Extrapolated Knowledge

Scientists have famously bad work-life balance. You’ve probably heard stories of scientists working long into the night, taking work with them on weekends or vacation, or falling behind during maternity or paternity leave.

Some of this is culture. Certain fields have a very cutthroat attitude, with many groups competing to get ahead and careers on the line if they fail. Not every field is like that though: there are sub-fields that are more collaborative than competitive, that understand work-life balance and try to work together to a shared goal. I’m in a sub-field like that, so I know they exist.

Put aside the culture, and you’ve still got passion. Science is fun, it’s puzzle after puzzle, topics chosen because we find them fascinating. Even in the healthiest workplace you’d still have scientists pondering in the shower and scribbling notes on the plane, mixing business with pleasure because the work is genuinely both.

But there’s one more reason scientists are workaholics. I suspect, ultimately, it’s the most powerful reason. It’s that every scientist is, in some sense, irreplaceable.

In most jobs, if you go on vacation, someone can fill in when you’re gone. The replacement may not be perfect (think about how many times you watched movies in school with a substitute teacher), but they can cover for you, making some progress on your tasks until you get back. That works because you and they have a shared training, a common core that means they can step in and get what needs to be done done.

Scientists have shared training too, of course. Some of our tasks work the same way, the kind of thing that any appropriate expert can do, that just need someone to spend the time to do them.

But our training has a capstone, the PhD thesis. And the thing about a PhD thesis is that it is, always and without exception, original research. Each PhD thesis is an entirely new result, something no-one else had known before, discovered by the PhD candidate. Each PhD thesis is unique.

That, in turn, means that each scientist is unique. Each of us has our own knowledge, our own background, our own training, built up not just during the PhD but through our whole career. And sometimes, the work we do requires that unique background. It’s why we collaborate, why we reach out to different people around the world, looking for the unique few people who know how to do what we need.

Over time, we become a kind of embodiment of our accumulated knowledge. We build a perspective shaped by our experience, goals for the field and curiosity just a bit different from everyone else’s. We act as agents of that perspective, each the one person who can further our particular vision of where science is going. When we enter a collaboration, when we walk into the room at a conference, we are carrying with us all we picked up along the way, each a story just different enough to matter. We extrapolate from what we know, and try to do everything that knowledge can do.

So we can, and should, take vacations, yes, and we can, and should, try to maintain a work-life balance. We need to to survive, to stay sane. But we do have to accept that when we do, certain things won’t get done as fast. Our own personal vision, our extrapolated knowledge…will just have to wait.

2 thoughts on “Extrapolated Knowledge

  1. Jeremy

    Thanks for this post. It made me reflect.

    Do you think you’re equating “scientist” with “someone who works in science AND has a PhD”? I ask because I wonder if we’re limiting our imagination for what kinds of people can come together to contribute to science. Outside of universities, I know there are people who do science research yet don’t necessarily have a PhD.

    I guess I’m trying to argue that while the PhD does make those with them unique (like you say, they come up with an original result), I don’t think it’s necessary to have one, and the rest of your post would apply. Would you agree?


    1. 4gravitons Post author

      Yeah, I think the implication is more in the other direction: if you need a PhD to do what you do, then that implies what you do requires on some level that you’ve made a unique contribution. But there are other things people do that require that you’ve made a unique contribution, both in and outside science. (Founding a company may qualify, for example.)



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s