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.