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Scientific Culture

Paula Jean Schlax pschlax at abacus.bates.edu
Fri Apr 28 03:53:10 EST 2000

 We're asking the wrong questions right now I think.  It seems as if we are asking
"whose life is "better", "harder", more or less rewarding, more or less
important?". The bottom line is that for many, a career in science appears to
involve 60-80 hours of work each week regardless of the point one is in ones
life.  A question that should be asked is "Is that really necessary for productive

My gut instinct tells me that those hours are necessary for one to be able to
remain in the scientific field.  We are in a competitive environment. Despite all
of the ranting that there aren't enough people to fill technology jobs, there is a
post-doc glut in many of the sciences. To get a job, not the perfect job, just a
job, often means that an individual needs to stand out. To get a grant, after you
have the job, you also need to stand out. The big question is what does "standing
out" mean? Does it mean "works well with others", works very hard, is well
organized or other things? Often it means one needs to do all of those things and
more well. "Works hard" normally translates into working  60-80 hours a week. It's
a given- if you put in the time, you earn the gold star in the category- more gold
stars, more likely to be competive for grants, jobs, promotion  and tenure. We are
all smart, and all dedicated, right, we're comparing 95th percentile with 98th and
we can only give 25% of the people funding......In class, we would all have A's,
but in real life there is a curve.

We *are* often competing with our lab mates as grad students and postdocs to be in
the highest recommendation category; we are competing with our peers to be
excellent or outstanding on our grant applications.   Working together is a a
valuable skill, and can help a project go quickly and smoothly, however, it isn't
always justly rewarded.   Although I strongly believe that collaborative efforts
can be much more productive than individual efforts, I don't believe that is the
culture most of us work under. First authorship is a reward, and it is infrequent
to have "co first authors".

Would changing the way funding occurs in the sciences change the work culture? I
don't know. Would fewer grad students entering grad school affect the process?
Again I am not sure. Would fostering  more collaborative efforts change the work
culture? Maybe.

We feel guilty when we have to leave work for a personal reason partly because we
know that our jobs and our futures might depend on running one more gel today.
We're in a competitive environment, and if we want to have a real life too, I
believe we have to determine which division we can compete sucessfully in. Making
choices about marriage, children, dance, music, athletics and what part of one's
life they will play affects the decision. If we want well rounded scientists, and
I think we do, we need to change the culture. I just don't know how to do it.


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