It took Derek Lowe a while to find his motivation

Graduate students are often exhorted by their supervisors to work harder and to get more results. Those two outcomes aren’t always as closely related as you might think, though. Every project has periods where turning the crank harder actually will cause more material to emerge from the chute, but there are also periods during which the crank and the conveyor belt seem to be somehow decoupled. The temptation (and it’s a subtle one) is to keep cranking away in the hopes that this will somehow cause the gears to engage again. At the very least, you’ll occupy your time (and be seen to be working hard, which is a currency accepted in most any workplace in the world). But it still might not be the best use of your time.

It’s during those lulls, when the previous techniques have stopped producing and the new ones haven’t been worked out yet, that graduate advisors tend to give the ‘fire in the belly’ speech, if they’re ever going to give it. The general theme is that chemistry is more than just an occupation; it’s a calling. If you’re going to make a success of your career (and yourself), it follows that you need to feel a burning desire for said success, which will drive you on during the rough periods and make you worthy of what you accomplish. The word ‘passion’ often makes an appearance, which is almost the only time it pokes its head above the edge of the trench during an entire graduate school career.

As a student, I heard this theme a few times from different people, with varying amounts of orchestral accompaniment. It did not make me happy, not that it was intended to, nor did it seem to noticeably spur me on. Instead, I found myself wondering about this fire in the belly stuff, since the only one I was feeling could not be differentiated from heartburn. I was apparently lacking something important that real scientists had - and if I didn’t have it by now, what were the chances that I’d stumble across it? The whole line of argument was depressing, and made me wonder why I was wasting my youth in a dingy, windowless lab if I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing and had little prospect of being successful at it.

All part of the cheerful atmosphere of graduate education, for sure. I did threaten at one point to give up, go to Panama and ranch iguanas, and I noted with interest how little the prospect seemed to perturb anyone in my lab, but I didn’t follow through. (The lizards have had to make do without me in the intervening years.) Instead, I hung on for my doctorate, reasoning (as had Macbeth under different circumstances) that by then the shortest way out was straight on through. But that passion-for-chemistry business stayed with me.

It was only after a few more years that I finally understood what the problem had been. It was simple: I hadn’t been working on my own ideas. Even when I had, they were still part of someone else’s scheme. There may well be people who can generate a belly-fire without any feeling of ownership, but I don’t seem to be one of them. I realised that the happiest moments in my graduate work had been when I set (and solved) my own problems in my own ways - the closer I came to that ideal, the better off I was. There were indeed scientific problems that could keep me up late at night and get me out of bed before dawn, but I had to find them myself.

Now, it’s not as if I didn’t stay up late in my graduate labs - I most certainly did put in my hours. But I was working that way in order to be able to stop working that way, to make an end to the project and get myself out of grad school. That’s a completely different motivation than the scientific ones that keep a person going all hours. In that case, the drive is to find out the answer, to see how the story comes out, to be the first to know and to find out if you were right or not. There’s nothing else like it.

Derek Lowe is a medicinal chemist working on preclinical drug discovery in the US