By MERLIN CROSSLEY
I quite like being addicted to coffee. It makes me enjoy each morning more. If I weren’t addicted it wouldn’t be half as good.
These days I, and many colleagues, seem to begin their work day with a coffee. When I last visited a lab in England they were different and retained the old school approach. People went about their work and then gathered in a tea room at 10.30 a.m. and each person put 20 pence in a tin, and helped themselves to either a cup of tea or instant coffee. Morning and afternoon tea were daily rituals where people would congregate in a sparsely furnished tea room and talk about either science, politics, sport, or culture (often TV).
The world was more localised then and more synchronised too. It was possible to talk about television because people watched the same things at the same time – one didn’t have to worry about spoilers from those who had binged on an illegally downloaded series the previous weekend. Lab or institutional politics also provided rich pickings for conversation. The complexities of grant funding were shared in those days, as they are now, but nowadays funding dominates talk more than ever. Nevertheless, scientific developments, like sporting events, still unfold in real time and serve to synchronise lab communities around important insights.
Work can also be a happy addiction. I looked up the word addiction and I’m not using it correctly, because addictions are compulsions that are harmful, but being a workaholic is not bad for everyone. Several researchers I’ve known are immersed in their research pretty much all the time. One of my supervisors used to go on annual leave and then return early saying he missed being at the bench.
I don’t want to idolise too much working and it is dangerous to set expectations and norms that are unrealistic, that distort the work/life balance, and end up excluding those with other responsibilities or different ways of being productive, but I can’t help observing that there are many happy scientists who pursue their careers with the same enthusiasm as top athletes. Some just never stop. They are like those long distance endurance athletes – the swimmer Susie Maroney or the runner Pat Farmer. Pat Farmer ran around Australia, went into politics, then left and set out to run from pole to pole (which sounds like a quest from Monty Python but if it’s in his DNA to run like Forrest Gump, then that’s just the way it is).
Scientists who are addicted to research are also a bit like sports fans portrayed in the novel Fever Pitch or music fans in High Fidelity, both by Nick Hornby. Hornby has not yet written about science enthusiasts, perhaps because there’d be a relatively limited market. But the fact that we have words like nerd and geek, and the realisation that such words are becoming cooler, may mean one is not out of the question.
There’s a lot about burn out, exhaustion, pressure and stress on social media. Workaholism isn’t for everyone but enthusiasts do exist and the cycle of work and reward, or more precisely the cycle of work and occasional reward, is highly addictive. I’m no psychologist but I understand that if people receive rewards every time they complete a task, then they tend to only put in an effort when they want a reward – it’s guaranteed and one can satisfy one’s needs with a minimal, planned effort. But if the rewards are random – as they are in research – one works and works and works, in hope, never knowing how much work will be enough. It’s not a bad thing since being submerged in an enthusiasm is a good state to be in individually (although there are risks for family, friends and dependents!). I don’t know if it’s a good thing but being obsessed with a task and subservient to it is one way of escaping from other human tasks that for some are overwhelming and difficult to manage – is this what people call “flow’?
Addiction to research can be deep and rewarding. One’s own research goes slowly, advances are rare and sporadic, but the motivation to find out “what happens next” is similar to what one feels when watching a good television series, reading a cliff-hanger novel, or watching sporting events or elections. Beyond this, developments flood in from across the world as papers are published, pre-prints are posted on BioRXiv, or as updates pop up on Twitter. The fear of being scooped, like the fear of losing in a sporting contest or an election, adds a necessary spice to one’s life narrative.
To finish on a sobering note, rather than talking about the dangers of addiction, workaholism and burn out, I’ll say something different that may be controversial. If one isn’t a little addicted to science, it can be a difficult job, and is perhaps not the job for everyone.
When I read books about science in the past I realised that there were very few researchers, and many, perhaps once even the majority, were obsessed enthusiasts, who had eagerly sought out research as a career, despite the precarious nature of employment and the limited opportunities. Many seemed to gravitate to research because they were somehow drawn to it.
These days the profession has expanded massively and many people, who have jumped the right academic hurdles because they are smart, naturally continue along and drift into lab life. The profession is set up so we readily admit people who have excelled academically, and don’t always explore the emotional fit to a life of intermittent disappointment and rare successes. This can cause problems and may be associated with the high level of stress we see in science today.
Put in more simple terms – you don’t have to be crazy to seek a career in research but it helps.