How passion for research can hinder your career and exacerbate injustice in science

Encouraging passion in career decisions can hinder diversity efforts in the workplace.Credit: Getty

Erin Cech began her academic life 22 years ago in electrical engineering, but found the extra sociology classes she took as an undergraduate more meaningful and relevant, so she switched subjects. Now a sociologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, she argued in her 2021 book. The problem with passion that choosing a career you love can risk exploitation by employers and inequality in the workplace and, ironically, undermine productivity.

What were your initial academic interests?

My inspiration to study electrical engineering was my grandmother who went blind when my mother was in her teenage years. She was amazing, living alone in a 100 year old house. I wanted to help make assistive technology better than what she had access to. I did well in engineering, but I kept asking my professors questions about things like access, usability, and inequality. Not only did they not know the answers, but they didn’t always think the questions were relevant and pushed me to pursue other fields, especially sociology.

I began taking sociology classes and realized that the discipline contained the tools, both methodological and theoretical, that I needed to be able to understand the processes of inequality in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and more broadly. the wide world. I really began to understand the power of these tools for thinking about the issues of inequality that I felt so compelled to address.

Was there a “eureka” moment?

yes It was during an ethics class in my electrical engineering curriculum. I was giving a presentation on how organizations should think about and deal with workforce inequality. Halfway through, a fellow student raised his hand and said, “Why are you talking about this? Poor people are only poor because they are lazy and stupid.”

Portrait of Erin A. Cech.

Erin Cech explores the cultural aspects of inequality.Credit: Moni Valentini

It wasn’t so much the comment that moved me, but the reaction of everyone else in the room, which was to laugh together. And the teacher did not oppose the idea that the workforce is a meritocracy. It led to this realization that there was something about STEM culture that helped perpetuate these kinds of worldviews that felt very pressing and troubling. It was a moment that got me thinking that I wanted to be able to explore these patterns of inequality more deeply.

What is your passion now?

I specialize in cultural mechanisms of inequality. I’m particularly interested in beliefs and practices that generally seem positive or benign, but can be really powerful forces driving inequality because they fall under the radar of expectations of equal treatment. Self-expression is one example: we tend to think of choices and acts of self-expression as broadly beneficial, but my research reveals that because the self is a gendered, classed, and racialized construct, these choices can help perpetuate things like professional gender and racial segregation.

How did the research for your book come about?

It started as something completely different, about how women and men decide on their majors in college and what they want to do after graduation. While doing the research, I came up with the idea of ​​the passion principle. It became glaringly obvious – I couldn’t ignore it. The stories just became so powerful and compelling that I realized I had to write this as the centerpiece of a book.

What is the principle of passion, in a nutshell?

The cultural idea is that the best way for people to make career decisions is to focus on their sense of identity, satisfaction, and what they find meaningful, often without considering factors such as job security and salary.

I looked at how potential employers evaluate applications and found that not only are they more likely to be interested in hiring a candidate who expresses passion for the job than someone who doesn’t, but they’re also more likely to hire that person , because they believe they will put in more effort without an increase in compensation. So there is an understanding of the potential labor that can be extracted from the passionate person. I suspect that if employers don’t see their employees expressing passion, there is often an assumption that that person is not as competent or qualified as someone else.

How does this apply to scientists and researchers?

At the individual level, fostering passion in career decisions reinforces segregation in STEM fields. If we tell people to go and pursue what they are passionate about, they often follow paths that end up reproducing the same entrenched patterns of gender, racial, or class segregation. These pathways are not the product of innate senses of interest, but rather how people are socialized over the course of their lives.

Then is the passion principle a delusion?

There is no systematic evidence in the social science literature that people who are passionate about their work produce better products than people who are not.

In fact, there can be a penalty for being passionate about work. We know that people who have rest and recovery time in their lives away from work are more productive and more creative when they are doing their work. If someone is so passionate about their work that they have little or no time for outside interests, the lack of time and space for creative or rejuvenating activities can actually undermine productivity and creativity.

Why do we follow our passion?

The reason people pursue their passion is because the job market requires such intense work commitments. Among professionals, especially STEM professionals, there is an expectation to work 50, 60, 70 hours a week routinely, and the idea of ​​going to a workplace where you don’t love your job is really scary. If someone loves their job, at least it won’t feel like hard work. Thus, the desire to follow passion is an individual-level solution to the structural problems of overwork and the demand for overwork.

Are there any downsides to not being passionate about work? What about people who do boring, repetitive work who want passion?

For professionals, service providers, and employees alike, whether people like their jobs depends a lot on how others treat them at work. I would argue that being treated with dignity in the workplace is more important than having a passion for long-term satisfaction and enjoyment that spans education level and career type.

So should we cool our passion?

The passion principle is a good one to follow if you take a holistic approach to understanding your relationship with paid work. It’s a good idea to think about the types of sacrifices being made and be honest with yourself about what you want.

Of course, passion has its advantages. Being in a job aligned with one’s passion is associated with increased engagement and job satisfaction. Yet there are other ways to find job satisfaction and engagement. Enjoying the company of colleagues is one thing; being inspired by the organization is another. I’m not advocating that everyone should myopically pursue financial security or the highest salary they can get, even if they hate the job; rather, the book raises concerns about the risk to both individual workers and the workforce as a whole when passion becomes the central focus of career decision-making and too much is sacrificed in pursuit of passion.

What is your advice to scientists who are passionate about the work but don’t want the negative effects?

Diversify your “meaningful portfolio”. Make room in your schedule for tasks or activities that really drive you, that are exciting and interesting outside of work. This is so important because the workforce is inherently volatile. If people put all their identity eggs in one basket, in their passion – their work – then their work suddenly disappears or they are reassigned to something they are not passionate about, which can feel like a loss of a core part of their identity . Nurturing identity spaces outside of work is particularly important for graduate students and early-career STEM professionals, as the academic labor market in particular is precarious.

Who will the book be useful for?

I hope it is useful and important to the research community, but also to other constituencies—students and PhD students, people in the policy space, and people in leadership positions in organizations. It may be useful for those deciding what they want to do after university, for example, or who mentor or structure the experience of people in this position, such as parents, secondary school teachers or university administrators.

Are you still following your passion?

I had to adapt the way I follow it. It was important to recognize my own privilege and the privilege of other faculty members around me that we were lucky to pursue our passion and have jobs that are relatively stable and well-paying, but many other people are not so lucky.

I’ve also had to make room in my schedule for other things I’m passionate about – playing the violin, doing dot mandalas, and enjoying the outdoors, hiking with my wife.

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