Job or vocation

I have recently been doing a bit of live on-line virtual commentating. Strange but true.

I’m not sure exactly why. Perhaps it is another of my frustrated ambitions to be a sports commentator (of which more later). Or an online journalist.

Or perhaps it’s just an excuse for not blogging.  *Coughs*

Note: those who are not chess enthusiasts may wish to skip the next two paragraphs.

Anyway, this last week I have been supplying some spontaneous as-it-happens online updates on the games of the World Chess Championship final eliminator match. The six-game match  was between the Israeli (and former Russian) Grandmaster Boris Gelfand, something of a chess veteran at nearly 43, and and the much younger Russian GM, former child prodigy and rising star Alexander Grischuk. I was following the games live online (chess and the internet turn out to be rather a good mix for this) and found myself supplying “Sit-Rep” updates on my favourite English chess internet forum.

For my small number of chess-enthusiast readers (I can think of three, but then again that’s probably half the regular readers of this blog) here are links to where you can find my comments on Game 2, Game 5 and the final, and decisive, Game 6 (start at the first comment and carry on down the thread). Gelfand’s narrow victory means that next year’s World Chess Championship match will be contested between two players over 40. This has, understandably, been a popular result with chess players over 40.

Anyway, enough chess. Why am I telling you this?

Well, the reason is that in a roundabout way it got me thinking, again, about the difference between having a job, and having what one might term “a vocation”.

To state the obvious: for most scientists who work in laboratories, especially over an extended period, science is more than just a job.

Some express this by telling you science is “their hobby” as well as their job.

Others express their obsession – and for many it is certainly close to that – in a different way. One question I used to ask my friends who had made “Principal Investigator” (PI or lab head), usually in the pub after a few beers, was what they would do if they won several million pounds in the lottery tomorrow.

Would they keep working at the University?

Rarely, if ever, did any of them say they would quit work. Or even work at something else.

A more typical response was from the yeast molecular biologist who told me:

“Well, I’d buy a nicer house, of course. And I’d stop taking any salary from the University. But I’d keep coming to work – of course I’d keep the lab. It’d be great to live off the interest on the winnings and just do the research full-time – not having to please anyone else by doing any teaching or administration. That’d be brilliant”.

Now that, I would say, is what would be called – were it medicine, for instance – a vocation.

Or how about the following story:

Around a dozen years ago now, I attended a FASEB Summer Research Conference in Colorado. These were/are small events (less than 200 participants), a bit like the perhaps better-known Gordon Conferences, and taking place in the Summer in the empty ski resorts of the rockies (and now in other locations too). The Calcium one I attended ran (and may well still run) biennially, in alternate Summers to the Calcium Signalling Gordon Conference.

At these FASEB Summer meetings, like at the Gordon Conferences, it is a tradition to have an outdoors-y activity on at least one of the free afternoons. This activity usually seems to involve water, so at the Gordon Conferences in New England I have been canoeing a couple of times, as well as hiking. In the Rockies the equivalent watery activity was  whitewater rafting, and as this conference was in Snowmass Village, outside Aspen, it was rafting down the Roaring Fork River.

So, with eight of us in a raft, plus the guide, life-jackets on, off we went.

It turned out to be a rather ill-fated trip. Our guide (who was kind of a blowhard, in US parlance) soon managed to get us stuck fast on a big rock in mid-stream, with several metres of fast-flowing, and at least shoulder-deep, water on either side.

“Climb out onto the rock” he yelled “we gotta get out so we can float the raft off.”

Which we did. Unfortunately, his instructions didn’t extend to telling us ahead of time that we would have only a second or two to get back INTO the raft once it was un-stuck.

The predictable upshot of which was that off went the raft, with only half of the passengers in it – leaving me, and three other calcium types, stuck on the rock in mid-stream.

As we stood there wondering what to do, a raft appeared full of folk from a different conference.

“Jump!” they yelled.

Being the nearest to their raft, I did. Luckily I landed in the raft, rather than in the river, and on top of what I later discovered was a molecular microbiologist. I was a bit winded, but at least I avoided the fate of my three fellow maroon-ees. who eventually had to be thrown a rope and then wade/be hauled out to the riverbank through shoulder-to-head-high (and very cold) water.

