There is something seductive about the scientific profession: it exerts a gravity so powerful that it can hoover all of the surrounding universe into its warped perspective. If you have your heart set on being a scientist, you set off on that journey with unwavering focus. Twenty years later you might look up and realize that you still don’t have a proper job, but somehow that’s ok, because there is nothing else in the world that you could possibly do.
Do you recognize this mindset? I certainly do. Until about fifteen years ago, that was me, barreling down a path that had no forks and certainly no exit ramps. At its beginning was a PhD, and at its end, a permanent lab head position in academia – cue fuzzy-focus shot of a bright-white space full of gleaming equipment and happy young people. In the middle of this tableau, an older me, perched on a stool, brow furled intrepidly as I’m presented a perplexing result, like some sacred offering, by one of the younger people. The phone rings, and someone else rushes over, picks up the receiver and chirps, “Rohn lab!”
Well, life does not always work out as expected. In the biological sciences, the vast majority of PhD students cannot ever run their own research group, simply because there are not enough spaces for them. A lab head churns out many dozens of replacements over a long career stretch, but there will be only one position available when he retires – if that position is not made redundant. In the UK, the Royal Society has estimated that, of PhD students produced, only 3.5% will secure some sort of permanent research position in academia and just 0.45% will become full professors.
So what does this mean for the 96% of scientists who leave academia to do other things – research in industry, science-related jobs like patent law or science publishing, or non-science employment altogether? What 96% of a group does can no longer be seen as an aberration: it is actually the norm. And what awaits them outside academia? Often, it is job security, a much higher salary and better work-life balance – frequently, a profession every bit as worthy and complex as the one they left behind. Many find it is only the beginning of an epiphany: the start of a more fulfilling life where effort in equals effort out; where one’s efforts are vastly more respected and valued; where the difference that you can make is gratifyingly quick and tangible.
But in the midst of the vortex that is academic science, such defectors are often viewed as a failure. Because if it’s not academic science, then it’s not the universe, right? These wayward souls have sailed right off the edge of the map into serpent-infested waters.
My second novel, The Honest Look, follows a turbulent few months in life of Claire, a scientist who is torn between science and doing something else. I have found that her story resonates with many people, both in and out of the profession. But there is a peculiar subset of academic scientist who takes a strong objection to the novel’s ending (and if you don’t want to know what it is, the rest of this post discusses a major spoiler). A recent discussion of my novel, which was otherwise very strongly positive, closed with the following remark:
One caveat, however. The protagonist, like the author, is both a scientist and a writer — a poet. In fact, the poet seems more carefully described, with wonderful passages on the process of creating poetry. This is certainly not a problem in itself; except that the poet-protagonist wins out over scientist-protagonist in the end. As such, the message might be taken (especially by young readers inclined both toward the sciences and toward the arts) as an endorsement of the arts over the sciences. Or, to put this another way, you can do poetry and be a “lone genius,” but do science and you may find yourself amidst all of the, well, nasty stuff that the novel portrays so well.
Is this the message we would want our youngsters to take away from the novel?
I find this view utterly fascinating. Leaving aside that fiction is meant to be work of art itself, not a propaganda tool for career advisors, what are we to make of his concern? If I interpret this person’s view correctly, the choice of the arts over the sciences is not only a betrayal, but describing it is also a bad influence on the impressionable young. It is not the first time I’ve heard this criticism of the ending – others, always scientists, have seen Claire’s choice as a disappointing “failure”, as turning away from the “right” path to something that is more lightweight, more flimsy, less worthy of her talent and effort.
Personally, I would turn the question around in two different ways. First, is it correct to suggest that science is superior to the arts, and that to choose the latter makes you somehow a lesser person? Is the universe that brought us miraculous works of music, verse, paint and prose any less aspirational to a civilized society than the scientific one?
And second, in the unlikely event that one were writing a novel as propaganda, would it be ethical to leave our youngsters with the impression that there is a scientific job for even a tiny fraction of every talented person who wants one? Is it right to lure them into a profession that does not want most of them long-term – which leverages them dispassionately as cheap, disposable labor that can be wrung out and thrown aside when they grow too old and expensive? When one of the legion of talented young people decides to, or is forced to, leave the fold, is this an uncomfortable fact that we should try to cover up? Or is saying goodbye actually an integral part of the lore and fabric of the scientific profession, as indispensable to our campfire tales as the eureka moment, or the brilliant theory that got away?