20 May 2010

Are scientists lonely?

Jason Goldman started this post by asking, “Does science life engender loneliness?”

I said yes, for academic scientists, who I have had the most opportunities to observe. I don’t know if some of these things are as true for scientists who work outside of the traditional university system. Here are a few thoughts on why scientific careers might contribute to a feeling of loneliness.

The entire educational and career structure is very centered on individual achievement. You don’t get a doctorate for a group effort; it represents an individual’s unique contribution to the scientific discipline.

The number of academic positions in a field is typically small. This means that for much of your early career, you have to move often far away, often frequently. While I personally found there to be great opportunities in living in other places, there is definitely potential for terrible isolation when moving to a new location. And even when the moving stops, scientists might end up in locations far from what they consider home, and may experience cultural isolation.

Major decisions about your career success are made by anonymous strangers far from you, namely people who peer review your grants and publications. You can’t meet them, talk to them, or have conversations with them.

Then, you only have to look at the reams and reams of science blogs out there that talk about the pressure to do more. More publications, more students, more grant proposals. People are always talking about work / life balance, and making jokes like, “The best thing about being a professor is that you get to work whatever eighteen hours of the day you want.”

And the perverse thing is, in science, there is almost no point of diminishing returns on data collection. More time spent at the bench or desk means more data, more papers, more proposals. Time in the lab means less time for friendships, unless your friends are in the lab. Maybe even a long term relationship might develop from that...

Indeed, most people’s main ally in the fight against loneliness is a supportive partner. But academia’s response to husbands, wives, and partners is summed up by the phrase, “two body problem.” Yes, the emphasis is deliberate. When you have an oblique phrase like that, which most academics know, it’s a strong indicator that academia is not friendly to partners.

Jason pointed out that other professions work long hours. This is true, but in other jobs, people know what you do. The idea of grad student trying to explain their thesis research to mom and dad is a recurring joke (here’s one). A scientist might be in a department where she is the only one with the knowledge to seriously tackle a problem. A plant physiologist is probably not going to be able to get help from the virologist colleague down the hall on a research problem, even though they may be good colleagues.

And while the online science community can be very helpful, there’s still nothing like hallway collaborations. When you can get them.

So are all us scientists social orphans? No. But all these aspects of academic science makes the career indifferent to hostile to people’s abilities to form social relationships.

Additional: This post on Academic Ecology discusses the reality of being a spousal “accommodation,” as such things are often euphemistically known.

More additional: The World’s Fair asks how people respond when you say you’re a scientist in this post; see the discussion, too.


scicurious said...

I think I agree with a lot of this post, but talking it over with Mr. S last night raised some interesting points as well. First off, he mentioned that it seems like we spend a lot of our days alone at the bench or at the computer screen, and we DO, but that's not all that different from other professions. Additionally, other professions will often get shunted around, moved to other locations, willy nilly, and I am very sure their significant others are not accounted for in that any more in academia.

Where I think science differs is the problem of the "more, more, more" that you mentioned. You can always do more, and academia both explicitly and implicitly encourages ridiculous working hours and a total lack of work/life balance. I also think academia differs in the expectation that you will move, and I mean MOVE every 4-6 years to pursue the next aspect of your career.

I also wonder, though, if science doesn't attract people who are more likely to end up a little lonely. Science is more than a career for most people, it's a passion, and it's very hard for people outside of science to understand the drive to work ridiculous hours and the need to always do more. And that, plus the institutionalization of overachievement may contribute a great deal of loneliness.

hmul012 said...

One of the big reasons why I wont pursue research any further ( currently I am an MPhil student who cant wait to finish) .. There are far better (in my opinion anyway) science related jobs .. Science communication/ journo/ PR which arent so isolating, flexible, interdiscliplinary and MORE FUN!

But then again,, do what you LOVE and youll automatically love what you do, even if its a tad isolating..