Scientist as a Career

May 16, 2015
All that data crunching

Students are attracted to careers in academic science because of their interest in the subject rather than for financial reward. But then they hear messages that make them think twice about this career choice. It is difficult to find a job: “Hear about Joe? Three publications as a postdoc and still no job offers.” The NIH pay line is low: “Poor Patricia, she is now on her third submission of her first NIH grant.” Publishing is painful: “Felix's grad school thesis work has been rejected by three journals!” Academic jobs are demanding: “Cathy has spent her last three weekends writing grants rather than being with her family.”

Such scenarios do take place, but if you think that this is what a career in academic science is about, then you need to hear the other side of the story. And this is the purpose of this article—a chance to reflect on the many good things about the academic profession. In the classic movie It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey is at the point of despair but regains his confidence through the wisdom and perspective of a guardian angel, Clarence. Doubt and setbacks also are bound to happen in science (as is true of other careers), but pessimism should not rule the day. It is a great profession and there are many happy endings. I would like to share my top ten reasons of why being an academic professor is a “wonderful life, ” one that bright and motivated young people should continue to aspire to pursue.

Before I share my list of reasons, I should add a few disclaimers. First, I do not want to suggest that being an academic scientist (my job) is the “pinnacle of happiness”; it is hard work and not the right choice for everyone. There are many other career paths that are enriching and rewarding. Every profession has its own virtues, and each person should gravitate to a job that fits their own motivations and life style. The important point is finding passion in one's job, whatever it might be.

As a second disclaimer, I am a senior scientist whose career has gone well so far. Some readers may say: “Vale is a successful, well-funded scientist; it is easy for him to be upbeat and positive.” While success and job stability naturally contribute to positive thinking, there are broader reasons for optimism beyond my own personal situation. I also was just as happy doing biology as a student as I am now as a successful senior scientist. And success stories are not a thing of the past. I still see young people in my lab and elsewhere obtaining good jobs and being happy in their careers.

As a third disclaimer, not everything about my job is “fabulous” and not every day is “wonderful.” Tedious assignments and some element of insecurity are unavoidable in any job. This article is an opportunity to celebrate the positives, which more than compensate for the negatives.

Now on to my top ten reasons why “I love my job.” My remarks are mainly intended for younger scientists, who are anxious to know what awaits them and perhaps are searching for reasons why they should persevere through their training. The order of this list should not convey significance: reason 10 is not less important than 1. The list is not universal. My senior colleagues might identify with some of these points, disagree with others, and perhaps find some positives missing.

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