I once had the opportunity to experience something rare for most people: time away from work. I don’t mean just a week or two of holidays, I mean substantial time. The reflections that emerged from this experience were unexpected and led me to reshape my relationship to my profession as a scientist.
Until that point, my career had followed a typical path for an academic: I started doing research during undergrad; went to graduate school and earned a Ph.D., then held a couple of postdoctoral positions. Other than two (too short) maternity leaves, I had not stopped doing research since my undergraduate years. After all, that’s what scientists do.
But several years into my career, I hit a wall. Going into work was not the joy it once was. My lab, let’s just say, was not a healthy environment anymore. So I let my funding lapse and, despite the burden that it put on our family finances, I took a break from it all. I had a five-month hiatus from research.
At first, I was feeling totally burned out, and took advantage of the opportunity to focus on self-care. But over a short period of time, my life developed a new natural rhythm. The days were flowing in and out at ease. What was I doing with all the ”free” time? I had been working as a freelance science editor as a side gig for some years, so I cranked up the editing load. I started exercising more. I volunteered for my children’s school field trips. Finally caught up with all those postponed medical appointments. Cooked new recipes. Gardened. Spent more time with my kids (don’t ask if they were thrilled or annoyed). The truth is that I, like most people, have a gazillion other interests outside of my work. I had no problem quickly filling up all my time. If none of this sounds extraordinary, well, that’s because it isn’t. These are things that I should have been doing all along but could never find the time or mental capacity to do while I was working as a scientist.
It was probably no more than two months into it that I got the inevitable question from a friend (perhaps not coincidentally, an academic): "Are you driving yourself crazy at home yet?"
“No,” I found myself answering, so resoundingly and decisively that I surprised even myself.
In the weeks that followed I did a whole lot of thinking and realized that I was happy, and that I did not miss doing science at all. But that realization made me spiral into a mini life crisis. For many years I had always identified as a scientist. But if I was not doing science, and I did not even miss it, was I not a scientist anymore? Then who was I? It was a crisis of loss of identity that became evident every time I met someone new and they asked “What do you do?” My answer has always been “I am a scientist” or “I am a plant biologist.” It is a funny habit, come to think of it—we all are much more than just our professions, and yet this is the typical answer. But now this question left me at a loss for words, a stark contrast to the joy I was feeling in finally having the time and space to express all my other identities.
I wrestled with these thoughts for some time before coming to a conclusion that might seem obvious, but to me was revolutionary: Science is a job. Science is often seen as a ”higher calling,” not just a profession but also a lifestyle. Many scientists are married to their jobs (even when they have family at home). This highly demanding lifestyle is harmful to our physical and mental health. The mental health crisis in academia was the elephant in the room that we all knew was there but never dared to speak about—at least until now. Two recent surveys revealed what we all already knew: that academics are overworked, underpaid, and believe that their careers have a detrimental effect on their relationships.
Time away from science helped me see what it truly is: a profession just like any other. It’s what you do for a living. More importantly, science is not a higher calling, it is not morally superior to other professional choices, and no, it is not a lifestyle. Finally, it is not an identity that has to trump all other identities (I sense this may be quite an unpopular opinion among fellow academics).
So as I returned to working as a scientist, I went about it with a new attitude. I am not married to science anymore (or maybe I never really was). I like having many identities beyond just ”scientist.“ In fact, I think this is a much better way to live. I suspect that if more people adopted the same attitude, it would be beneficial not only to them personally, but also to science and to society. Maybe it would benefit science simply because happy people are more productive, and besides, who would not want scientists to be happy? It would benefit society because, with more mental space and time on their hands, scientists would be better able to participate as active members of society in all aspects of normal life, just as I did for the past five months.
I imagine that if scientists became more a part of the fabric of society, we would also normalize science. Exchange of information and ideas between scientists and other members of society would happen more naturally, as a part of daily life. Science would become more accessible. With science communication happening at this level, perhaps we would not be where we are today, with widespread fear-mongering of science-y things like vaccines or GMOs.
Most of all, I wonder what effect this shift in attitude could have in the academic environment—the very kind of environment that I wanted to break from in the first place. It’s not hard to imagine that aspiring professionals are likely to be more vulnerable to harassment in fields that are perceived as more than just a profession. In this sense science is like politics or Hollywood. The current academic culture is one that enables harassers and abusers. Many young scientists have endured abuse in silence, from unmanageably high expectations to sexual harassment, for fear of retribution. Some degree of suffering is almost an expectation among academics, the sacrifice needed to be among the chosen few.
Some of these stories are finally starting to be told. As I am writing this, #MeTooSTEM is taking over my social media feeds. A much-needed conversation is finally starting around the academic culture, and how it needs to change. I hope we can expand the conversation beyond sexual harassment and talk about the different forms of harassment, exploitation and abuse that are embedded in academics. Discussing the way each one of us relates to science, and how to start seeing it as a profession, could help change the culture of academia, empowering people to walk away from a toxic environment and report abuse when needed. If more people adopted a “science is a job” attitude, perhaps academia would be a healthier, safer and more supportive environment (and just as productive, I bet).