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Science Careers Blog

February 21, 2011

Researchers Are Not Rock Stars

Researchers have a lot in common with punk rockers, claims Alison McCook in The Scientist.  "Creativity, do-it-yourself individualism, anti-establismentarianism, and attitude" are not only "the central tenets of punk music," she writes, but "should sound very familiar" to "many scientists." 

Punk is "about the freedom to express what you want to express," McCook quotes Milo Aukerman, whom she describes as "a plant researcher at DuPont and lead singer with of legendary punk band The Descendents.  In many ways, research is the same," she continues.  "More so than in other professions, scientists can set their own schedules and decide what they want to study."

Well, maybe the relative handful of today's scientists with secure, well-paid academic research positions.  But for many more researchers -- for example, the scores of thousands of postdocs toiling on their lab chiefs' projects -- the ability to exercise such decisions probably seems like a distant rumor rather than a feature of their work lives.

In one important respect, however -- though not any that McCook mentions -- scientists do strongly resemble musicians in popular genres.  Both groups compete in what economists call tournament fields.  As noted a few months back in Science Careers, such professions afford huge rewards, often including fame, wealth, and stardom, to a very small number of people.  They also relegate the rest, including many whose abilities and accomplishments come close to matching those of the big winners, to obscurity and inferior opportunities.

In other words, the few researchers able boldly to pursue their own ideas are, to the many scientists now struggling to start or get on with independent research careers,  as such punk idols as the Ramones or Sex Pistols are to the countless would-be rock stars playing in their garages or at local venues.  Only a small percentage of these hopefuls will ever hit the big time.  The rest, know matter how talented or hard working they may be, will never get the big break that leads to stardom.

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