The Fringe Benefits of Working as a Scientist


Life as a scientist - thank goodness - is not just an express journey characterised by nothing but unrelenting pressure and non-stop stress. As busy, overworked, and underpaid as we scientists often feel ourselves to be, we would do well to remember that we still enjoy some working conditions that are not a given in other professional workplaces. True, we might not have nice bonuses or many of the other benefits that more commercially employed citizens have, but we may have very some real - if not so obvious - fringe benefits.

It is crucial to mention that, unfortunately, the benefits I'm talking about are not a feature of every postdoc job. In fact, some postdocs are treated with little or no respect and come close to being chained to the lab bench by their bosses under a tacit threat of expulsion on a daily basis. But for the rest of us, being a postdoc is a pretty good gig. Assuming we have a decent employer in the first place, what are these mysterious advantages?

1. Flexible working hours. Few labs are run as strict 9 to 5 enterprises. Most of us fortunate postdocs decide for ourselves roughly when we turn up for work and when we clock off. Our bosses will only usually get twitchy if we regularly arrive late and leave early. We just have to get the work done, whatever the hour of the day or night. Here's a tip for those of you who habitually leave the house before breakfast and get home just in time for a late night film: get a life. Flexibility is great, but only if you take advantage of it. You have to be able to sustain your effort over the long haul.

2. An absent boss. Our bosses are a particularly well-travelled bunch, what with conferences, seminars, workshops, committee meetings, collaborator's labs and the like. Most of us experience a level of independence from our overseers that many other professionals, whose bosses are constantly breathing down their necks, would envy.

3. Relatively slow motion. Even given the very real pressure of meeting grant and manuscript-revision deadlines, science moves quite slowly compared to other areas of work. You might think you are under pressure to publish your new paper, but you usually have a window of at least several months - sometimes years - before anyone is likely to scoop your work. Articles like the one you're reading have to meet a tighter deadline.

4. Freedom to follow your instincts. This is not true in big hungry groups run by power-mad despots, but, putting that rather sad point aside, most of us enjoy a high degree of intellectual freedom in our work. We postdocs often find ourselves in the driver's seat and usually act as partners with our bosses in deciding where to turn.

5. Knowledge monopoly. As a scientist, you are a specialist, an expert in your field, at least in a local sense. This both isolates you from your peers and draws them to you, seeking your insight. It also means that some people have no idea whether you know what you are talking about. This specialisation gives you a little intellectual breathing space. In other fast-moving professions, where everyone is supposed to know the same stuff, you have to keep up with the pack, since the prize goes to the most eager and up-to-date information hunter?or the one who is most successful at demonstrating his knowledge to the right people. Scientists are likely to be in-house experts in a subject or technique in their own place of work.

6. Peace and quiet. Even if you have a plethora of expectant students to deal with, at least you don't have to face angry customers complaining about your level of service. In a day-to-day practical sense, few people know exactly what you are doing or, sometimes, even where you are. Many of us tackle technical challenges that demand that we work quietly for a couple of hours or more. You get to experience the satisfaction of being treated like a mature professional whilst you get quietly on with your work. And for most of us, no inquisition takes place on your 'return' to the lab. Mobile sales representatives have told me that this feeling of freedom is a real plus in their sometimes-isolated working life. We are paid to concentrate on fiddly things and think really hard, and having time set aside to working in this way is a luxury missing in most professions.

7. United Nations. As a postdoc you probably work in an international environment. You get the opportunity to meet and befriend people of many different nationalities which is fun. In the process, you also recognise that you belong to a much bigger, global effort.

You might not value all of these fringe work benefits of scientific research, and you may not even share them if you're working for one of those power-mad control-freak despots. Then again, some of you could probably think up a few more. But whatever the final list looks like, we postdocs--even the ones with employers who are fair, smart managers--are still usually pretty good at whinging about our lack of job security and career structure.

Just for a change we could try focusing our attention on how fortunate we are compared to people in some other professions who work under immense, life-threatening time pressures, answer phone calls from irate clients, need to explain a 5 minute absence from their desk, or worse. Combine that with the fact that most of us are in the business because we love "doing science," and it really ain't all that bad. Thinking about your own profession's plusses is a real motivator to crack on with your work. Not giving it your best in science might lead to a working life spent under less favourable conditions. Believe me, I've been there.

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