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Why not academic careers?

Karen Lona Allendoerfer ka143 at columbia.edu
Tue Apr 7 10:25:18 EST 1998

Susan Forsburg wrote:

>Karen, I think you are placing too much value on what is "interesting".

I agree very much that someone is placing too much value on "what is
interesting", but I don't think it's me (or you).  I was specifically
writing about grant funding agencies and people who read papers.  The
question was only of moderate value to me until the lab ran into financial
difficulties, and then getting a grant took on quite a lot of importance.
It's becoming of value to me again as I am writing up and trying to publish
a paper.

I recall several
>reviews I got on a particular grant proposal.  One reviewer
>stated, basically, that the proposal was very competent but not
>very original.  Another stated that it is was an extremely original
>approach to a neglected problem.  Same proposal, same problem.

Did it get funded?  This difference of opinions can be kind of amusing when
the proposal is funded anyway.  When the proposal is not funded because
it's not interesting enough, then it starts to be less amusing.

>Personally I think that people in pursuit of the "interesting"
>are slaves to science fashion, which is about as bad
>as being slaves to clothing fashion.  Some of the most important
>papers in any field are the ones published in the minor journals,
>because they precede the fashion--and they really do something
>important!  Those pursuing the "interesting" forget that
>the primary job of the scientist is to disprove models,
>not support the received wisdom.  They play it cautiously,
>and it is usually the cautious (and the well connected) who
>publish in the glossy journals.

Susan, this is wonderful, idealistic, science at its best.  It is why I
have stuck with this project for several years.  I think what I am doing is
a neglected area that has a chance of being quite important.  And it is
also why I try hard not to play the "this isn't interesting" game with

> However, there
>is a mirror-image of your concern about the "interesting" in
>biotech as well.  Someone above you decides the area you are studying
>isn't relevant to the company's mission any more, and you can come
>in in the morning to find you are doing something completely
>different--or even to find you are out of a job (happened to
>someone I know).

As I've written in response to a few other people on this thread, I guess
it never really occurred to me that it would be necessarily bad to have
your project changed. There might actually be good reasons for its
changing.  And might a person not be just as likely to be happy that
they've been taken off a loser and put on something more likely to be
successful, as to be upset?  And if one is that upset about it, maybe there
was too much ego and self-esteem invested in a specific project anyway.
I've found that it doesn't really lead to happiness as a scientist to have
one's self-esteem so dependent on a particular gene, a particular system,
or a particular outcome.  One is more likely to feel good about oneself and
one's choices if one has a broad definition of success.  Finding oneself
out of a job is for sure quite annoying, but that seems quite comparable
to, rather than different from, not getting a grant and/or not getting

On the other hand, I'd like to apologize if I'm drifting at all into an
"industry vs. academia" mindset.  I don't want to do that, because I don't
think an adversarial mindset does any of us any good.  I don't think that,
at core, one is better than the other, although in the academic circles
that I've travelled I've heard more than my share of
pro-academia/anti-industry bias (and may have a chip on my shoulder because
of it).  There ought to be room for all of us to succeed, to help each
other, and to rejoice in each other's successes.


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