Pursuing a PhD is quite a bizarre way to pay your bills. First of all, its a terrible way to pay your bills. Second of all, it a job like no other.
Imagine this: you have studied 5 years, and collected a respectable student loan (used mainly to finance your rent/beer since tuition is free in sweden). What do you get for your time and effort? Knowledge! Knowledge about how the world around you works, how life functions/dysfunctions and many other generally awesome things. And as you learn these things you think to yourself, all this is amazing, I want to contribute.
You do your masters, and you work on a short project, something like half a year. Half a year of experiments though is not enough for you to understand what you have invested your time in. In half a year, you have just about the time to learn where things are in the lab and what they do. And by that time, you have to write your thesis.
OK cool, you wrote your thesis. Now you can call yourself a master chemist (well thats not the official title at least). You apply and get the PhD position you always dreamt of. Fantastic! You are there, you have started your voyage of contribution to the text books. And reality catches up.
How do you do an experiment? What is it to do an experiment? What experiment? Experimenting is obviously the main task of a researcher. Surprisingly, it’s something that you don’t really learn how to do while studying. You learn how to experiment while you work.
Science is a team based effort, you collaborate, you discuss, and you ask for help. You work within a project trying to answer a question. You read the literature, see what other, wiser scientists have done, and you try to apply their method to your question. What kind of methods could that be?
Look at this glorious instrument, the 96 well plate:
Its a plate with 96 receptacles for solutions that give you a convenient way measure color changes. So you mix your sample together with a couple of reagents, and you check the color change. Simple hey? Well i can tell you that filling up that thing is… exciting? Yeah! Like did i add reagent K to the well 42? Yes I did! No I didn’t???? Exciting!
Coolcool. You did add reagent K to all wells. And you got an answer to your question. Whats the answer? The protein you have spent the past year studying does NOT play a role in the disease you want to cure! Exciting! Start over!
Do I sound depressed,annoyed and bitter? Maybe. But I am not! Its part of being a scientist. You have to be prepared for things like this, and focus on what keeps you going.
I don’t focus on curing a disease (although I do work with one of the emerging global health crisis: type 2 diabetes). Because failing would mean much more than just a personal failure. Well, how about contributing to the textbooks? Nah, I think the odds of my work ending up in a textbook are slim, considering the amount of other brilliant scientists.
So what keeps me going?
Well, sometimes, when you look at the colors of your 96 well plate, it hits you that this is brand new knowledge. No one else in the world has seen this before. You are first to ask and answer this question. That’s the feeling that keeps me going.