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Why I get out of bed…   

1 February 2007 8,385 views 46 Comments

I received an interesting email from a chap at a top scientific publishing house, who is writing an article about chemistry and chemists in general. The gist of the email was that he’d like to know what we love about chemistry, and what we hate about it: “could [you] ask [your] readers to e-mail me if they’d like to comment on what they love or hate about working as a chemist”. Rather than publish emails on a blog, and end out flooding him with spam (I get over 200 spam comments on this blog every day!), how about just posting your opinions as comments on this post?

I’ll start the ball rolling:


Every day is different. I might be using similar techniques, but every compound has it’s own character and behaviour, so I never have a repetative lifestyle. I have enough say in the project direction that it’s “my” project, too.
I get to use a great mixture of working within rules and using my imagination to try and bend those rules, or find new ones to fit that synthesis. Also, my project is full of little goals everyday, so I can get a great feeling of progress every week. And the science in general has an interesting split between lab work and theoretical work.
I’ve got a great research group to work in, where my collegues and supervisor and immensely helpful, supportive, and up for a couple of drinks after work. We work hard, but the results are worth it.
I’m doing stuff every day that no one else has done before. Each novel compound I make is “mine”.


Lack of job security; too many people I know have been made redundant over the last few years, along with thousands of their collegues, and they’re left scrabbling for the same jobs.

The media portraiting us as being “evil pharma scientists”.
Being marginalised as a science by the latest fad in research, where labs get mothballed, groups crushed together, funding slashed and departments closed.

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (1 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)


  • the chemical golf player says:

    Nice question, let me try….

    love: the good cristallizations and the quantitative reactions
    hate: the allumina columns that do not pack well and the impurity that has the same Rf of the product

  • Andy says:

    For the love part, you have encapsulated perfectly everything that is great about it.
    The hate things you mention don’t particularly bother me on a day to day basis, although more job security would be nice.
    I can offer a couple of specific things I hate:
    The complete and total demotivation when I know something hasn’t worked, has given the unwanted product or a range of various cruds, but still has to be worked up and purified for whatever reason. This is worst when you know exactly what the unwanted stuff is, and I must distinguish this from the exciting unwanted reaction where you get an unexpected product in potentially useful yields and you have to work out what it is and why it is formed. This is serendipity at its best, and goes into the love category.
    Also, long columns when the product inexplicably disappears, and you end up fruitlessly pouring more and more polar solvents down in an effort to get anything out, but all you end up with is a fume hood full of solvent fractions.

  • milkshake says:

    Love: The chemistry problems are much easier to solve than personal problems.
    Dislike: Since I spend so much time solving chemistry problems, the personal ones won’t go away

  • TWYI says:

    Love – The first proton NMR of a completed natural product.
    Hate – Solvent runs/HMPA/supposedly simple reactions that muck up (alkylations, protecting group removal/introduction), Lancaster sending me chemicals that are not what they say they are (always NMR my Lancaster chemicals when they arrive now before using them)

  • Ψ*Ψ says:

    Brightly coloured compounds
    Serendipitous accidents
    Finishing projects
    The smell of ether in the morning

    Loooooong hours in lab
    Static electricity
    Broken instruments
    Insoluble compounds

  • Tot. Syn. says:

    There’s nothing quite like making brick-dust. We all know that “Ah, crap” feeling when you add CDCl3 to you latest intermediate, just to watch your lovely powder float to the top. And static electricity definitely sucks… though you get less if you wear leather-soled shoes. However, leather soles don’t like DCM much…

  • sufuric says:

    The chance to think about and solve complex problems. Get to do for what I love for a living.

    Hate: Not being able to solve the problem. Like Ψ*Ψ said, spending long hours in the lab away from family.

  • milkshake says:

    Crystals – especialy big meaty ones and especialy whne they refract light strongly (diamond!)
    Clean NMR spectra
    Simple reaction that realy work
    Scaling up (of simple reaction that realy work)
    Catalysts that go round yet aren’t finnicky
    Bulb-to-bulb distillation
    Morpholines, benzofurazanes and all 4-membered rings
    Fluorine in the molecule
    Poweful pumps
    Chemglass glasware

    Columns that don’t separate
    Products that fall apart
    Simple reactions that won’t work
    Sloppy people that never clean after themselves
    Pharma industry corporate culture
    University academic culture
    Smell of phosphines and isonitriles in the morning

  • Ψ*Ψ says:

    ooh, there’s another for the “hate” list: fixing vacuum pumps when labmates break them!

