Leading Horses to Water

Ancient Greeks began the way of thinking originally known as natural philosophy but which we now call science.  Science emerged as we know it during the Renaissance, in an age dominated by fear, superstition, injustice, and brutality.  In other words, pretty much like the present.  These musings are aimed at explaining how science works, and how science can serve even nonscientists in their efforts to make sense of the world.  I can try to explain things but it’s up to you to decide whether or not you wish to drink from these waters.

#24 - Science as a Career

Created: 17 September 2012

How did you come to be in the job you now have?  Was it your intention to do this sort of thing when you were in grade school?  Did you arrive where you now are in your working life by plan or by accident?  More importantly, how do you feel about  your job?  Is it drudgery you endure for the sake of earning a living?  Are you excited by the work you do to earn a living, or is it tedious and dull?  This essay is going to use my career story to exemplify a story substantially larger than my own.

An anecdote:  A few years after working at my first post-doctoral job, I began riding the bus to work when I was on the day shift, so that I didn’t have to deal with parking and traffic hassles, and it was more economical than driving my own car.  I began to chat with the driver and got to know some of the “regulars” who were almost always with me on the bus.  Over several weeks, I discovered that virtually all of them hated their jobs.  They always celebrated Fridays as liberation, and Mondays were gloomy as they returned unwillingly to the saddle of their jobs.  They lived for that time they spent awake and not at their jobs.  I felt sorry for them, but couldn’t empathize with them, because it simply wasn’t that way with me.

I certainly can’t speak for all scientists, but many of us recognized our interest in science in grade school.  We didn’t know very much about what it truly meant to be a scientist, but we knew that the things we learned about scientific topics were fascinating.  We actually studied science and related topics, like math, outside of school hours – just for fun!  Learning about how the natural world works wasn’t a chore for us.  It was an adventure in awe and fascination at the facts and the details.

School for me wasn’t a great place to learn about science, because most of my science teachers were pretty lame.  I know that’s far from a universal experience, but one thing about my early inspiration to become a scientist is clear – I didn’t owe anyone anything for it.  It was completely internal, for the most part.  Not until I entered college did I begin to find any inspiration from others.  And they were inevitably scientists first and educators second.  That’s not to say they were all incompetent educators – far from it, in fact!  But they conveyed much more than mere facts and the scientific method.  They clearly shared my passion for their subject!  It was important to me that I wasn’t a lone weirdo after all!!  These were people paid to do something they loved, and they loved it so much they never actually had to say so in so many words.  It was evident in their faces, their body language, their tone of voice – the entirety of their nonverbal communication.

It was truly a revelation to learn that I could do what I wanted to do and get paid a decent wage for it.  Of course, I had to go through a pretty lengthy education process that involved a lot of challenging math and physics courses.  Upon entering college, for the first time in my young life, I was actually looking forward to going to class!  I finally had learned what I was supposed to be doing in school:  preparing myself for a career (in science!).  By the time I began postgraduate studies, I had become a learning machine, absorbing new topics with ease, mastering new material quickly and finally getting the grades that many people I’d known had said I was capable of earning.  This “work” of educating myself, with the help of professors and other students, wasn’t work at all!  I was dizzy with the success of it all.  I’d learned a lot, and was consumed with the passion for learning.  This was a price for admission to my career that I truly enjoyed paying!

After I completed my doctorate, I threw myself into my professional work with the same enthusiasm.  I knew what I had to do and it was as much fun or more as it had been in graduate school.  I worked long hours every day, including most weekends.  I didn’t use most of my vacation time.  The work consumed almost all of the time I spent away from my family.  With time, I began to make my mark in my profession.  I was being recognized as a contributor to my science, which was and still is the greatest honor one can achieve as a science professional.  I was part of something larger than myself that had only positive goals, but I could remain a unique individual within that sphere.  I would lose myself when I was engaged in my work.  My “self” vanished – whatever cares and worries might be present, whatever insecurities I might have – they disappeared.  There was only the work, the excitement of making progress, getting results, and doing what scientists do:  presenting my results to my peers.

For the most part, scientists measure their career success with publications in peer-reviewed scientific literature, and by the frequency with which other scientists refer to their work.  My stature in my profession doesn’t depend at all on who is my boss at my workplace and how she or he might feel about me.  No one cares if I wear a battered, greasy straw cowboy hat at national and international scientific conferences.  At no time in my career did I ever pay more than minimal attention to my work performance evaluations.  The only opinions about me that matter are those of my peers regarding the work I’ve done.  I’ve been able to ignore all the petty politics and the gusts of bullshit that sweep through any workplace.  Stay focused on the work and rest takes care of itself.  I never felt much concern about such things, and I believe that focus is responsible for whatever success I’ve had.

As I’ve already noted, I can’t speak for all scientists.  Some might have radically different stories from mine.  However, many of my professional colleagues have shared their personal histories with me, and many are similar to mine.  We scientists aren’t selected for the profession, we select ourselves.  We’re not cold, passionless, narrow-minded automatons – we’re deeply engaged in a lifelong adventure with learning, and we’re paid reasonably well for us to play!  Yes, to us, our jobs are play!  We never outgrew our sense of wonder at the world around us.  Learning about how that world works didn’t subtract from the awe we felt as children – far from it!! 

The stupid stereotypical scientist you see in movies and on TV programs is a grotesque mockery of most of us.  Yes, we may not always have great communication skills, or be adept at translating our work into understandable terms for a lay audience.  For a variety of reasons, I learned early how to express myself via both the written and spoken word and that has served me well.  I see many of my colleagues struggle with that.

I hope my personal story shows that most of the scientists in this world feel privileged to be able to look forward every day to continuing the adventure that is their so-called “job”.  Our work is our play, and we get paid to do it!  It truly is the revenge of the nerds, but definitely not the movie version.  The reality of my career has been far better than my wildest dreams of what it might be like!  How many people can say that?  Can you?  What we scientists do so happily is the basis for the technology that drives our modern society.  Would it be worthy of your time to expend some effort learning about science?  I think so, and hope that a few might be inspired to do just that!  A world of wonder awaits you …

Science is not a religion but rather a tool for those who wish to think for themselves about the natural world.  Its primary characteristic is its willingness to entertain questions from those who wish to obtain believable answers.