Before you throw in the academic towel

17 02 2020

Throw-in-Towel-_-roboriginal-copy-e1491323619551A modified excerpt from The Effective Scientist:

Many academic scientists end up asking themselves at some point why they should even bother.

The rewards of a career in academic science are trifling, and at times downright insulting. Universities and many other research organisations are notoriously badly run, flipping uncomfortably and with frustrating frequency between incompetence and overbearing corporatisation. Even if they were once scientists themselves, your administrators and managers will fail catastrophically to provide you with clear guidance regarding their capricious expectations.

You will be underpaid. You will work too much. You will have to fight for every scrap of recognition and freedom.

The majority of the students you teach will never even thank you for your efforts. You will also spend your life begging for money to do your research, and in these days of tenuous employment security, you will most likely spend much of your time practically begging to renew your own salary.

If your chosen scientific discipline has even a modicum of direct application, you will nearly always be frustrated by the lack of engagement with and recognition by business, politics, and society in general. 

Not only will you be largely overlooked, you will more than likely be attacked by those who happen to disagree (ideologically) with your data. As a result, frustration and even depression are not uncommon states of being for many scientists who choose to engage (as they should) with the general public.

But I offer you this thought before you throw in the proverbial towel. Despite the bullshit of the daily grind, there is nothing quite as comforting as being aware that science is the only human endeavour that regularly attempts to reduce subjectivity. In the face of all posturing, manipulation, deceit, ulterior motives, and fanatical beliefs that go on every day around us, science remains the bedrock of society, and so despite most human beings being ignorant of its importance, or actively pursuing its demise, all human beings have benefitted from science.

What can be more beautiful than finding out how something complex actually works? What can be more assuring than understanding that every mystery we encounter always has a logical explanation? It certainly gives me great comfort that there is a way to decipher the complexities of the universe without having to invoke some elaborate nonsense vomited from an overactive imagination. One could confuse such ‘comfort’ as a type of piety, but unlike religion, science requires updating one’s point of view based on evidence, whereas religious faith endures despite evidence.

Despite feeling overlooked most of the time, science can also give you a real sense of pride because you know you are doing something useful. Being invited to give seminars to people in almost every walk of life and across age groups — from five years to 95 years old — always fills me with at least a little satisfaction. I also appreciate the relative freedom of my profession, despite the excessive number of hours, the grind of grant applications and teaching duties, and the increasing burden of administration. Still, compared to many other careers, being a scientist is comparatively rather flexible, and it rarely feels like I am only working to put food on the table.

Most importantly, the quest to expand the sphere of human knowledge is a joy that I am sure most scientists use as the primary reason for choosing their career in the first place. We are naturally inquisitive types, so contributing to our own sense of curiosity can be wonderfully fulfilling. If you have even a slightly applied element to your research, you can also take satisfaction in that at least you have justified your existence by contributing something useful to the rest of humankind. While most of us will never be lucky enough to solve some of the planet’s deepest and most intractable problems, we can hold our hand on our hearts and say, “at least I tried”.

So, whenever I am feeling overly exasperated by the self-serving plutocrats we elect to public office, or when some celebrity spouts evidence-free rubbish about a new miracle cure, or when a religious fanatic lets loose a diatribe of nonsense or a hail of bullets, I try to remember that science (eventually) cuts through all the bullshit. As a scientist, take pride in the knowledge that what you do is like no other human endeavour, and in that knowledge, you can persist in what you do despite society’s lack of recognition.

CJA Bradshaw


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