Holding onto your dreams

Jul 18 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Yesterday's post, allegedly about drug abuse amongst professionals, was also about response to stress. There was one more bit from the original NYT article, a bit I took out of the original post, that got to me. It didn't seem to fit. I looked at it again this morning, and realized that it was more hopeful than the rest.

The article talked about how idealism is lost, frequently in the first year of law school. Most people go to law school, or for that matter grad school, because of dreams of helping others or doing Something Good. The article contends that the stuffing gets kicked out of everyone, or nearly everyone, as some people graduate law school and still go work for legal services and things like the Southern Poverty Law Center.

When I stopped to think of this, I thought of my grad school peers. I was in a department of evolutionary biology, but lots of folks doing ecology, systematics, and really, natural history.  Many scientists, particularly the field oriented ones, the paleontologists, ecologists, evolutionary biologists seem to hold on to their idealism a little better than what the article says about lawyers (they lose it in their first year). Yes, the system, both in grad school and following it up,  is still brutal. If you think NIH is hard now, NSF is still an order of magnitude worse, but in money given out and funding success rates.

The alt-career for these guys was doing something in the then sprouting "environmental" industry. Yes, some of the paleo types went to work for oil companies (invert paleo could usually sell that better than vert paleo types). But, in those days, World Wildlife, and Nature Conservancy were hiring scientists. Not so much, these days, but then, there was the feeling you could make a difference in the world that way.

I checked up on a couple of people from those days. Yes, I'm a lousy correspondent, and didn't stay in touch with people. Some are dead, and that was hard to learn. People who were friends have gone, without either of us saying goodbye. But there are some who are professors, teaching ecology and evolution and, yes, natural history in those biology departments that did not give into the late 20th century impulse to be all-molecular all the time. Some are very active in environmental, eciology, and yes, natural history, causes.

A good friend from those days, someone with whom I've stayed in touch, is a good examnple. Liza walked away from an Ivy League tenured job to work at a large midwestern University. She was a dept chair, and is heading up a named institute that you've probably never heard of because it works at the interface of evolution, ecology and sustainable human use of resources. She could have been a BSD, a scientific intellectual property lawyer, but that's not who she is. She has consistently made the choice to do what she thinks is right. And was married. And had a marvelous kid, now launched in the world doing marvelous things. It's not like her life was a fairy-tale. There was lots of hard stuff along the way, and of course, she didn't get rich, only comfortable.

So are folks who are attracted to ecology/environment/evolution inherently more likely to hold onto their dreams? Or do these fields promote and encourage people in that direction? These folks aren't perfect, or even always good. To be sure, there are the self-righteous vegetarians, the I-Won't-Own-A-Car so I must live somewhere, have a job  somewhere that will let me be that way (which is a form of privilege to pick where one lives and works with those criteria). I knew people who would only live in California, or in Boston/New York/San Fran (Seattle and Portland at the time did not have the same cachet). They've got lots of the same little problems that you and I havce.

But back to the question, which way did causality run, or is it just my biased dataset?

Or is it just the article and law school and the people who say things like the research shows that in law school students (all, most, some?) focus on external values, like salary and status?  I think of some of the folks I knew when I was at MRU, particularly folks in public health. They were not the BSD's, running 10 post-doc labs. Lots of these folks had an assistant, part data-manager, part logistics organizer, part-clerical assistant, and that was all. They really believed in what they were doing. Lost dreams? Maybe disillusioned as to how the system worked, maybe disillusioned at how quickly change could come. But still following their dreams? They would say yes.

Maybe the selection and sorting that goes into law school, maybe what happens in law school, pushes people away from their dreams. And maybe lots of the pressures in science and public health, to work long and hard hours, to over-produced are there. And maybe a survey of surgeons will find the same disillusionment that the law school surveys find. Heck, maybe a survey of medical students will too. And maybe drug usage in evolutionary biology is a the same level as in law, because there is a genetic predisposition, to people under pressure, from work, from life, from circumstances pushes people in that direction. But I hope there are more people like my friend Liz, people holding onto their dreams and fighting for their dreams of a better world. They just don't make the news.

6 responses so far

  • Cerastes says:

    One simple possible explanation - people in the sciences, including/especially ecology/environment/evolution folk, often have TA/RA-ships with full tuition waivers and a stipend that's enough to scrape by, while folks in law and medicine have to take out exorbitant loans to pay for school and/or housing during that time. The cloud of debt makes pursuing fulfilling yet lower-paying dreams difficult/infeasible/impossible, forcing them to prioritize salary. Even if they plan to work at the high-paying jobs until the loans are gone, then quit and work for less money but more meaning, by that time they might have kids to support, which makes taking a voluntary pay cut less appealing.

    The test of this hypothesis would be to see what happens with folks who can (through whatever means) make it through med school or law school without debt. Do they go straight into fulfilling yet lower-paying dreams? Conversely, are grad students who lack TA/RA support more likely to bail on academia for lucrative private-sector jobs?

  • Zuska says:

    Margaret Eisenhart and Elizabeth Finkel's book, "Women's Science: Learning and Succeeding From the Margins" is the outcome of a study of women in four different settings that in some ways gets at the question you are asking here. Eisenhart and Finkel were asking where ARE women succeeding in science; what factors contribute to their success; what are the differences between elite and non-elite sites and how do they relate to and shape one another. It's a fascinating study. The choice of alt-careers, at least for women, E&F suggest, may have as much to do with how one can manage the identity conflicts as with idealistic impulses about the work. That is: high-status, BSD type jobs are "greedy", time-sucking, and not compatible with social identity formation as young girls and women are socialized. Lower-status work sites are often less "greedy" of one's time and life and offer less conflict between one's identity as a scientist and as a woman. I'm not doing the greatest job of summarizing this late at night but it's a great book. Published in 1998 and to my mind not much dated in terms of its findings. If you can get hold of it, read the intro and chapter nine.

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