Saturday, October 3, 2009

Healthy Work Environment

I was talking to my sister today about whether it’s more important to make a higher salary working someplace with toxic colleagues or working for a few dollars less with a staff who all get along. She works in a dental practice with seven other women who all work well together. My sister could work in another office for a somewhat higher salary, but might not have such a collegial group of co-workers. She’s happy where she is, and I would agree that she’s better off working in a supportive atmosphere. She and her coworkers help each other out, cover for each other, and generally behave in a professional and caring manner. That's worth a lot more than money, in my opinion.

The ideal situation, of course, is to make a lot of money and work with people you like. But how often does that occur?

One could ask a similar question about high salary vs. job satisfaction (exclusive of coworkers). I think most people who go into some realm of science really enjoy their work, and many would likely pick the same profession even if they made less money. At least, that was true for me and my generation. I’m not so sure of the current crop of students, many of whom seem very focused on monetary rewards and other perks.

I recently talked to some seventh-graders about science and the research I do. I went to six schools and talked to one or two classes at each school. These were schools in low-income neighborhoods with mostly “disadvantaged” students. Quite an experience, needless to say.

I was most nervous about whether they could relate to me at all (a well-educated, white, upper-middle class woman--and a science nerd). I then had the idea to start out by telling them about my background growing up in a rural area and on a farm. I showed them a picture of me and my father after a fishing trip (see photo) and asked how many of them liked to fish (a lot).

I went on to explain that many of the things that my father (who did not finish high school) taught me about nature and the outdoors helped prepare me for a career in science. I went on to show them successive pictures of me at various stages (college (fishing with my boy-friend), graduate school (fishing during fieldwork), first job, etc.). I ended my introduction with a video of me and my husband (also a scientist) doing fieldwork together. This seemed to strike a chord.

Well, back to the point I was intending to make….The most common question (usually the first question) I got from these seventh-graders was, “How much do you make?” At first, I was taken aback. I then realized that these students were actually contemplating what a career in science might be like and wanted to know if they could get rich doing it. I was not going to tell them my personal salary, of course. So I finally answered that salaries varied depending on the exact job, but that you could make a decent living being a scientist. I then emphasized that the most important thing was to do something you enjoy. I went on to explain that I loved what I do—my job allowed me to be outdoors in nature, travel to interesting places, teach others, and work with lots of different people. I explained that in the long run, loving your work was more important than making a lot of money.

This answer clearly did not resonate with some students, but others (mostly girls) came up to me later and said they wanted to do exactly what I did. So I guess I did make an impression after all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've made a nice chunk of change working in a horrible environment, and I've made peanuts working in a fabulous environment. I'd take peanuts in a fabulous environment anyday.
My experience is also that women want to know exactly how other women "make it" in terms of their careers, having families, etc. I also take some time to show old pictures of me (some are totally hilarious and embarrassing) when I start teaching new classes, or even when I meet with school groups. I never really know how to say "well, I completely fumbled my way" and landed here. Women ask about my personal details, while men ask about specifics of what I do. Little girls ask about the things I get to do and places I've been, little boys ask about equipment and vehicles.