I’ve just catching up on some posts over at blog 1979Semifinalist regarding a cover for the February issue of Fables. It resonated with me because of some feedback I was given this week regarding my concerns about how Wonder Woman’s body was portrayed on an upcoming cover of Justice League Generations Lost. The essence of the feedback that we both received is this, “You women are too touchy/obsessed with the way women are shown/portrayed on comic covers. Not everything is sexist.”
Old post, but I’m reblogging it because I like the parodies along with the truth in this. I’m pretty tired and stressed today so I think I’m going to eat some ice cream and watch more LotR.
Below is an essay I wrote for English class. The assignment was to present the discourse community for your preferred future career. The person reading it should leave it feeling like they understand not only how to attain that career, but what kind of environment and challenge surround it. There was also a secondary focus on looking into how much training in communicating with skills we learn in English class is needed.
For the record, this has not been proofread and largely typed out with my eyes closed because I wrote it when I was practically going blind a few months ago and spent a lot of my time curled up in a bed crying over my possible brain tumor.
I’m posting it for a friend, and also because it may be of interest to other people. I interviewed people from SomethingAwful, haha. :,D Some of the subtitles are awful, and I apologize in advance. On the plus-side, there are some subtitles I’m proud of! A large portion of this essay I wrote while having sushi with some friends to say goodbye to them before I left for the summer. I had my laptop in my lap and typed with one hand while shoveling green tea and baked rolls into my mouth.
While writing it, I thought that surely an essay full of genuine despair could not have scored below an A. Was happy to get the A+.
tl;dr being a scientist is not cool or fun and not worth the money baww i want to be a scientist
The Discourse Community of Scientists
Nothing More than a Lab Rat, No Glorification Needed
Introduction: Life as a Scientist
The science industry is split into many unofficial sections that often overlap—there are biologists, microbiologists, biochemists, chemists, material scientists, and any other combination of these words mixed with extra titles tacked on for specialties. While the career title scientist sounds noble and glorified, those who actually have that title are often more comfortable with being called “lab rats.” They are the people pushing vats of liquid around factories to take out samples in milliliters to find out if your afternoon soda will poison you. They are the drones working till three in the morning in small labs following procedure by the book for the first time in months to pass FDA and ISO auditing. They are the bright-minded, hard-working people who are fully capable and dream of doing research on cancer or building ridiculous, helpful machines and running fantastic, cutting edge investigations to further the quality of life for all humans in this world—though most do not get to do more than recreate erectile dysfunction pills or test for contaminants in chocolate. Behind every product ever encountered in a human’s day to day life is the work of a lab rat, one of 94,100 people employed as chemists within the American industry, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. One day, I will eventually join that pool as another solitary, overworked lab rat—proud of but underwhelmed by my career.
The Grand History of Science: Glory Won and Lost
Science has come a long way—and with that, the identity of a person who practiced science has also changed with scientific developments. According to a lecture by Professor Bruce G. Stewart, a professor of Biological Sciences and chair of the Department of Science and Mathematics at Murray State College, the most basic form of early science was focused on the development of basic survival knowledge over four million years ago. This eventually gave way to the transmission of knowledge through symbolizing—which allows the early human to fathom external, abstract ideas that eventually gave way to language, art, and culture 35,000 years ago. After the development of city-state governments—which came along a few thousand years ago in cultures such as the Babylonians, Egyptians, and romans—jobs became more specified. The result was that people in such societies now had the opportunity to continually develop specialized knowledge, and these educated elite were the first batch of noble, classic scientists.
Famously, the Greeks developed a society that focused on the logical development of ideas coupled with the application of mathematics—which is very close to what blessed scientists are able to do today. Other than a few centuries of the Dark Ages—where religious authorities held back the scientific explorations from the academic community—the collective knowledge of the world continued to grow until it climaxed during the 1400’s. The Renaissance was an explosion of free thinking and during this period of scientific enlightenment the modern scientific method that persists till now was created. At this point, being a scientist was a very distinct job class that had a set gallery of skills, knowledge, and goals required to have in order to identify as a scientist.
Fifty years ago there was an economic boom that offered a wealth of jobs for the rare and adored science doctorates that still carried a respected status in society that persisted since the Renaissance. Up until the late 90’s, it appeared that working in the science industry—especially in big pharmaceutical companies where scientists could make a decent living for the amount of labor their work and education required—the job market appeared to be healthy. A young chemist could feel secure reading Chemical & Engineering News in 1998 to find an article in issue 17 called, “Job market for chemists robust.” Amazingly, four years later in issue 24 of the same journal would appear an article titled, “Job market for chemists falters.” Now, in the 2000s, there is an oversaturation of PhDs that coincided with the implosion of the science job market largely due to the internal issues with big pharmaceutical companies and manufacturers outsourcing their essential lab work to lower cost labs in Indian and China—resulting in a bleak job market that is difficult for a young scientist such as me to breach. The Bureau of Labor Statistics politely and objectively describes the seeping bog of the science industry’s job market now as having growth that is “slower than the average for all occupations.”
