Why Science Bombs

A friend and colleague of mine, Jono Zalay, recently wrote a very honest essay about his desire to quit his day job of being a research scientist and become a professional standup comedy. I too I am in the exact same predicament; however, unlike Jono, I really do love doing science. But I just don’t forsee myself making a living doing science.  Why, you ask? Because I want to work in a field where success is based upon a meritocracy, and unfortunately, science is not that.

You probably think that I am a lunatic or just simply don’t understand the world of standup comedy when I say that standup comedy is a meritocracy.  There are some arbitrary aspects to standup, but it is by far more meritocratic than science. Science and standup comedy are actually very similar fields.  For instance, you don’t make a lot of money, failures far outnumber successes, there are a lot of shitty personalities to deal with, and you’re generally awkward around people who don’t do what you do.  So, for me the transition from science to comedy seems fairly straight-forward.

I have spent 9 years of my life doing science, and 5 years doing comedy, and I do both for the same reason.  I love it. When you answer a question that you’ve been working on for months, it’s like a lengthy applause break.  It’s one of the best feelings in the world, which I’ve only experience a handful of times.  To further underline the parallels between standup and science, here is a list of traits necessary for success in each field:

Traits of a Good Comedian Traits of a Good Scientist
Strong Observational Skills, Detail Oriented Strong Observational Skills, Detail Oriented
Perseverence Perseverence
Think creatively to write a joke Think creatively to answer a question
Being Highly Opinionated Being Open Minded
? Being Ethical
Excellent Communication Skills Good Communication Skills

Being a good comedian is about the same as being a good scientist.  All things being equal, it seems silly to want to quit science, right?  Scientists find cures to diseases, science is a far more reputable field than comedy, scientists generally live longer, healthier lives than comedians.  Why am I leaving science? Because science left me.

It is very difficult to succeed in science right now.  In comedy, it’s pretty clear that someone is funny.  People can see you performing 3-4 times a week, and realize “Hey, they’re funny.”  In science, NOBODY has any idea if you’re a good scientist or not until you get a publication.  Even then, you’re collaborating with 2-10 other people, so it’s unclear how much you contributed to that work. That’s the equivalent of no one thinking you’re funny unless you have a TV credit, and the only way to get TV credits is by being in an ensemble comedy show, where you aren’t allowed to speak.

In comedy, there are plenty of people who get paid work in comedy who have never been on TV.  But, you will not get any job in science unless you have a publication, even though there are so many factors that prevent people from getting publications.  More importantly, you will not get any grant money which allows you to perform science.  Think of it like trying to get a gig, but every time you do, you have to buy your own PA system.  And after each gig you do, the PA system has to be better than the previous PA system.

Publishing a paper seems like a very straight-forward notion.  You work some time in the lab, then you get data, then you send it out to be published.  Unfortunately, there are hundreds of roadblocks on that path.  Many of these roadblocks are genuine, such as problems with equipment, data being unconvincing, inconclusive, or irreproducible.  However, there are myriads of stupid reasons why papers don’t get published, including:

  1. Your advisor is too busy to read your paper, so you can’t permission to submit.
  2. Your advisor doesn’t care about your project, so you can’t permission to submit.
  3. Your advisor doesn’t like you, so they intentionally ignore you when asking about why they’re not reading your paper.
  4. Someone else has already published on what you’re working on, so your data/hard work is pointless.
  5. The journal rejects your paper because a reviewer is your rival and doesn’t want your data to get published.
  6. The journal rejects your paper because a reviewer is your rival and is working on the same project and wants to publish before you do.

Even though I mentioned previously that being ethical is a priority for scientists, unethical situations like these are quite commonplace in science.  Good scientists don’t necessarily get the opportunities that they should, because of the capricious nature of science combined with the hyperskeptical nature of scientists.  It’s so hard to determine who is doing good science, that most grant money ends up going to people that grant reviewers already know.  The amount of nepotism in science is so pervasive that I can’t even make a graph to convey it.  Although, here is an approximation:

I would love to run a research lab working on the role of viruses in breast cancer (what I’m doing currently, under the supervision of my advisor).  But I can’t because I only have 3 publications to my name, which I had to fight tooth and nail to get.  I was denied grants because the reviewers thought they were too well-written to be from my own hands, or because breast cancer researchers want to keep the money on studying things like BRCA1 and 2 and not taking novel approaches to answering questions.

Meanwhile, I send a video of me on youtube to a booker I know through a friend, I now have a paid weekend of work doing standup comedy.  We in America are always saying we need to improve the quality of science and number of people doing science to build for a better tomorrow.  How will we do that when science is shittier than getting paid $10 to open at Ziggy’s Sports Bar and Grill off of Route 1?

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4 thoughts on “Why Science Bombs

    • Sort of. A connection told me the email of a person, who I cold emailed and got a gig. When I applied for postdoc jobs with 2 first-author publications (where I was one of two and one of three authors) to my name from my 4 year grad school experience, I got no responses from the first 15 people I emailed. Scientists aren’t looking for people who are capable, they are looking for people they already know. My point is that science should not be as unrewarding as standup comedy.

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