Thursday, October 15, 2009

Synthetic Chemistry

Synthetic chemistry is the science of making molecules. These are the people making the things that might cure cancer. It is possibly the most universally relentless career to pursue. I have a friend who is at graduate school for his doctorate. He works in a synthetic chemistry lab. The advisor at his lab expects everyone to work 12 hour days six days a week. Fortunately that is one of the more understanding advisors. His friend is in a lab that asks for 14 hours seven days a week. In that world there are no such things as weekends off. In fact there are rumors of professors that makes rounds at 7 AM and 11 PM every day to make sure that their students are working. I was astounded when I learned all of this. But there is more.

Synthetic chemistry was more or less started in the 50s and 60s by a professor at Harvard. He worked his students hard. Therefore when they went out and had their own lab groups they worked their students hard. The process perpetuated itself because that's one way to get breakthroughs and results. Now 50 years later most of the respected synthetic chemistry labs in the country operate on these ridiculous schedules. Now for the gory details. The professor and Nobel laureate, Elias Corey, that started it all has had three suicides in his lab group. (By the way the article linked above is really good and very long.)

My graduate school experience is not nearly as threatening. I suspect that most graduate school students enjoy life as much as they ever have. That 70-90 hours a week attitude is not one which pervades all fields of science graduate life. I encourage people to go to graduate school but before you do make sure that it is the right choice for you.

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