In modern times, scientists still carry an esteemed title and are seen as intellectuals generously donating their time for the greater good of mankind—but this elite class is no longer as small as it used to be during ancient times, and there are not enough jobs available for the brightest and best. The result is that many people who would have been successful scientists, had society had room for them, are instead turning to medicine or law—two careers that have a similar amount of dedication, study, and time involved in order to attain.
Goals and Expectations of the Modern Scientist: It’s Not Profitable to Study Cancer
During the Renaissance, a scientist’s goal would have sounded pure—he would have been honorably sacrificing his time to search the stars for answers about the Earth, or peering at microbes for the first time to try to make sense of disease. Nowadays, the modern scientist, such as a quality control chemist, has much smaller goals to complete on a daily basis. I chose to interview a quality control chemist due to the large number of them in the science industry as they are necessary to companies that manufacture almost any type of product due to government regulations. John Smith is such a chemist working at a manufacturing company that can not be named due to his position in the company and their national prevalence. His company produces everything from soda to lotions, and he has been working there for about five years.
Smith’s admits that while his job is to “analyze raw materials and finished goods by various method to ensure quality,” most of the time he is pressured by the manufacturing company composed mostly of people who do not know a thing about science to “find a way to make [products] pass… and I it is total crap we ‘reject’ the raw material and send it back to the manufacturer.” He grumbles, noting that very few lots are rejected though. To achieve this, he spends his time collecting samples from the industrial drums full of products and follows a strict set of Standard Operating Procedures to ensure quality. Smith rages about how his employers don’t understand why he can’t pass vats of liquid with pH levels so low they’ll destroy the flesh of any human in contact with the substance, because those in charge do not understand acidity and try to apply strict business models to their quality control lab.
A colleague of his complains that his lab actually found an amazing compound that they were sure could help cure cancer, and after drafting ideas for it for months the project was eventually thrown away by the company because the marketing department deemed it unprofitable. The very next week, Smith’s colleague was given another assignment to remarket another spin-off of Viagra so that they could wring more money off of an old formula—which has been proven to be extremely profitable, and thus more important than curing cancer.
The rest of Smith’s job is spent filling out paperwork about the products and procedures, or fixing broken down machines—which is his main pleasure from his job even if the company saves money by not hiring a technician and using Smith’s extra services with no pay raise, as he gets to explore and alter amazing, complex machines that assist him in doing chemistry. He notes that what he does is basically the same as what all quality control chemists do in the country. Only a rare minority of scientists in this modern economy are able to continue the work of and in a manner similar to the revered scientists of the Renaissance. The goal for industrial scientists is no longer that of chasing progress for humanity, but is now that of coaxing unacceptable lab results into passable numbers so that the manufacturers can push out more products for profit.
Education Required to Become a Scientist: To PhD or Not to PhD?
The science industry offers a wide variety of jobs available to those who are experienced and patient enough to work towards them—however, the road to a successful science career is long and hard. Many of those who leave college with their science degrees often have difficulties deciding whether or not to pursue academia or go directly into the workforce due to the misleading information that professors give to students to drive what Smith calls the “PhD slave labor force.” He warns that the “industry is not as thirsty for PhDs as your professors would have you think,” which is made apparent by how most PhDs are unable to find jobs after graduation. In fact, even the Bureau of Labor Statistics wrongly report that “companies prefer hiring PhDs [and] some may employ… scientists with a bachelor’s or Master’s.” Smith suggests a quick look through hiring forums such as Café Pharma and Biofind to see that most of the posts are “people… bitching about companies,” and telling their stories about their joblessness despite higher education degrees. Regardless, if PhDs can even find employers, they receive shockingly low salaries considering how many years were required for them to receive their doctorates.
In the end, most brilliant scientists will end up as lab rats running thoughtless, standard operating procedures unless they attempt to escape into the bubble of academia and teach. It is labor that requires almost no critical thinking, but still requires understanding. After all, if someone merely trained to test the acidity of a product is unable to comprehend and troubleshoot how to lower the pH of a product to safe levels, what will he be able to do to fix the situation? Yet, how often is that type of analysis and reasoning needed? For an early lab drone, it is common that he will spend the first few years of his career doing simple procedures they learned during their first year of undergrad and washing the lab dishes just like Smith did for the first year he was at his company.
