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Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Secret Passions of Scientists

Extract from Science (31 March 2006)
Face the bitter truth: Scientists have a reputation, undeserved of course, for being humorless, overly analytic, controlling, antisocial, competitive, arrogant, elitist, obsessive workaholics.
What’s that old adage? You can’t judge a book by its cover, and you can’t judge scientists by their lab coats, or by their day jobs. When you spend quality time with scientists outside the laboratory, rich personalities emerge, and you may be startled by what you discover. They can be just like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
In some instances, an overabundance of passion outside the lab can be a smokescreen for something else. A senior faculty member may become bored and frustrated with work and increasingly spend more time moonlighting rather than working on research or mentoring students. Or a young scientist may question his or her career ambition and realize it isn’t turning out as expected. When the balance tips too far in the direction of avocation versus vocation, it may be a warning sign of burnout.
If a vacation away from it all doesn’t solve the issue, perhaps it is time to take a hard look at the situation. By speaking to your supervisor, you may find ways to realign your work so it is more satisfying and put your career development back on track. Some situations may be so serious, though, that you may need to change jobs or change careers. The Web site of Texas A&M University offers some excellent tips for recognizing and resolving job burnout.
In my nonsystematic, nonquantitative research for this article, a few trends emerged. First, only one woman came forth to describe her after-hours passion. (She teaches a Pilates class at the YMCA every Wednesday night to help pay for her family’s membership.) Are female scientists too busy balancing family and career to have leisure pursuits? Perhaps they feel they can't admit that they have other hobbies, lest their colleagues conclude that they aren't serious about their work?
Second, the majority of scientists who "came out of the closet" tended to be senior, already accomplished in their fields. Does that mean that trainees and more junior faculty are too busy building and competing, so that their true passions can only be expressed during their careers' twilight years? Or maybe younger scientists just haven't yet reached the point at which they need to turn away from their work to find satisfaction?

Irene S. Levine


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