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Tooling Up: For Love--or Money?

There has been a great deal of parental career advice handed down over the years to young sons and daughters. Some of it goes like this: "Whatever you decide to do with your life, make sure it's something practical. You want to be able to make a good living for yourself and your family." I took a different tack as my son headed off to college a few months ago: "We don't care what you are setting out to study; just make sure it's something you love."

I was sincere, as I am sure all parents are. I really do hope that my son finds and follows his "bliss" in life, as Joseph Campbell put it. I hope he finds something to do that grows out of a personal passion.

Yet I fear that he will end up taking my advice too literally. Most young people have times when they're not flush, and that's okay. But I don't want my son to be a permanently starving artist--or starving scientist. My guess is that most people who have given this advice to their children hope they'll find a job that leads to some serious pocket change. We want our children to have love and money.

Is there a conflict here? Can you remain true to your inner love of science while still earning a decent living--something that is almost required in today's world of high rents and home ownership?

While researching this month's topic, I found that this question revealed a large gap between two competing approaches to scientific careers. On one hand are those who say that money shouldn't be considered at all. These are the science "purists" who believe they should be focused totally on the elaboration of their question, and that income is a secondary consideration that--hopefully--will take care of itself.

On the other hand, some people have taken what they learned in their science training and applied it in ways that maximize their opportunity not just to learn but also to earn. Those who pursue money see science as a means to an end; those who are motivated by their passion for science view it as an end in itself, too worthy of respect (and/or affection) to consider exploiting for crass financial advantage.

Is a desire to make money damaging the priesthood?

"There's no way I'd be interested in an industry position," a third-year postdoc told me a few months ago after an afternoon career workshop. "I'd be selling out what got me into science in the first place, and no company is going to allow me to pursue my question on their turf. I'm just not interested in sacrificing my integrity for a few more dollars."

Another postdoc, Ken, has an industrial position in the Bay area of San Francisco, one of the country's most expensive places to live. Ken is attuned to the advantages of balancing the best science with the bills that keep coming every month. "From my experience, there is too much of a priesthood in science where the upper level of the clergy tells the budding monks that they should think not of the material world," he says. "If you are thinking about money, then you can't be a true scientist. Well, that might work fine when you are 23, but when you are nearing 30 and see that you have no savings and are living hand to mouth, it's of little comfort."

Ken obviously has given the issue a lot of thought. "Many of the most revered scientists throughout history were not concerned about financial gain for the simple reason that they were born into nobility and money. Darwin didn't get on that boat because he was so interested in science; he was avoiding becoming a clergyman. Tycho Brahe, Copernicus, Newton, Niels Bohr, and others. ... Not to take anything away from these guys, but they didn't have to cloud their heads with concerns about mortgage payments. So, to reverentially hold these scientists up for putting their science above their concerns about the rest of their life seems disingenuous."

So how does Ken feel about this now that he's experienced both science he loves and science-for-profit? He's formed his own philosophy, something that everyone must do sooner or later. "Finances should be a part of but not the sum total of one's decision," he says. "You've got to ask yourself 'What do I love to do?' while at the same time: 'Can I support myself doing it?' " Such a healthy balance of pragmatism and idealism will probably work for most people.

Fixating on extremes

Cory, a principal scientist at an industry diagnostics company, notes that many of us get emotional when we discuss making money. He thinks it's because we tend to consider the issue only in terms of extremes. " 'Show me the money' or 'do what you love' are both compelling philosophies, ... but they are loaded with cultural myth," he says. "There is an underlying generalization that those who chase money are destined for lives of dissatisfying self-gratification, while those who follow their hearts will be rewarded either with peace of heart or financial riches that flow in proportion to the passion with which they pursue their dreams." Little of this is true, he adds, for the majority of scientists.

"Poverty is another loaded word," Cory says, while pointing out that most scientists on both sides of the "love or money" question live better than 99% of the world's inhabitants. "I don't say this to lay on a guilt trip--rather, [it's] just to point out that when this topic gets carried to the extremes, it gets harder to make a case."

Is a job that pays $100,000 a year really a bad thing?

A recent post on the Science Careers Discussion Forum provides a clear illustration of how people tend to embrace extremes in dealing with this issue. "I've had it with Mac and Cheese and holding back on the things I feel I need, whether it's the latest iPod or a present out of the blue for my significant other," wrote this postdoc. "I'm going to take what ... I can do and sell it to the highest bidder. I don't think I'd ever enjoy any job all that much, so I might as well find the one that can earn me the most return on my investment of time."

This comment, I think, reflects the frustration many young scientists feel with the monastic-scientist approach after--or in the midst of--those extended postdoc years. And it's doubtful that books with titles like Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow: Discovering Your Right Livelihood--the old career counselor's classic, by Marsha Sineta--would have any real impact on a person who feels the pinch of 5 or 6 years of frustratingly low income.

The puritanical reverence some people have for science may be a good thing, but it can sometimes lead to bad career choices. It's astonishing how often scientists who "sell out"--who give up the scientific altar (the academic bench) and its vow of poverty for something less "noble"--end up enjoying their work and finding it deeply rewarding. I've seen this time and again: for example, the scientist who takes a job in quality control for a pharmaceutical company and is surprised by how fascinating the field is. Okay, so it's not the scientific priesthood, but it pays well and they end up liking what they do! I know many people who took jobs that pay well and then unexpectedly fell in love with their careers after discovering that they didn't really have to compromise all that much. A love of science, they realize, can be consummated in different ways.

Here are four examples of people I've known who have made this transition and found situations that allow them to earn a good living as well as love their work:

Tracy began as an industry researcher and within a year had moved to the drug-discovery department at her pharma employer. Within about 5 years, she had crossed the $100,000-per-year milestone.

Phillip started as an industry researcher but quickly moved away from bench science into process development. He became an expert in cell-culture media for the firm's bioprocessing department. He reached his goal of earning $100,000 a year after 3 or 4 years of employment.

Marta took a part-time job in her university tech-transfer office and used it to transition into business development in a biotechnology company. She was earning $100,000 within 3 years.

Ashwin began as an applications scientist for a company that sells instruments and reagents to other scientists. He made the transition to sales and marketing. Ashwin had a $100,000 annual income just 3 years after discovering that his sales job made him love getting up in the morning to go to work.

An intensely personal decision

Ashwin's experience highlights a common thread in the whole "love or money" calculation. It's doubtful that any of these four people would be earning such a good salary if they didn't love what they were doing enough to work hard at it. In this sense at least, these two things that many hold in opposition--love and money--do indeed go together.

But even if love and money are not perfect bedfellows--and they're not--both are essential, to some degree, for most people's happiness. We need to have that love and passion for our work, as well as recognition that money is necessary to pursue the dream in the first place. After all, as Ken pointed out, few of us are born into the elite class from which many well-known scientific names of the past have sprung. We have to make a living while we're making a life for ourselves.