Why “Getting noticed is half the battle” is (not) as bad as it seems

The recent article “Getting noticed is half the battle” in Working Life section of Science triggered an emotional discussion.

I will play a bit of a devil’s advocate here and try to polemize with the comments I saw below that article. Even though I think most of them are well justified, and in their own way perfectly right.

And so here’s 4 points about why the “Getting noticed is half the battle” is (not) as bad as it seems:

The author is clearly devoted to science. Even if it comes across more as a dedication to the career than to a specific topic, I can hardly imagine a person feeling happy about his children playing in a lounge, unless he strongly feels that it happens for a greater purpose. He is a person who, I’m guessing, must have been extremely motivated and enthusiastic in his journey through science. Sadly, you can hardly trace this presumable enthusiasm in this piece any more. Which indeed makes you wonder: well, does he think it was worth it?

The supposed “gender-discrimination” is not really discrimination. Actually, it’s just reality. Now, before the thunders hit me, I would like to point out that at no point does the author note that he has in any way forced his wife to take on this burden. While the paragraph could’ve been crafted to express more gratitude or clarify it better, we cannot exclude that it was a mutual agreement. And we must admit it is still the reality around us.

Note the two-body problem in academia – the difficulty for 2 researchers to find a job in the same place. Well, let’s be honest: even in close enough proximity to each other. Dual career couples struggle hard. And I do not think it is an uncommon solution that one partner decides to take a different, more relaxed or simply non-academic career path.

I know a professor who, together with his wife, decided that he will try to pursue the career, while she will go for a less demanding research-assistant-like position. Fate had it that nowadays she co-authors papers published much higher (IF-wise) than him, which he frequently jokes about, when telling the story.

I have a collegue who decided she would be much happier doing lab-based research, while she thinks her husband is very well suited for a PI. She would like to have a home and kids, and does not want to go through the stress of setting up her own lab. I believe we should admit it is ok to take such decisions. The only problem she will face is obviously the fact that academia is not ready for all the people like her (and there is plenty!) who would like to do science, but not really become group leaders.

Now before I am accused of promoting gender bias, let me tell you about another friend of mine, a female scientist, who’s been followed by her IT-specialized husband to any city she goes. Trick is, his skills are very much in demand almost anywhere, so the two-body problem does not apply. And yet, gossip has it she would like a more balanced job anyway, to actually be able to spend some time with her spouse.

Conclusions? We need to let people make their choices, independently of gender. Gender equality doesn’t mean all women have to pursue challenging careers. It means they can always choose to do it. They should be allowed to choose otherwise. As much as men should be allowed to choose otherwise too, and e.g. stay home with their children when they want to!

The work-life imbalance in academia is sad, but true. Actually, it is the culture. The long hours and scarce social (don’t confuse with networking) or family life are not unusual. Actually, they are usual. And when in science, we get imprinted very quickly. My Master thesis advisor worked 24/7. My PhD advisor didn’t, and I found myself thinking he doesn’t care enough about his science. Many post-docs will know what I mean by the phrase “free weekend”. An oxymoronic phrase for any person with a “normal job”. Or a “free evening”. A good post-doc friend of mine once told me about her work-life approach which was allowing herself one free evening a week. I’m always feeling guilty if I get home at 5 pm. Whether it is indeed the prerequisite for making it in science or not (see my comments on work-life balance and creativity), the culture of science nowadays is the culture of workoholism. The author of the article is not a weird exception. He just joined in the game.

Getting noticed does matter. When reading this testimony I found myself thinking: well, this man is brave to so openly admit things. But as the work-life imbalance, the self-promotion part is perhaps ugly, but still true. You may go about it in different, perhaps subtler ways. But have you really never asked a question at a seminar to show what you know rather than to get an answer? Have you never walked in a room and hoped the PI or Director noticed you’re there? It might not always be pretty, and you might not always admit it to yourself, but we all know – it’s publish or perish. Nowadays, it applies to your very person as well as to your science.

Whether we can sympathize with the piece or not, we must admit: one thing it certainly is, is true. Couragoues and true. It tells you the things the way they are.

If you’re in science, you know they are.

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