  • James Jaber says:

    Love-Knowing that nobody in the world is doing the same thing as me. The “HIGH” that is felt after solving a tough problem
    Hate: The “High” precipitates an addiction for the need to do more and more in which one is felt that the world is depending on me to solve this bloody synthesis. The reality is that nobody really gives a damn except you and your PI.

  • Rof5 says:

    crystal compounds
    nice NMR spectra
    name on the paper
    Clean reactions
    dry solvents
    smell of ethanol

    simple reactions which work on paper but don’t in flask
    Scale up for a more-than-thirty-step linear route
    broken glassware or NMR tubes
    Accident (Bloody hell)

  • Tot. Syn. says:

    My combiflash companion I had at AZ. I miss you!!!
    Cross-hair stirrer-bars.
    Perkin Elmer Spectrum 1 – the ultimate IR machine.
    CryoProbe NMR machines.
    CryoCool cooling baths.
    Anything else with cryo in the name.

    200MHz NMR spectra that read: 5.14 (2H, m), 5.03 (2H, m), 4.82-4.71 (5H, m) et c. Damn you multiplets!!!
    RB flasks whose bottoms fall out after a badly repaired star crack.

  • Samantha Wimala says:

    Excitement of using new reagents
    Stirrer bars (they are so cute)
    Funky glassware
    Smell of ethanol
    Reactions which are clean
    Clean NMR spectra
    It’s generally an interesting subject

    Reactions not working (even though you’ve followed the lit procedure sooo closely)
    Reactions that work on the first attempt but are so hard to optimise
    Crystals (they sometimes give you false hope about the purity of your product)
    Products which decompose during column chromatography
    Very polar compounds (they take forever to elute)
    Very small scale experiments

  • Disillusioned Hamster says:

    Hates: Unless you really get to the top you never own a project – you can have it taken away from you at any time, you never get to find out how it goes after you leave, and then there’s publication – who gets to be an author, the order, who gets to write it….
    The expectation you will work late hours, 7 days a week.
    Fighting to get good results with substandard equipment.
    Worrying about funding.

    Academic Org. Chem. Research – the addiction we love to hate!

  • Pete says:

    Love…Being engaged in problem solving and knowing why things happen the way they do.

  • European Chemist says:

    Hello everyone

    Love: The whole problem-solving thing, getting the nice and elegant solution after weeks of banging your head against the walls. The intellectual challenge. I’m writing up and it feels great to start writing all the problems and things that didn’t work only to lay down a logical approach to the problem that goes all the way until the final solution is achieved… makes all the late nights in the lab worth it.
    Also, I loved the feeling of excitement, joy and passion I used to have in the early days of my Ph.D., that made me sooo glad to stay here in the lab until 23h every night and come back again next morning with a smile, at 6h if needed. I’m still a huge lab-addict, don’t get me wrong, but just don’t have the physical power to do those schedules anymore….

    Hate: cleaning up after others, spending hours searching for the reagent that used to be in the upper shelf of your hood while everything else is inside the flask and ready to go, losing your product in a column (this is a CLASSIC!), getting crap out of a simple reaction (another classic) and not having enough time to finish everything you’d want to…

  • ddd says:

    love: chemists work on the molecular level. Everything is composed of molecules. They (chemists) are an “elite”. Chemistry is an excellent background to invent new methods and new technologies to advance our society. If you smart enough you can start a company…

    Hate: pressure is enormous, you have to explore something uknown. Very hard. It is way much harder than just coming to your bank office and work from 9-4…Inspite of that chemists get a very low pay. I mean seriously even 100K nowadays is not enough to live comfortably and secure your retirement. And 100K is your salary in best case, otherwise it is usually 80-90K. Doctors make 300K in USA….make a comparison.

  • TWYI says:

    Love – Strem

  • Jimbo says:

    100K is low pay? Are you kidding?

    You don’t pay for school. And 100K is -starting-. It only goes up from there.

  • Check the ACS annual salary survey for the real figures.


    You would be surprised at how moderate a quality of life a salary of 100k will buy you, especially with kids in the picture. And on Page 48 of the study you will see that in the first few years after finishing your PhD, your salary is more likely going to be in the 70k-80k bracket.

  • Ψ*Ψ says:

    Simple solution: keep kids out of the picture? Doesn’t work for everyone.

