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Research: a career or a calling?

Published: 26 Nov 2018
Category: Equality, diversity and inclusion
By Elizabeth Mann


There is something of a public perception that ‘scientist’ is more a description of someone’s life than a job title. A scientist is someone who wears a lab coat, who may be a little wild in appearance and who spends all of their time alone conducting difficultto-understand experiments. Sadly, this perception is not solely the domain of `the public’ and, to a certain extent, is perpetuated and encouraged in academic labs.

I remember once being told that if I wasn’t thinking about my work all the time – in the shower, on the train, whilst lying in bed – then I wasn’t a good scientist. This has really stuck with me and bothered me for years. Is it possible to be a great scientist and also to have a life beyond it? This issue is handled very differently in academia and in industry.

Reality – academia

In academic science, the labs are frequently populated at all hours on any given day. No checks are made as to whether researchers go home at night or take any holiday. In fact, almost the opposite is true: working long hours is seen as a necessity, if not a badge of honour (41% who are employed on a full-time contract reported working over 50 hours a week and 15% in excess of 60 hours per week). Furthermore, since the output of a lab or a researcher is often judged by their publications, academic research can often seem to reward luck (right project, right time, right place) over hard work or even scientific integrity – an issue worthy of an article in its own right. Because of the short, fixed-term contracts that early career researchers are often forced to take (72% of research staff are in such contracts), they need to be published in order to gain funding to keep a job or be competitive in gaining a position elsewhere. And so the academic culture of long hours and competition for funding forms a vicious circle – competition for funding fuels long hours which fuels more competition for funding – perpetuating the belief that scientific research is, and should be, more than just a job.

This is not to say that academic research is all bad. Because the researchers in academia often don’t have a singular aim, but rather an area of interest, they have some freedom to pursue observations and ideas along tangents. Such freedom of thought promotes creative thinking and investment within a project, giving rise to a very real air of excitement of discovery when progress is good. Indeed, physical creativity has been shown to improve mental health. Doubtless, however, this level of emotional and intellectual investment in a project is also bolstered by the need to ‘publish or perish’. If the resulting high-pressure environment is causing academia to lose capable researchers and perhaps lose diversity (linked with both creativity and productivity), then there must be a more economic balance to be found between pressure, excitement and stress.

Reality – industry

The career/calling situation is better handled in industry, almost certainly as a direct result of the permanence of staff contracts. Publications are less important and scientific rigour and hard work are prized above positive data.

Here, in my experience, scientists have a more ‘normal’ work/life balance. Those that I have worked with in industry have core hours and are expected to have left the lab by a certain time. If they have failed to clock out by that point then they are expected to check in with security at regular intervals and report an expected time of departure. They, quite rightly, tend not to reply to emails in the evenings or weekends (and certainly not whilst on leave).

Industrial researchers seem to have a much better handle on keeping science as a job, not a calling, and managing to maintain a separate personal life.

Best practice

Almost all early career researchers seem to have a rocky relationship with their work: sometimes it can seem a long way from any good results, at other times the excitement of discovery can last for weeks. In such a pressured environment it is important to have other interests to tide you over during dry spells.

The belief that research is a calling is detrimental during those inevitable dry periods, and more likely to drive people away. During these times, scientists may begin to doubt their interest or commitment. The perception that the retention of these attributes at all times is necessary to be a scientist might result in the loss of faith in a calling, but not a job. Instead, the maintenance of a more healthy relationship with research, where it can be happily left alone during a holiday or for a weekend of socialising, will keep valuable and skilled researchers in the field for much longer.
To tackle the problem of science being perceived as a calling, it is important to reward realistic qualities which make for great researchers: integrity, tenacity and curiosity. Although academia does encourage these qualities they may be overshadowed by the need for data. Of course, implementing such a sea change in attitude would require the cooperation of funding bodies and journals, which would take many years to effect.
In the shorter term, moving to a system with more reviews of the wellbeing of students and staff – with checks made on weekend working and holiday taken – would be a step towards improving the lives of academic researchers and making the mindset of science as a calling obsolete.

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About the author

Lizzie completed her Pharmacology undergraduate degree, including a year’s industrial placement, at the University of Bath in 2014. Since then, she has been working on a PhD (including a further industrial placement) at King’s College London. Her thesis, now submitted and awaiting viva, focusses on novel pharmaceutical interventions for Parkinson’s disease through the use of in vivo models and measurements. She’s currently tidying up loose ends on her PhD work and looking for a job or post doc in London