After all this, you might think we, or at the the three that got a soaking, would have been excused the rest of the excursion – but no such luck. We all, it transpired, had to complete the trip. So back we went in our raft, with our guide, and off we went again.

Our guide sensed that he was not exactly Mister Popularity by this stage. So in true guide-leader style, he decided to get us involved in a game to foster team spirit and togetherness.

“Hey Guys” he yelled,  “I gotta really great game we can play. Everybody has to think of the TWO JOBS you’d most like to do in the world. You know, if you could do ANY JOB. Any job at all. Then we’ll go round the raft and people can say what theirs are. Best job wins!”

“OK – who wants to start?”

Cue silence.

Well, I am known for always being prepared to fill up conversational gaps with random verbal static. [This is known in the Elliott family as “Irritable Vowel Syndrome”]. So I piped up.

“Sports commentator on cricket on the radio. I said. “Or a cricket writer for the Guardian

And then we moved on to the next person.

Or rather – we didn’t.

I bet you can guess the punchline.

Yup. Not one single person out of the other seven scientists in the raft could think of a single job they would rather do that be a scientist. Any job at all.

Which helps to explain why I find it so tragic that – as we have discussed repeatedly here at Occam’s Typewriter, and before that on Nature Network – the supply of people who want to do scientific jobs, who have trained for many years to do them, who are really good at them, and who truly have a passion for them, far exceeds the supply of jobs there are for people to do science.

I think I would say that this is the biggest problem I have seen, close-up, over the course of my career in science.

What should, or could, be done about it, though, I have no idea. Perhaps other people do.


About Austin

Middle-aged grouchy white male. Hair greying but hasn't all fallen out yet. Spreading waistline ill-concealed by baggy jumper.Semi-extinguished physiology researcher turned teacher. Known for never shutting up. Father of two children (aged 6 and 2) who try to out-talk him. Some would call that Karmic Revenge.
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9 Responses to Job or vocation

  1. Steve Caplan says:

    Great story, Austin! Sounds to me like you should’ve told the guide that you wanted to be a substitute white water raft guide and tossed him over the side.

    If you haven’t already patented “irritable vowel syndrome”, then I’m definitely going to be plagiarizing you.

    I wholeheartedly agree with the idea put forth by many of your colleagues–if I had a personal fortune, I’d love to be able to do the same science I’m doing, without having to worry incessantly about funding issues, teaching and administration. That would be the perfect career. Of course I wouldn’t mind a little more travel, but that’s minor.

    As for chess, I’m definitely looking forward to reading your commentaries. One would think that in a noncontact sport like chess that age would actually be an advantage, lending experience that younger players cannot yet have attained. But I guess, as with any other sport, the intensity of the competition and training is so demanding, that players can only keep it up for a certain number of years. It sounds like that’s starting to happen to scientists as well…

  2. stephenemoss says:

    Like many, I am a bit of a science obsessive, but it was not always thus. For many years I harboured desires to be a professional musician, or more precisely, song-writer/composer. Whilst achieving modest success it was never enough to live on, and led merely to me being a bit of a late starter as a scientist.

    But I know what you mean about the cricket. I have often thought that Jonathan Agnew (@aggerscricket) probably has one of the best jobs on the planet. However, I have no complaints. As you point out, there are many people who would like to be scientists, and who could be very good scientists, but are denied the opportunity by an unhelpful career structure (as noted in Athene Donald’s recent blog).

    Good work with the chess!

  3. Austin says:

    Thanks for the comments.


    We might well have been tempted to toss the guide! Though Sylvia McLain, who used to be a professional raft guide, told me on Twitter that it was harder than it looks. Though she did say that a competent guide wouldn’t usually leave half the passengers on a rock in midstream…

    As far as I know I coined “Irritable Vowel Syndrome” completely independently, but I am not the only one – it even has an urban dictionary entry (though with a different usage), and there are lots of examples of the phrase on Google. So plagiarise away. And anyway, you can always just call it “research”. (Click the link if you don’t know the joke).

