Don’t do it for money if you would not do it for free
A wise man (obviously not me), circa 1994
Mad Hatter‘s latest post has elicited a spirited debate broadly centered on the following subject: to what extent science, notably in academia, should be regarded as a vocation, something that people should undertake only if motivated by uncommon interest and passion, in some respects almost reminiscent of those of an artist, or even a clergyman ?
Should one look instead at academic science as “just another career”, one that requires no special motivation, coming with perquisites that most others lack (e.g., flexible time, job security, no retirement age, usually outstanding benefit packages etc.), but otherwise subjected to the same dynamics, giving the same reward and causing the same stress and frustration as any other employment ?
I suppose that it is a legitimate question to ask . It is also a rather difficult one to address objectively and dispassionately, because in many respects the definition of “regular job” is itself ambiguous, largely reflecting individual values and life preferences. I do not know what fraction of all workers can be really regarded as holding “regular” jobs, by any set of measures which one may adopt to call that a given profession.
However, that scientists inside and outside academia constitute one of the most highly selected categories of professionals, hardly seems disputable. Virtually no other employment requires a post-secondary degree, a number of years of post-doctoral training, and for academic scientists another six years on the tenure track.
It is hardly surprising that those who can make it far enough down this path have generally little trouble finding another type of employment, if the goal of a full-time permanent research position does not pan out in the end (which is of course the case for most aspiring scientists).
The competition for an entry-level research position seems one of the stiffest across the board, perhaps only surpassed by those for movie acting, or for careers in law firms. Tenure applicants at research universities have gone through at least fifteen to twenty years of hard work (surely rewarding and exciting but often also menial and thankless, in an environment certainly intellectually stimulating but also marred by ego, pettiness and back-stabbing), at a pay seldom on par with that of peers in different professional fields, suffered several relocations, endured significant pressure to produce outstanding scientific results and the stress of an uncertain future, largely influenced by luck and other factors beyond their control.
Is it conceivable that aspiring scientists would put themselves and their families through years of travail (if not quite tribulation), for something ultimately perceived as “just another job” ? Does it not stand to reason that they would be, at least on average, motivated by an uncommon passion, interest, and yes, love for science, the same type of love that, for example, aspiring professional musicians have for music ? Would such love not help make uncertain times at least more bearable ? Can anyone think of another equally powerful motivator ?
And while all of this is not true of science only (I cannot imagine, e.g., nurses, special education teachers, firemen, social workers, not thinking of their own choices as arising, at least in part, from an inner calling), it is no less true of it either.
Of course, we are all different and in the end, much like Mad Hatter states, it is how good one’s performance is that determines (or, should determine) whether that person should rightfully hold a job or not. Clearly, passion, love for science alone are not sufficient; important, crucial ingredients for success are hard work, discipline, perseverance. Again, this is true of many, most other careers.
I am sure that there are, for instance, professional football (soccer) players who do not really love football, could conceivably have been engaged in some other professional sport, chose football for the money, and through dedication and rigorous training manage to perform at an acceptable, possibly even outstanding level. But would one recommend a youngster to pursue a career as a footballer, if the person confessed to be doing it (mostly) for the money ?
I doubt if one would cheer up a postdoctoral scientist whose hopes of landing a tenure-track faculty jobs have gone up in smoke, by telling the person “Eh, come on, don’t fret, it’s just a job like many others… you may make more money doing that other thing instead”… I really don’t think this would go over well.
And I doubt if most tenured professors would cite even something major like the permanence of the appointment as the main reason for choosing their career, much less flexible time .
Things such as the freedom of pursuing one’s own research, intellectual ownership of one’s discoveries, the challenge of contributing to fundamental knowledge, the sharing of ideas with like-minded colleagues all over the world, the mentoring of students and postdocs, would be much more highly valued, and these are all aspects that require some passion for science in order to be appreciated. If none of that captures the imagination of a youngster considering a career as a scientist, my advice is and will always be: do yourself a favor and stay the hell out of it.
 I have to confess: part of me wants to throw up my arms in bewilderment, roll my eyes and go “What ?” even at the notion that this would be an issue to debate. But of course I am biased.
 While many regard this as an important bonus of our job, in practice most of us end up following a schedule that, while including the occasional day off and the weekend spent at work, is not so different than that of a worker in the corporate sector, for instance. And there are, of course, times during which the workload becomes very heavy (e.g., when grant proposals are due in), and it is not uncommon to find us at the office late at night, or on Saturday morning, or during holidays. That is, of course, if we do not count the time spent, e.g., at home sitting at the computer working, in which case one would probably find that most academic scientists spend at least some time working 350 of the year’s days. Make no mistake, I do not believe that, as a category, we are overworked. I just think that this notion of flexible time is way overrated.