Smith is an extraordinarily strong chemist, too—he went to the University of Texas, Austin, and did prestigious work with Nuclear Magnetic Resonance and was kept by his university after graduation to be a Teacher’s Assistant in an experimental thermodynamics lab. He was eventually promoted to work at the physical and analytical stockroom at his university, spending most of his time running equipment and doing some personal work on the side. Smith would be regarded as a great catch for an industrial lab, because he has years of experience doing practical lab work behind him.
According to Smith, a Master’s is more valuable than a PhD—but most valuable of all is not higher education, but experience. Having a relatively high position in his small lab, he trains most of the new recruits and can plainly see that the ones that end up being let go at the end of the day are usually the inexperienced ones who may have had extra degrees. The new scientists entering the industry that thrive, in his experience, have all been the ones who have had years of training in a lab doing useful, real-world procedures and not the ones who marinate in academia collecting degrees and awards.
Scientific Language: Clarity Needed
Most people are surprised to realize how much writing a normal industry scientist does on a day to day basis. As a chemist who does wet lab work on a daily basis, Smith feels lucky. “There are [quality control] labs which don’t do any chemistry at all and just visually inspect stuff,” and in those labs the majority of the work those chemists do is paperwork. While Smith does not mind the amount of writing needed to get the products he’s inspected out the door and to maintain the machines he does wish that his lab would “get-with-the-times and implement electronic lab notebooks, electronic recordkeeping,” and other streamlined, more accurate ways to maintain the amount of writing needed in his work. Unfortunately, his company is unwilling to fund his laboratory so that they may buy such systems. With humor, he reasons that since “no less than 40% of my actual work is… hand-writing stuff in logbooks, …logging results in logbooks, filling out paperwork, writing procedure in my lab notebooks, …signing off on batch records, filling out… training folder[s] with latest [standard operating procedures], [he] has near-perfect handwriting.” Since Smith is in a position to train new scientists, he feels that having good handwriting is a prerequisite to be hired. There’s more to writing as a scientist than just being extremely detail-oriented and neat.
Academic writing is focused on being “dry, detached, and to the point,” as Smith puts it—and he feels that proper academic writing comes from years of experience, for the seasoned scientific writer learns to “explain what you are doing and the purpose in as few words as necessary.” The new recruits are specifically told that they must forget what they were taught in English, because scientific writing is meant to be as clear and concise as possible, with no emotion and as little bias as the writers can manage. These are necessary restrictions though, as academic articles in scholarly journals are already climbing to around twenty-five pages per article. If the writing was less straightforward and edited to have the minimum amount of words possible, they could very likely be more than fifty-pages long.
“Ionic conductivity, lithium insertion and extraction of lanthanum lithium titanate,” by Dr. C. H. Chen and Dr. K. Amine is a great example of a normal paper that Smith would look over while at work to find new methods to test the acidity of the products he inspects for quality. Like all scientific articles, its purpose and subject are clearly stated in the lengthy title. Despite that, at seven pages long, it’s short for an academic article. Its lower page count may be due to having less figures and data tables an article would usually have. Many articles have dozens of figures, which makes this article’s twelve figures seem like nothing. The paragraphs are long, and every sentence is full of new information—nothing is repeated, for repetition is unnecessary and a waste of space and time for the audience that the journals are meant for. The amount of detail that the authors painstakingly go into throughout the paper is necessary, for the purpose of academic articles such as this one are to be precise enough so that anyone who reads it will be able to replicate the experiment and arrive at the same results—which would be useful to Smith.
These articles assume that the reader is already an expert if they’re interested in reading their paper, so even a seasoned professional like Smith may have diffeculties deciphering the paper without having to resort to pulling out a few old textbooks. It discusses machinery such as the “LLTO electrode” and how it is “difficult to extract [the initial lithiation] from the acetylene-black-free cell,” without pausing to explain what “LLTO” stands for or why it is difficult to extra from the acetylnese-black-free cell. However, reading papers is necessary for development or adjustment of procedures and protocols— which is why Smith’s experience and education combined are essential to him being valuable enough for the company to continue to pay him his meager $35,000 a year salary. In the case that a protocol fails and the standard operating procedures are no longer applicable, but the products still must be released from his lab or else he’ll lose his job, Smith will get to rise to the occasion by using the theory he learned in school. Fortunately, Smith said he enjoys reading the occasional article and does not find them boring—they tell him just enough to keep him interested and informed, so clearly the bare, information-bloated articles are effective at reaching their target audience.
