Is science just another job ?

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 [0]. 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 [1].
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.

Notes
[0] 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.

[1] 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.

13 Responses to “Is science just another job ?”

  1. Cherish Says:

    I think the flexibility argument is more one of being not tied to a desk 9-5. For instance, when I don’t have class, I can pick my kid up from school. However, that means I have to go home and work at night or on the weekends. In that regard, it’s very nice. But it can be hard to focus on work when you’ve got kids running around, which is where a “regular job” can be easier to deal with.

  2. Mad Hatter Says:

    I want to clarify a few points regarding my post. I did not actually assert that science is “just another job”. There are many, many shades of grey in between “science as religion” and “science as any other job”.

    My point was that one does not have to view science as religion, and being a scientist as similar to being a priest, in order to have a successful career in it. That level of devotion, in my opinion, is simply not required for being a tenured professor with respectable productivity, but there’s no question the most successful scientists (e.g. National Academy members or Nobel Prize winners) in every field do have that level of devotion, since generally that is what motivates one to put in the amount of effort required to be the best in one’s field.

    So I do agree that passion is required to be the best in science, just as it is in many other professions, but since there are many more scientists than there are National Academy members or Nobel Prize winners, it stands to reason that something less than complete monastic devotion might also suffice for being a scientist in general. This line of reasoning has also been made by commenters over at DrugMonkey’s post on the same topic.

    Another issue is what constitutes passion for science? You call it “uncommon interest and passion.” Given that I have spent a decade of my life in training positions with few material benefits to reach my current position, and that I still work on evenings, weekends, holidays, etc., I’d say that that constitutes uncommon interest on my part. And since I’m not on the tenure track, the “permanence of appointment” incentive doesn’t even apply to me. Does it constitute passion? I would say no, but obviously that depends on one’s definition of passion. Needless to say, most, if not all, people who do not have a sufficiently high level of motivation, regardless of whether it’s called passion or uncommon interest, are washed out of the pipeline long before they reach the faculty stage.

    The’s also the question of differences between fields. I suspect that in your field, a higher percentage of people who enter grad school end up doing something other than research in physics than in my field. This, of course, means that the bar for passion for science is much higher simply because selection is more stringent. The biological sciences are a labor-intensive field, and there are lots of different academic research positions which require PhDs, but can actually be done like a 9-to-5 job (e.g., research associate, core facility scientist, etc.). Add to that the massive proliferation of pharma and biotech positions over the last decade, and you naturally have lots more biology PhDs who wind up with research positions that are more like regular jobs.

  3. R Says:

    Say a student LOVES to play soccer, (s)he’d do it all day if it were up to him/her, but (s)he is not that good at it. Also, this student doesn’t love science, but (s)he is very good at it. If this particular student went to you and told you this, would you still recommend/advice (s)he went to play soccer? What if this student is better than you at science? What would you say then?

    I think it is great for a person to love what they do, and be good at it too. But if everyone only worked on what they loved, most of us would be unemployed.

    I don’t see where in the definition of science does it say that only people who love it can do it, I also don’t see how a person that doesn’t love science but is good at it can hurt the field. On the other hand, I’ve seen many of these so called “science lovers” making comments and taking actions that CAN and HAVE hurt science.

    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 could be mistaken, but didn’t you write a while ago something about 9-to-5 job meaning that type to be a regular job? I still disagree with the idea that in science you have to work 24/7 to make progress, but if anyone wants to work that much, be my guest.

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      I think it is great for a person to love what they do, and be good at it too. But if everyone only worked on what they loved, most of us would be unemployed.

      Yeah but this is really not the point of this discussion. Obviously life forces us into different paths but this is no reason to recommend to anyone to choose early on a path into which the person does not have his/her heart.

      Also, this student doesn’t love science, but (s)he is very good at it. If this particular student went to you and told you this, would you still recommend/advice (s)he went to play soccer? What if this student is better than you at science? What would you say then?

      I really don’t see your point, R. First of all, it is not a hypothetical question, I have told and do tell many students who are smarter than me to consider strongly a career in scientific research, for which they seem to have talent. I try to share with them my enthusiasm for science, but if they say “Nah, I am not really interested”, I do not insist — what authority would I have ? What else am I supposed to do ?

      I do not have kids, but I think parents routinely find themselves in a situation like the one you describe… ask any of them if “insisting” that their 18-yr daughter or son pick the career for which they seem suited produces any results.

  4. Cath@VWXYNot? Says:

    Mad Hatter beat me to the punch… I was also going to ask whether this might be a field-specific (or applied vs theoretical science) issue.

    Now that I don’t need to come up with anything intelligent to say, I’ll go back to my football-induced depression-with-occasional-expletives.

  5. Steven O Says:

    The other thing is that people who succeed in science or in sports, or in any particular job, might not have anymore passion for that job than others, but have a passion for something in that job.

    If we want to look at the sports analogy it might be that the person has a passion for competition, in any form. They might be equally happy to play any sport (or at least a few sports), but end up doing the one they are best at for a job because its practical. As an avid follower of many sports I think this is generally true as there are many cases of good athletes playing multiple sports. (For the Canadian readers who remember Donovan Bailey, he cost himself a year of competition in track and field because of an injury he got playing pick up basketball)

    In academia it might be a passion for learning, or for solving problems, and that a person’s strengths pushed them towards a particular field. What there passion is might be part of the particular science position they have but probably not only in that position.

  6. R Says:

    “Nah, I am not really interested”

    This is a different scenario than the one in Mad Hatter’s post. If the person specifically says (s)he is not interested then by all means do not go into that career.

    I was talking (and I guess Mad Hatter also) about a person that doesn’t mind doing science, it is just not his/her ultimate passion, and this person is good at science.

    It is not about necessarily encouraging people to join science, it is about not being too biased against people that could do science satisfactorily, but are not extremely passionate about it.

  7. Mike the Mad Biologist Says:

    One thing that’s bothered me about this is that one’s passion for science can wax and wane. At some points in your life, it can be all you want to do, while, at other times, it’s just a job. I’m not sure why everyone is viewing this as a permanent binary state.

    • Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

      Completely agree with that, but:
      1) If one does not have it early on, I would recommend that one stay away from it, not get into it hoping to develop passion later on.
      2) If passion fades and does not seem come back, then I think it is fair at least to consider another profession and free up a position for someone who is passionate about it.

  8. TomJoe Says:

    2) If passion fades and does not seem come back, then I think it is fair at least to consider another profession and free up a position for someone who is passionate about it.

    Like bloody hell. If I worked my ass off my entire life to get a stable (probably tenured) position, and I come to view my job as a job and not a divine calling, I’ll be damned if I’m just going to give it up because someone might have wet dreams about science. If I’m still productive, I’m not going anywhere, whether I love it or not. To do anything else is supremely stupid … throw it all away “just because”? Come on now.

  9. R Says:

    If one does not have it early on, I would recommend that one stay away from it, not get into it hoping to develop passion later on.

    But again, why does the passion need to be there? If the person is productive (which implies that the person it good at it, might not be the best, but I am sure many passionate professors are not the best in their fields either) why recommend against it? And I am not talking about an undecided person asking for advice, I am talking about a person that knowing that is not his/her passion decides to go for it because this person can have a decent (financially speaking at least) future.

    If this happens very successfully in other fields, why isn’t it the case in academia?

  10. TomJoe Says:

    I shouldn’t even have to consider it.

    Besides, you guys are really late to the table on this discussion (sorta). 😉

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