Science: vocation to profession…to job?

Image taken from Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman”.

Might abandoning the vocational aspect of academia in favour of a 9-to-5 commitment be better for all of us? And is it happening already?

My father had wanted to be an artist, but ended up becoming an accountant instead. Pushed by my grandfather into a “proper job”, he spent his working life hating the profession he’d been forced into and died in 2012 without ever reaching the retirement he’d been dreaming of.

His story is probably illustrative of a fair chunk of the Baby Boomer generation – youthful idealism and rebellion against the status quo, followed by a sheepish capitulation to the mainstream labour market, a working life spent in offices and 9-to-5 drudgery, and a fetishisation of retirement as representing the chance to resume activities that had been curtailed by these “proper jobs”.

It’s not hard to see what made academia so attractive when set against that backdrop. It was one of the very few careers where that sacrifice didn’t have to be made – a genuine vocation that came with high social status and a respectable salary. Boomers who went into academia didn’t have to “sell out” and get “proper jobs”, not when new universities were being built and needed people to staff them, sometimes straight out of their PhDs. Thus the Corinthian age of science and its (almost exclusively) gentlemen amateurs in the 19th and early 20th century gave way to the vocational era from the midpoint of the 20th century onwards. A hobby became a vocation, and those lucky enough to be doing it had hit a kind of career jackpot. 

So when the Boomers had kids, they encouraged their children – children like me! – to do something they were enthusiastic about. Finding a vocation was essential, either because your parents had been lucky enough to have one, or they’d been unlucky and thwarted from pursuing one.

We children of the Boomers went into the workplace with a double expectation – we wanted a proper occupation, and we wanted it to be a vocation. And once again, science seemed to fit the bill. We proudly walked around saying we couldn’t believe we were paid to do something we’d happily do for free, and we didn’t make much distinction between work hours and home hours and family hours, because what we did wasn’t a job, it was our life. We voluntarily committed tens of hours of unpaid overtime – in extreme cases reaching 100% or even greater than 100% of our salaried hours. And that all-hours, never-off commitment has arguably brought in a degree of professionalism that formerly was often absent in the happy-go-lucky earlier decades – students nowadays get more structured degrees and more support, funding decisions are less opaque, and global scientific output has boomed.

But that evolution, of vocation to profession, has come at a cost – the foundational myths of those in the vocation generation involve spending all night in the lab doing research; for my cohort they involve spending all night at the computer writing grants, preparing for classes, and answering emails. Neither is especially inducive to good parenting.

This isn’t another lament for a Golden Age that never existed. Even in the vocational era of science there were compromises – there were abundant joyful moments, but there were still plenty of tasks that were onerous. The problem now is that the onerous tasks are outweighing the joyful moments, and that throws all the other compromises into sharper relief. We say we’re paid for something that we’d do for free, but in academia we’re still paid a lot less than our peers in the private sector. The lack of distinction between work and home means we’re responding to emails at all hours of the day and night. Nobody keeps track of how many hours we’re working, or at least, nobody does unless they think we’re not working hard enough (and not hard enough probably still entails significant unpaid overtime).

We still cling to the dream though. We scorn the idea of leaving academia, we fear the prospect of it, because we think we’ve achieved the thing we were told matters most – that our work has meaning. Whether it’s educating the next generation of scientists, discovering new truths about the natural world, or making the world a better place, we believe that science makes a difference and we celebrate all of the little successes and victories that come our way as we stagger along this barren dusty road.

The cost, the price, is principally one of time. We have the thing we were told matters most, but our generational complaint is how few hours that leaves us. We gripe about how hard it is to maintain a work/life balance while having a meaningful and rewarding career. We want to take an active role in our children’s lives on top of everything else and we know that we should, but we worry that we don’t do enough. In everything, we worry that we don’t do enough – because our life has become a vocation, and unless we’re giving to the point of exhaustion then we’re maybe not contributing as fully as we could. 

The talk about work/life balance is just that – talk. It’s something expressed in an aspirational way but it’s not something we really expect, because how can you have a work/life balance when you don’t draw a meaningful distinction between the two? And as my generation approaches middle age, it’s a sacrifice that increasingly seems untenable, and intolerable.

Might things already be changing for the better though?

I’ve noticed that a significant number of the new generation of scientists are already approaching academia in a different way. For them, a work/life balance is an absolutely baked-in requirement alongside a decent salary and a vocational angle. They know what their hours are, they work in the lab for their allotted time, and they leave when the time is up without worrying or getting stressed about what hasn’t been finished. They’re not staking their honour or their reputation on getting things done, they’re simply clocking in and clocking out. Working when they’re paid to do it.

They’re treating academia as a job.

I think this is actually a good thing, and a long-overdue redress of an unsustainable work environment. And it will work, if they can stick to their guns, insist on it, and realise it. The critical reconfiguration they’re driving here is that if academia becomes “just” a job, then there are plenty of other jobs to be had elsewhere. For too long the progressive deterioration of working life in academia has been enabled by a fear of unemployment: we’ve convinced ourselves that the skills we’ve acquired are useless anywhere else. But the current exodus of life scientists from academia and into industry and adjacent positions already gives the lie to this notion, and shows that people are finally willing to call bullshit on unhealthy career options. The more people who leave, or who are willing to leave, makes it easier to enact change. 

Ironically, it’s “proper jobs” that we now need. The 9-to-5 is what makes a work/life balance possible. It means there can be time with our friends, time with our families, time with our kids.

And there’s a funny parallel emerging in all this. The defining feature of a hobby is that it’s something you pursue at your own pace: if you don’t want to do it today, you can do it tomorrow.

So could science be more like a hobby again, could it be more fun, if we treated it as a job instead of a vocation?

This posting developed in conversation with Graham Warren and Jon Scholefield.

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