The pluses of seeing science as a job, not a calling

I subscribe to a financial newsletter from Matt Levine. He explains and comments on the business and financial news of the day in a wry style. It’s great stuff; he’s funny, he’s an outstanding explainer, and his general worldview puts him very much on my wavelength. Anyway, I really liked his comments on a blog post by a Facebook executive, in which the executive wrote

Facebook is truly the only company that’s singularly about people. Not about selling devices. Not about delivering goods with less friction. Not about entertaining you. Not about helping you find information. Just about people…[C]onnecting people is a noble mission…

To which Matt responded by pointing out that there are some serious downsides to seeing your job or your company as some all-encompassing noble mission rather than as just, like, a job or a company:

If you come to work and focus on maximizing the profits of your company, that probably doesn’t mean that you’re a psychopath [who will do anything to maximize profit]. It probably just means that you have a job. You compartmentalize things a bit; your work does not contain the entirety of your personhood; it’s a thing that you do because you need to make a living. In this sense, a company whose philosophy is “we will sell products that people want for more than it costs us to make them so that we can make a profit and increase our share price” is rather psychologically healthy. That is a good goal to work on during business hours Monday through Friday, and then leave. It is a modest, reasonable, businesslike goal. Obviously there are large contested margins, and you shouldn’t do psychopathic things to pursue that goal, and some people do and that’s bad, but for the most part “shareholder value” is the sort of mission that inspires people more or less the right amount

I think this generalizes to science and scientists. I’m an academic scientist. I love my job, I’m pretty good at it, and I think it makes the world a better place. But that’s not all I am, or all I do, or all I could do. I’m also a husband, a dad, a son, a Canadian, an American, and so on. And I read books and coach baseball and cook and garden and drink beer. And if tomorrow I lost or quit my job and had to find another job that didn’t involve doing science (as I once thought I’d have to do), well, it’s just a job. Science would carry on perfectly well without me*, and I’d carry on perfectly well as someone who once was a scientist but isn’t any more.** Leaving science wouldn’t mean that I’d failed, or that I was wasting my PhD, or that I was letting anyone down, or that I was settling for second best, or that I was selling myself short, or whatever.*** It’d just mean I was doing something different with (part of) my life, which is something people in all walks of life decide to do (or are obliged to do) all the time for all sorts of reasons. Science isn’t some higher calling. It’s just one among many things that some people like to do and that are worth doing if you want to do them.**** It should inspire you the right amount.

*Arguably, science would carry on perfectly well without any one person, even a genius like Charles Darwin.

**I mean, depending on the circumstances leaving science might be hard for me financially and for other reasons, just as leaving any job might be for anyone. I’m just saying it wouldn’t be extra hard because it was a science job.

***Well, you could say I failed and let people down if lost my job because I faked a bunch of data or something. But leave such cases aside.

****p.s. click that last link, it’s almost certainly the best thing you’ll read this week.

Related old post:

Helping grad students pursue non-academic careers: advice from Anne Krook. Practical career advice from an ex-academic, that springs from the same point of view expressed in this post.

12 thoughts on “The pluses of seeing science as a job, not a calling

  1. I wonder if views depend on career stage. Once at your stage (and mine) – stable employment, a feeling of having achieved something over ~20 years – it seems more likely for this perspective to take root than earlier on when making a mark and getting a job or tenure can be more all-consuming.

    • I think you have a point here. Tenure is already a very hard goal in the US but the way it works in Germany at the moment, there is a real risk that you not only end up without getting tenure but being unable to continue working for the University at all after 12 years. Risking being suddenly unemployed at age 40-45 without much experience “in the real world” takes some extra courage, which is much easier to muster if you see your job as your calling and something you just have to do.
      However, I think that actually it is much healthier to just see it as a job that you really want but at the end just a job.

  2. Via Twitter:

  3. Hey Jeremy, this discussion of the “noble mission” vs “Just a job” seems related to the work-life balance discussions and the ‘be more than your job’ always seems like good advice for ordinary mortals like most of us. But it seems to me that most of the great achievements were built upon a foundation of obsession. The obvious examples are Steve Jobs or Bill Gates but then you think of people like CJ Walker who was a self-made millionaire at a time when the barriers to black women in the business world must have seemed insurmountable to most people. Usain Bolt, Aretha Franklin, Charles Darwin, Einstein, Marie Curie, Ernest Hemingway, James Baldwin, Sylvia Plath (and it doesn’t escape me that some of these people died by their own hand or as a result of the work they did) – hard to believe their achievements emerged from a philosophy of ‘just a job’ or ‘work-life’ balance. Obsession seems like a bad life strategy unless you meet your objective…and who knows, maybe even then. But it seems close to true that obsession is necessary but not sufficient for great achievement.

    • Hmm…I take your broad point, although some of your examples are debatable. Darwin in particular isn’t someone I’d call a single-minded obsessive.

      And in any case, I don’t think there’s any risk that society will miss out on some great achievement because some would-be obsessive genius read some blog posts on work-life balance. 🙂 Almost by definition, single-minded obsessive geniuses aren’t dissuaded so easily.

  4. I know there is a general take that Darwin was less than obsessive – on the other hand (1) he chose to spend 5 years on a boat with strangers, separated from all friends and family and (2) for most of his life Darwin suffered from health problems that were attributed in part to overwork.

    And I wasn’t really thinking that a post like this was going to discourage obsessives – it’s more that when this is discussed there seems to be an underlying ethical judgement. It’s an interesting shift – I suspect that what we would call obsession today might have been called dedication 50 years ago. There is a sense in these conversations that if somebody is dedicating their life to a specific kind of achievement at the expense of family, friends, health and community that they are doing something ethically questionable. They may be sacrificing personal satisfaction/happiness to achieve some other objective but that doesn’t seem like an ethical problem. I have seen explicit comments that – not only aren’t there very many scientists that work 80-100 hours per week – there shouldn’t be any, that it is ethically wrong to set such a poor work-life balance example. That just seems misguided to me. It’s wrong to expect or demand that kind of effort from the folks you supervise but I also think it’s irresponsible to tell graduate students that a focused 40 hours per week will be enough to achieve whatever career objectives they have – some career objectives may require something approaching obsession.

    Further, it often seems to be implied that not only is obsession a bad idea, it doesn’t work – that absolute commitment to a specific achievement at the expense of other interests will not make the achievement more likely and, in fact, may make it less likely. That just doesn’t seem that plausible to me – maybe there is some law of diminishing return and perhaps there even is a place where the return is negative but I suspect that you have to move pretty far along the single-mindedness axis before you get a negative return.

    • You raise a difficult issue on which reasonable people can and do disagree.

      Personally, I think individuals should work the hours that they want to work and that are healthy for them. I don’t think it’s unethical for anyone to work long hours because that somehow sets a bad example for others, or causes others to feel peer pressure, or creates/supports bad norms. We’ve talked about this issue before in the context of what time of day different people prefer to work:

      I do think it’s nice to recognize when your behavior might cause others to feel pressure to behave as you do, and to address that by being explicit with others that no pressure is intended on your part and that they needn’t do as you do. One thing I tell my grad students when they first join my lab is “I will sometimes send you emails late at night or on weekends. That’s just when I find it convenient to answer emails. I have no expectation that you’ll read my emails on evenings and weekends, or reply on evenings and weekends, though go ahead if that works for you. And you should not assume that just because I do emails on evenings and weekends that that’s what all faculty do, or that it’s a practice you should adopt if you want to succeed in science.”

  5. Pingback: Ask us anything: What’s your motivation? What keeps you going as an academic researcher? | Dynamic Ecology

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