A more informal article that is also targeted towards the scientific community by physics professor Dr. Jonathan Katz from Washington University is also effective at communicating its message to its target audience while still speaking from a scientist’s point of view. In “Don’t Become a Scientit,” Dr. Katz tries to persuade his students to not pursue his profession in his essay about how he’s tired of seeing the ruin of his most brilliant students that try to get jobs in science. In it, he tells stories that should be familiar to any young scientist at a university. The article is still quite short and straightforward. Rapidly, he lists compelling numbers one after another. “Postdoctoral salaries begin at $27,000,” then “a doctor typically enters a private practice at 29, a lawyer at 25 and makes partner at 31, and a computer science PhD has a very good job at 27,” yet an assistant professor who is “39 year[s] old… has published 35 papers” and is in danger of losing his job, forcing him to look “for a new job every two years.”
He attempts to appeal to the students by telling them that they are talented, but even the talented can not escape the trap that is a job in the science industry—a perpetual fear of losing one’s job to an overseas, cheaper lab, and of being outsmarted and eliminated. Dr. Katz finds that there’s no worse fate for an extremely intelligent person to waste their lives by pursuing science. He feels so strongly that he wrote the article to forward to all of his students while they still had the chance to escape. It is an extremely helpful and enlightening article for a student interested in science to read though, and it’s well-written in a way that a scientist can understand due to its use of numbers and relatable stories.
The Push for Outreach in the Science and Community: Gender Equality and Diversity
There has always been a disproportionate amount of women in science compared to men, though the figure is unclear. Larry Summers, the president of Harvard University, called it a “substantial disparity.” In the past, there have been claims that women simply were not as good at science as men were due to an unfound gene that may contribute to higher science and math abilities. However, that reasoning is unpopular presently. Summers attempts to explain that perhaps women do not have an advantage when careers are selected through a “high-powered job hypothesis,” and that they have “different availability of aptidue at the high end,” but finally that there are “different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search” when it came to finding scientists to fill jobs in the science industry. Summers was eventually fired for his disparaging remarks.
Dr. Philip Greenspun, a genius by any measure for having completed his mathematics major at age eighteen and having received his PhD in not only Electrical Engineering but also Computer Science shortly after, finds that Summer’s statements were offensive to him too even as a male scientist. However, he raised the question that there shouldn’t be a reason why a women would want to have a career in science anyway—for in his point of view, science is a horrible avenue to make a living from. He quotes Albert Einstein in his article called, “Women in Science” and says, “Science is a wonderful thing is one does not have to earn one’s living at it.”
Greenspun would be horrified then at all the outreach programs that have been established in the past decades that focus specifically on recruiting women into science. He believes that he’d rather wish people well, and that trying to move more women into science would be wishing ill upon them. He insists that perhaps the smaller number of women in science should not be a statistic that people should worry about but should instead celebrate, as it means that less women are being damned to live repetitive, unappreciated lives with pathetic pay in the science industry.
The outreach programs have been successful in integrating women into science, however. Smith remarks that in his workplace, there are about thirteen scientists and only two of them are men. His superior scientists are all women who he greatly respect because they have arrived at their high position for being much smarter than him. He remarks that his work culture may be an exception though, but that he does not feel his work place is making an extra effort to hire women or minorities because his colleagues are deserving of their place in his company. At least in the case of Smith’s company, progress can be felt—disproving Summer’s claim that women are truly at some kind of natural disadvantage that they could not overcome because the ideals holding them back were an uncorrectable part of society.
Conclusion: Is the Struggle to Become a Scientist Mostly An Existential Crisis?
Roger W. Bowen, general secretary o the American Association of University Professors once said that “The life of the mind may seem cushy, but it is not.” Truly, the entire career path of a scientist is difficult, and their worries are never-ending. Young scientists waiting to enter the workforce are faced with a dying science industry that has an oversaturation of PhDs and not enough basic, lower job openings for even those with just a bachelor degree. Even then, the amount of money one receives for washing dishes as a lab rat for a company is still less than someone could make for washing dishes for a restaurant—as it’s not uncommon that post baccalaureates make only $20,000 a year. While one could say that the modern conditions of a scientist indicate a decline in the respect and glory of a scientist, it mostly is just an indication that more people are going to college and successfully completely it ever before so that the number of scientists has largely outgrown what little jobs were already available to them.
