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I am currently a master’s student hoping to shift into a PhD. The thing is, I hate the lab work. I love all the literature review, designing experiments, troubleshooting problems and data interpretation.

Is there some sort of work around or is this just part of paying my dues?

The most likely answer that comes to mind is: “suck it up and pay your dues”, which I totally get, but is there an area somewhere that negates the benchwork, or is that just years of climbing until I get to be a PI (well, if I get to be a PI).

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    Is there a way to get all of the satisfying parts of research without being bogged down with endless hours at the bench? Or is this just part and parcel? I've spoken with my professors but they sort of hedged the question and pushed me back to the bench.
    – BCrowley
    Mar 4, 2016 at 6:07
  • Is your field pure math? Or experimental science? Or engineering? Or Humanities?
    – Nobody
    Mar 4, 2016 at 6:12
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    If you don't like lab work, you could switch into a field without lab work. Or are you saying you like designing experiments, but don't like to do them...?
    – Earthliŋ
    Mar 4, 2016 at 7:00
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    Short answer: if you want to avoid the bench, switch to bioinformatics. I never step foot on a lab. It is not free from detailed, painstaking work, though.
    – Davidmh
    Mar 4, 2016 at 8:06
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    @J.J there is more to bioinformatics than sequencing data analysis. :) I design my computational experiments, and machine learning algorithms are my beakers.
    – Davidmh
    Mar 5, 2016 at 16:28

4 Answers 4

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I don't think it is possible or constructive to avoid lab work in your field at PhD level.

The point of a PhD is to train you as an independent researcher, and therefore you need to be familiar with all stages of the research process, including data collection. There are plenty of fields for which data collection does not involve lab work, but unfortunately for you, cell and molecular biology are not among them.

Going through the process of lab work is not just important in terms of getting the data, it informs the rest of your work. I don't believe you will design an experiment as effectively if you are not familiar with exactly how long the different processes will take, where the challenges lie, where errors might creep in, and so on. Likewise, you are better able to interpret the data if you understand how it was collected. This stuff can be learnt to some extent by reading/talking to people/being given a demo, but by far the best way is to do it yourself.

"Paying your dues" may be a part of it - certainly, someone needs to do the legwork! - but I would encourage you not to look at it that way. At this stage in your career, it is highly valuable to you to gain an overview of the research process, even if later on (and you might not have to wait until you are a PI) you specialise in a particular phase of research.

EDIT: Others have pointed out fields, such as bioinformatics, in which it is possible to avoid lab work. Perhaps I was considering "cell and molecular biology" too narrowly. Nonetheless, bioinformatics still ultimately relies on data, and so I still believe that gaining experience of how that data is gathered is highly valuable.

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  • Reason for downvote? I'll happily edit given constructive comments... Mar 4, 2016 at 16:18
  • I down-voted because I think this has a very limited and lab-centric view of the biosciences, as indicated by some of the other answers as well.
    – jakebeal
    Mar 4, 2016 at 22:05
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    I upvoted because jakebeal's explanation made no sense. Mar 4, 2016 at 23:52
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    I am surprised that no-one mentioned kinetic modelling and the like? Of course, you do need to like mathematical modelling and/or simulation and statistics, but that's the price of staying away from the bench. Mar 5, 2016 at 10:09
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If you want to avoid laboratory work, you need to go into an area of the field where you develop a valuable expertise that is not laboratory work. That may then put you in a position to be a valuable collaborator for people who do engage in laboratory work, rather than a parasite upon them.

Fortunately for you, in this computational age there is quite a lot of such work. Examples include molecular modeling, *omics, bioinformatics, metabolic engineering, sequence optimization, and many others.

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I am currently a master’s student hoping to shift into a PhD. The thing is, I hate the lab work. I love all the literature review, designing experiments, troubleshooting problems and data interpretation.

You've just described a couple potential directions you could go in, depending on your inclinations. Someone in the comments suggested bioinformatics, but I don't think that's quite right.

For me, the fundamental question here is "How strong is your math background, and do you like theory work?", neither one of which is really answered in your question. But there's some paths potentially open to you:

  • Biostatistics: Biostatisticians are (ideally) involved in the design of experiments stage, and in analyzing data, while someone else is responsible for actually collecting it. Their expertise is concentrated in analysis, and being able to work in the areas where the usual tools used in a field start not working any more.
  • Computational/theoretical biology. There's lots of modeling work to be done that's informed by experimental work, but isn't actually based on wet-lab experiments. You can fairly productively collaborate in this field, and having a little lab experience is a plus.

The latter is the path I took in my own field - I'm a computational epidemiologist. If all goes according to plan, I never see the inside of a lab, nor talk to a study subject.

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You may have already seen this enter image description here

And although it's meant to be a joke, there's a rather large element of truth to it. Science is built on a foundation of cheap labour. It's not about paying your dues - because that implies you already owe it, and it implies that once you've paid it, you're morally free to do it to many other people.

Rather, think of it this way - if you want to be in a situation in 10 years time where you can boss 10 people around and not do any labwork, you have to be bossed around, and then beat 9 other people for the bossing-around job (or hope they drop out of academia altogether).

This might sound a little negative, but it's important that you see the road ahead clearly before you walk toward it. Too many people enter academia expecting the PI position after paying their dues, but the reality is that most people who enter a PhD never make it to academic independence ever. I don't know anything about you, so I would say there's a 9/10 chance that will be you too. If you feel you're the 1/10, then go for it! But realise it's not something you can afford to simply endure. You have to excel!

(As a side note, if you can use Linux and program a bit, you could do a PhD with some Bioinformatic element to it - but this will be no less intensive. In many cases, it's more hours per day since you can work from home.)

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    Funny, my experience is the exact contrary to this. The profs I know would rather delegate the administrative hurdles and spend all their time in the lab.
    – Cape Code
    Mar 4, 2016 at 13:37
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    Man, if I ever saw any prof in any of the labs where I work, I think i'd have a heart attack. Sometimes they walk through, but it's very rare. To actually pick up a pipette and do something? Man. No way. They are all way to busy for that. My institute may be a little unusual though. Everyone here is heads-of-their-field kind of thing. It's a pretty intense results-orientated atmosphere. Mar 4, 2016 at 16:38

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