    Going on to things chess:

    Re age, there have always been chess players that lasted a long time at or near the top, going back to Emanuel Lasker, a famous example. Smyslov and Korchnoi are more modern ones. It seems to be mostly related to the desire to keep doing it, though that might have strongly related to financial need for some people, like Lasker. Conversely, people quit for reasons other than waning powers – Kasparov, for example, quit at the height of his powers fairly evidently because he was bored and felt he had nothing left to prove. We were talking about all this on the Chess Forum, and I quoted something Gelfand had said in an interview about age in chess – the original interview is here.

    Anyway, it gives all us chess-playing old farts hope.

    Re science having a similar “burn out” thing to chess, or to sports careers, that is an interesting one. I guess in some ways it always HAS had, as the people who have stopped “playing competitively” (doing competitive research) became primarily teachers. That is pretty much what has happened to me since I turned 40. I started as a “baby PI” very young, having had my first independent grant when I was twenty-six, and a big project grant and a share of a programme grant during my early 30s. So I guess I’ve had two “separate” careers in academia, first as a PI (late 20s and 30s), and then subsequently as an “Instructor” in the US sense (40s). If the UK Universites are really going to be having as tough a time as many people think, I may yet get the chance * Coughs* for an enforced 3rd career “beyond academia”.

    @ SteveM

    Had seen your various musical tweets/blogs, so realised you had a (folk-rock?) musical hinterland. How much time did you spend trying to make a living at it?

    And have you ever jammed with Cromercrox?


    @Both (More chess)

    The commentary was quite fun – gave me a chance to compare what I thought I’d seen in the game positions with the comments of the other “online kibitzers” on the forum, a fair few of whom are serious players (ECF 200-220, so USCF 2250-2400 ish). And of course you could also check against / crib from the online Grandmaster commentaries – the one I like was the one by GM Sergey Shipov, which someone was translating into English here.

    • @stephenemoss says:

      I’m amazed and impressed at your precocious start to getting grants. At 26 I had barely begun my PhD and was simply grateful that someone else had written the grant that provided me with a job. The music ‘biz’ kept me occupied right up to 2001, but during two decades with the band I never knowingly jammed with Cromercrox. It has now been many years, alas, since I received a royalty cheque, though with most of the albums available on iTunes I suspect the record company may still be making occasional sales.

      • The “grant at 26” thing isn’t nearly as impressive as it sounds, Steve. It was mainly an accident of circumstance, as I lucked into the Manchester job straight out of my PhD and was appointed as a lecturer with two published abstracts plus one paper “submitted” (really). Talk about the end of an era (!).

        Anyway, I arrived in M’cr aged 26-and-a-half, and still pending my PhD viva – and had to start writing grant proposals, since all the start-up money had mysteriously evaporated (! – a story for another time, perhaps). The BHF were merciful enough to fund me, essentially to keep doing the same stuff I’d been doing for my PhD… and so that is how I had a grant aged 26.

        Of course, it was all downhill from then on, as you could infer from the fact that twenty-four years on I still have exactly the same job title (!). I think they just keep me around as a kind of hideous example to the others – a bit like leaving the heads of the recently executed on Traitors Gate in Tudor times.

  4. Steve Caplan says:

    Just read in the US chess magazine “Chess Life” about a team tournament, where they gave a prize to the best NAME for a team. the team that won was called:

    “Chilean defense: no miner piece left behind”

  5. Great post!

    I wonder if it’s just a coincidence that both my PhD supervisor and postdoctoral adviser yearned for a lottery win to allow them to follow their true passion?! (Sailing / boat building, and wilderness hiking / cross-country skiing / kayaking, respectively). Speaking as someone who wouldn’t work another day in any job if I had enough money, maybe birds of a feather flock together? Any other aspiring sport commentators in your group?

    • Interesting thought, Cath – I haven’t actually tried the question round here lately. The UK situation is so grim at the moment that I suspect most of my Faculty colleagues would just give a hollow laugh.

      One or two of the younger people I know on the Faculty have been heard muttering about re-training for other careers recently, though I haven’t heard anyone mention sports commentating. And one of my longest-serving research collaborators here is taking early retirement at just shy of 60 and tells me he is going to learn dry-stone walling.

      Speaking personally, I’m with you – were I to win several million on the lottery, I would quit tomorrow and perhaps try my hand at some writing. Though I dare say I would never finish a book, let alone publish one… too disorganised, I’m afraid.

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