Print the legend

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Albin Egger-Lienz, “Die Bergmäher” (The mountain reapers)

Like the American Dream, science is sustained by an ideal rather than the reality.

With a lot of jobs, you only see the mundane side. Teachers have to deal with bratty kids, builders are out baring their buttocks while they haul around bricks and concrete, and waste collectors spend their days surrounded by society’s excreta. 

It’s usually hard, especially at the low-wage end of the spectrum, to see how such jobs fit into the bigger picture. But they do, and there’s even some grandeur when they’re seen in the right light Teachers are shaping and inspiring the next generation, builders provide people and families with the chance of a new home, and even waste collectors and street cleaners are out there making sure that society’s refuse is managed. 

And whatever lofty notions you might have of the importance of your own career, remember this: if the waste collectors went on strike, we’d know about it and care about it a lot faster than if university lectures stopped and research institutes shut their doors (just ask in Naples).

But none of these jobs – with the possible exception of teaching – are actually promoted in that way, as useful and essential functions for society. They are…jobs. There’s nothing exalted about them. People going into such occupations seldom have grand visions of things they want to achieve. With a job, you don’t forge a career, you forget it. In most jobs, the big picture is hard to see and people struggle to see the worth in their work within the context of society.

Theatre, film, and TV have long excelled in exploring this overlooked perspective however, with one of the 20th century’s great artistic insights being the recognition that the life of a salesman could be as dramatic as that of a king. From John Osborne to Arthur Miller to the present, the drama and tragedy of everyday life has been held up for instruction and edification. 

The Hollywood mainstream arguably drew a slightly different conclusion, namely that if a salesman’s life could be as dramatic as that of a king, then a salesman could actually be presented as a king…and has peddled an escapist version of reality ever since. The lead character of “Bruce Almighty” may be introduced as a loser everyman, but mystifyingly still has international sex symbol Jennifer Aniston as his girlfriend.

In fact, cinema sometimes succeeds in making the fantasy the more indelible version. Bob Hoskins’ role as a private eye in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” probably comes close in both appearance and trade to the everyday seedy reality of the job, but it’s Bogart (“The Maltese Falcon”) who provides the canonical representation – and manages to make a washed-up and alcoholic private detective look glamorous. Cowboys too have been relentlessly idealised as expressions of America’s pioneering self-sufficiency, with only leftfield genre inclusions like “Brokeback Mountain” (“Earlier today I was castrating calves”) capturing a truer glimpse of the day-to-day grind.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that the real representatives of these occupations are necessarily buying into the fantasy. It’s doubtful that private eyes genuinely see themselves as Bogart while they’re getting photographic evidence of marital infidelity, any more than soldiers see themselves as Rambo.

But that doesn’t apply to all illusions. Some fantasies are so powerful and so alluring that they get believed despite evidence to the contrary. The American Dream is probably the most pervasive – a belief that hard work alone will lead to happiness, wealth, and upward social mobility. Alas, it’s not the case. Social mobility is lower in the USA than in most comparable countries, and intergenerational mobility may be the lowest of the lot. 

Science, funnily, may represent another such illusion. The curious thing with a scientific career is that it’s the legend that’s not just advertised but even widely parroted: that science is about a ceaseless parade of breakthroughs, cures, Nobel prizes, and immortality. The transcendent image of science is both the justification and the mirage on the horizon, but too little thought is given to the mundane. And it’s the mundane that you’ll primarily be doing day in, day out.

Until recently, no-one really mentioned the bad stuff either. The mental stress, the power hierarchies, the lack of oversight, the potential for bullying and harassment, the depression, the burnout, the disillusionment. Maybe we’ve all fallen prey to a kind of self-induced Stockholm syndrome, because of the need to keep on justifying our role in society so as to continue receiving taxpayer money?

Ironically, the mundane truth is that Science can genuinely be a great career – and you don’t need to be making breakthroughs to enjoy it. 

It’s almost unmatched for its variety, its mental stimulation, its whole exhilarating and intoxicating cocktail of research and teaching and reading and writing and thinking and communicating, for the opportunity it provides to work surrounded by young and (hopefully) enthusiastic people. It’s not dramatic, and there’s more paperwork than any of us would want. But by persisting to adhere to a sensationalist and overdramatised version of the career, we’re setting ourselves up for both disappointment and self-deception. 

While it veers into drama, “Wonder Boys” (a film that made nothing seem as vital or important as writing) probably captures the essence of life in academia better than most, including that elusive but suffusing sense of wonder – it’s fiction there, but it could as well be science.

You don’t need the dream, embrace the reality. And enjoy it.

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