|"Prayer, Mr. Saavik. Thesis committees don't take prisoners."|
I have become proficient at producing a rare species of prose capable of distilling ten years of work by five people into six published pages, written in a language that very few people can read and that no one ever speaks. This writing relates the details of my work with the precision of a laser scalpel, but its streamlined beauty is a type of artifice, a size-zero mannequin designed to showcase the glory of a dress that would be much less perfect on any real person.Readers of this blog will enjoy this sentence:
"You may have heard that America doesn't have enough scientists and is in danger of "falling behind" whatever that means) because of it. Tell this to an academic scientist and watch her laugh."The book is getting wide and deserved praise, so it is with some trepidation that I express my discomfort with this passage that I have excerpted. Preceding the passage, Professor Jahren relates the time that she went to Ireland, collected many samples at significant personal cost and then was forced to throw them away at the airport since she did not have the proper permits:
Bill would forever after refer to that trip as "the Wake," whereas I dubbed it "the Honeymoon," and we took to reenacting its climax at least once a year. Whenever we got a new recruit to the lab, his or her first task was to label empty vials, hundreds of them. We'd explain that this was a necessary preparation for a large-scale collection we had scheduled and give directions for a long and complicated alphanumeric code, rich with Greek letters and nonsequential numbers, to be inscribed on each vial in pen, along with the order of production.
After a day of steady labor on the part of the newbie, we'd hold a summit and either Bill or I would play Good Cop and the other would play Bad Cop (we traded off). The meeting would start out with our asking the newbie how he or she had liked the task and whether this sort of work was tolerable. It would then slowly morph into a discussion of the upcoming sample collection and the rationale behind its purpose.
Little by little, Bad Cop would become more and more pessimistic as to whether the proposed collection would test the hypothesis after all. Good Cop would resist this logic at first, urging Bad Cop to consider the fact that the newbie had put so many long hours into the preparation. Even so, Bad Cop just couldn't let go of the nagging realization that this approach wasn't going to yield an answer, and finally Good Cop had no recourse but to agree that starting over was as unavoidable as it was necessary. At this point, Bad Cop soberly gathered up the vials and dumped them en mass into a lab waste receptacle. The Cops exchanged a knowing look, and Bad Cop trudged off without satisfaction, leaving Good Cop to observe the newbie's reaction.
Any sign that the newbie regarded his or her time as of any value whatsoever was a bad omen, and the loss of so many hours' work was a telling trial of this principle. As a corollary, any recognition of futility was perhaps worse. There are two ways to deal with a major setback: one is to pause, take a deep breath, clear your mind and go home, distract yourself for the evening, and come back fresh the next day to start over. The other is to immediately resubmerge, put your head under and dive to the bottom, work an hour longer than you did last night, and stay in the moment of what went wrong. While the first way is a good path toward adequacy, it is the second way that leads to important discoveries.
One year I played Bad Cop but forgot my reading glasses and so returned early to the melee. Our newbie, named Josh, was busily digging his vials out of the refuse bin, separating each one carefully from the used gloves and other trash. I asked him what he was doing and he said, "I just feel bad that I wasted all these vials and stuff. I thought I could unscrew the caps and save them, and they could be extras or something." As he continued with his task, I caught Bill's eye and we smiled at each other, knowing that we'd identified yet another sure winner.I agree that science requires such dedication, and yes, while a trip home may attempt to preserve your sanity, facing your problems and fixing them right then and there will certainly lead to faster answers immediately. Having the fortitude to face such a failure and go right back to problem-solving is indeed the sign of a passionate scientist.
However, is there a point to such an artificial test of character? Are there other tests of character that don't involve wasting hours of mind-numbing work for an undergraduate? (Isn't there enough mind-numbing work already without coming up with a fake test?)
There is so much artificiality to job interviews and training scenarios that perhaps something like this is really not too far out of the norm. That said, if I were Josh and I found out this was a fake situation, I would be royally irritated.
Readers, what do you think? Is this indeed the ultimate test of character for a scientist? Do you believe in the no-win scenario? Are there better tests that are less artificial?