

3. World’s Wildest Protein Databank Animations

2. Pimp My ISO Class 5 Biological Safety Cabinet

1. Who Wants to Be a Grant Recipient?

The Top Seven Things to Say to a Scientist If You Want to Watch His or Her Head Explode:

7. “I heard that there are disagreements in the scientific community about whether molecules exist.”

6. “Science, scientology—I always forget, which is the real one?”

5. “Sorry, we’re going to defund your lab. The university needs a new football stadium.”

4. “I liked The Core. So realistic!”

3. “I don’t believe in anything I can’t see.”

2. “So you’re telling me your research has saved zero lives.”

1. “This rock is 5000 years old! And this rock is 5000 years old! And this rock is 5000 years old!”

And, finally, no list of lists would be complete without a list of lists that could never be made into lists:

The Top Eight Impossible-to-Create Science Lists:

8. Famous Experiments That Worked on the First Try

7. Multipart Questions I’ve Been Glad Someone Asked a Seminar Speaker Who Already Ran 25 Minutes Over Time

6. Benefits of the English System of Measurement

5. Science Textbooks That Won’t Quickly Become Outdated

4. Legally Purchased Software on Academic Lab Computers

3. Postdocs Content to Remain Postdocs

2. Articles With Lists That Don’t Make You Feel Like You Just Wasted 10 Minutes You Could Have Spent Productively

1. Any list created in Microsoft Word. Seriously, try making lists with reverse numbering. You can’t.