Experimental Error

Three minutes can be long enough to describe your research, our columnist learns.

When it comes to choosing a grad school, there are a lot of factors to consider.

As a friend’s faculty career comes to an untimely end, our columnist reflects on the potential disconnect between what researchers want to research and what funders want to fund.

Science demonstrations—even if they don’t show what scientists actually do—are surprisingly effective, our columnist learns.

Trainees may lack some polish, but advice that job seekers shouldn’t act like grad students and postdocs rubs our columnist the wrong way.

Our columnist experiments with a new online plugin that simplifies literature searches.

The “Professor” title is due for a rebranding, our columnist writes.

In preparation for the March for Science, our columnist offers some recommendations for demonstration signs.

Our columnist explores the weird, awkward, and sometimes wonderful world of Ph.D. scientists using their “Doctor” title.

A scientist’s holiday poem.

When our columnist was invited to speak at a conference, he was surprised at what he found.


Full STEAM Ahead

Our columnist explores the relationship between art and science.

Our columnist explores how scientists’ “scientific-ness” can create particular challenges for their loved ones.

A new game modeled on scientific career advancement offers food for thought, our columnist writes.

Looking for a job can require navigating frustratingly inconsistent advice, our columnist writes.

It can be uncomfortable to work for a company or institution with a bad reputation, but is it the wrong choice?

[Discussed on Monsanto Europe blog, 6/16/16]

Our columnist explores the value of letting kids explore the lab.

Our columnist discusses the tricky situation that students face when their advisers do wrong.

Being the most famous scientist is a triumph within a non-dominant subset.

Scientists should acknowledge their imperfections, our columnist argues.

Our columnist describes how he learned to read—and actually understand—journal articles.

Researchers at well-resourced labs can give back to those with less, our columnist advises.

In choosing a school for his daughter, our columnist considers how modern education prepares students for their careers.

Our columnist explains why he stopped including jokes in his talks—and why he’s now trying to start again.

A crisis for the humanities is a crisis for all, our columnist argues.

Does your job title really matter?  Our columnist explores what’s in a name.

Our esteemed columnist warns against some of the common offenses that grad students have been known to commit.

In which our esteemed columnist catalogs the miseries our bosses have been known to inflict upon their underlings.

Our columnist lists and describes the most common roadblocks faced by those pursuing science careers.

“I remember hurriedly filling out a paper copy of one school’s application, even though most of the process had moved online, just so I could complete it during a long bus ride and mail it at a rest stop. Somehow this did not get me into Harvard.”

In deciding what career to pursue, have you considered the administrative track? Me neither.

Scientists aren’t angrier than the general population, but different triggers make us mad.

Or how a trip to Walt Disney World tricked me into becoming a scientist.


Pure, Stupid Luck

If reports I’ve heard are true, in the 1970s somewhere between 104% and 109% of grant proposals were funded.

The worst part of grad school, writes our columnist, is that you can’t predict when it’s going to be over.

[Discussed on Erin Go Brain blog, 12/3/14]

The worst part of networking, our columnist says, is that it feels like spending time marketing yourself in lieu of doing science.

For some nutty reason, scientists sometimes become lawyers.

In which our columnist attempts to replicate his earlier experiment in procreation.

NIH-funded training programs are helping NIH-trained scientists learn how to not do NIH-funded research.

Our columnist offers advice on presenting your work to the most difficult audience there is: children.

To be a proper scientist, is it necessary to conform to the standard template?

[Named one of the week's top science communication stories, 5/31/14]

Many scientists worry that if they dress well, they’ll be sending a message that appearances matter more than substance.

[Refuted by a Nobel laureate in The Australian, 5/21/14]

There’s a lot we can learn from science fair projects that we can then apply to our own research.

Before going to college, I dreamed about my career options. I thought about my career options. But do you know what I didn’t do? I didn’t research my career options.

As Johns Hopkins University floats a plan to limit the number of grad students and raise their salaries, our columnist envisions an overly adjunctified world.

Here are some of this winter’s lesser-known science playthings for all ages, from the precocious little budding scientist in your family to the precocious little budding scientist who heads your department.

Unfortunately, many postdocs are treated like glorified lab techs … and it’s very sad that you felt a little good just now about the “glorified” part.

[Linked on Slashdot, 11/25/13]

[Linked on Slate, 4/1/15]

We scientists need to get out there and sell, sell, sell, even though salesmanship isn’t in our marshmallows.

My old grad school lab appears to have fallen victim to the same budget cuts that are killing science around the country.

The hardest part of interdisciplinary collaborations is collaborating in an interdisciplinary way.

Is it really possible to be a student of all sciences?  No.

In his mid-30s prime, our columnist discusses the common traits of younger and older scientists.

In science, sometimes, mistakes are not merely good, they’re extraordinary.


From Swag to Riches

Our columnist offers tips and strategies to help you, dear reader, walk out of any exhibit hall loaded down with free corporate goods.

Our sexy columnist ponders the importance of sexiness in science.

Our columnist continues to explore the craggy, often arbitrarily boldface landscape of the scientific resume.


Regrettable Resumes

Charged with perusing applications for an open scientist job, our columnist gets testy.

