Top 10 fears of academic scientists: elephant in the lab series

The ScreamWhat scares scientists? What keeps them up at night worrying? What makes them scream (if only in their heads)?

As part of my elephant in the lab series tackling difficult but important topics for scientists, today I am talking fear!

Earlier posts in this series included taboo topics about iPS cells, the dirty dozen easy steps to killing a paper, and the scientist’s guide to insulting other scientists (which was followed by insults 2.0 that was a post including even more science insults).

Today we talk about the secret and perhaps not so secret fears of scientists.

Scientists are often confident, strong people, but behind the scenes they have fears just like anybody else.

elephant in the room

Over my career I have had hundreds of conversations with my colleagues and sometimes they revealed their fears to me. Other times their fears were evident even without them articulating them. Of course, I myself am never afraid of anything, right (ha!) ?

What are the top 10 fears of academic scientists?

10. Their grants will be rejected. Who likes rejection? Nobody. For any given grant submitted by any given scientist these days, the odds of rejection are higher than ever. There’s an inherent fear of rejection….

9. They won’t get any invitations to speak at conferences. Scientists like to think they are cool and part of the “in crowd”. That sounds juvenile, like something out of junior high, but it is just human nature. Thus there is a fear of being out of the loop. You are not important enough to be an invited speaker.

8. They’ll give a terrible talk. This may seem impossible for scientists who have spent decades giving talks, but I know some senior scientists who confessed to me they still stress before talks at important meetings, worrying that somehow they’ll find a way to humiliate themselves in front of their peers. One colleague told me s/he was afraid they would break down in tears during a talk or during the question and answer period. Another said they were afraid they would simply freeze. While this may be a more common fear in younger scientists, for some it does not go away entirely. My only fear about giving talks is that I might bore people.

7. They’ll get scooped. The fear of getting scooped is fairly ubiquitous in science. You put in a lot of hard work on a project and before you have a chance to publish it, someone else publishes something very similar or nearly identical even. It’s painful. Literally painful. I bet the pain centers in the brain light up when we get scooped. Who likes pain, right? This fear relates to the idea in science that being first is all important.

6. They’ll publish something that is incorrect and later clearly disproven by the field. Scientists are often perfectionists. Even if not a perfectionist, any given scientist certainly does not want to publish something that is flat out wrong. I’m not talking about misconduct here, but rather science that comes to the wrong conclusion and is published only to later be refuted. Talk about bad mojo.

5. Their trainees will not be successful. Trainees often times are frustrated by their mentors or feel that their mentors are so busy doing other stuff that the mentors don’t care about them, but I think that in reality most mentors care deeply about their trainees. I certainly do. Mentors are not perfect, but most of us want our trainees to be successful. As a result, there is a fear that our trainees may not do well after they leave our labs. A subset of scientists do not care about their trainees, which I think is horrible, but they worry about their trainees floundering reflecting badly back on them as a mentor.

4. They’ll be found guilty of some kind of misconduct. Scientists are generally very good people in my opinion, but they are human and some of them will do bad things. As a result, some of them will be formally “convicted” of misconduct whether by their home institution or NIH. This would seem to be the ultimate disaster for a scientist. I did not put this as #1 because I believe for most scientists this is not on their radar screens since they do not engage in misconduct.

3. Their lab will have to retract a paper. Of course far worse than #6 above is the situation where a lab has to retract a paper. Many papers that come to wrong conclusions do not need to be retracted because the science was generally sound but somehow just ended up with the wrong results. That’s an often event in science that most people do not want to talk about. However, sometimes there are reasons that a paper has to be retracted and this is very ugly. Most PIs would feel terrible in this situation. The number of retractions in science seems to be skyrocketing for whatever reason and they are now tracked here at retraction watch.

2. They’ll fail to get tenure. I did not put this as #1 for a variety of reasons although at certain times in people’s careers this could be #1. Part of the reason I listed it as #2 is that at many places tenure no longer means a whole lot. However, here in the UC system it is huge and failing to get tenure means the end of the road in science for many people. Others somehow bounce back at a new place.

1. They’ll run out of money to support their research. Why are so many of us constantly writing grants these days? We are worried that our labs will literally run out of money. There’s not a whole lot more humiliating than having no money to conduct research. Part of the reason I listed this as #1 is because the funding climate today is arguably at its historically worst level in history. In addition, I put this at the top because I believe the fear of running out of funding can drive some of the other fears and lead scientists to make bad decisions.

Of course there are scientists who have no fear. I have met some of them during my career. These fearless folks worry me. I think their brains are somehow inherently different and the lack of fear leads them to risky and harmful behavior a lot of the time. Sometimes admittedly it also can lead them to paradigm-shattering discoveries too.

2 Comments


  1. #1 and #10 are very closely tied to each other. I would not consider #10 a fear so much as an expectation these days. #1 is a constant fear. You no sooner get funded (if you are so lucky) than you begin to work on the next proposal.

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