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Lab Rats

We are not Golem

On the life of a chemistry PhD student

Ian Strutt 16 April 2011

Colorless: a chemist is anything but

Being a normal, outgoing, interesting person and working in a laboratory are not mutually exclusive traits

The life of a PhD student in chemistry – like that of any other PhD student – is somewhat of an enigma, even to those studying a science subject in university. The number of chemistry undergrads who have no clue what is going on right under their noses within their own department is frankly astonishing to me. I know this for a fact because I was one of those very undergraduates about 18 months ago. And let’s face it, if a chemistry undergrad (who knows more chemistry than 99% of the rest of the population) doesn’t know what a PhD chemist does on a daily basis, then what chance do those other 99% have?

It is extremely easy to pigeonhole a graduate student into the generic view of a chemist: a pale, skinny, labcoat-clad guy with questionable personal hygiene hunched over a bench cackling to himself while stirring a flask of something colourful, all the while gazing longingly at that grubby picture of Lara Croft he’s had taped to his desk for as long as he can remember.

I would like to is to dispel that myth.

For a start, nothing I ever make is colourful; in fact, if something is colourless, there’s every chance it’s pure. And secondly, the large majority of chemists I’ve come across can generally maintain a cogent conversation. In fact, I’ve met PhD students from several different institutions in my brief postgraduate stint thus far and, by and large, they have all been normal people who have normal interests outside of the lab. They are not, as many are led to believe, the Golem-like, nocturnal oddities that chemists are regularly portrayed as. Chemists go out for drinks, they watch football, they have the same interests as non-chemists. Being a normal, outgoing, interesting person and working in a laboratory are not mutually exclusive traits.

I remember the fateful day I first walked into a research lab as a final year Master’s student. I had no clue what to expect – would it be a hostile environment, or would I would be welcomed? Thankfully, it was the latter and I’ve since met friends who not only enjoy consuming several pints of Guinness during an impromptu Thursday night drinking session but who can also sympathise with me when I can’t get something to work in the lab. Nothing I find helps to get you through bad days in the lab better than being safe in the knowledge that there are plenty of others probably having worse days just down the corridor.

So what is a day in the life of a PhD scientist like? Between regular coffee breaks, I spend my time doing coming up with ideas as to how I can push my project forward, talking things through with other people I work with and, of course, sometimes venturing into the lab itself to get my hands dirty. I chose a project to work on when I arrived at my current institution and essentially, I am responsible for the path this project takes over the next three years. All my ideas look excellent on paper (well, I think so anyway!) but chances are they don’t work in practice, a cold fact you have to come to terms with exceptionally quickly in the lab. A good friend and fellow chemist once told me that a PhD was a three-year lesson in learning to deal with failure, something which I agree with to a point. You have to be willing to accept that very little will work the first time in a chemistry lab as there is always something that will happen that you have not considered. You then have to go back to the drawing board, sometimes over and over until you get precisely what you want from a given process. To a non-chemist this may sound like a waste of time but to anyone who has worked in a lab they will know that when you finally reach the goal you have been striving for, the sense of relief makes it all worthwhile.

I don’t know if this has helped change anyone’s opinions about grad students. I’d just like people to be aware that we do have personalities and we aren’t just the heartless, faceless grunts who mark undergraduate lab reports. So if you know a PhD student, take five minutes and try and get them to explain what they do to you (you’ll make their day). Or if you are an undergraduate and you see an exhausted-looking demonstrator in one of your labs, speak to them about their project or your practical work. I can assure you, they’ve been in your shoes and you definitely will learn something new. They don’t bite, although I would be a bit careful if it’s early in the morning and they don’t look like they’ve had a cup of coffee yet. That could be extremely detrimental to either your health or the grade you get the next time you hand in a lab report they have to mark.

You have been warned.