Is Science a Job or a Calling?

You might have, by now, seen that obnoxious article by Scott Kern bemoaning the sorry state of the cancer research facility at which he works. Apparently, the building is nearly empty on weekends, so people aren’t working hard enough, and thereby killing cancer patients. Rebecca sums up the tone of the article:

There have been a few responses (updated: Janet has one also) to this chuckleheaded essay by Scott Kern (pdf) chiding, well, basically anyone who isn’t in the lab 60+ hours every week about how they lack passion about their research, and are essentially letting sick people die because they think they have the “right” to lives outside of the lab.

Others have dealt with various issues, including productivity and women-in-science conflicts. But Janet makes a really good point:

Nowhere here does Kern consider the option of hiring more researchers to work 40 hour weeks, instead of shaming the existing research workforce into spending 60, 80, 100 hours a week in the lab.

This is why you keep professional philosophers around–the good ones cut right to the heart of the matter. Kern wants all researchers to have their research as their number one priority (even as he spends his weekends checking up on his colleagues, as opposed to curing cancer. Just saying). One problem with the ‘pedal faster’ school is that it’s unprofessional. That lack of professionalism leads to poor time (and resource) management.
The other issue is if we don’t have a place for people who are not mono-maniacally focused on their research, we will lose a lot of very smart people who do good work. What if people have more than one passion? Suppose they are active in their communities, and fight cancer. Is that a bad thing?
Many people have jobs that ‘matter’, not just cancer researchers (An aside: Kern’s narcissism is breathtaking). Rather than using their brains, their talents, their energies for personal enrichment, they have decided to do something that makes a difference. But they do their job and then get on with the rest of their lives. They view what they do as a job–an important one that they’re proud to do–but not as a calling that consumes them. Yet the important work in all of these areas–including Kern’s well-funded cancer center–still gets done.
So do you view science as a job, one you like and are proud to do, or as an all-consuming calling?

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21 Responses to Is Science a Job or a Calling?

  1. Lab Rat says:

    Job. Awesome job, well loved job, amazing job, job i would do above any other job, but still just job.
    “even as he spends his weekends checking up on his colleagues, as opposed to curing cancer. Just saying” THat was a great sentance :p I’m glad I’ve read all the follow-ups to this because the original article made me feel quite miserable, and like a Failed Scientist.

  2. Joerg says:

    Suppose they are active in their communities, and fight cancer. Is that a bad thing?

    Suppose they like to play Halo, ride their mountain bike and fight cancer. Is that a bad thing?

  3. Joshua says:

    This is the same ridiculous attitude that leads to the ridiculously high burn-out rate of professional software engineers. At my last job, I used to stop by the office to use the shower facility after spending an afternoon at Community Boating, and every time I did I would see programmers who had clearly not left since Friday and who also clearly were doing this if not every weekend then close to it.
    This is not a healthy way to work. Even setting aside the health of the workers themselves (we all know that nobody gives a shit about that), it produces bad work. If you’re tired and burned out, you’re sloppy. Period. In factories, 80 hour work-weeks produce industrial accidents, and nobody seems to really doubt that fact. Yet we expect people in technically-demanding professional jobs to put in those hours without making mistakes?

  4. Paul Orwin says:

    I read through your post (thanks for pointing it out!), Derek’s post, and chemjobber (and 1/2 the comments). Interestingly, no one ever made what is the obvious point, which is “who cares?” In other words, what difference does it make how many hours you spend in the lab? What matters is the results. If you do 1/2 your work at home on a computer, and half your work at the bench, you might only be in the lab 25-30 hrs a week, but be much more productive than someone who feels obliged to spend 40-50h a week in the lab, when they only have 25h of lab work to do. What matters is what the students, workers, and PIs do with the time they have. Spending 60h a week redoing PCR rxns over and over again is not more productive than spending 10h at home designing better primers and 10h in the lab running the properly controlled experiment.
    I think science is a calling and a passion, but I have a science teaching and research job. I may think about science all the time (well, a lot anyway) but I do my job as a job (or career). No one lays on their deathbed saying “I wish I had spent more time at the office (or lab)”

  5. While aware of what pays the bills, botany is the only thing I’m half good at, and it becomes very difficult to determine when and where my job and my personal life and interests separate. How good is that?

  6. Kevin says:

    Did his essay get taken down? I can’t access your link or the link in the quote from Rebecca.

  7. WurkTuMuch says:

    The most productive scientists I know have a life. They work hard, and get their work done efficiently in a reasonable amount of time. Then they go have fun and get a good nights sleep, and recharge for another short but intense day of productive science. If they need to do odd hours occasionally they do.
    Those I know who are “in the lab” 80 hours a week do so because they are slackers who work inefficiently and usually get less done in a week than the type I described above.
    It’s interesting in that in Germany, for example, people who stay late after eveyone else has left are looked down on for their inefficiency, not congratulated.

  8. vpillsws says:

    job.definitely job.absolutely job! i think many people can work on science.everyone can work in science industiry.

  9. becca says:

    Closer to a calling, but I resent the notion that intrinsically implies I should aim for pathological monomania like what Kern advocates. (incidentally, compared to the basic scientists I have met who are truly inspiring as people who view science as their calling, I would say Kern is far too obsessed with how OTHERS do science, and about silly worldly things like patients, (i.e. concerns about *people*) than any True Scientist with Passion would be).
    I was talking with my mother about what things were like now that I’ve become a mother myself. She said something that clicked for me- something about science being my first child.
    You don’t love your career any less for having an ‘adorable family life’, anymore than people with multiple kids love their first kids less when later ones arrive.

