Your Science vs. Your Career

Sep 09 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

Many of us science students and trainees clearly see this. What is best for your science is not necessarily what is best for your science career. They aren’t opposite forces. I don’t think most researchers constantly have to choose science OR career. More like overlapping lines at an acute angle. Do I lean a little more towards what may be good for my career or best for the science. A little bit of playing the game or doing what is right. This can be seen in a lot of choices we make: which journals to submit papers to, which questions to pursue, methods to use, how to write papers (Lest Publishable Units or Complete Stories) and even which positions to take.

At the extremes are views that the only way you can make it through what is a brutal career market is to either, take the highest road and just be a Good ScientistTM or embrace the politics and become a total Game Player. In my experience most scientists do a little bit of both, though I know a few people who seem to have taken either of these extremes. Some have done well career wise, others have not. I know a few people who were total Good Scientists who got their butts kicked career wise (and some Game Players who seem to have out gamed themselves).

Some pragmatic aspects of careerism may be a necessary byproduct of what is a complex system. We are not individual scientists in some sort of platonic science-verse (talk to your local history/philosophy of science major). Everyone exists in a particular context, your family, country, the various systems in it. We have needs and constraints beyond simply being a Good Scientist. On the other hand much of this may just be entrenched habits that science could do without. I suspect there are both necessary evil byproducts and entrenched conventions and it will take some time to shake things out.

You will hear that from time to time. “A real scientists you would [BLANK]” Work 80 hours a week. Skip your kid’s events to work. Publish in certain journals. Interact more with the public. Interact less with the public. Be on Twitter. Live tweet every analysis you’ve ever done while putting raw online in real time. Buck the system and become a Gentleperson scientist. Etc. Etc.

There seem as many opinions of what to do as there are people. To me it is unclear if there is one true path through these decisions. Moreover, it’s not clear to me how much can be generalized from person to person. My friend with the Nobel-winning advisor at Harvard thinks people worry too much about graduate program prestige. He didn’t. And his career is going great. Whoop-dee doo. We’re all in the same system (I speak of academic science) but may be in very different situations.

Every person I know with a successful science career has done a bit of both. My grad and postdoc PIs are great examples of this. Both have successful careers by any measure.  Grad PI always minimized the game playing. If it was necessary she’d do it but was mostly a “just do good work and let the chips fall where they may” type of person. Postdoc PI is the opposite. Loves the networking. Aggressive about all sorts of career goals for herself and her trainees and is also a very good scientist. More of a “do good work but don’t forget to grab those m--- f—kin chips” person. I can’t say one approach is better. They are both successful and as far as I can tell, pretty content.

7 responses so far

  • Dr. Noncoding Arenay says:

    I think it depends on what field/sub-field you are in. I suppose in some fields you have to grab what you want (chips), no one's going to give them to you. In other, more sparsely occupied/less competitive fields you may be able to just do good science and let the chips fall in place.

    Personally, work place politics turn me off big time. I cannot be a "game player" and I am not one to aggressively, politically manipulate my surroundings/outcome. I'd rather be like your grad school PI while maintaining baseline levels of diplomacy.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I had some vision of becoming a big dog in my field, curator of fishes at a major museum with cosmopolitan knowledge of fishes. I ended up at a small, new, marginal university with both direction and location in its name. I soon became a realist and specialized in studying obscrure small fishes which live in marginal habitats. I'm now an Emeritus Professor. When I look back on my career, I think, "Hey, not too shabby!"

  • drugmonkey says:

    What is most maddening to consider is whether the balance necessary for survival is as it has always been? or if tight funding and oversupplied PhD populations mean that the GamePlaying has become more important.

    I am also intrigued by the degree to which identifying a scientist as being really good at the GamePlaying is a bit of a backhanded slap at their scientific chops. It sounds as if one is saying that one cannot believe they got that far on their science alone.

  • The trick to being a *gameplaying* minority scientist is that you're not part of the crowd that makes the rules. You aren't even necessarily privy to knowing the rules have changed. It is a constant battle to discern the rules and then run game harder than everyone else.

  • Ilovebraaains says:

    Sorry to be ignorant but what is gameplaying?

    • bashir says:

      Good question. I was thinking aspects of careerism that seem outside of "doing science" in the strict sense. Networking. Publishing in glam journals. Self-promotion. Etc. You know things that you do for you *job* and not science in the monastic/platonic sense.

  • My undergrad advisor (big name in his subfield) is a big time game player AND an excellent scientist. My grad advisor (also a big name in the same subfield) is a good scientist and not so much of a game player.

    I think my self as some one in between these two people (or at least aspire to be). From what I have seen if you are an excellent scientist and also an excellent game player, it wouldn't get better than this. Of course, one cannot do all things all the time 😛

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