Wednesday 9 June 2010

Careers advice for the real scientist

Supposing you were an honest, highly motivated young person; and you wanted to be a real scientist - what would be the best careers advice, given that a career as a professional scientist is obviously out of the question?

The best approach would be accept that you will be an amateur scientist, and think about how best to fund your work.

In other words, in future real scientists will need to regard their work rather as a serious poet or classical msuic composer does - as a vocation - and to forget about 'making a living' from the vocation.

The traps for a real scientist are nowadays the same as the traps for a poet. There are quite a lot of professional 'poets' who are paid to *be* a poet (writers in residence) - but actually none of them are real poets. Instead, in order to get the jobs, they have had to write what passes for poetry among the people who dish out the writers in residence jobs, which isn't actually poetry.

Sometimes real poets can get jobs pretending to teach poetry to people who want to become writers in residence; but no real poet would want to do these jobs - which are usually poorly paid anyway.

In the fairly recent past, some real poets have been school teachers and librarians - although the nature of these jobs has changed and perhas become more hostile to poetry. I know of dedicated amateur musicians of a high standard who do all kinds of jobs - so long as these jobs leave evenings and weekends free.

So the careers advice would be to use one's talents and choose a job that is paid highly enough per hour that the job can be done part-time - leaving enough time and energy in which to do real science. Such jobs usually require _some_ training, and the training itself costs time, money and motivation - so there will need to be a careful calculation and prediction and avoidance of prolonged and expensive training programs with uncertain job prospects (e.g. a PhD in an arts subject).

There is some shrewd careers advice around: e.g. - there are so many jobs nowadays, that there might well be something suitable that you have never even heard of.

It is also useful to know something about the economics of employment: e.g. "Why men earn more" by Warren Farrell explains that in the private sector you are usually paid more either when you do a job which has to be done but few people can do it (like anything involving numbers or computers); or to do what most people do not want want to do - working in an unpleasant or dangerous environment such as a prison or outdoors in winter.

Or the aspiring scientist could try to find a sinecure i.e. "a position or office that requires little or no work but provides a salary" - in other words, something in the public sector. High status sinecures are hotly competed for (as are all 'cool jobs) and they may be paid little or nothing (because so many people want to do them) - but low status sinecures may be available, doing 'joke jobs', the kind whose title provokes a snigger.

The real scientist will not care too much about the nature of their job or what other people think about it, so long as it provides a reasonably secure income without involving them in activities that interfere with their science, because their vocation is not in the job but in science.