Scientists. What do they do all day? A google image search indicates that if you type in the word “scientist” you either get cartoons of crazy grey haired guys with a maniacal look about them, or some good looking model wearing fake glasses staring wistfully into some coloured liquids.
But actual scientists… They’re not, like, real people are they? They don’t do boring, normal things like go grocery shopping, watch trashy TV shoes, go to the pub, or dear god, sometimes put their underwear on the wrong way round.
I found these descriptions from a website describing how a group of researchers took school children around a lab, and asked the children to draw and describe their idea of what a scientist looks like both before and after their visit (http://ed.fnal.gov/projects/scientists/index.html)
“A scientist is hardworking, studious, detail-oriented, observant, intelligent, exacting, and patient”
“You can see them as a mad scientist with hair standing straight up and a mean wicked laugh…. I see them with rubber gloves and safety goggles on. I see them in a chemistry lab surrounded by beakers, graduated cylinders and tables filled with experimental materials.”
“I picture a scientist as a genius. I think they can usually calculate almost anything. I think of weird experiments and bottles of chemicals.”
After the children visited the lab they realised their preconceptions were quite incorrect. Scientists were just normal people. Some of the children even thought they were pretty cool.
The problem is, even though scientists are (mostly) just normal people, this stereotype of infallibility and perfectionism is maintained by the general public, and also through institutes. With the notion of “publish or perish”, extreme competition for positions, limited funding, just topping it off with ridiculously unobtainable standards leads to the academic research environment becoming a hostile place.
My major issue that I have with this kind of environment is that researchers don’t flourish, they compete, they undermine, they lash out. It becomes toxic. Collaborations dissipate as people become green eyed monsters, waiting for someone to trip up, or failing that – stab them in the back and then use their corpse to climb that little bit higher.
Scientists have become dehumanised. Whether it be through public stereotypes, or through toxic work environments, the increasing need for infallibility (gaining funding, publishing high impact papers) is pushing scientists to their limits both mentally and emotionally. And yes, when I refer to “scientists”, I am talking about myself, in general.
To err is human, or, sometimes shit happens, get over it
Yesterday I cried in my office. I cried at home. I even had an angsty weep in the shower this morning like I was in Hollyoaks (Aussies won’t get it). The accumulation of several bad weeks at work, some snarky emails, and a couple of incidents in the lab (not big life threatening type things, just things going wrong), lead to the complete erosion of my ability to put things in perspective any more. I felt singled out, over-scrutinized, bullied and useless.
And I just broke. How is one person meant to be perfect all the fucking time? And if the person we are referring to is me – this is someone who has on more than one occasion found a dirty sock in their trousers while wearing them, then there is little hope in this matter.
Perfectionism might sound like an admirable trait, but it’s a cause of anxiety, depression and ruptured relationships. Striving for perfection is a recipe for failure – perfection is a hypothetical construct not an attainable target. The inevitable failure brings about feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, anger, frustration and sadness. It eats away at you, like an apple rotting on the inside, but still shiny and fresh looking on the outside, ready to fill your mouth with maggots and putrid fruit.
I didn’t want to go to work this morning, I lay in bed worrying about things and eventually made myself get up as it wasn’t as if I was going to go back to sleep, having had about 2 hours of actual rest all night. I spent the majority of the morning lurking about in my office, before putting on a fake happy face and rocking up to the lab for the most minimal time I could manage. I believe that to lead a fulfilling life I should not attempt to administer revenge tactics on people who have treated me like dirt, or lash out in a petty manner, because that is just consuming time that I could be spending doing something enjoyable, like watching trashy TV (and bringing me down to that dehumanising level).
All around me are people, going about their lives, doing great things research wise. On the surface they seem happy enough, working away, making a difference to the world through whatever means they can. I don’t ever want to forget that they are people, with feelings and emotions. Some of them are lonely, or hurting, or anxious. Some don’t sleep very much, some are just exhausted. All deserve respect, regardless of whether they are a professor or a PhD student.
If you’ve made it to the end of this, thank you for reading it. If you’ve just skim read it and want the take home message it is: Stop being a dick to people you work with, they might go home and cry.