Ask us anything: What’s your motivation? What keeps you going as an academic researcher?

A while back we invited you to ask us anything. Our final question is from Bruno Garcia Luiz. Paraphrasing from and summarizing the original: What’s the principal motivation for people to do another [piece of] new research, paper, blog post, and so on? Especially given the many reasons for stopping–mental health issues in academia, many people chasing few tenure-track jobs, limited and difficult-to-obtain research funding, etc.

Jeremy’s answer:

The answer to this is going to vary a lot from one person to the next! And probably vary over time for any given person. So my answer is just me speaking for myself. Your mileage may vary.

Personally, I don’t think academic science is a higher calling. I think there are various good reasons for someone to do it–and various good reasons for someone to stop doing it. Just like with anything else worth doing. (see here and here for more).

I think the fact that I don’t see academic science as a higher calling is part of what keeps me going. I think if I was too invested in academic science, I’d get too frustrated with its, and my own, inevitable imperfections.

I’m in science to understand. I really enjoy the a-ha moment when something that was mysterious or counterintuitive becomes understood and intuitive.

I prefer ecology to other fields of science because in ecology there’s neither complete agreement nor complete disagreement about what questions are most worth asking or how to go about answering them. Complete agreement on what questions to ask and how to go about answering them would be boring for me. Complete disagreement–i.e. anything goes–would be frustrating because it would completely stymie progress and ecology wouldn’t even exist as a coherent discipline. In ecology there’s room–but not too much room–for professional judgment and creativity in deciding what questions to ask and how to answer them.

I like other things about my job. It’s a pleasure and privilege to mentor students and watch them grow and develop as scientists and people. I like the amount of control I have over how I spend my time. I like blogging. I’m well off, financially, and have as much job security as anyone could ever ask for. And so on.

I think I have about the right level of ambition, for me. I’m definitely ambitious. I do not think all technically-sound science is equally worth doing. My ambition is to do good science and have it seen by my peers and recognized by them as good science. More broadly, I want to influence the direction of ecology in other ways; that’s my primary motivation for blogging. But I’m also under no illusions about how hard it is for any individual scientist to shape the direction of their field more than a tiny bit. Doing really good science is just really hard. I think if I was more ambitious I’d get frustrated–either with myself, or with my peers, or both–when my achievements failed to live up to my ambitions. And I think if I was less ambitious, I’d get bored and stop caring. I’d feel like I was just marking time until retirement.

I’m fortunate to work in Canada, where maintaining a modest baseline level of funding for a fundamental research lab isn’t nearly as hard as it is elsewhere. My motivation might be lower if I was based elsewhere. Or maybe not, because if I was based elsewhere presumably I’d adjust, mentally.

Which isn’t to say that I’ve always been happy with my job. I don’t think many people always are.

Brian’s answer:

Similar to Jeremy, I think there are two levels on which to ask this question. Do I love science so much I would do it if I were independently wealthy (the calling). Or do I love science more than other jobs I could have assuming I need to have a job (the best job).

I think there is a good chance that if I were independently wealthy, I would try to follow in the footsteps of the 18th and 19th century scientists who pursued it as a leisure activity. But that is hardly a fair comparison. If I were independently wealthy, I wouldn’t have to pursue grants, deal with bureaucracy at a university, or generally put up with most of the downsides of the job (except for peer review – Darwin and Newton didn’t have to deal with peer review sensu strictu, although they did ultimately have to convince their colleagues, and I don’t think an independently wealthy scientist could by-pass peer review today).

But that is pretty much a fantasy for me and most of us. So for me the most relevant question is given that I have to work, is being a science professor the best job for me. And I don’t really have any doubt that the answer to that question (for me) is yes! I successfully built an entirely different career in business and computers before returning to grad school. And while there are pros and cons in both directions, I personally am much, much happier now (and then when I was in grad school). For every downside of being a professor (grants, bureacracy, getting rejected), there are upsides (many of them inextricably linked to the downsides). I have extraordinary freedom. I can largely make my own hours. And I can pursue questions of interest to me in the way I want. Universities among other functions are places that provide enough of a long-term, no-obvious-profit-needed environment to let this kind of freedom exist, and there are not a lot of other places where you can escape very short-term, externally driven pressures.

This freedom gives us choices not only about what questions to pursue, but what mix of activities make up our jobs. Can I completely skip grants? No. But I can I chose to make them a bigger or smaller part of my job relative to other contributions? Yes. Can I make decisions to spend more time in the field if I want to? Yes. Can I do a paper just because its fun? Yes. There are limits on all of these, but I think academics have more freedom on these kinds of questions than most people in most careers.

I suppose one could say that it is easy for me as a tenured professor to say this. But I can honestly say I enjoyed the job as much if not more as a grad student and a postdoc. So for me career stage is not particularly relevant.

I think academia for a variety of reasons is an echo chamber in which we tend to build up all the negative features of our job. And they are real. I get frustrated by “wasting time” on grant applications, bureaucratic idiocy, and rejections all the time. But its not like other jobs don’t have big downsides too. In business you will constantly be on the hook to explain how you are generating profits. You will work long hours and it won’t be your choice when or whether you work them. You will have projects shut down mid-stream for arbitrary reasons. And plenty of companies and industries have stupid bureaucratic rules (ask a friend who works for a national government), hyper-competitive environments, a funnel requiring high achievement to get hired, etc. It kind of goes with having a “high-end intellectual” job. Lawyers, doctors, stock brokers etc all have it way worse than academics do in my opinion. My own assessment is that I’ve moved from a job in the business world where I loved about 40% of my job to a job in academia where I love about 80% of my job.

