(With more apologies to Helen Fielding.)
Hard to believe another year has flown by already. I have now been a postdoc for 14 months and it feels like I barely know where the toilets are. In order to revitalise my flagging career and spirits, I firmly resolve that:
- I will finally cobble together all that random data into a paper.
- I will not leave all the boring and menial lab tasks for my student.
- I will not waste half my day e-mailing.
- I will make the majestic breakthrough that makes my name in the field.
- I will wash out my coffee mug regularly.
- I will write in my lab notebook every day, and not just shove in pictures and print-outs to deal with later.
And this year, that means for longer than a week!
Monday: First day back after Christmas hols
Time spent trying to locate security pass: 15 minutes ... Time spent trying to remember what I was actually doing before I went away: 3 hours ... Number of unwanted e-mails: 137
Arrive at the lab expecting it to have somehow morphed into thrusting hub of scientific endeavour. In fact, is the same as always. Trade woeful Christmas stories with everyone. As most of them live in rather exotic countries, my tales of familial tension and rainy dog walks in darkest Bedfordshire pale by comparison.
After 10 days off, I am unable to remember what train of scientific thought I was actually following. Lab notebook mysteriously full of crumbs and doodles of reindeer rather than incisive conclusions. Entirely new life form has generated in unwashed coffee mug.
Determined to turn over a new leaf this year, pushing back the boundaries of science every day. I may even tidy my desk. Spend the rest of the day trawling through my e-mail account, sorting out the important ones from the Tables of Contents and adverts for Viagra.
Number of unidentifiable tubes in fridge: 47 ... Time spent looking for holiday destinations on the Internet: 2 hours
Malaise has already set in after only 1 day back in the lab. An inspection of the fridge suggests that my strategy of numbering tubes 1 to 10, vowing to label them properly later, is ineffective.
The only pages in my notebook which might provide any kind of clue are welded together with mulled wine, surely the stickiest substance known to man. At least I have solved the problem of what to start doing first: repeating the previous fortnight's work.
My evil PhD student is still lurking in the bosom of his family, somewhere in Europe. He is probably snow-boarding right now. The problem with the British winter is that there's so much of it once Christmas is over.
Nothing but rain and skies the colour of Tupperware until May. Must be time to book a holiday. Have achieved no glorious scientific breakthroughs last year so feel unworthy to apply for any conferences. Not that I could afford to go anyway: We just spent the entire lab travel budget on mince pies.
Number of hours spent devising menial tasks for my student to do: 5 ... Number of hours it would have taken me to do them instead: 2
Evil student has returned from the Alps, brandishing a crutch and an extraordinarily large plaster cast. I write "Stop pretending. Where are my PCR results?" on it. He insists that his injuries make any kind of heavy lifting impossible--this apparently includes pipettes and microfuge tubes.
I set him to work anyway while I catch up with my e-mails. Unfortunately, one of my resolutions has already crumbled. Five minutes per day are barely enough to even begin constructing a rant to my mother about the unfairness of life. In an act of revenge, evil student manages to knock over several beakers with a mighty sweep of his plastered leg. Spend the rest of the day on hands and knees sweeping glass, unidentifiable tubes, fluff, and general yuck from under the fridge. Make several remarkable discoveries under there, though sadly none of them are publishable.
Time spent at bench: 2 hours ... Time spent in slough of despond: 4 hours ... Time spent fantasising about supermarket shelf-stacking job: 3 hours
Right. Sleeves up, pipettes at the ready, time to start work. Moment of terrible panic when I realise my lab coat will not fasten. Damn those mince pies!
After a productive morning at the bench, I gather together all my data from the past year for the majestic paper I'm on the verge of creating. It will be a seminal work, published in a top journal and cited for years to come. Yes! This is how a research career should be!
Brought back down to earth sharply when I realise that it will take the insight of Einstein, the prose of Proust, and the spin of Alastair Campbell to turn this mess of half-baked ideas into any kind of story. Either that, or at least another 2 years of proper work. This is not helped by the fact that my lab book is full of loose photos and printouts; some labelled, some not. Although some things came close, nothing has really worked. If I used a really quick-growing organism like yeast or bacteria, I could have hundreds of failed research projects behind me by now, instead of just a handful.
To cheer myself up, I update my CV. Sadly, there is nothing to add to it. Instead, think about all the alternative jobs I could be doing with a PhD. World's Most Overqualified Shelf-Stacker is high on the list.
Time spent writing up lab notebook: 4 hours ... Time spent in the pub: 3 hours
Determined to get things sorted out so I attack my notebook with a roll of sticky tape and a pen, pasting in all the pictures and labelling up as much as I can remember. Find lots of exciting loose ends I never really followed up, creating lots of ideas and a long list of boring and menial tasks for my student to get on with.
The lab's superproductive postdoc has had yet another paper accepted so we all go off to the pub for lunch. Afterward, she goes back to the lab with the students while the rest of us postdocs stay in the pub, bemoaning our lack of success.
Back at work after several glasses of Chardonnay, inspiration strikes. I fire up the computer and start writing my paper. It is a work of devastating clarity and insight. It will revolutionise the field! It goes something like this:
Introduction: (Paste this from boss's last review)
Materials and methods: (Paste this from someone's PhD thesis)
Results: (Fill in later)
Discussion: (Waffle a bit here)
Well, it's a start I suppose. Next stop, Science!
Kat Arney is currently wondering what she would look like in a supermarket uniform. ...