Building a Cathedral — The Academic Version

A cynic, after all, is a passionate person
who does not want to be disappointed again.
Zander & Zander, 2002

Thinking about the report that asked PostDocs about their expectations in science, and whether they will become full professors or not, I found it eye-opening to think about Academia through the lens of a job, a calling, and a career.

There is a basic distinction between three types of attitudes you can have towards your work:

  1. It’s a job
    You go to work, you do what is asked of you. When you leave work you really leave it behind. Life happens prior to/after work, on weekends and during vacations. I haven’t seen a single scientist who thinks this way, but it’s common with other jobs.
  2. It’s a calling
    You love your work, people couldn’t drag you away from it. You think about it even outside the work context. Here, you want to advance science, find out what really happens, the whole complexity, including the dirty details that usually make publishing the results difficult. Hah, I love science.
  3. It’s a career
    The work is just the content, what really matters is where it gets you. You want to advance, get into better positions. Have influence, determine the greater picture of how work is done. Here, you’d be willing to switch topics in an instant if another topic would provide you with more access to funding or higher visibility. You play the game, and you play it well.

Talking metaphorically, it’s a bit like that story about people building a cathedral, at least the academic version (for other versions search for “I’m building a cathedral”):

The master builder asked three brick layers why they are doing what they are doing.

The first one answered: “I’m earning a living and can’t way to get home to enjoy my life.” The master builder looked surprised — there were other jobs available that were much easier to do if you just want the money. But he nodded and used him for standard tasks, knowing he would only do what was needed and expect equal pay for his work, but would also do it well enough. He needed enough service professions anyway.

The second one answered: “I’m building a cathedral.” The master builder nodded and gave this worker more work than a normal person could ever handle, knowing that this person would not only do the work, but do it very well. In the service of the higher goal, this worker could be made to do (almost) anything. A couple of years later that worker would not only have a broken back, but also a broken spirit and a crushed soul. But the work that would get done … priceless.

The third one answered: “I’m here because I consider you to be the best master builder in the world. I want to learn more about how you do your work, how you achieve your high quality that only a person of your status can achieve. And learn more about this job under your guidance.” The master builder felt flattered and trained him as his successor.

Yup, if you want to go into academia — treat it like a career. Currently (and perhaps always), it seems to be the only way to get tenure. And, at least in Germany, it’s the only way to survive.

Of course, if it’s a career, there are completely different skills that are needed. Sure, you need a good level of quality. But at least equally importantly, you have to fit in. You have to be good with people — to get ahead. And you need people who fight for you, who open doors. Science, even quality and integrity is secondary to visibility and reputation.

Personally, I am willing to admit that science requires communication, you have to disseminate your research results, otherwise the work was without consequence. But I think you have to disseminate it to the right people, find people who are willing to apply it. To change practice. But that’s a calling view. A career view would simply look for high-impact journals where the community of peers is — and damn the practitioners ‘who are to stupid to read research and apply it themselves’.

Given this view, I wonder whether a more practice oriented occupation would not have been better. But I would have missed the skills I have acquired as a scientist. Now, what do I use them for …?

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