Monday, November 21, 2005


Just a job

I'm feeling grumpy about the way that science as a career is approached, and how that relates to me. Science is my job, it's what I do in order to eat and pay rent. To be strictly correct, at the moment my PhD scholarship is what I do to pay rent, and there's the rub. There is this tendency for people in science to be completely consumed by it, to spend all their time working or thinking about work. I did that myself while I was doing my Honours degree, but that was for less than a year. At the age of 25 I have more important things (and people) in my life, and I'd rather put in a solid day, then go home and do other things, or spend the weekend doing other things. And I'd like to get paid for this approach, thank you very much. I am, in fact, mostly doing a PhD in order to get access to permanent work at half-pie decent rates of pay. One might argue that this is the wrong reason to do a PhD -- one would be welcome to continue doing skilled work for 12 dollars an hour (if you can find it at all), in that case.

With that perspective, I find the approach taken to PhD students to be a mite irritating. For a start, the official line is that a PhD is a 3-year degree in most British-style universities. This is bollocks. You generally get up to 2 and half years to do a Masters, and a PhD is only supposed to be 6 months longer? In practice, at least in Australia, you get funded for four years of research, and I don't know of any whole-organism biologists who've finished in three years. Except that scholarships are generally only for three years, unless you spin a particularly good line in bullshit, in which case they might give you another six months. From the end of the university year, that is, generally early December. But we mostly don't start our degree until March... so that'd be a 2 3/4 year PhD, then, with a start right after a field season.

Further to my irritation, PhD students are supposed to produce an original piece of research, a "contribution to the field". Sorry, if that were really a requirement, half of PhD students would be stopped at the gate. The chemical sciences in particular seem to have students spending three years trying to isolate or synthesise one particular compound. Being an unpaid lab slave does not constitute original research, to me. It would be more honest to admit that a PhD is training for a job, in which case learning to be a lab slave can float your boat all you like.

Perhaps some of this is a hangover from science as a pursuit for gentlemen, where one might get a sponsor if one needed a little financial backing (there are echos of this in the painful and circuitous rigmarole of applying for scholarships). In those days no one would have dreamed of calling science a trade, but I think in modern times science has more in common with the trades than white-collar work. It tends to be at least somewhat hands-on, to require a particular way of thinking about the physical world; and most importantly in the context of this little essay, a long period of on-the-job training. And can you imagine a welder turning up to work for free "to get some experience"? I can imagine him getting a wee talking to from people who wanted to get paid...

The root of my irritation is getting a tune-up from my yearly review panel for not having made enough progress "after two years". Firstly, one year and eight months does not equal two years to my obviously addled brain, especially when it includes only one summer and I work on a seasonally active animal. I'd also just spent 25 minutes talking about some theoretical work that I've put a lot of work into, that's almost ready to be published (original thought, that thing we're supposed to do). Of course if my panel hadn't consisted of a chemist and a population geneticist they might have understood some of it.

Part of why I did a PhD was a chance to develop some general skills and knowledge that I lacked. I've spent a lot of time in the last year and a half reading about topics like evolution, ecological chemistry, and life history theory. For the first time in my life I have a medium-sized handle on the maths behind population ecology. This might be considered a useful thing to know, were I trying to train myself to be a professional ecologist.

The irony here, in my struggle to become a proper grown-up scientist and my frustration with the system that makes that happen, is that given a free choice, I would probably be a writer. That's the one thing that I've always been best at. I like words, I like poetry, and can remember the lyrics to more songs than anyone else I know. Having a good feel for words and concepts was helpful in learning biology, since I can remember terminology and species names without much effort. It is a pretty sad comment on our society that someone who's intelligent and can write, among other skills, is obviously going to go into science... especially when we don't create work for scientists anyway.

I've come to realise that the bits of science that I like the most aren't necessarily related to research -- writing, ideas, synthesising conceptss or communicating them. Attempting to play to these strengths has, so far, mostly had the result outlined above. The actual research part of science I can do, but left completely to my own devices will be rather disorganised about. Part of what I enjoyed about my Honours year was being involved in an active lab with regular discussions and involvement in the process of getting things written.

Meanwhile, I don't really do that much writing; scientific writing really doesn't count -- it's practically an oxymoron, although I do my best. Part of the purpose of this blog was to keep my hand in, but after sitting at a computer all day I really don't feel like coming home and writing. It's been a couple of years since I wrote any poetry, despite some unsubtle hints from my sister that I should stick at it.

So, yes. Grumpy.

Hang in there Grumpy - you got brains and talent and they will win every time if they are spiced with perseverance.
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