12 October 2009

Face it: Being a scientist can really rock

FreedomLast week, I wrote a post about how many obstacles there are to creating a research career. My colleague Dr. Farris rightfully took me to task, asking, “Seriously though, in how many other ways does this job rock?”

And, as if on cue, I learn that CNN Money has a list of the best jobs in the U.S., and lists “professor” as #3. (Their clich├ęd choice of picture annoys me, though: A tweed coat?)

The major benefit of the job that is listed is one I heartily agree with: freedom. In fact, it’s so far ahead of everything else that the other listed advantages look utterly lame. Does anyone enter a career for a free gym memberships and a library card?

Not all scientists are academics, and the freedom academics enjoy are perhaps not as great as for people working in industry or government. But there’s still great things about being a scientist.

You get to work with a lot of very, very smart people. It’s fantastic to be around people who are smart. They bring up your game, keep you honest, and help you catch mistakes before you make them.

Many of us are fortunate enough to travel as part of the job. Conferences are often held in great locations. Some of us get lucky enough to live in places we wouldn’t otherwise have had a chance to experience, for degrees or post-docs.

You get the satisfaction of making a contribution, particularly a long-term contribution. One researcher I talked to at the U.S. Department of Agriculture said how much he enjoyed solving real, tangible, immediate problems on a daily basis. It’s the same generosity and desire to help that leads people to be firemen, police, or audition for the Legion of Super-Heroes, but with less physical danger and a more relaxed dress code. (Though there are some scientists who would look spiffing in a cape.)

Being able to say that you made a permanent contribution to your field, or permanently solving a problem, is probably one of the more satisfying about being a scientist. Yes, it’s long, tedious hard work to find out new truths about nature, but once you’ve got it... it’s there for keeps.

Photo by user Sacrifice_87 on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

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