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From Preschool to Postdoc

At Science Careers, author Adam Ruben chronicles his life as a scientist, from preschool to postdoc. Growing up, Ruben says, he and other young scientists "thought we would rule the world. Then we got actual science careers." Now, while his grant says his purpose is to cure malaria, Ruben says his actual job "is to move small amounts of liquid from one place to another. That's it." To examine how he — and many other young investigators like him — eventually found that science careers are not exactly what they seemed at the start of his training, Ruben takes readers back to preschool, where a budding scientist might think:

Yet again, the triangle-shaped block fits into the triangle-shaped hole. Fascinating. Analysis will likely reveal statistical significance regarding this fact, but first I should further explore the block's properties by attempting to eat it.

In elementary school, a student interested in science might become swept up in visions of researchers in crisp white lab coats, toiling away in their labs with gadgets, exploding things at their discretion:

This week, a man came to our school and talked about science. … He must be the coolest man in the world! When I grow up, I want to be just like him, except maybe not with that weird moustache.

However, once that researcher has reached grad school and later becomes a postdoc, Ruben says hos or her mindset has likely changed:

Apparently "science" means "work," and in grad school, it means "work for which I'm scarcely paid."

Overall, while some of it may at times seem mundane — "I put little stickers on several hundred vials this morning. … Diseases cured: zero. Vials with little stickers on them: several hundred" — Ruben says that most of a scientists' work is meaningful. He often thinks of what his preschool self would say about his career. "Remind that preschooler that you're now a big, bad scientist — dream accomplished — and even if your day-to-day work isn't as glamorous as you'd hoped, you still have something to feel satisfied about," he says.

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