A call for acceptance of career polygamy in science

Throughout my academic career from undergrad to my current postdoc, I’ve been perplexed by my atypical relationship with science. Yes, research and I have maintained a long, passionate love affair, but an affair apparently unlike those enjoyed by my colleagues. My unconventional attitude towards my work has served as a disconcerting voice that I’m just not cut out for a serious scientific career. I’ll certainly never win a Nobel, probably won’t publish in Science and may never even hold a faculty position. This reality has never really bothered me, but my lack of bother has been a subtle source of concern.

Only now, as a postdoc years into my Neuroscientific career, am I beginning to understand what makes my love affair with science so unusual. It’s by no means less genuine or less impassioned than those of colleagues madly pursuing tenure-track jobs; rather, it’s set apart by its polygamous nature. I get enthralled by new theories, overwhelmed with the excitement of shiny new data, and bore friends and family with my ecstatic ramblings about my research. I am a scientist for no other reason than I love it. However, it’s not the only object of my affection. I have never been, and probably never will be, able to suppress my love for so many other facets of life. A monogamous relationship with Neuroscience would just never suffice for me.

20131007-001611Since I was a teenager, a certain passage from Sylvia Plath’s the Bell Jar has always haunted me. She shared her predicament of being unable to choose a single fig – a life path, and as her indecision gripped her the figs wilted, leaving her starving and without a future. I’ve long been distraught by this similar fear of foregoing any one of my many dreams, wavering among so many enticing options and failing to commit to one whole-heartedly. As did Sylvia, I too considered this a flaw … a characteristic that would hold me back and prevent me from attaining my goals. As I’m finally understanding that these scattered passions or lack of focus – call it what you will – lie at the heart of my atypical approach to my work, I am also finally accepting that this is not necessarily a flaw.

“Good” scientists come in all shapes and sizes, but common to all is a sincere curiosity, a longing for answers and a rigorous devotion to unveiling them. Although these are precisely the factors that originally drew me to Neuroscience, I have always struggled with the conviction that I must not love my work quite enough – or at least not as much as the rock-stars around me, spending grueling hours in the lab, aiming for the highest impact-factor journals and power-networking with the bigwigs in their field. To a certain degree, these are crucial elements of a successful research trajectory, and I too have worked hard, held my research quality to the highest standards, and of course reveled in the rewards of grants and publications. But I have worked equally hard outside of the lab. Throughout grad school and my postdoc, I’ve allowed myself to pick several of those ripe, juicy figs and have savored every one of them. I’m not talking about the conventional concept of work-life balance that we’ve come to accept – at least superficially – is essential for job satisfaction. I’m referring more specifically to work-work balance. I indulge my writing addiction through freelance writing and editing and won’t hesitate to take on other side-projects as I’m so inspired. These endeavors are often neuro-related, but sometimes sprout from my obsession with running and fascination with sports physiology and biomechanics. These extra-neuro pursuits are as much “work” as my research, and I approach them all with the same intensity and devotion. They have not limited my productivity as a Neuroscientist, but have actually fostered it, by keeping me fresh, motivated and engaged with novel perspectives within and beyond the science community.

I’ve been blessed with both graduate and postdoc advisers who’ve been remarkably supportive of my promiscuous work habits, which has doubtlessly contributed to my own recent acceptance of my choices. Yet, I suspect my fortune is the exception rather than the rule, with the admission of this sort of behavior being met with disapproval or condemnation in many labs. In the current academic environment, time spent outside lab or even (gasp!) enjoying yourself is too often considered a sign of laziness or lack of drive. Tales of researchers working themselves to poor health or even suicide are rampant. It’s not clear how a field based on incentives so beautiful as curiosity and understanding has become so ugly, but it’s far time this trend is reversed. Outside interests or other professional pursuits should not be sources of guilt, and are not – contrary to common belief – prohibitive of a flourishing scientific career. Any culture that discourages the nurturing of broad interests can be toxic, stifling both personal growth and, ironically, professional development and productivity.

While there is certainly nothing wrong with the driven pursuit of a focused scientific career – and I strongly admire my dedicated colleagues who have chosen this path – it’s time we reject the myth that this is the only honorable or effective route to scientific success. As a first step, I’m embracing my relationship with Neuroscience, idiosyncrasies and all, and proudly proclaiming that we’ve been polygamous all along.

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12 thoughts on “A call for acceptance of career polygamy in science

  1. Kenton Swartz says:

    i think your perspective is spot on. I have some of my best ideas when exercising or gardening. Work and play hard, and love what you are doing, and I’ll bet things will work out! Good luck!

    • Emilie Reas says:

      Thanks, Kenton! It’s always great to hear of other scientists who share this philosophy!

      • I’m another one. We should start a group, Science Dilettantes Anon. I would offer only one serious piece of career advice, given that I went through the same considerations some two decades ago and can now reflect on the outcome of my decisions. Become really good at being useful to other people! That is, develop at least one skill set that other people will pay you to use on their behalf. This is your “bread and butter” career that will allow you to be polygamous without serious negative consequences. (Whether or not others accept your polygamy is a rather personal issue, but I can tell you that many, many people within and outside science have expressed unbridled jealousy at my career!) Brilliant, creative types have that as their skill. The rest of us who don’t have game-changing ideas spewing forth have to recognize what we can do that others marvel at. This is likely what we can develop as a marketable asset. Could be anything, the key is to have people asking you to do it rather than you asking for permission to do it. Then you know it’s really useful to others and you can put a good price on it.

  2. Emilie Reas says:

    Thanks for sharing, PractiCal fMRI. This is fantastic advice. And yes, I’m absolutely down to start a support group!

  3. Anonymous says:

    This was SO nice to read. A great gift to know I am not alone! Thank you for writing and sharing.

  4. Naren Sundar says:

    Spot on indeed! Being in two or more excitable minds is a burden, a joy, and a right pain in the arse in research. It’s great to hear from someone who has come to terms with it.

  5. What a wonderful piece – I’ve been thinking about it all morning.

  6. I too am intellectually promiscuous

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  8. […] late in getting to read this, but this is a great post calling for acceptance of career polygamy in science. It’s a call for acknowledging and accepting that some people will want to pursue science and […]

  9. Rachel says:

    I love this! The world is so full of interesting and fun things! I’m also a scientist and freelance editor. Here’s my short list of what I love: husband, kids, friends, caves, rocks, rivers, physics, mountains, books, flowers, bicycles, oceans. What a beautifully written essay. Thank you for sharing it.

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