Illustration by Angelika Manhart
Diseases of the Will

The Defatigaire

By Marie Sweet

In her grad school entrance interview, this young scientist will appear bright, motivated, and enthusiastic about the subject of your research. This will not surprise to you, as her grades were excellent and her application essay downright inspiring — but there will be something in her interpersonal style that you will find especially disarming. You cannot help but be impressed, and will hire her into your lab to work on a new project, looking forward to the air of excitement she will bring to your subdued if hardworking group.

The first few weeks will go well. She will accept your suggestions for papers to read, and will promptly print them out and hunch over them at her desk, highlighter in hand. She will ask insightful questions when you describe the experiments you have in mind, and will retrieve various protocols and advice from her new lab-mates before eagerly getting to work. You will brush it off when, after several lab meetings, her pursuit of results is hampered by seemingly careless mistakes. You will chalk it up to her lack of familiarity with the techniques or the lab equipment, not yet realizing that slow and error-prone results will plague her project for years to come.

Any number of ills could manifest these symptoms, and the simplest explanation might be that she lacks the mental framework required to perform a successful experiment. You have seen her do it once or twice, though, and in conversation she demonstrates a certain scientific adeptness. In reality, what she suffers from (in both science and in other arenas of her life) is a desperate thirst for instant gratification.

Our young defatigaire loves science, to be sure, but lacks the fortitude it actually takes to do it. Her whole career thus far consists of a series of stops and starts that coincide with brief moments of ambition. She attends a fascinating lecture or stimulating meeting with collaborators, and leaps into a planning frenzy — designing experiments, ordering reagents for new protocols — only to fall into a sinkhole of boredom and depression when her assay doesn’t work, or her cells don’t grow. She wonders why she should bother with the experiments if they fail most of the time, and she loses sight of what she has to gain by succeeding. A drudging stupor ensues, from which she cannot rouse herself until the next inspiring event occurs, when the long-term fruits of experimental labor are condensed into a morsel for her mind to savor, and a fresh fit of activity begins.

The future of this woman in academic science is grim. She must succeed with her experiments in the lab, and succeed remarkably well, before she can begin to rise through its ranks. If only the customs of the field allowed her to bypass the decade or more of bench-work and advance directly to her sought-after position of Principal Investigator, which ironically requires no great skill at physical experimentation. Then she could spend her life doing the inspiring work of attending and giving lectures, inventing projects and speculating about results. If there is a world that is entrenched in tradition, however, it is academia. The best advice we can give this poor defatigaire is to seek a career elsewhere, doing a job in which effort bears more reliable fruits.


Marie Sweet is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the molecular biophysics program at the NYU School of Medicine, where she is working hard to cure herself of the affliction described above.