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Forgive Me, Scientists, for I Have Sinned

There are some things I need to confess. This isn’t easy to say, but after working as a real scientist with a Ph.D. for 6 years, I feel it’s finally time to come clean: Sometimes I don’t feel like a real scientist. Besides the fact that I do science every day, I don’t conform to the image—my image—of what a scientist is and how we should think and behave. Here’s what I mean:

I don’t sit at home reading journals on the weekend.

Sometimes I see sunshine on the lawn outside the lab window and realize that I’d rather be outside in the sun.

I have skipped talks at scientific conferences for social purposes.

I remember about 1% of the organic chemistry I learned in college. Multivariable calculus? Even less.

I have felt certain that the 22-year-old intern knows more about certain subjects than I do.

I have avoided eye contact with eager grad students while walking past their poster sessions.

When someone describes research as “exciting,” I often don’t agree. Interesting, maybe, but it’s a big jump from interest to excitement.

Sometimes I see sunshine on the lawn outside the lab window and realize that I’d rather be outside in the sun.

I have gone home at 5 p.m.

I have asked questions at seminars not because I wanted to know the answers but because I wanted to demonstrate that I was paying attention.

I have never fabricated data or intentionally misled, but I have endeavored to present data more compellingly rather than more accurately.

I have pretended to know what I’m talking about.

I sometimes make superstitious choices but disguise them as tradition or unassailable preference.

I like the liberal arts.

If you like this story, you can read more Experimental Error columns <a href="//">here</a>.

If you like this story, you can read more Experimental Error columns here.

CREDIT: Photo by Dan Koestler

When a visiting scientist gives a colloquium, more often than not I don’t understand what he or she is saying. This even happens sometimes with research I really should be familiar with.

I have enjoyed the fruits of grade inflation.

I have called myself “doctor” because it sounds impressive.

I dread applying for grants. I resent the fact that scientists need to bow and scrape for funding in the first place, but even more than that, I hate seeking the balance of cherry-picked data, baseless boasts, and exaggerations of real-world applications that funding sources seem to require.

I have performed research I didn’t think was important.

In grad school, I once stopped writing in my lab notebook for a month. I told myself I could easily recreate the missing data from Post-it notes, paper scraps, and half-dry protein gels, but I never did.

I do not believe every scientific consensus.

I do not fully trust peer review.

When I ask scientists to tell me about their research, I nod and tell them it’s interesting even if I don’t understand it at all.

I was never interested in Star Wars.

I have openly lamented my ignorance of certain scientific subtopics, yet I have not remedied this.

I have identified steps in lab protocols that can be optimized, yet I have not optimized them.

I have worried more about accolades than about content.

If I could hand over my lab work to a robot, I’d do it in a second. Then I’d resent having to maintain the robot.

During my graduate-board oral exam, I blanked on a question I would have found easy in high school.

I can’t name four papers my grad-school lab published, but I can describe the details of our entry every year into the Biology Department Holiday Party Dessert Competition.

I have feigned familiarity with scientific publications I haven’t read.

I have told other people my convictions, with certainty, then later reversed those convictions.

I have killed 261 lab mice, including one by accident. In doing so, I have learned nothing that would save a human life.

I can’t get excited about the research to which some of my friends and colleagues have devoted their lives.

I can’t read most scientific papers unless I devote my full attention, usually with a browser window open to look up terms on Wikipedia.

I allow the Internet to distract me.

I have read multiple Michael Crichton novels.

I have taken food from events I did not attend and mooched swag from vendors I did not talk to.

I have used big science words to sound important to colleagues.

I have used big science words to sound important to students.

I have used big science words to sound important to my 3-year-old daughter.

I sometimes avoid foods containing ingredients science has proved harmless, just because the label for an alternative has a drawing of a tree.

I have miserably failed exams in the exact field I chose to study.

I own large science textbooks I have scarcely used. I have kept them “for reference” even though I know I’ll never use them again. I intend to keep them “for reference” until I die.

Credit: Hal Mayforth

I have abandoned experiments because they did not yield results right away.

I own no wacky science ties.

I want everyone to like me.

I have known professors who celebrate milestone birthdays by organizing daylong seminars about their field of study. To me, no way of spending a birthday sounds less appealing.

Sometimes science feels like it’s made of the same politics, pettiness, and ridiculousness that underlie any other job.

I decry the portrayal of scientists in films, then pay money to go see more films with scientists in them.

I have worked as a teaching assistant for classes in which I did not understand the material.

I have taught facts and techniques to students that I only myself learned the day before.

I find science difficult.

I have delusions that people will read this confession and applaud my bravery for identifying a universal fear.

I am afraid that people will read this confession and angrily oust me from science, which I love.

I have felt like a fraud, not once, but with such regularity that I genuinely question whether anyone has noticed I don’t belong here. I am certain that one day I’ll arrive at work, and my boss will administer a basic organic chemistry test, which I’ll fail, and he’ll matter-of-factly say, “That’s what I thought.”

I know I have arrived where I am through privilege, good fortune, and circumstance. Anything I genuinely earned could not have been earned without those precursors.

Last month, I spoke to an audience of about a hundred postdocs at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Wondering whether I was alone in my fraudulence, I decided to finally go ahead and ask.

“How many of you,” I polled the audience, “actually enjoy doing lab work?” Remember that these are people who’ve performed laboratory research for a decade or more, who would spend that very afternoon at the lab bench, and who are actively and fervently pursuing careers doing more lab work.

Here’s how many hands went up: Three.

I can’t be the only scientist who feels like a fraud. But we don’t talk about it. No one volunteers to proclaim their inadequacies. In fact, scientists go to great lengths to disguise how little we know, how uncertain we feel, and how much we worry that everyone deserves to be here but us. The result is a laboratory full of colleagues who look so impossibly darn confident. They’re the real scientists, we tell ourselves. They can follow the entire seminar. They read journals for pleasure. Their mistakes only lead them in more interesting directions. They remember all of organic chemistry. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

Maybe the idea of science is easier to love than the minutiae of science. Or maybe the veneer of professionalism is important to protect the integrity and authority of scientists. Or maybe that’s a cop-out.

I only know this: I feel like a fraud sometimes. Maybe that’s all right, as long as I’m not the only one.

So, who else?