While it is true that the implosion of the pharmaceutical industry did not help—for that alone destroyed 70,000 jobs in all over the years it took for the companies to slowly die—not all the despair of scientists can be blamed on just that one major event. Scientists to be should not be discouraged to enter the workforce despite knowing that they most likely won’t be doing fantastic research on cancer or even contributing usefully to the pool of knowledge that is the entirety of science. There must still be brilliant people like Smith to maintain quality control so that the products that humans come into contact daily are ensured to be safe by people who are smart and trained well enough to verify or at least alter the batch enough so that they are within safe, consumable levels.
Someone like Smith is clearly not in it for the money—for there is no reasonable amount of money to be had despite the years of grueling studying and working. Smith adds that he feels that there is more to being a scientist than just doing what is thought of as pure science—and that he encourages students to branch out and do what they can with their general education requirements in college so that they may find a hobby. Then they may be able to emotionally withstand the feelings of inadequacy and squandered brilliance that many people feel working in abs doing standard operating procedures that anyone could do—at least until things go awry. After all, even if scientific writing does not involve many of the flourishes that one picks up in English, practicing writing is the only way to become an effective and clear writer, and being able to do that is essential in an industry that is run with paperwork and shares its ideas primarily through journals.
In that way, he still doing what Renaissance scientists were thought of as doing hundreds of years ago—nobly donating his time to study a difficult subject in order to ensure a high quality of life for humanity. What has been lost, over the centuries, is the appreciation that people have for scientists such as Smith—though the esteem still exists, even if those who work in the industry feel like nothing more than lab drones. In the end, all scientists are still lab rats running in a closed wheel with no escape from their long, hard job that never ends. We are proud of what we do, no matter how small or insignificant though, so we will always continue to run.
Broedel-Zaugg, K., D. F. Kisor, and D. L. Sullivan. “Evaluating the pharmaceutical industry’s need for graduates with a bachelor of science degree in pharmaceutical sciences.” American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education. 67: 91-99. 2003.
Bohnke, C., H. Duroy, and J. L. Fourquet. “pH Sensors with lithium lanthanum titanate sensitive material: applications in food industry.” Sensors and Actuators B-chemical. 89: 240-247. 2003.
Brennan, M. “Job market for chemists robust.” Chemical & Engineering News. 17: 6-6. 1998.
“Chemists and Material Scientsts.” Bureau of Labor Statistics, U. S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition. Web. 19 Apr 2011. < http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos049.htm#training>
Greenspun, P. “Women in Science.” Philip Greenspun. Web. 19 Apr 2011. < http://philip.greenspun.com/careers/women-in-science>
Heylin, M. “Job market for chemists falters.” Chemical & Engineering News. 24: 5-5. 2002.
Katz, J. I. “Don’t Become a Scientist!” Washington University, St. Louis, Mo. Web. 19 Apr 2011. < http://wuphys.wustl.edu/~katz/scientist.html>
Steward, B. G. “Scientific Thought: A Brief History.” Science Thinking. Web. 19 Apr 2011. < http://www.sciencethinking.org/zoology/scihistory.htm>
So, the housemates and I marathoned the first two LotR movies today, extended edition. We started at four in the afternoon and finished now, at one AM. We took a few breaks to have our two residents experts— one who just finished rereading the trilogy and another who has dedicated himself to reading all of the lore— explain somewhat confusing scenes. We also stopped for dinner.
Part way through the movie, Sean mentioned that he remembered that the Nazgul’s early mounts— depicted as horses in the movies— were vaguely described as having feathers. As a result, he always thought of them as horses with wings.
His parents, who are the same people who introduced Tolkien along with Dungeons and Dragons into his life, begged to differ. His mom said that she always thought that the Nazgul mounts were geese. Giant geese.
I told the rest of the movie watching crew that I don’t think giant, black, galloping geese are very frightening. John said that anything that is giant is frightening, plus geese are evil.
HAHAHA no I totally feel you on that. D,: WHY IS HE AVERAGE HEIGHT? DO WE REALLY NEED MORE COOKIE CUTTER HEROES? CAN’T WE JUST HAVE ONE HERO WHO IS DIFFERENT? Bawwwww.
Wonder Woman is in pants as seen on Justice League artwork.
Holy crap, could their shoulders be even more tense?
AWW! D,: When my summer job is over and the first few difficult weeks of school are gone, I’ll try to be back to my old active self! <3 <3 <3
D,: I-I don’t have any wishes!
I took some weird classes in high school instead of AP classes. Advanced Pre-Med was supposedly the second hardest class in the entire school and it was two years long— so I did not take AP Chem or AP Bio, as a result. Didn’t have time. Here are some of the dissections I did and my notes to study from.
I have more, I just need to find them. :)