Scientific Research as a selfish career choice


I admit it. I am a scientific researcher. I am a scientist, I become obsessed with my scientific projects, elated when things work and depressed when they don’t. I am emotionally entangled in my work, it follows me home and wheedles it’s way into my dreams. I read research articles in front of the TV, in the bath and sometimes in bed. I spontaneously start spouting about excitement / struggles with this work to people who neither care nor understand what I am talkng about. I refuse to apologise for this behaviour.

The lifestyle of an academic scientific researcher suits me well; I can manage my time as I like, get up when I want, organise my work as I see fit, take projects on tangents if time allows, and I can stay as long as I feel necessary at the end of the day until whatever I am doing is at a reasonable point to stop. I take coffee and lunch with my colleagues, we are all tpically in the lab between about 9(-10)AM and about 7(-8)PM. I can work from home some days if it’s appropriate and I can take a day off with no prior warning if I so desire. Of course this comes at the cost of responsibility – I have to know that getting up at 7:30 rather than 6:30 will not adversely effect my research / professional relationships and that if things are taking too long / going in the wrong direction then there is only me to look to for a justification.

This is all fine and dandy. I love my work, I love this lifestyle, I can escape into scientific hypothesis and learn new things each day, and its largely self-motivated. I need a good night’s sleep to be able to keep on the ball during the day and deal with the pressures of daily lab life (toxic chemicals, dangerous equipment, responsibility for students and self, organization etc).

So what’s the problem then?

The problem comes when your significant other does not work in academia, love their job, or have any passion for what you or they do during the working day. The problem comes when they are up at 6AM every day, work 8-5 every day and spend between 1 and 3 hours alone at home while their scientific counterpart is still slaving away in the lab. Not hapily enjoying their calm time but rather angrily, bitterly cursing the other who is not yet home for leaving them all alone. I wonder sometimes if academics and non-academics can really be so compatible, or if this is just an unusual unfortunate one-off bad combo. The non-academic side needs to be understanding and supportive when things go wrong, and to show *some* ounce of interest /excitement when the academic is preparing a high impact journal article / talk at a conference. I guess what is also nice, is if the non-academic believes that the research that the academic is doing, is in fact worth while.

Ok so now we have established that academics like myself can get into the habit of getting up later than perhaps we *could* if we were required to by our employers, and that home time is very variable due to the nature of the work – experiment goes awry, need to stay an extra two hours.

What happened yesterday to make me feel like writing all of this? well in fact we ARE in the process of writing a high impact journal article based on MY work but there are a couple of nigling repeats which need doing. I finished one part by 4:30 pm so figured I had time to start something else. Sadly this did not go to plan and I would up changing my home ETA from 7:30 to 8, to 8:30 and it was actually 9pm before I arrived home because I was troubleshooting and keen to finish the experiment ( to know the results!).Upon home arrival SO had prepared me a dinner and left it inthe oven to stay warm and takenhimself to bed. Yes, at 9pm. Sweet though it was to cook me dinner being a scientist I had concern for its storage temp and asked howlong ago it was cooked. TWO hours the food had been slowly cooling down to something like 35-45C. Now I’m not saying I’m a genius but my micorbiological experience tells me that this is quite a nice temperature for some bacteria to grow, so maybe I was a bit ungrateful, but the I was met with his argument that I was more likely to get sick from the bread left at room temp over night without complete hermetic seal!

Well needless to say this caused a delightful reminder about how selfish it was of me to be so late home and why couldnt I just go in to the lab earlier? I explained that on this occaison, another person had defrosted something for me so that it was ready when i got there, me being in earlier would not have made ANY difference, but no, Im just selfish and I should go to work and come home from work a the same time as him because it’s not FAIR on him.

Ok so as far as I can see it, people working ‘normal’ jobs in the ‘real’ world are usually unsatisfied with their work, cannot wait to go home, work to live rather than live to work and if they make a mistake, the worst thing that can happen is an organizational failure, some unhappy clients, some bad figures in the monthly review etc but working in this environment, the worst thing that can happen is that someone becomes poisoned due to mishandling of chemicals, blinded by acids / alkalis, smashes a hole in the ceiling by misuse of centrifuges, sets fire to something by misuse of bunsen burners, burns themselves on liquid nitrogen, not to mention the familiar breakage of things, cost, loss of time etc. I’m sure it feels very important to have the business plan up to date or the accounts all settled but will anyone be physically and permanently harmed if a mistake is made? probably not unless you work in manual labour – I just cannot convey very well the fact that I believe that ensuring the lab continues safely without high risk of these dangers is more important than ensuring that you have the correct number of items in stock…really, y’know, in the big picture…but not everyone feels this way.

So this got me to wondering if all non-academics feel this way? Do you see academics as lazy and selfish, conducting pointless experiments and spending too much time and effort on their niche and obscure findings rather than dealing with everyday reality and being considerate to their non-academic friends / partners etc?

or is it just me?

I guess to write at such length and in so much detail about myself you might think I have a big ego but you know what? I know everything I write / do is not the best thing ever, don’t you think that the constant reminders about how pointless / escapist / selfish / self-centred /lazy my life / work / choices are that I might already be somewhat cowed, and I really dont think this writing has anything to do with ego, it has to do with creativity, expression, experimentation and seeking out something which we all need every now and then : acceptance.

So there – I guess I’m writing all of this to try and attain some acceptance and understanding for the way I choose to live my life, or conversely, to consider that perhaps I should use my flexi-time in a way which is more compatible with others in my life, but I didn’t choose their careers, if they didn’t want to be going to work so early then is that my fault?  I guess I just have to sit there are hear about how I should abandon my academic career despite my puclication record, job prospects etc and just work in industry – not because I will enjoy it, not because I want to, but so that I leave home and return at the correct time of day…for some reason this does not immediately appeal but that’s probably because I am selfish.


2 thoughts on “Scientific Research as a selfish career choice

  1. Example 2. arrived home at 9pm (after 12 hours in lab) to hear how selfish and unfair it is for me to do that and why couldn’t i just go to work earlier…well again, someone else started the prep, in order to expediate things :(arrive home at an acceptable time ie 6:30) I would have had to be in the lab at about 6 AM, so leaving the flat at 5:30AM, so getting up at say 4:15 AM…when the roads were still icy, when it was still dark, when his lordship was still alseep. I somehow doubt that that would have been SO much better a plan, For a start I wouldnt be able to function on only 5 hours of sleep.
    If my career (or lazy selfishness) is getting in the way of my SO’s sleep then its either going to be interrupted in the morning or a tiny bit in the evening (Who goes to sleep before 10pm??) [people who ACTUALLY work apparently]
    sigh….,maybe I will ask some colleagues how they reconcile these differences because this is getting unbearable 😦

  2. Having different schedules can be a real bitch, especially when the other person doesn’t like their job. I don’t know what to do about it, but I know how you feel.

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