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  • Writer's pictureBethann Garramon Merkle

No, you do *not* have to love your job (even if you still believe that science can help save the world)

Updated: Feb 13

A room full of dirty dishes surrounds a single man who is leaned over a sink.
Sometimes, even a "cushy" academic job feels like being the solo dishwasher facing mountains of dirty dishes.

We have a thing in this country where you have to love your job. There's so much marketing and messaging (and a million life coaches) telling us: "Work your passion."

But, there is a huge swath of the world that sees us (and this take) as just ridiculous. Their standup comedians probably make fun of us for it. Put another way, a lot of people in the world just work to make a living, not to achieve self-actualization. And that's okay [1].

You're allowed to just say, "this is the work I'm doing right now, and I have passions, and they're not the same thing." That's not a bad thing. In fact, it's quite strategic and reasonable to have an "anchor job" [2] so you preserve your creative, intellectual, and social energy for other things you want to do and make.

There are some familiar examples: many people in North America teach in departments like English and Honors, but do so primarily to fund their work as writers. There's also the analogue of artists who also teach to fund their time and expenses to make art. To be clear, most of the stereotypes around anchor jobs are the ones I just mentioned: artist, writer, musician, dancer. These are all creative work/identities that we also misunderstand as being "innate" – "gifts" or "talents" that people are magically born with or just don't have.

It is true that some people are born with aptitude or physiological capacity to excel in these forms of expression. But, most of these disciplines also require intensive, sustained training, practice, and a lot more hard work and struggle than we can see from the outside [3]. The same is true of many athletes (being rich and famous enough to get sponsorships is rare compared to the many athletes out there scraping by), as well as chefs and so many other people working so many kinds of jobs while also contributing to society.

Maybe you can see where I'm heading with this?

People who work in science, science communication, or any other aspect of academia/institutional science (at any career stage), also have the permission to delineate for themselves how much of their work life is an expression of their passion and core values/identity and how much of work is simply making a living [4]. I'd argue that means we all have the responsibility to determine how much we value the work we do alongside finding meaning and social purpose in other aspects of our lives [5].

Sure, the job of an artist, musician, athlete, or chef might seem like a dream compared to going to meetings, revising manuscripts, getting funding proposals rejected, and mentoring trainees through their own challenges and stresses. But, again, that's because we're looking at the finished painting or symphony, gold medal, or spectacular cake, from the outside. Remember that your trainees usually only see your finished, published manuscripts and the press releases announcing your recently funded grants. They rarely see your late nights, multiple rejections, or all the years you spent as a trainee.

Similarly, when we look wistfully at folks baking cakes for a living, we only see the beautiful decorations. We don't see the overhead expenses for the storefront, the too-tight-margins to pay for extra help, or the late nights and early mornings that are unavoidable in a bakery business. We don't see the scars from oven burns or the fatigued muscles from working up massive batches of batter or frosting. We don't see the countless hours spent marketing into the voids of social media.

When we're on the inside of our work in academia (or similar entities), all we see are the institutional equivalent of oven burns and endless marketing: emails forever, byzantine processes just to turn in an expense receipt, and all the administrative drama. And of course, that work feels demotivating, daunting, frustrating, and often meaningless. Part of the dilemma here is that our own notions of what our work should be, what our day jobs should actually involve, are still similar to the impressions our trainees have. That is, most of us went into scholarly work for the fun stuff and a chance to make the world a better place. Most of us didn't get a firm orientation to the behind-the-scenes realities of being a professional scholar. Many folks also had the impression that academia was different, somehow better from the "real world" where jobs are less meaningful and fulfilling. It's absolutely no surprise, then, that many people, as early as undergraduate and graduate school, feel like they are doing it wrong when they start to experience all the minutia, inefficiencies, and injustices of the academic workplace. And we need to reckon with and rectify a lot of this, especially the latter.

All play and no work is no more true for artists, musicians, and chefs than it is for people working in and adjacent to academia. We all have to do the equivalent of learning color theory, practicing our scales, and mopping the kitchen floor. But, it's also important that you recognize that you are not "doing it wrong" if you feel "meh" about the work you do for money. There's a lot more collective action (and real, positive change) possible when we stop treating scholarly roles (including students) as passion jobs that we should do under grim conditions, for the love of learning (even if we do feel that love!) or conservation or mitigating cancer, or any other big P-Purpose of being in or affiliated with academia. If we keep telling ourselves that we have to love our job to do it well, love our job to be a good person, love our job to justify having it, we perpetuate the gross and minute inequalities baked into this system. If we keep telling ourselves we have to love our academic jobs to do them well, start to treat ourselves as the "starving artist." And, when faculty and admin in higher ed see themselves as "starving artists," we hammer our own mental health and perpetuate a scarcity mindset that has severe downstream impacts: paying grad students and most staff poverty wages, not telling undergrads that they can get paid to do research experience, perpetuating precarity in most faculty roles (tenure-track/tenured folks are now the minority), and so on.

No one should be "lucky" to do their passion as a career if that means struggling to make it. Everyone deserves a living wage. That should not be contingent upon your inherited privilege, current position in society, or the kind of job you have. Likewise, everyone making a living wage can uncouple us from the injustice of only some people getting to do work they do love, or people having to sacrifice their wellbeing to do work they love, or feeling like they have to love the work they do, instead of just making a living as part of their broader life.

Getting on board with the right to make a living can help us untether from the debilitating grind (and shame!) of feeling like we have to love our jobs in academia to have them. There will always be aspects of these jobs (and any job) that we don't love. If you already work in academia, you can choose to keep doing that work and still not have to love everything that you do for work – certainly not every single day.

You do not have to love your job to believe that you matter.



[1] Why am I even talking about loving (or not) your job today? Well, I was recently on a 'Diverse Faculty Panel' sponsored by our Graduate School and Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. One of the questions we got from a student during the Q&A was about dealing with the dreaded "ABD" phase, when all the work is done, and you "just have to write it up" (which is a rant for another day). I said a few things about not feeling "wrong" if you're not passionate about your work, and that led to today's post. (The other panelists are people I have fan-girled, and I was so grateful to hear their take on everything from writing habits to how they made it through the challenges of grad school as multi-dimensionally minoritized people. They said a lot of really important things that offer valuable insight for students, faculty, and administrators. You can watch a full recording of our panel discussion here.)

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