  10. Ash says:

    I see it as both. Broadly speaking I think you will be unhappy working in science if you don’t have a passion for it. At the same time, I think it’s incredibly bad for your mental health to be expected to work insane hours.
    I actually work in a cancer institute myself and don’t perceive this as an issue. I agree completely with the point that the way to get research done 24/7/365 is to employ enough staff to meet that demand. The way is NOT to demand inhuman hours. As others have pointed out productivity can actually drop in these circumstances.
    I’m sure we’ve all worked when tired and can anecdotally state that it is harder to ensure precision in this state. I’d rather ensure the quality of output way ahead to trying to maximise hours worked.
    So, to me, science IS a calling. But my job is still a job, made doable by my calling. And I know that I’m far from unique when I say that just because I’m not in work doesn’t mean I’m not always reading through papers at home. I can’t remember the last time I was able to read a novel in less than a month because most of my reading time is spent on sciencey stuff.

  11. Bill Shipley says:

    I’m an ecologist and I view science as a calling, but “science” goes far beyond my day job at the university. I rather prefer the 19th century term “natural philosopher”. It involves reading deeply about lots of other areas of inquiry, about looking for commonalities, and about explaining “sciencey” things to family and friends. Spending every waking minute in the lab and thinking about only one small part of the puzzle does not make one a good scientist.

  12. joemac53 says:

    I viewed teaching (and coaching) as a calling, and I put in long hours for many years. I enjoyed it. I did not expect everyone else to do what I did. I put my other passion (fishing) on the back burner when my kids got big enough to need more attention. When my kids made it to my high school, I gave up coaching so I could run them all over town and watch their activities. Practical approaches to make everyone’s life a little easier.
    Now my kids are grown and I can go back to fishing (as soon as I put the second floor on my oldest daughter’s house).
    It takes a lot of nerve to bitch at people for not being “dedicated”.

  13. inverse_agonist says:

    In Praise of Idleness, by Bertrand Russell:
    http://www.zpub.com/notes/idle.html

  14. Joel says:

    Further to Joshua’s point about the similarity with software development, I might refer you all to a classic post by ea_spouse about some of the effects of massive overtime on an ongoing basis.
    I can’t access the essay either.

  15. TheBrummell says:

    Neither. I have no passions, so it’s not a calling to be here working on science (I’m procrastinating working on a paper about work done this summer, greenhouse gases, climate change, yadayadayada save the world). Anyways, the pay sucks far too much to be considered a job, because calling it a job would invoke minimum-wage laws and I’d be fired – grad students would be too expensive to train if we were paid minimum wage.
    Grumble grumble grumble, in other words. Frankly, I cannot imagine myself doing anything else besides science, but having burnt out once in the past I refuse to burrow down that 80-hour-week tunnel again. So, let’s go with “calling” for now, even if it doesn’t really fit as well as “default option”.

  16. Scott Kern’s comments about the dedication of biomedical researchers probably has a small kernel of truth, but to a large extent he over extrapolates from the absence of researchers in facilities on weekends and evening to a lack of passion for their work. Scientists are clearly amongst the most dedicated and passionate of professionals. However, it is difficult to communicate this to others that do not share a similar depth of understanding about their particular field of enquiry.
    To enter into the field of biomedical research, one has to be curiosity-driven and profoundly affect by the plight of the diseased. The training to become a researcher is long, arduous and expensive, with no guarantees of stable employment or high pay. Clearly, money is not the prime motivation for pursuit of a scientific career. I suspect that given a choice between a huge cut in pay or loss of the ability to pursue their research interests, most of the scientists that I know would make the financial sacrifice. If money was the key motivator, they would have become doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants or a myriad of other professionals that earn higher salaries with less education.
    Once finally established as biomedical researchers, many academics have to juggle their research, teaching, administrative and possibly clinical activities and responsibilities. It is a constant struggle to get financial support through grants to conduct one’s research with the limited resources available and the high competition from equally dedicated scientists.
    The absence of trainees and established scientists during weekends and evenings in institutions does not mean that they are not still working. A few decades ago, it was necessary to come to work to read the literature, plan experiments and analyze the results. However, with the advent of personal computers and the Internet, this is no longer required. If anything, I suspect that biomedical researchers today are working even harder and more effectively than their colleagues a generation ago. The explosion of biomedical knowledge over the last few decades clearly demonstrates this.

  17. Julie Stahlhut says:

    For me it’s really both. I love my job, but there is a major element of “calling” in it as well. I left a career in computer support to go to graduate school and earn advanced degrees in biological sciences. If I’d stayed in IT, I’d have made more money. But I was bored and disaffected until I reclaimed my childhood love for insects (as I entered my forties!)
    However, I’m a person who needs serious amounts of down time to recharge. If I spent an extra two or three hours a day at work, I doubt very much I’d accomplish more than I do now. And it’s quite possible that I’d burn out, and cease to enjoy my work as much as I do.

  18. lebutler says:

    How did he not end up arrested? Presumably not everyone who works in all those facilities would know him by sight.
    If I were in the office on a Sunday, and some guy accosted me in my office, saying, “Working on a Sunday, huh? Not many people around. Are you the only one in here?” I would call security!

  19. hosting says:

    and some guy accosted me in my office, saying, “Working on a Sunday, huh? Not many people around. Are you the only one in here?” I would call security!

  20. Job. Awesome job, well loved job, amazing job, job i would do above any other job, but still just job…

  21. porno says:

    I’m an ecologist and I view science as a calling, but “science” goes far beyond my day job at the university. I rather prefer the 19th century term “natural philosopher”. It involves reading deeply about lots of other areas of inquiry, about looking for commonalities, and about explaining “sciencey” things to family and friends. Spending every waking minute in the lab and thinking about only one small part of the puzzle does not make one a good scientist.

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