Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Professionalism or the Lack Thereof

One of the things that bothers me the most about the scientific establishment these days is the pervasive lack of professionalism I see at every level. From department heads and PIs to postdocs, lab managers and lab technicians. The only people who might be excused for not having learnt some professionalism are early grad students, but as they move onwards through grad school it should really be something they learn. Given the nature of many labs today though, they are not going to learn the value of being professional and will go on to be unprofessional postdocs, then PIs, then department heads.

What do I mean when I say professionalism? I mean that you have a job, therefore do your job, whinge if you will but do not make a career out of emotion and insularity. One's boss does not have to be one's friend. Their moods should not be a cause of great concern to their employees. Tantrums, hissy fits, concealment, bitching, sabotage, paranoid delusions, prestige issues, ego hassles, ignorance and just plain idiocy shouldn't have to be a normal part of one's day. I don't claim these as problems unique to a laboratory setting, I am sure these issues affect many workers in many walks of life (I know they affect publishers and engineers for example). But am I wrong in thinking that these problems are overrepresented in academic research settings?

Research is a hard job, it is completely self-driven, there are no benchmarks, no signposts that mark significant achievements other than peer-reviewed publications that go through an incredibly subjective evaluation process. You don't get much pay, praise or publicity. You work on an arcane subject in dimly-lit surroundings (maybe not always) and set yourself up for pillory by your peers every so often. Maybe 0.1% of us will find a cure for AIDS. Or even discover what AIDS is. I don't, however, think that the difficulty of what we do makes a lack of professionalism okay.

In fact being a professional would make life easier, at least it would according to me. Detachment from drama, perspective about achievement, calm in the workplace, hell, I want all these things! I am a better scientist when I don't want to curl up in a ball of stress every time I sit down at my desk. The experiment didn't work? Oh well, troubleshoot it and do it again. It did? Awesome, go get a drink. It's a job, life goes on. The boss didn't say hello? Forget it, as long as he or she discusses your data with you constructively and with an open mind. Go in, do your job, make some friends as a bonus, leave at the end of the day, go on with your life. Courtesy and respect (Propter Doc has put this very well) should be the cornerstones of the lab not precedence and credit-mongering. I don't know how we came to be a generation of scientists and mentors who are so caught up in the cult of scientific personality that an egregious tyrant with Cell papers in their CV is worshiped while a fair-minded collaborative mentor with less famous papers is followed by condescension and pitying whispers. It saddens me.

I really believe that increased professionalism, which also involves better treatment of employees and better compensation of exceptional talent, is the only way to better research. The question is, is unprofessional behaviour too institutionalized to root out? I don't

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