Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Scientific Stockholm Syndrome


Science embodied as a person would be a rubbish date. You’d be so dazzled by Science's awesome that you’d not only end up paying for dinner, but you’d find yourself promising them your undying loyalty. Then, before you know it, you're feeling guilty for not spending all of your time with Science and Ohhh that Kool-Aid looks really tasty*.

Misplaced loyalty to a career undoubtedly isn’t unique to scientists, but it does sometimes seem to be worryingly common in my profession. How many non-science people do you know who’d continue to work when they’re no longer being paid? Not many, yet it is all too common for end-of-PhD students and sometimes even postdocs who need to do that last experiment for the paper. And don’t get me started on the long hours and weekend work that seem to be the norm in most research laboratories.

We tell ourselves that we’re doing it for our own benefit—because we love what we do and want to give ourselves an edge in a very competitive environment. But lab heads and universities happily take advantage of this devotion to our careers and there comes a point where they are benefiting far more than the temporary scientisit. Like the vampires inexplicably romanticised by young adult fiction, of course employers aren't going to say no to willing victims eager to be sucked dry of their intellectual creativity*. But maybe they should.

Sure, less PhDs would get funded because it would cost a hell of a lot to keep paying every student until the moment they submit their thesis. Some papers wouldn’t get finished if universities couldn’t find extra money to keep on postdocs at the end of a grant. And the scientists would be the first ones to complain and defend their right to be exploited. 

With four months left in the lab, I’m not sure what scares me more—coming to the end of my contract and not having a new career to move on to, or finding a new position with time to spare and having to leave my project unfinished. Come December 31st, neither my current boss nor my research career is going to be buying my New Year’s Eve beers, so why do I feel like I would be letting both down if I don’t stick it out until the very last chime of Big Ben?

I’m sure that there are few lab heads out there who, if offered the professorship of their dreams, would turn it down out of loyalty to their postdocs and PhD students. So why do some temporary staff like me feel so guilty at the prospect of jeopardising a lab’s future grants and papers by making a selfish decision that would be in our best interest? It's like I have to keep reminding myself that my contract with the university is for a three year postdoc and not my soul. 

My relationship with Science has reached the point where I’m sat comfortably on the sofa in jogging bottoms, with barbeque sauce smeared around my face. Science is out there being all sciencey and cool, and here I am, clinging on to the memories of all our happy times together*. I keep telling myself that loyalty is only worth as much as the rewards it yields, that I could be so much happier in a new relationship, but it is so hard to not feel guilty about leaving. 

*I blame impending unemployment for all this melodrama. If any potential employers are reading this, I really am entirely sane. Please give me a job. 

1 comment:

nicolajrolfe said...

THANK YOU! I've been struggling with this too. I share your employment deadline, and all of your sentiments. Even the Kool Aid. Thank you for wrapping it all up so succinctly. If I were having a nicer time in the lab, I might feel less guilty about jobhunting now...

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