Saturday, January 25, 2014

I Love My Job, But It Is Still Work.

Hello, Dear Readers!

I'm having one of those navel-gazing moments, and other than seeing that I have a hole in my shirt, a few things have happened, rather inconsequential things, that have given me pause to think about the state of my life thanks to science and academia.

The main trigger was this article by Miya Tokumitsu called "In the Name of Love." It covers how the mantra "Do what you love [DWYL] and you will never work a day in your life" is a sack of foetid dingoes kidneys. If you're not completely googly-eyed enamored with your job (say, for example, you have a job that you do because there is rent, food, daycare, etc. for which to pay), the DWYL mentality erodes the perceived quality and importance of your work. DWYL is the employment cry of the privileged. I used to buy in to the DWYL mantra, but reading this article has caused me to examine that belief and reclassify it as such.

The section of the article that hit home for me on a personal level was this:

"If DWYL denigrates or makes dangerously invisible vast swaths of labor that allow many of us to live in comfort and to do what we love, it has also caused great damage to the professions it portends to celebrate. Nowhere has the DWYL mantra been more devastating to its adherents than in academia...Few other professions fuse the personal identity of their workers so intimately with the work output. Because academic research should be done out of pure love, the actual conditions of and compensation for this labor become afterthoughts, if they are considered at all."
Being a scientist is a large part of my personal identity. I am a scientist in a time when being part of the "Ivory Tower" is politically and publicly unpopular (as least in Canada and the USA, where the term Ivory Tower is used as the adult version of "doody-head"). In a culture that believes that every opinion is valid, I thrive on logic, data, critical thinking, and knowledge.

Step away from the comments section, Strange Woman...step away. Image source.
In a sense, science saved me emotionally. In elementary and high-school I was the Amy Farrah Fowler. I was very odd, and an easy target. So, I was targeted. There were no anti-bullying campaigns in my day. Science kept me going. Paleontology was my dream, and studying and the good grades on my transcript were my ticket out of that prison of an educational institution. I left home for university with strict instructions to my parents to burn any reunion notices. I also left home with horrendously low self-esteem.

Science changed that for me. It started when my parents (with unwavering support for my career choice) gave me a choice of high-school graduation gifts: financial help on my own vehicle, or two weeks at a paleontology field experience program. I chose the field experience. During those two weeks I met future mentors and like-minded people who were also, by the social standards of my area, odd. They were odd and reveled science, and I reveled in their influence.

I still had a long way to go, and many mistakes to make along the way. I used to be that person who constantly fished in muddy waters for compliments. I used to be that person for whom, when receiving a compliment, would twist it to turn it into an insult. No one could ever say the right thing to cheer me up. I was draining to be around. I was draining myself. I had a lot of emotional scar tissue that was still raw.

Science allowed me the opportunity to rebuild my self-esteem. I realize that is an odd statement, considering academia is chock-full of situations that can make one doubt themselves with Ex-Lax-like regularity. I learned that what matters in science is the quality of the work that I do. As a student that meant grades. That meant volunteering. That meant working. Eventually it dawned on my that I was capable of accomplishing things that mattered, regardless of what anyone else thought or said. It also dawned on my that, no matter what, there is nothing, NOTHING, that someone else could tell me that would make me feel better about myself if I wasn't able to tell myself the same damn thing and bloody well believe it.

I do love my work. I have the opportunity to see things that haven't seen the light of day for millions of years. I take the impressions of past life and translate their stories. There are days when I think it could not possibly get better than this. That does not mean that the work is not oftentimes frustrating, tedious, exasperating, and actual hard work. Hard physically, hard mentally, and hard emotionally. The problem with the DWYL mantra is that a person who has a job they love cannot express frustration without being countered with such pablum as "Well, at least you get to do what you love." It sounds like a math-based platitude: X is difficult, but since the love (Y) is greater, the result comes out positive! YAY! Problems all solved, right?

No. Just no. Love of a job does not cancel out or erase the negative aspects. The DWYL mantra does not negate difficulties. There is no fix for those days that make you think "Why do I bother?" My friend Jenny, who is living her dream by running a school in Tanzania, said it best: "People confuse living your passion with living in a 5 star resort vacation! They are NOT the same thing!"

This is a dangerous mindset, especially if we insist on it to younger people entering the workforce. DWYL carries with it the expectation that it's all so damn easy to do what you love. Of course, one of the interpretations of "easy" is "I can just sit back and sip my wine, and it will all work out. No effort required!" The sooner that insinuation is challenged, the better.

At least there is some interesting ichnology happening during this particular head in the sand episode.
A job in academia comes with a myriad of costs. There is no guaranteed employment. There is little financial stability. There is little locational stability. Life milestones that non-academic friends celebrate become foreign concepts, such as starting a family, building a dream house, or going on regular vacations. There is no 9am-5pm: if I'm not doing something related to my thesis or work, I get antsy and refer to my down time as "being lazy." [Note: now that the thesis is done, I've purged that feeling.]

I love what I do, and I've had to realize that loving my job does not mean it is stress-free, problem-free, or even doubt-free. There are costs. Thanks to my job and the path that I took to get here, I feel like I have the emotional resilience to pick up the bill for those costs and work out a reasonable payment plan. [UPDATE: But it's STILL WORK. Hard. Bloody. Work.] The love of the job gives me the mental armor to wade into battle and slog through the difficult times. Do what you love, and you'll work harder for it than you ever thought you would or could.

Strange Woman


  1. You put this very well. Yes, most days are wonderful. Others... Well I don't always want to go to work. This week, for example, has been brutal. But it's my job, not my hobby, so I have to do it, whether I feel like it or not.

    I'm working on writing a novel (a trilogy actually). On finding out that I'm a writer for fun, folks often ask if I write about paleontology. The answer is no. A solid no! Paleontology is my job. I like it, but I try to keep it out of my hobbies, because it makes my hobbies work. This is hard for people to 'get' because for them, paleo might be their hobby.

    I'll add that I did put a geologist in a story once. That was a stretch. A little close to work. So I killed him off in the second chapter. ;)

    1. I too have started fiction writing, and I cannot fathom writing about a paleontologist. It's too close to home. My first short story was about a field biologist, and things ended...well, it was Lovecraftian-themed, so not well!

      You demonstrate exactly why it is so important to have non-work related interests. Many people not in the field have trouble imagining paleontologists as not intense about dinosaurs (or their fossil of choice) 24/7. We don't eat, breathe, and sleep paleontology. Hobbyists, I think (but don't know) can afford that all-consuming drive. Since we're in it for the good times and the bad, we have to pace ourselves. That's also a skill that takes time and practice!

      Thank you for your comment! I have to know: did the geologist die a horrid or a quick death?