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Unhappy Scientist

I was speaking to one of the women in our lab yesterday about what we would do if we weren’t in the jobs that we hold. She’s about 10 years from retirement and can’t wait to get out of the “science business”. She says she regrets being a scientist because she doesn’t like who it’s turned her into. She says that her work at our company has made her over-analytical, over-logical, over-ordered, over-skeptical. It’s colored the way she experiences her life outside of work: interactions with friends and family, her finances, her purchasing decisions, her child-rearing, the way she’s handled crises, and she says it makes life too difficult. It’s not her job that makes her unhappy, it’s being a scientist, being unable to be satisfied until she’s sifted through all of the details, asked every question, delved into every aspect of every situation.

In short, she sees the world through the lens of science and doesn’t like the view.

I don’t think that science went wrong. I think she went wrong with science. I know a lot of people who aren’t scientists. Science doesn’t make them happy, so they go into a different line of work. She’s not anti-science, and she’s very good at her job, but it doesn’t make her happy. I feel sad for her that she’s gone so many years in a profession that doesn’t fulfill her.

I talk so much about science appreciation, about the joy and excitement that being a scientist brings me. I share this here because it’s a different story about someone else’s experience with science, one that I hadn’t heard before. Nothing more.

Comments

  1. pipenta says

    This is a new one on me. I’ve heard of people who get frustrated with department politics, with having to struggle for funding, with the time spent working on grants instead of research, with the hierarchy and politics that spring up in science culture as they do in every human society. But she is depressed because she sees the world through a scientific lens? How odd.

    So when she retires, how does she intend to stop thinking like a scientist? Lots of drugs and booze? A lobotomy? I don’t think she’ll be able to flip a switch and turn off her brain.

  2. Brownian says

    She says she regrets being a scientist because she doesn’t like who it’s turned her into. She says that her work at our company has made her over-analytical, over-logical, over-ordered, over-skeptical. It’s colored the way she experiences her life outside of work: interactions with friends and family, her finances, her purchasing decisions, her child-rearing, the way she’s handled crises, and she says it makes life too difficult. It’s not her job that makes her unhappy, it’s being a scientist, being unable to be satisfied until she’s sifted through all of the details, asked every question, delved into every aspect of every situation.

    Internet diagnoses are a dime a dozen and worth even less, but this seems to me to be less scientific worldview and more anxiety disorder. When someone expresses the feeling that “life is too difficult”, whatever they think the reason for it, it’s a good idea for them to see their doctor about mental health treatment options.

  3. says

    If a person treats science as a worldview instead of a method of inquiry they may end up resembling a character on The Big Bang Theory. Your colleague may regret having spent her career acting like she’s got Asberger’s in order to get along in a field dominated by “left-brained” men making the best of their spot on the autism spectrum. As she has matured she may be growing to realize she’s skipped a lot of roses, sunsets, and simple fun with friends and family along the way. More power to her. It’s never too late to broaden one’s perspective. She should start now, not a decade hence.

  4. amhovgaard says

    How odd. Except for the over-ordered bit a lot of people would describe me that way – my overall outlook on life, the universe & everything is skeptical, questioning, analytical – I don’t “believe” anything unless at least three independent (groups of) researchers have found the same results, and even then it’s only provisional ;) but I’m not a scientist (although my education included enough basic research methodology for me to be able to read research papers), I was pretty much born this way. And I really don’t understand why that would be a problem – it’s never stopped me from enjoying pretty flowers, cute kittens, sentimental movies or silly jokes. Maybe it’s a problem if for some reason you spend a lot of time interacting with people whose only interests are woo, religion and what sort of curtains are fashionable at the moment, but… why would you?

  5. Jed says

    I am in engineering surrounded by other people with advanced degrees in sciences and engineering and from what I have seen the way of looking at the world that you describe is what lead most of us to the field instead of a result of us doing this sort of work.
    I had always assumed that is the reason that anyone goes into the sciences or does any research in a technical field.

  6. smrnda says

    Funny, I studied mathematics, logic and computer science and I never had any regrets, even though my friends all thought of me as ‘artsy and creative’ and thought I should have studied art or become a writer.

    I don’t think of myself as a ‘scientist’ since ‘computer science’ is a really bad term for the field (famous computer scientist Edsgar Dijkstra said it was like calling surgery ‘knife science’ as it’s more or less a specialized type of applied mathematics or engineering, but it made me aware of when axiomatic thinking is good and when it is not so useful. I also enjoyed the few years I helped some psychology researchers with statistics; I learned how you apply the scientific method to human behavior and the limits of what you can conclude from experiments and how to make sure a hypothesis is falsifiable. It also showed me that the human mind and human beings are not like computers or robots – in fact, the analogy of ‘brain as computer’ stifled lots of good research for a long time.

    In some ways I like that it’s forced me to be a more rigorous, more skeptical and more demanding of evidence in all areas in life, and I like that it’s done that to me.

    If she’s disillusioned, she may have a romanticized notion of non-scientist people. I know many educated people who imagine say, a factory worker as somehow ‘happier’ than they are since they imagine that with a simpler worldview things are just roses, but I know that’s got to be false.

    Part of it may be a lack of interest in anything else, or a feeling like somehow you’re cut off from other people because of a huge quantity of things that you don’t share in common with them. I usually have enough to talk about that I don’t feel isolated from people.

  7. Reginald Selkirk says

    … She says that her work at our company has made her over-analytical, over-logical, over-ordered, over-skeptical.

    Hmmm. All I regret is the low pay.

  8. Blueaussi says

    ” She says she regrets being a scientist because she doesn’t like who it’s turned her into. She says that her work at our company has made her over-analytical, over-logical, over-ordered, over-skeptical. It’s colored the way she experiences her life outside of work: interactions with friends and family, her finances, her purchasing decisions, her child-rearing, the way she’s handled crises, and she says it makes life too difficult.”

    .
    Wow, I see that as a feature, not a bug.
    .
    Reginald Selkirk@#8 sez…

    “Hmmm. All I regret is the low pay.”

    .
    Well, yeah, there is that.

  9. Matthew says

    Perhaps she needs to take up painting or poetry or something to give her right brain a rest now and then.

  10. Art says

    Most jobs that are deep and challenging enough to be fulfilling require a mindset. The trick is to learn how to turn the mindset off.

    I’ve a friend who is a policeman. He is a bit of an oddball in that he has learned to turn his cop attitude off. He claims the key was taking up painting with water colors as a hobby. He explained that water colors are all about flow, flowing with the moment, not imposing rigid rules to what you are doing, relaxing and expressing yourself with flair and enthusiasm.

    He is a good cop. One of the best I have ever met. One of the few I can hang out with without walking on eggshells knowing they are analyzing every move I make.

    Scientists can, from the few I call friends, can, at times, become too searching and analytic. Hard to be around them when every word and action is being analyzed to within an inch of it’s life. They seem to be happier and easier to be around if they have an outlet and dedicate time to nurturing their non-analytical side. Arts, poetry, improvisational forms of music … whatever seems to work for them.

    I’ve been told that getting away from the scientific mindset for a time makes analyzing problems easier when they get back to it. In part, I suspect, because those parts of their brains have had time to rest.

  11. Steve says

    Interesting in that I still have regrets for not pursuing a career in science. I once had a promising future in chemistry.

    Only recently has a bit of perspective revealed that mental illness was likely the factor that stood in my way…

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