I remember when I was in high school, I had to job shadow someone who was in a profession that I was interested in. At the time, I was interested in finding out what it’s like to be a bench scientist and lucky for me, my dad (a practising pharmacist) had a contact at Adcock Ingram and managed to organise for me to shadow a general bench scientist. So off I went, touring around the labs in one of my dad’s old white lab coats (it looked adorable!). As I toured the lab, a thought crossed my mind, “Wow! It looks so cool to be in a lab, this is definitely where I belong”. Oh, was I in over my head…
Fast forward 11 years and guess where I am? In a white lab coat working hard on developing a treatment for pancreatic cancer, one of the deadliest cancers. It’s quite cool how I ended up in a place which I always wanted, but it’s not as glamourous as I thought. I always wondered, “why does a Masters/PhD take years to complete?”. So, let’s get real. Let’s talk about what research is really about, what takes up our time, and why I think it’s one of the most frustrating occupations to have.
In every research area, there are a set of techniques, or in some fields experiments, that are constantly repeated, and although the techniques becomes second nature, that’s not the part of research that holds you back (well, at least not most of the time). It’s the inconsistent results, the replicates that have to be done, and of course, the samples (cells/proteins/plants) that just seem to never comply. One day your cells could be growing well, and the next, they could be contaminated (a.k.a story of my life). Now, it may seem like these are “minor” inconveniences, but they add up. Sometimes, it may even stop you from doing a specific experiment until the issues are sorted out. All of these issues take time and learning how to get around them is another part of research that becomes quite daunting, but it is quite rewarding when you finally find a way around these issues.
“So, once you produce results, you’re on the way, right?” NO. Not at all. Once you’ve produced results, it comes with weeks/months of analysing, understanding, reading, and sometimes, unfortunately, it comes with the famous, “so…this didn’t work”. But, when you have the desired results, it definitely is something to celebrate.
Another element to research, well at least as a student, is imposter syndrome. Constantly doubting yourself, skills and achievements should be the headliner of doing a PhD. Even I, to this day, still feel like I haven’t achieved the most out of my degree yet, and that there’s still so much that I need to learn. And while many people believe that such thinking is negative, I actually find it encouraging. It motivates me to continue doing my research and learning.
My goal here is not to defame the research profession, but to showcase the difficulties that come with being in research. Although these hardships make research jobs/ degrees time-consuming and frustrating, without them, where would the beauty in research be? With these challenges, come the rewards, the support, the friendships, and the communities. So, although research may seem “easy”, it is one of the most frustrating yet rewarding fields to be a part of. Every day I wake up with the thought of having a successful day in the lab, but when I encounter a problem, I know it’s just an opportunity for me to grow, learn and understand science…and that is simply what it means to be a scientist.