  • ddd says:

    you cannot keep kids out. As I said 100 K is nothing. Check that survey BAY AREA 89K is an average salary. Should I explain that 89K for BAY Area is absolutely nothing? 89K translates into 4865 per months. Now go to craigslist : http://sfbay.craigslist.org/sfc/apa/272780771.html

    Good apartment (I mean really comfortable one, the one you are not ashamed to invite people into) on pacific heights cost 3000 rent. Rest is 1865$. You pay 1000K a months for your kid’s kindergarden. 800$ / months goes to your food. 0 savings . Any other average 1bdr apt in SF cost 1500 $. So it gives you extra 1500. 300$ goes to your utility bills. 300-400 monthly entertainment. 1K is the only you can afford to save for your retirement.

    And I did not talk about car yet (gas+insurance)

  • ddd says:

    and keep in mind you will have to pay for your kid’s college

  • Anyone got any idea what the start salaries are for a)new-PhD b) PhD+postdoc at AZ, Pfizer and GSK in the UK are, for the purposes of comparison?

    I work at a smaller UK company, the figures I would put to these positions would be

    a) PhD chemist 26-28
    b) Postdoc chemist 28-30 (a postdoc doesnt buy you much more in the way of salary)

  • Ψ*Ψ says:

    ddd: remember that not everyone is driven to have children.
    also, some people end up not paying a cent toward their kid’s college tuition. (see also: my parents)

  • Tot. Syn. says:

    TotMed: From what I know, £30-35k is the standard starting salary, with a postdoc helping push towards the top of that bracket. Even with the handy exchange rate we have just now, that only translates to $60-70k…

  • Jimbo says:

    Then don’t live in the bay area… by living in the bay area, you’ve accepted that it’s worth paying for the unique lifestyle that area can provide. There are many companies located where the cost of living is reasonable.

    $800/month for food? Feeding how many mouths? $100k for a total household income isn’t that much, which is why most couples work.

    I think you’ve overstated what doctors make by a bit… remember that most have a crap load of debt after they finish school. It depends on what they’re doing, and higher salaries often involve an extensive residency following the degree… plus being on-call all the time. They earn it. http://www.mdr-inc.com/mdsalary.htm

    I’ll add to that: I prefer to not have a job associated with wealth because I don’t want to work with people who are only there for the money. I love what I do, and I would do the exact same job for less money (but don’t tell my employer that).

    And as stated above, the cost of living is higher and the salaries are much lower in most of Europe. We have it great in the states, which is why many post-docs from my former group tend to stay.

  • ddd says:

    Bay area provides unique lifestyle indeed. Many job opportunities. Other areas do not have as many job openings. regarding 800 for food….didn’t you notice that you pay 50$ for “nothing” in SF grocery stores? And actual food costs like 100? ;)

    that what I could never understand:
    Jimbo says: I prefer to not have a job associated with wealth because I don’t want to work with people who are only there for the money./////

    after all what is the GOAL of the company? Earn money. No money, no company. Lets be clear, company earns money, and people who work for company are interested in money. Thats it. Even people in academia are interested in money.

  • rb says:

    Everyone is interested in money because we have to survive, but we need not be obsessed with it. You should do whatever it is you do because you love it, especially if what you do is chemistry (or science in general), not because of the money. That is especially poignant for someone like me, in academia, because I certainly make a lot less than 100K, but I am sure doing ok. I lived in San Diego on a postdoc salary (32k) and was more than comfortable. Sounds like alot of people here are the kinds who are not happy unless they are driving a BMW. If you wanted to make the big bucks you should have gone into business, not chemistry, so quit whining.

    This is a great thread…reminds me why I love being a chemist!

  • rb says:

    I love:
    the smell of ethyl acetate-hexane evaporating from a TLC plate
    a spot to spot reaction
    reading a great jacs paper

  • milkshake says:

    Fuck “that one is not ashamed of” so he has to pay $3000 /mo for rent in SF. Move to Sunset or Westlake or Daily City. You can have a coastline view with a nice fog there about $1200-1400 for a decent two bedroom.

    SF is expensive only if you try to buy your house or insist on going to Whole Foods.

    Please tell our postdocs from China that you hate your 100k salary in San Francisco – I think they will gladly swith with you.

