I was out for a fancier-than-usual lunch with some postdoc and researcher colleagues when the waiter casually presented us with an innocent, yet loaded question, “Are you students?”. All of us were in our mid-thirties. A full decade had passed since our undergraduate and master’s degree studies, and at least four years since any of us had been even PhD students. Maybe this was an attempt to flatter, to say you look young enough to be 23? No, we were not students and even the most suspicious salesperson in Alko rarely asked for our IDs anymore, so we definitely did not even look that young. This perhaps well-meant question sparked a conversation in our table about how should we feel about the assumed student status, does it imply that our work is not real work and when do the regular folk start taking us seriously.
During my time in the US as a postdoc, I found it even more difficult than in Finland to convey the seriousness of what I did to the outside world. Explaining to some of my non-academic friends and acquaintances that I am a postdoc frequently incited the question “So… Are you going to get a job at some point?”. While I am fairly certain they did not mean to undermine the value of the time I was spending in the greenhouse, field and lab uncovering the mysteries and evolutionary origins of plant-plant communication, I was baffled and felt misunderstood. Every time. Without skipping a beat, I found myself explaining that “I actually do get paid, you know.” Maybe not the most convincing argument in conveying the importance academic research and my part in it, but they caught me by surprise. Every time.
Should we take these casual comments to mean that what we do for work is not real work? We are world experts in our fields, our research gets recognized by the global, international community of peers, we find answers to questions no-one even though to ask ten years ago and still, to the outsider we are simply students. If getting to spend our days fueled by curiosity and discovery is not considered, by some, to be real work then is that something to be upset about? Perhaps it is not work in the sense that our productivity is not yielding a direct monetary or material benefit to anyone in the time scales other more traditional work does. Full disclosure, I have spent some of my work days as a postdoc punching holes in plant leaves with a metal pet brush. The purpose of this activity was to create a uniform repeatable damage treatment to my experimental plants, but put out of context, it just sounds like the goings on of a crazy person.
If our work not being considered work is a mere problem of terminology, then we should take these comments as opportunities for conversation about what is it like to have the creation of knowledge as a profession. However, if they echo a deeper mistrust and dismissal of the role of science in society, we should be worried. Perhaps we need to start making it clear to more than just the occasional waiter that even though what we do on a day to day basis may not always sound like work, the academic pursuit for a more profound understanding of our world is, nonetheless, of unquestionable importance.