Tales From the Bench: Why I Left Laboratory Science

Hello, dear readers. First of all, I want to say that this isn’t going to be a standard “Tales From the Bench” entry. Most of my “Tales From the Bench” posts are going to be interesting (I hope), but be about events slightly more mundane than me deciding to leave bench work forever. Yes, that’s what I’m going to talk about today: why I left the bench.

There’s an expression that I have found useful many times in my life: the straw that broke the camel’s back. I had been miserable for a long time at my job and was doing such a tremendous job putting up a happy front that I was not entirely in touch with how unhappy I was. I was commuting four hours a day—two hours there, two hours back—and when I felt run-down, I said the commute was getting to me.

It wasn’t just the commute. Bench science has an extremely high-pressure environment.

One of my coworkers at my last job (no, I’m not giving a name; I’ll call her N) was far more experienced than I was, so while she was not technically my supervisor, she often acted as such. N frequently told me that there was a lot of pressure on her, which is why she put pressure on me; she acted like it was entirely fair that she took her frustration out on me. This frequently took the form of speaking to me in a tone that screamed “Oh my God, I don’t think you have a brain; what is wrong with you?”, requiring absolute perfection even when I was still learning a new procedure, acting like mistakes meant incompetence, and blaming me for problems in our research that might have been either of our faults. I had to spend a lot of emotional labor responding to N in ways that she would find acceptable despite my instincts that she was being unfair. Not to mention it took a lot of energy to build myself back up after her behavior chipped away at my self-esteem. When I finally worked up the courage to tell N that her teaching style was not always conducive to my learning style, she shut me down, telling me I was too sensitive and comparing me to a child who didn’t understand why her parents were disciplining her. Instead of listening to me, she delegitimized my experiences and infantilized me. That was not the first day she made me cry.

And my experience with that coworker? That was nothing. I’ve been through way worse. I don’t know if I have had a single laboratory experience that didn’t involve a superior who was somehow callous, unfair, or outright nasty.

I don’t know what it is about lab science, but that field seems to have an abundance of people who are difficult to work with. The high percentage of scientists who have acerbic personalities at work seem to be about half the problem; the other half is money. The primary investigator is almost always either applying for funding or waiting to get funding or getting applications for funding rejected, which puts them under pressure and makes them cranky. They are then cranky to their subordinates, who are then cranky to their subordinates, and the people at the lowest level get it the worst. (Not that the stress of being a PI isn’t also a different kind of unparalleled stress; by “it”, I refer here to being the target of crankiness.) This exacerbates the fact that—at least to me—many scientists don’t seem to have good people skills. (I definitely include myself in this statement.) The result is people tearing each other down when they should be building each other up (I’m not saying every scientist does this, just that in my experience, it happens way too much in laboratory settings), and I can’t handle that. I’m sure there are labs out there where everyone is decent to each other and the higher-ups are skilled, patient teachers to students and newer researchers, but I wasn’t about to spend my life looking.

Bench work is also emotionally exhausting unless you have a certain temperament. You can spend two days on a complicated procedure, make a tiny mistake, and ruin everything. You can spend two days on a complicated procedure, make no mistakes, and the procedure can still not work, because that’s how science goes. You can spend months on a project and your refrigerator can break and ruin all your samples. You can spend years on a project and have everything ruined by someone from another lab putting a mouse cage back in the wrong place, flooding the mouse room, and drowning your mice. (This happened to another PI while I was working at my last laboratory job.) You can spend a decade and hundreds of thousands of dollars on a project and your hypothesis turns out to be wrong. You have to not care about these extremely frequent setbacks, or at least you have to be amazing at picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and continuing, especially when there are people yelling at you for things that went wrong that may have not even be your fault. It takes a toll. Even N, who had been in science for decades, told me she had nightmares about experiments not working. (I had nightmares too. Usually about her.)

When it comes to laboratory bench work, I have the skills. But I do not have the temperament. I am too affected when procedures don’t work.

The straw that broke the camel’s back for me, the event that made me realize why I was miserable at work and that I didn’t have the personality to be a lab researcher, was this: I came back after a week-long illness on a Monday, and when I sat down with N and my lab notebook and asked her to catch me up, she told me that almost all of our cells had been contaminated the previous week. Three months of work were gone. There was no way to tell which of us had made the error that contaminated our cells, so of course she blamed me. She said in that voice that screamed “you’re so incompetent I can’t stand it”, “I am telling you very nicely to be careful”. Nicely. Sure, N. Sure.

The misery I had been suppressing for weeks erupted when I arrived home. I burst into tears that didn’t seem to want to stop and poured out all my frustrations to my parents. They cautioned me not to make any snap decisions, as I had been dedicated to the idea of being a biomedical researcher for nearly two decades, but the camel’s back had been broken. I knew the truth: I wasn’t cut out for bench work.

I tried to continue working—I knew the smartest thing to do was find a new job before I quit—but my work quickly started suffering. I had previously pushed forward despite being miserable because I actually enjoyed doing some of the procedures, and I had been motivated to get through the two or three years in the lab before returning to graduate school (and getting away from N). My enjoyment of the procedures was completely gone and I no longer wanted a PhD. Without my motivation, my ability to concentrate—which was required for stretches of six hours at a time for certain procedures—began to deteriorate. I decided to get out before I made a mistake that would seriously impair the PI’s research. I put in my two weeks’ notice.

And here I am today! I’m freelancing to build my portfolio, writing this blog (if not as prolifically as I would like), and searching for a full-time job. As for why I picked writing…that might be a story for another day.