People not understanding your job


It’s pretty obvious that non-academics, even those that are well familiar with the college experience, don’t have an idea what our jobs are about or what our responsibilities are. At social occasions outside academia, I’ve found it’s best to not mention that I’m a professor, because it triggers a set of false assumptions that misdirect the conversation.

These misunderstandings about your job are only the tip of the iceberg, if you work for a teaching institution. Misconceptions about the professoriate abound, without adding into the mix that typical preconceptions might, to some extent, fit a number of your colleagues. My campus actually has a huge fraction of professors that are only there two days per week, and are not working when they’re not there. This is not the case for the scientists, though.

Even people at your own work misunderstand your job. It’s reasonable that administrative staff and students might not get it, but most other faculty – including some science faculty – don’t understand that that scientific research is part of the job.

Last year, I had just returned from an extended trip conducting field research with ten students. It was a challenging and rewarding excursion. Upon my return, my dean at the time — once a science researcher herself — asked me without any hint of irony, “How was vacation?”

On my campus, almost no classes are taught on Fridays. (This evolved in the budget crisis before last.) Every non-scientist that I bump into on campus asks, “what are you doing here? It’s Friday!?” Even worse, every other science faculty member in other departments asks the same question, begrudging that they have to be on campus for some service commitment. It is mostly inconceivable that I am on campus because this is where my lab is located, and that I’m doing work.

I live halfway between Caltech and the nearby NASA-Jet Propulsion Laboratory. There are misconceptions tied to living near a NASA facility. Folks around here hear “scientist” and they think “rocket scientist.”  Wait, you’re not at Caltech, you teach at a state university?  Oh, I thought you were a research scientist. Nobody says this, of course. I don’t perceive an insult. This behavior is curious, though, and can lead to misunderstandings.

At my kid’s elementary school, we are blessed with a corps of volunteers that work with the kids on a variety of science, math and engineering projects. Admittedly, I don’t do this regularly or as often as I should (and I feel guilty about it, even if the time isn’t to be found on my calendar). There is a weird distinction among the community volunteers. The rocket scientists are “Dr. Smith” and “Dr. Jones” and the non-rocket scientists are “Mr. Cooper” and “Mr. White.” The only reason this does bug me is that the kids are getting a misconception that being an astronomer or rocket scientist gives you a fancy title, but geologists and ecologists don’t. The parents who are Dr. X and Dr. Z don’t ask to be called Dr., just as I don’t ask to be. They just have naturally attracted the label.  More often than not, kids beckon me as the dad of my kid, rather than by my own name. I like that best, actually.

I don’t know if this has happened because they don’t see the field of ecology as Dr.-worthy, or if it’s because I’m not at a high-powered research institution, or my attire and bearing doesn’t gel with the preconception of a scientific researcher. (I am a field biologist, after all. Cargo pants are sometimes involved.) It’s obvious that everyone’s more impressed by the rocket scientists and think they have more to offer. This is exactly why I feel guilty about not volunteering enough, because I’m tacitly allowing science to be seen as a narrowly focused enterprise.

When I lived near Ft. Detrick, where the U.S. army developed its biological weapons, people would assume that as a scientist was doing research for classified military purposes. That was an entirely different sort of misconception.

As long as the people who misunderstand you don’t have an effect on your job, I don’t think it matters. I’m sure I have no understanding about what an investment banker does all day, and if I tried to guess, I’d probably end up being annoying. It is a major problem if my own Dean doesn’t know that when I travel somewhere on university business, it is actually work, and not vacation. That’s a difficult one to fix, and usually I think the only way to do it is to let the work speak for itself. So, we’ll just keep our heads down and do our jobs.

3 thoughts on “People not understanding your job

  1. I’d rather somebody try to understand or make a bad assumption than NOT even ask about what I do at all!

  2. The same is true for me. But if they’re not going to understand my job, I’d rather them ask me how I make coffee, or what good new music I’ve found, or how my kid’s soccer team did this year. Those are things that’d be more fun to discuss with non-researchers. If people want to know about ecology, ants, or rainforest, I’m all over it. But if they want to talk about how I go about it, or what my job is like, I move the conversation on.

  3. “(I am a field biologist, after all. Cargo pants are sometimes involved.)” I’ve always liked the phrase “muddy boot biology” as a description of what I do and love.

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