Is it worth it?
A few days ago I came home for lunch and had one of the biggest melt downs I’ve had in ages. Not one of those little tearies that might happen after you stub your toe, but a full on, family pet died kind of crying session. Why? Because I could not solve a problem at work. All morning I had tried and tried to fix this small issue, and it simply would not budge. I was frustrated at myself and the world, and the only non-violent way to deal with it was to cry. Don’t tell Tim Hunt.
After some hugs and some food (both of which help most situations), I was able to go back to work, ask for some more help, and get to the bottom of my problem. Of course, at the bottom of that problem was two more problems, but that’s the way things go.
However, I did wonder why this problem had gotten me so worked up. Was it really worth crying over? Obviously, getting that upset at or about work is not great, regardless of your gender or vocation. I know I’m not the only person, whether they are in academia or not, who needs a little cry in the work bathroom every now and again, or who takes the stresses and strains from work home with them.
But in academia especially, there seems to be a culture that rewards extreme dedication, like responding to emails on a Saturday night, or staying at work until 10pm, or giving 110% to every task that you do. Regardless of whether or not you are trained to do it.
Now of course, to be a good scientist, I believe, you need to be determined, passionate about your work and probably a little bit stubborn and/or crazy. If you aren’t going to be passionate about what you study, then who will? And one of the great things about being in research is that you get to learn new things all the time. In fact, I remember a paper stuck on the wall at my old uni that suggests feeling stupid is an essential part of being a scientist. If you stop learning in any job really, then it’s probably time to leave.
Does this mean by extension that if you treat your scientific job as a 9–5, and don’t take it home with you unless you absolutely have to, are you a failure? Or if you have the luxury of outsourcing any part of your research to more skilled individuals that you are not good enough?
This question feels particularly pertinent as an early career scientist. Every week I seem to read a new article about the sucky nature of being a postdoc, and how hard it is to find work in research. That terrifies me into thinking that I’m actually not working hard enough, and that I should be crying more! But is it really worth it?
A good friend who is not a researcher once told me, when I was questioning the contribution that my research makes to society, that academics are a valuable community resource. Not everyone has time to read all those papers and learn all those things, and so academics take on the position of knowledge keepers in a way. That thought really heartened me as I went back to my office to muddle through some confusing code and respond to some administrative emails.
Because that’s the thing isn’t it? We researchers don’t spend all our time communicating what we have learnt and being a useful resource. We don’t even spend all our time doing science!
Perhaps I am generalising here, but most of us, especially in the climate science field, spend large chunks of our time on things that are only sort of related to the work we want to do. Science-adjacent tasks. These things generally include paperwork, upskilling in technical languages, and data preparation. A colleague recently estimated that she spends around 60% of her time accessing and preparing climate data for analysis. My problem of the other day was related to combining two datasets. Nothing to do with assessing their quality, nothing to do with what they could tell us about the weather and climate, just mooshing them together.
If I was a trained computer programmer, or had 10 years of experience in my current programming language, then this would have taken 10 minutes. But I am not, and only have 6 months of experience in my current language. Yes, it is very satisfying learning how to program, learning different methods of dealing with data and solving problems. But again I have to ask, it is worth it? Is it the best use of time and resources for me to struggle through doing tasks that I find very difficult, but that even someone partially proficient in that field could do easily? I know you need to work hard to grow and develop as a person and a scientist, but if I move universities or another better language comes along, aren’t I just going to have the same problem? And isn’t that problem related more to science-adjacent work, rather than actual science?
Maybe when I got upset the other day it wasn’t just that I was frustrated at my coding problem, or too hungry to realise that I was hungry at all. Maybe it was that I became afraid that this was the reality of research life. That I was toiling away, neglecting my partner, friends and family, just to bang my head against a problem that I was not trained for, instead of addressing problems that I got into research to solve.
Or, even more likely, I was afraid that I did not have the determination to commit to this seemingly inefficient method of working, and was not good enough to be a scientist at all.
Or perhaps I just need to lighten up, and eat my lunch earlier.
I don’t know.
What I do know that I have had Missy Elliott’s catchy question in my head for a week now, and I still don’t have an answer.
So what do you think? Honestly, really, is it worth it?