Chemistry picture of the week: Knowledge

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A significant portion of a PhD in synthetic chemistry is spent in the lab, either trying to make things that nobody has ever made before, or trying to make them in a way nobody has ever used before. When something works, we aim to publish it in a scientific journal and/or put it in our theses. Most of the time, when something doesn’t work, there isn’t much you can do with the effort you have expended on it, unless you are fortunate enough to accidentally make something you didn’t actually intend to make. There is an encouraging saying that negative results are still results, but the reality is that no journal will publish an account of a scientist unsuccessfully trying to make something a hundred ways. This is unfortunate, since there is a lot of knowledge to be gained from things that don’t work. Currently, the only way to get this knowledge is through personal communication with coworkers who have worked on a project similar to yours before, and have discovered all the pitfalls before you. Another unfortunate fact is that in the scientific world at this particular point in time, one cannot succeed without a formidable publication record. It is almost more important how much you have published and in what journals than how “good of a scientist” you are.

All too often, science doesn’t quite behave the way you would want it to, and the thing that you are trying desperately to make is very elusive. We end up spending weeks, even months trying different variations of the thing to no real end. That is precious time of our scholarships essentially wasted. This makes it very difficult to weigh up the importance of synthetic lab work with the second aim of a PhD: learning. A chemistry PhD — just like a PhD in any subject anywhere — is about consolidating and refining one’s knowledge in one’s field. This is impossible to achieve by simply working in the lab day in and day out. Sure, practical skills are honed only by using them, and interpretation of your own data can teach you about how your own chemistry works, but, as I noted on Twitter a few weeks ago, the literature is often smarter than you. Furthering one’s knowledge can encompass anything from reviews of the literature relevant to one’s research topic, attending seminars, teaching, reading books and consulting peers.

I am currently struggling with balancing these two major objectives of my PhD. Every moment I spend at my desk instead of my lab feels wasted, especially since I’m one of those unfortunate cases that doesn’t have much of anything to put in my thesis as of yet. The project I’m working on is proving to be quite challenging. So, I’m finding it hard to stay out of the lab to read books and trawl the literature. And, simultaneously, as I choose to spend yet another day working in the lab rather than sitting at my desk reading, I feel guilty about that too: as though I’m choosing simply to throw things together blindly, hoping that they stick, rather than rationally planning my next step with reference to empirical evidence.

I’m hoping that once I have a bit of a base to stand on in terms of concrete positive results, I can feel more confident about what my project really is about. With that basis, perhaps I can also have a better starting point in terms of expanding my knowledge — more practically, which topics to read up on. I have this gut feeling that this might just be an empty hope, however. I think science is in many ways about constant uncertainty, and that as a young scientist, I’m going to have to deal with it outside the realm of my chemistry, too. This is crystallised in what a senior coworker said to me a couple of months ago when comforting me as I was feeling lost: “Science is a bit like that. At some point you realise that everybody is making it up as they go.”

You can contact me in the comments, at chemistryintersection@gmail.com, or find me on Twitter as @Lady_Beaker.

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