Despite what grad school admissions committees seem to believe, outside interests are good.

Not all research is easily justified—but what do you do when you can’t even justify it to yourself?

[Discussed on Not The Lab, 11/24/12]

The overworked grad student seems to embody the most pointless aspects of graduate school.

As the wider world celebrates science’s renewed coolness, our columnist stubbornly questions the world’s right to decide.


Help Not Wanted

The United States faces a severe shortage of qualified scientists—so why are there so many unemployed scientists?

If scientists just want to make the world a better place, why do they expend so much energy clamoring for credit?

Before you pick up that next thriller novel, remember that scientists are not exactly as they are often portrayed.

Why do we require scientists to write badly?  Anyway, here’s how.

Lab work left you feeling dissatisfied? Our Experimental Error columnist feels your pain.

Looking for something really different? Consider a career in alchemy, Lysenkoism, diluvial geology — or invent your own!

If you like grant writing, writing grants, and obtaining grants via writing, you may enjoy life as an academic scientist.

[Linked on College Misery, 10/29/11]


Nobel Gas

It’s time to reclaim the Nobel Prize for the common scientist, for those who have long considered the award beyond their grasp.

As we are training to become fully fledged scientists, we ourselves are the test subjects.

Walk through the corridors of many scientific institutions and you’ll see the results of decisions made by the hiring committee of 1962.

Our labs are science-based mini-societies — so why do we run them in the same arbitrary and bureaucratic way as the rest of the world?

With his daughter still in the embryonic stage, our columnist wonders if it’s too early to steer her toward a career in science.
[Linked on Slashdot, 6/1/11]
[Linked on DaddyTypes, 6/2/11]
[Linked on BoingBoing, 6/2/11]
[Linked on Mental Floss, 6/3/11]


Forging a Head

Scientific hoaxes — the harmless kind — can be fun, and they can show us how easy it is to stop thinking like a scientist.

[Commented on in ThinkingProf Blog, 4/23/11]

[Linked on Slashdot, 5/1/11]

[Called a Web Pick on Sceptique, 5/7/11]

How can we ensure that future students will read our names when, many years from now, they open their science textbooks on their iPad 15s?

No talented child ever says, “I want to pipette repetitively when I grow up.”

[Commented on in Harvard Undergraduate Research Journal, 3/5/11]

For all the naive and gullible graduate students out there, here’s a handy guide to what those speakers are really saying.

[Linked on BoingBoing, 2/2/11]

Over tea, our columnist considers what the congressional elections might mean for the prospects of science and scientists.

Our Experimental Error columnist asks,“Who are the people in your fume hood?”

Why are we most fascinated by the irrelevant aspects of science?

Shouldn’t scientists blow more things up? Introducing the first humor column about being, and becoming, a scientist.

[Linked on New Voices for Research, 9/20/10]

Other Writing


Of Mice and Mics

Article for Science‘s “Working Life” column about being a scientist-comedian.

Book review in the Quarterly Review of Biology.  This article is behind a paywall (because science), but if you’re at an institution with a subscription to QRB, you can read it for free.


My “Edge of the Bed” advice–what I’d say to my theoretical son or daughter, sitting on the edge of the bed the night before they leave home for good.

Collected oral histories from “A Nice Place to Live.”

Princeton Alumni Weekly

People ask a certain question so often at Reunions that my friend Mike Korn ’00 had a T-shirt made to answer it. Now, when someone starts the inevitable “Which tent do you guys want to go to?” conversation, Mike simply points to his shirt, which reads: ANYWHERE BUT THE FIFTH.


Growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I saw nerds portrayed on television all the time.  Steve Urkel on “Family Matters.”  Martin Prince on “The Simpsons.”  Minkus on “Boy Meets World.”  Sponge on “Salute Your Shorts.”  Paul Pfeiffer on “The Wonder Years.”  A whole gaggle of supporting nerd characters filled Bayside High on “Saved By the Bell.”


Adam Ruben ’01 explains what draws him back to campus year after year.

National Public Radio

A few weeks ago, my sister asked a simple yes-no question on her Facebook page: She wrote, “should I get the flu shot?” She might as well have posted, “should I fillet this kitten?”

National Public Radio

Graduate students need higher stipends, fewer questions from prying relatives about when they’ll graduate, and more department events with unguarded pastries. You might think the last things grad students need are more books.

[Listen to the story on All Things Considered]

31-page excerpt of the full book, available on Scribd.  But you should totally buy the book.

Princeton Alumni Weekly

I’m married. I have no kids. I live in an apartment near the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and work at a biotech company in Rockville, Md. And later this month, for some reason, I will find it very important to share this information with people I have not seen since last May.

Knowing we would attend a wedding in St. Louis, Missouri, one weekend and a bridal shower in Chicago, Illinois, the next, the two of us decided to turn the events into an excuse for a summer road trip through Illinois and parts of neighboring states from June 28 to July 4.  [Coauthored with Marina Koestler Ruben.]

Includes my one-act plays “Out of Character” and “Shot At.”

Includes my one-act play “New Tricks.”

This essay shared Princeton University’s Gregory T. Pope ’80 Prize for Science Writing in 2001.