Saturday, June 26, 2010

Being a scientist

Today is a perfect example of why I personally can never be without a job...
I had a minimal work day today - I was in for a moment this morning, but I'm off the hook until 7pm.
I literally have had free time for 6 hours and I've now run out of things to do with myself!
Seriously, my cat is tired of me bothering her...
 Pleading...leave me alone to play in my box!

And that is why today is a good day to talk about what it's like to be a scientist - more specifically a biochemist. I've just recently gotten my first real job after 7 years of college. I got a bachelor's degree in Biochemistry in 2006 and immediately started working on my Ph.D. This spring I was awarded my Ph.D and now I'm working on learning more about Mycobacterium tuberculosis so we can prevent the diseases spread by the Mycobacterial family of bacteria. My research is, admittedly, cool. And I've been very lucky in my life to have successful research, a boss who appreciates me, and a fun work environment. 

However, people outside the science world really have no idea what being a scientist looks like, or how people get there. So I'm doing this question & answer style to give you some idea how we spend our days. 

1) What kind of education is required to work as a scientist? 
There are multiple answers to that. The minimum is really a bachelor's degree with very few exceptions. If you go on to get your Master's degree, you could teach at a small college, you can teach high school by only taking a test and getting experience in many states, or you could do some technical work at a public (like a school or gov't institution) or private (like a company) institution. A Ph.D opens more doors - more teaching, higher positions in companies or research institutions -, but to have the highest jobs, you really have to get experience. That is done via postdoctoral research or years on the job at a company. Then you can really design the type of science you're doing and direct others in how to do it. 

2) What are the hours like? 
 Ha! No one told me, but biology doesn't wait for M-F 9-5. Biology keeps it's own time, thus the 'biological clock'. Sometimes biology's clock doesn't jive with your personal clock and then you get stuck at the lab or office much later than you would like. My tips? Pack extra food and keep it at work, or know a really good takeout place that delivers so you won't have to look up from your tube that drips 1 droplet of water for 4 hours straight and requires the utmost attention. 

As a graduate student, I worked 70 hours/week on average. Now I'm doing about 50. I work weekends, evenings, holidays - whatever my experiments dictate. I think about work at home. I work on work at home. It's really whatever you and your boss are comfortable with. I should warn you that the sciences have an inflated view of normal work hours, so if you work for someone who thinks you should be working 70 hours/week and you feel it has to stay at 40, my advice is to find a more understanding boss. 
3) What do you do all day? 
Understandably I can't tell you the exact details of what I do on any given day. But, the basic idea is that I do experiments to test ideas about how the world (in my case, Mycobacteria) work. I don't know the answers to these questions. Sometimes I only have a vague idea of what kind of results I should be getting. But I test them, look at the results, and do my best to interpret these results. I also dream up new things to test - or my boss asks me to answer a question, and I have to do some experiments to answer this question. 
If you took a chemistry or biology lab class in high school or college, you might have done some experiments and measured some results. The main difference between that class and what I do? No one tells me HOW to do the experiment to get the best results or WHAT those best results look like. I have to figure that out on my own. Then I need to ask the next question based on whether or not the experiment answered my first question. 

In my newest job, I'm spending slightly more time managing other people and their experiments than doing my own. I spend a lot of time meeting with my labmates one-on-one, talking to them about their results and the interpretation of these results, trying to decide what these results really mean, and deciding what the next step is in this process. It's fun and challenging, as I spend a lot of time teaching people how to analyze their experiments to become better scientists. However, my success is intertwined with their success, so it can be stressful at times. 

4) So this job must pay pretty well, right? 
 Hmmm...being a scientist CAN pay well, but time and education does not always result in excesses of money. To give you an idea, graduate students working on their Ph.D usually work in the lab 50-80 hours per week, and those kinds of hours with typical grad student pay ends up equating to $4-7.00 per hour. People with a Ph.D, but little experience usually get paid $30-$50,000/year. Professors and senior researchers at companies have variable salaries, but it can start as low as $50,000 and go as high as the sky. At my public institution, professor's salaries vary from $50,000-$400,000/year. And yes, you can expect to keep up the ridiculous workload for your life if you choose the jobs that result in the higher salaries. Even some of the jobs with lower salaries end up paying poorly when you figure out the dollars/hour you're getting. 

5) Where does the money come from to pay for science? 
This is an interesting question because there are multiple layers to it. I work at a public institution, and most of us get paid by government grants. That means that taxpayer dollars go to a fund that is then dispensed to the scientists for their use. These scientists need to write to the government or funding group and convince them that their money should be allotted to that specific group of scientists to solve that particular problem. It's supposed to be a merit- and idea-based award system. The professors and researchers that work at these public institutions are paid via taxpayer dollars by the institution. They have set wages, but if they are awarded enough money by the government to do research, they can supplement their wages from that money.

In the companies, the wages and project funds are largely driven by profit margins and successful research projects. If you are a scientist at a company, your main job is to figure out how to make the company money. They then sell your product or idea and make money, and you get paid. If you do this well for the company, you hopefully get a raise. Or you find a new company that appreciated you more and will pay you better. 

There is slightly more to this than I'm telling you about right now, but I'll cover it in a 'science and public policy' post at a later time. 

6) Tell me about your average day? 
First of all, I NEVER dress in a full white biohazard suit. I wear jeans and a decent shirt most days. If I'm spending a lot of time teaching or in meetings, I try to dress up because I'm not a very big girl, and I'm kind of young. When I teach, students often have trouble finding me if I'm working around the room, and sometimes they forget I'm their teacher and have inappropriate conversations with me. I've found dressing up makes me easily spottable and marks me as a 'teacher'. 

Also, technically I should be address as 'Doctor', but the only people who really call me that are people trying to sell me lab equipment and the lawyers who worked on my patent. And I really like it that way - I'd like people to feel comfortable with me. 
So, on an average weekday, I wake up at 6:45, go work out for 1-1.5 hours, and go to work. I get to work around 9 unless science dictates that I must show up earlier. I've gone in as early as 4am. I usually try to 'put out fires' by answering e-mails in the morning, then I start experiments or start meeting with people who need my help. I eat lunch at work 90% of the time and I eat at my desk. This is why my blog is so heavy in the packed lunches. I try to come home by 6  most days, but sometimes I have to stay later. I'd say I work between 8-9 hours during the main part of my day most days of the week. I have to go back to work in the evenings 2-3 days per week for probably 1-2 hours apiece. Sometimes I can substitute this by going to the coffee shop and working on my laptop, but not always. Once I'm home, I work a little bit after dinner, again mostly on the laptop looking at results, writing up results, or planning future experiments. 
I probably work 50 hours M-F and then I work most weekends. I try my hardest to spend less than 10 hours at work between Sat and Sunday. Sometimes they are just like every other workday. Sometimes I just need to pop in here and there. It really depends. 

That's all for now, but I hope this clarified some of the questions you have about the life of a scientist. If you have any further questions, please leave them in the comments. I'd love to know what you all think!

1 comment:

  1. Your job sounds intense :)

    You could always drop and do some yoga when you have too much free time!