For the love of science?

I haven’t written about science in a while, despite it being something that I think about every single day.  Maybe that’s why I avoid writing about it (or maybe it’s just more fun to write about travel adventures or experiments in the kitchen).  But, by trade I am a scientist.  I spent four and a half years obtaining both a Bachelors of Arts and a Bachelors of Science, spending a significant time either in a science class or in the lab.  I then went on to spend five and a half years working on my PhD, with more than a significant amount of time at the bench, many times missing meals, sleep and social activities in pursuit of science.  For the love of science.  For the thrill of that elusive discovery (often times after many months of utter failure).  Because there is joy to be found in not only discovering things, but also in the discussion of ideas.  What is the interesting biological question?  How can this idea or hypothesis be tested?  What does this result imply?  Now where do we go from here?  One of the primary reasons I decided to go to graduate school is because I fell in love with science and its intellectual community.  And my graduate school experience was rich in intellectual community.  I mean it is almost an embarrassment of riches, with fungal biologists, evolutionary biologists and molecular biologists.  There were weekly seminars that brought in amazing scientists all over the world, monthly meetings with groups across campuses and even from neighboring universities and yearly meetings that took me all over the world.  It was one gigantic biology party for nearly six years.  It was easy to get excited and stay excited about your work when you had so many opportunities to share it with people who actually wanted to hear about it.  I never thought I was remarkable for loving graduate school, my thesis project or my thesis committee and adviser.  But perhaps I was.  I certainly knew many other students who didn’t share my feelings, but it seemed absurd to me to that they could be unhappy.

So how could I have fallen out of love with science?

I am not entirely sure.  I am not even entirely sure that I am not in love with science anymore, but I am pretty sure that I have been less than happy recently.  Yes, a huge part of that unhappiness is the fact that my significant other lives in the Florida swamps,  my family lives in the majestic Pacific Northwest and my friends have scattered across the country while I am in Minneapolis (with winter just around the corner).  So even if my scientific life were going beautifully, I would still have a big, dark, menacing rain cloud over my head.  But I think it goes beyond that. The rose-colored glasses have been ripped off my face and stomped upon.

That might be a little melodramatic, but you see where I am going.  Science is not for the faint of heart. It demands more than just a competent head on your shoulders.  You need to be more than just a respected colleague and a good adviser.  You need to be a publishing machine.  You need to be a grant-writing (and receiving) fiend.  You need to sell you little piece of arbitrary knowledge to the world as the most ground-breaking research out there (although it doesn’t hurt if you are part of the ole’ boys club).  There is no longer any joy in the discovery – it has now become an obligation and an expectation.

I think it is the obligations and expectations that has had me stewing.  The obligation to have a super-productive post-doc in order to have a fighting chance at finding a faculty position.  Is it worth it?  Is it worth busting your ass so that you can get a job where you have to continually bust your ass in order to succeed?  Not even to succeed, but just to keep your head above water?  When do you have time for the rest of your life?  Do you even get a life?  Friends, family, love?

I spent the weekend in Chicago, at a regional meeting regarding yeast biology.  I sometimes find these meetings to be double-edged swords.  On the one hand, it gives me immense joy to be completely immersed in scientific community.  I like meeting new people and talking science (especially yeast biology).  I like hearing good talks and asking pertinent questions.  I like drinking beer with people who are just as nerdy as I am.  While in the moment, I absolutely love being a scientist.  But then I get home and am suddenly full of doubts.  What if I am not good enough to cut it?  Why don’t I think that critically all of the time?  Why don’t I have those engaging, in-depth discussion with my colleagues on a daily basis?

Am I being too idealistic about what a life in science should be about?

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2 responses to “For the love of science?

  1. I could say a lot about this, but I’ll confine myself to remarking that there’s a big difference between being an academic, even an exalted one, and being a scientist, even an excellent one. Exhibit A: Charles Darwin, who never had a faculty job. An awful lot of what academics are obliged to spend their time doing, including an awful lot of academic research, is just busywork.

    You might be interested in some recent blog posts by Stuart Rojstaczer. Stuart was a tenured faculty member in geology (or whatever they call it these days) at Duke who resigned several years ago to pursue other interests; he’s now better known as the musician Stuart Rosh. However, he still writes about academic matters. His style is blunt, even acerbic at times, but I think he makes some good points. I’d suggest his four-post series on tenure, beginning with this post:

    http://fortyquestions.blogspot.com/2010/09/tenure-trap-part-1.html

    Or watch him dig into the recent National Academy of Sciences rankings of American Ph.D. programs:

    http://fortyquestions.blogspot.com/2010/10/phd-glut-and-national-academy-ratings.html

  2. Pingback: Teaching Lessons | Puck and Kudzu

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