And its important amidst this emphasis on hard-nosed pragmatism, to not lose sight of the fact that doing science can be really, really fun! Intellectually challenging. Working with systems I love. Getting a glimpse of the secrets of the universe! Advancing the state of human knowledge! I definitely have days when something so fun scientifically happens I punch my fist in the air. How many jobs are that exciting?

So while my job is not perfect, and there are days I want to quit, I still have a fairly strong belief that science professor is the best job in the world for me (and when I was a graduate student – except for the pay – it was a great job for me too). Doesn’t mean it needs to be so for others. But I do think it is important to evaluate the job not in an absolute sense (could this job be better?), but in a relative sense (is this a better job than other choices I have?). If its not better in the relative sense, then obviously you need to make a career change. But if its the best in a relative sense, I think focusing on the fact it is not perfect in the absolute sense is a formula for unhappiness. Unless you’re independently wealthy!

8 thoughts on “Ask us anything: What’s your motivation? What keeps you going as an academic researcher?

  1. Thank you Jeremy and Brian,
    Read this piece make me smile. There are several points to think and ponder. I mostly agree, the personal choices are dynamics:-) Actually science is a fascinating endeavour.

    Cheers!

  2. Brian, by “higher calling” I actually didn’t mean “something you enjoy doing so much you’d do it as a hobby”. Probably should’ve been clearer about that.

    When I say I don’t think science is a higher calling, I mean that I don’t think science is like the priesthood (well, I don’t think science is like how I imagine priests think of the priesthood…). I don’t think science is something that that only a select Chosen Few can do, because only a select few have sufficient commitment or dedication or some other Special Something that you either have or you don’t. I don’t think those select few (who don’t even exist) are somehow superior to other people who lack that Special Something. And I don’t think people who try to make a go of it in academic science and don’t succeed for whatever reason have thereby been exposed as not having what it takes.

    I think that view of science as a higher calling used to be more common than it is these days (and I’m glad it’s getting rarer), though I think it’s still out there.

    • I’m probably missing something, but to me the question of would you do it if you your choices were entirely unconstrained is just a pragmatic take on whether you feel a calling. I don’t think science was just an idle hobby for Darwin or Kelvin or Newton or etc. It consumed rather more of their time than I think of as a hobby (albeit recognizing e.g. Darwin lived a fairly relaxed lifestyle)

  3. A coincidence related to Brian’s comments. Just the other day, I saw this interesting post on trends in the fraction of US adults who would stop working if they could live as comfortably as they wished for the rest of their lives: http://justthesocialfacts.blogspot.com/2018/10/random-observation.html

    Historically, college graduates have been less likely than non-college grads to say they’d stop working if they could live comfortably without working. You might think that’s a sign that college grads are more likely than non-college grads to love their jobs and find them meaningful and fulfilling. But no, for two reasons. First, college grads and non-college grads have long reported similar levels of job satisfaction. Second, the fraction of college grads who would quit working if they could live comfortably has been rising over time, while it’s been dropping for non-college grads. To the point that just in the couple of years it looks the two groups have crossed over.

    Of course, what people say they would do in some far-fetched hypothetical situation doesn’t necessarily match what they’d actually do if faced with that situation. But still, I found this interesting.

    • Interesting. The data that self-reported job satisfaction is equal contradicts this, but I strongly suspect that trend of retire among college-educated has to do with the fact that the productivity squeeze finally reached white-collar workers. It certainly has reached academia. The number of support staff has been trending sharply down for decades. As a result professors now spend far more time on accounting, travel arrangements, personnel details, and even just get papers submitted. My friends who are doctors are pretty disgusted with the productivity trends over recent decades too – they never get a chance to talk to their patients anymore. And that right there is an interesting trend – the productivity squeeze in universities has been to eliminate support personnel and cut into professors teaching/research time, while in medicine it has been to add personnel so doctors can do nothing but their core function. Both have lead to decreased job satisfaction though, I think.

  4. I often think of what my back up career would be. I think that sounds weird to some people when I admit it, but I feel like it helps keep in mind the sorts of issues Brian was getting at in the part about “high-end intellectual jobs”. My sister is a physician and I can see what she has to deal with. I don’t think I could do her job (for multiple reasons!) And I think of people I know who are lawyers or who work in business and it’s similar for them. I think it helps keep my job in perspective.

    For me, the thing I wonder about the most is not whether I’m in the right job for me, but whether I am allocating my time correctly. As one example: if I felt like I could really move the needle on mental health of students, would I give up my “regular” research entirely? I think the answer to that is “yes”, but it’s never as clear cut as that. What is “really moving the needle”? I am able to have some of the conversations I have because I am seen as a successful scientist — would that change? I could keep going, but hopefully that gives a general idea. I spend a *lot* of time thinking over those sorts of questions.

    • “For me, the thing I wonder about the most is not whether I’m in the right job for me, but whether I am allocating my time correctly. As one example: if I felt like I could really move the needle on mental health of students, would I give up my “regular” research entirely? I think the answer to that is “yes”, but it’s never as clear cut as that. What is “really moving the needle”? I am able to have some of the conversations I have because I am seen as a successful scientist — would that change? I could keep going, but hopefully that gives a general idea. I spend a *lot* of time thinking over those sorts of questions.”

      Yep, I think about that a lot too. For me, it’s about allocating time to blogging and book writing. How much time should I allocate to those things, and can I afford to allocate to those things? Given that I think both will “move the needle” more in terms of lasting impact on the field than my papers will. But also given that I need to keep writing papers to keep getting grants and keep my research program going. And given that, if I didn’t keep my research program going at a sufficiently high level, people would probably take my blogging or my eventual book less seriously.

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