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Being a Scientist: Expectations Vs. Reality

Being a scientist isn’t *always* constant breakthroughs, daring experiments and eureka moments. In this light-hearted post, we look at the most egregious differences between big budget movie perceptions and actual reality of life as a scientist.

By C&EN Media Group

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Big movies make it seem like scientists cure diseases before breakfast and create new life forms at a whim. They’re either scheming up a superweapon, or seconds before it’s too late, we learn they’re the only ones who know how to halt the impending pandemic/zombie apocalypse/supervolcano/asteroid. Scientists’ lives are nothing but a series of groundbreaking 2AM “eureka” moments! But what’s the reality of day-to-day life as a scientist? Read on for our hard-hitting investigation, explained, naturally, via GIFs.

Fame & Glory

Expectations: Your widely read research will flip the scientific community on its head, sparking investigation, intrigue and even controversy!

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Reality: Not many Americans can even name a living scientist! The hashtag #actuallivingscientist has blown up on twitter to set it right, with researchers proudly introducing themselves and their work to the world. Publicity doesn’t come with the job, and that’s just fine—your work might not land you an interview on Ellen, but it just might jumpstart research on a disease or a drug target down the road.

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Your Research Findings

Expectations: “Based on my irrefutable findings, my hypothesis is totally correct.” *Mic drop*

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Reality: “Based on my small but statistically significant findings, one of my hypotheses might be true. But it’s also possible I was holding the pipette wrong on day seven of the protocol.” Queue more tests.

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Changing the World

Expectations: Call the President! By spilling your coffee in a petri dish, you’ve just created a bacterial strain that cures cancer, stops climate change, fights crime and breaks up acne!

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Reality: New knowledge changes the world little by little. Research usually isn’t about bringing on a scientific sea change—it’s about making little breakthroughs, one step at a time. And that’s still important work deserving of recognition.

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Danger & Excitement

Expectations: There’s been a containment breach, call the National Guard!

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Reality: Always practice safe techniques! Danger does not mean excitement in the lab, and while your research probably won’t cause a world-ending chain reaction, mistakes in protocol at best will make your results unusable.

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Researching Whatever You Want

Expectations: You can pursue whatever research means most to you!

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Reality: You can pursue whatever research means most to your lab manager and grant funders. You can’t do science if no one will pay for it!

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Knowing Everything

Expectations: “Why yes, I am a biochemist. Sure, happy to answer your question about evolutionary biology! I am an expert in every field of science ever, after all.”

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Reality: Being a scientist means having a lot of knowledge in a specific part of your field. If you’re a biochemist, you might not know much more about other areas of biology than you did as an undergrad.

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What Did We Miss?

What else about science do the movies (or your friends!) get hilariously wrong?