Saturday, February 16, 2013

Are scientists normal people?

Scientists are different from other people. For example, a recent American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology survey of young scientists showed the top factor for choosing a career in science is "freedom to pursue my intellectual interests". Only on moving down the list to No 4 and No 5 is there more typical job-related concerns, such as "job availability/security" and "pay/benefits".
This is not particularly surprising. It's not that we do not want to be paid decently for our work. We do! But it's clear that as scientists, our career choices were not particularly influenced by earning potential. It's interesting that my grandfather, an immigrant to Canada, was accepted to medical school – despite the official quota of Jews allowed into the programme each year – but had to drop out because he couldn't afford it. With a similar interest in science, his son (my father) also ended up in medical school, but managed to complete his studies. Tempted by research, a bad experience turned him back towards the clinic. At that time (please note that the inherent male chauvinism in this statement in no way reflects my views!), Jewish immigrants in Canada apparently had a saying: "What do you call a good Jewish boy who can't stand the sight of blood? A lawyer."
The point that I'm trying to make is that for those of us in science today, successful careers are not measured by Fortune 500 standards, or by salaries and bonuses. Instead, academic freedom is the gold standard.
This is not to say that scientists live in an ivory tower and piddle around all day, doing whatever they please with no external pressure. My colleague Sylvia McLain recently wrote an interesting piece titled "Like butter over too much bread" discussing that Forbes has recently ranked "university professor" at the top of the 10 least stressful jobs. I suspect that no one involved in compiling that list spent any time shadowing a real university professor or witnessed the overwhelmingly hectic types of schedules we endure. Some time ago, I did my best to try to portray an average day at work; believe me, that is no exaggeration.
In many ways, scientists are perfectly normal, and suffer from the very same fears and anxieties of people in a wide variety of jobs
As I have moved through the ranks in academia, from student to professor, I have seen much stress, anxiety, situational depression, and various forms of neuroses. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is not uncommon, if you know what to look for. Even scientists enjoying the pursuit of intellectual interests suffer from such stress and anxiety. Indeed, both of my novels attempt to debunk the myth that academic life comprises a carefree daily schedule of wandering around green campuses and drinking good coffee in chic little cafes.

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