Saturday, December 09, 2006

Pressure Cooker

I have not written anything here for a while because I am part of several projects at work that consume most of time lately. I spend most of my free time with the wife and kids as much as possible.

Which set me thinking- why do people go to school for decades, study really challenging and frustrating things, and then go get jobs that take over their lives?

For a scientist, I assure you it isn't the money, even in industry. I love what I do, but I still wonder at how hard I work sometimes. It comes from something other than ambition, and other than love.

The best way I can describe it is obligation. Part of the training that I received instilled a lot of discipline and tenacity when attacking problems. It is necessary to have these attributes to get anywhere in research, no doubt. But still, because I am a scientist, I feel like I have to work in a sort of single-minded, grinding way, whether the project warrants the effort or not.

I am not complaining. My work is interesting, and certainly beats most other things I can imagine doing for comparable remuneration. But there is something there that seems less than rational.

I especially see it in academics- they get paid much less than industrial scientists, and work really hard, especially at first in order to get tenure. Once that hurdle is cleared, though, the pressure remains if one wants to remain active in the field. Certainly, some do not, and languish happily, knowing they can't be fired. But if you aren't excitied by what you are doing, it is stll an incredibly uncertain road to a job with very poor reward in comparison to the effort expended to get there.

Some academic friends of mine claim that the freedom that they have is the reward. I think this is demonstrably nonsense, part of the bullshit that they tell us as we join the club; most of the time, they have to work on what they can get funded. Their freedom is fettered, and their time squandered by service obligations and office hours.  They direct their own research quite a bit, but do almost none of it, leaving it to grad students that impose yet another burden that must be funded. Foregoing a little of this 'control' could return much more financial reward, while also yielding the existential pleasures of actually getting to do some of the science.

Usually, I have almost total freedom in how I proceed, even when my choice of project is not entirely my own. In any case, I find my work interesting, and do not chafe at the few restrictions I encounter. Unlike my academic friends, if I want time in the lab, I just go there and work.

Part of the reason scientist think this way is that the 'scientist club' only fully accepts academic scientists. Anything less than getting a tenure-track job, then tenure, is a kind of failure. Utter bullshit. But the culture of academic science, which is where we all start, assumes that only academic science counts, and many of us who took different paths have a hard time shaking this, too. Having seen both, I know work coming from each spans the gulf from sublime to ridiculous. If anything, selective pressure is worse in industry, because there the science has to work well enough to make money. Much good science gets killed off before blossoming, but what survives is usually rock-solid.

I have been enculturated to work at a grinding pace, nonetheless.

I think I perceive an almost monastic quality in academics- that they must dedicate all their efforts to their discipline, like the medieval monk would turn all his thoughts to God. To do less is to be less. To not suffer in relative poverty is to exhibit something unseemly, as if ambition and success are sins. Many academics act as though money taints, and poverty enobles. That's bullshit, mind you, but that's what I hear them say, and watch them demonstrate.

I have more to say, especially about how limited I think the worldview of science has become, but I want to think more about this first.


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