  • excimer says:

    -Vanillin (starting material for a few things I’ve made)
    -Running a good column
    -Gorgeous NMR’s
    -the smell of benzene (c’mon it smells good)
    -finding the exact prep you needed to find and having it work
    -diels-alder reactions at 300C
    -graduate school

    -shitty columns
    -methylene chloride
    -the fact that Beilstein still hasn’t released a fucking Mac OS X version yet
    -exceedingly smug people
    -my friends making more money than I do
    -losing product on a rotavap
    -graduate school

  • Tot. Syn.'s other half says:

    Apologise now as my PhD is going nowhere fast the hate list is going to be longer than the love list!

    Love – The pretty colours you get as a Inorganic chemist. 31P NMR when you get the peaks at the right place. Working with things that could kill you keeps me excited every day (or at least on my toes). Knowing their are few other people trying to solve the same problem and living in hope that you are winning the race of discovery (or at least publication). Dating another chemist they understand the woes and can fully sympathesise when you have just binned a couple of grammes of starting material you are going to have to make again.

    Hate – Having to book time on the multinuclear NMR machine a day in advance due to lack of equipment. Literature preps which never seem to work. People upsetting the glovebox, G.C or autoclave and then expecting me to drop everything to fix it for them. Autoclaves that decide to have mysterious leaks half way through reactions just trying to gas you by surprise. Undergraduate project students who never put chemicals back in the right place so you spend hours trying to find it order it only for them to tell you the next day it was hidden under their cupboard. Dating a chemist that is quite happy to ponder chemistry in bed with you and is trying to work on some retrosynthetic anaylsis in his head.

  • Don B. says:

    Loves: When I was working in the lab, I always enjoyed crystals as a number have said. I also enjoy solving synthesis problems.

    Dislikes: Seeing poor chemists promoted because they kiss the correct b–ts. See irrational decisions closing productive R&D sites.

    Don B.

  • Anon says:

    Love to hate for the necessity to keep me focussed to solve the challenging problem, which my poser PI never wanted to solve, given to demoralize me. Prove every day that my lab mates are mediocre than they would like to believe.(“People likes every thing except intelligence” Wilde. Corollary: Every mediocre want inferior colleagues to feel them comfortable.)

    Hearing inadvertently the slanderings of my female labmates and their male peers, who agree every absurdities of the former for the sake of getting love. (There are many ways for escaping from reality. One is, to love the inferiors/females.)
    Hearing nonsenses of my lab mates during group meetings.
    Seeing face to face my lab mates/PI.
    The stark realization that joining in this group really taken a toll of my productivity and motivation.

  • When I feel unwilling to rise early in the morning, I make this short speech to myself:

    ‘I am getting up now to do the business of a man; and am I out of humour for going about that I was made for, and for the sake of which I was sent into the world? Was I then designed for nothing but to doze beneath the counterpane?’ Surely action is the end of your being. Look upon the plants and birds, the ants, spiders and bees, and you will see that they are all exerting their nature and busy in their station. Shall not a man act like a man?’

  • anonym says:

    Marcus Aurelius are you a PrideFC fun?

  • Dude McDude says:

    #36 – milkshake: we know you too well. great quote.

  • […] Paul at TotallySynthetic wrote about some of the reasons that keep him excited about chemistry.  On this subject, I am surprised at how many of my classmates started out in love with chemical research but slowly decided to pursue careers away from the bench.  I guess a big part of any schooling is figuring out not just what you want to do, but what you don’t want to do.  Also, not everyone grew to hate research; some people simply found things that they enjoyed more. […]

  • SPirals says:

    ddd: If you think 100K is not that much, you are in the wrong field buddy; get into IT or business.

  • wolfie says:

    hate – I recently found a nice definition in an article of Der Spiegel (Eugene, are u here ?) :

    quality of an islamistic terrorist who has the brain too full of hate to be able to think properly

    love seems to be much easier – my grandfather used to say, when the dick stands, reason is in the ass

  • wolfie says:

    No, I cannot leave like that, of course.

    L’amor che muove il sole e le altre stelle.

    Quest’ e la vera storia.

  • Paige Davis says:

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  • Paige Davis says:

    Hello webmaster…Man i love reading your blog, interesting posts ! it was a great Wednesday .

  • […] Anonymouse Says: February 4th, 2007 at 7:36 pm Here is an early favorite for next month’s clippings dump:http://totallysynthetic.com/blog/?p=477 […]

  • […] at TotallySynthetic wrote about some of the reasons that keep him excited about chemistry.  On this subject, I am surprised at how many of my classmates started out in love with chemical […]