What is life like for an academic or those involved in research?

I met someone who is an oceanographer. He was telling me how he got funded to go on a trip to Malaysia, to study (this part I missed out - well, I didn’t really but he said something technical and being the proud idiot I am, I’ll just refer to it and move on…).

Anyhoo, he was saying how they stayed in a really beautiful hotel, and though the food sucked (according to him), he really enjoyed his trip. Overall he said it was a great experience and he learned a lot about something he loved (jist of it anyway).

It left me feeling a little bit hollow. I hear stories about research assistants and other academics recieving grants and funding to study abroad and do exciting things that they really enjoy while I’m stuck doing the ol’ 9 to 5 grindage and understanding the significance of Jerry Maguire.

But how much of it is true? I mean for all those who are involved in research (particularly those from strong academic backgrounds - for example those who are researching for their thesis or are assistant professors etc.) I say, “speak up”. What is working life like for you? Do you find yourself in more or less financial trouble than those who do other forms of work? Do you enjoy what you do?

And is there any real financial disparity between those who conduct research coming from top (or highly rated) institutions (Harvard, MIT, CalTech etc.) and those who are from less esteemed backgrounds? Do they go through the same level of financial strife as you? I mean essentially, what is the difference between conducting research for a highly rated institution (Bell Labs) and a not-so-highly rated institution?

And what is a typical day for you? Is it similiar day-in-day-out or does it differ from day-to-day? What do you love about it?

– Please note that I do understand the jibble you may have between mixing up academics with researchers, but I hope you get what I’m pegging at.–

Not sure if my experience is what you are looking for or not, but here goes:
I am not an academic but my career over the last 17 years has been biomedical research. I also do not have any kind of advanced degree, only a BS but that is not unusual in my industry.

Not all research involves travel to exotic places, in fact I would guess most people who make their living doing research don’t travel for work. I worked for about two years as a lab tech at Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, a teaching hospital affiliated with Harvard Medical School. Many of the Principal Investigators (read: MDs and PhDs) had positions at Harvard Medical School or at the University proper. The lab I worked in was doing pretty basic cancer research, many of the labs at Dana Farber and similar institutions though do much more clinical (meaning patient oriented) work, ie they actually study cells from patients, or something like that.
We tended to work more with cells from animals such as mice, rats, and hamsters. The job wasn’t really 9 to 5, as long as you did all your work no one really cared exactly what hours you kept. Some weekend work was sometimes required, but we were allowed to leave early or get there late on other days to make up for it. Dress was casual and the intellectual atmosphere was one that promoted free discussion and intellectual exchange. I also worked among a very smart and motivated group of people from all over the country and all over the world, of many nationalities, ethnicities and religions.

Since then I have worked in the biotech industry, amazingly enough at the same company for the past 14 years now. When I started it was very small but has grown to a pretty good size. The only difference from my point of view is the research is more focused on getting a working product approved and marketed for a specific disease, rather than in finding out an underlying basis for, say, cancer. I personally prefer the private sector to working in an academic setting but I know many scientists do not. The atmosphere has definitely gotten more corporate over the years, though. It is more 9 to 5 than it used to be.

It’s certainly true that some research jobs will require more traveling than others. My father was a French historian. This mandated that he travel to France about once every three or four years for a duration of several months to work in the libraries. However, all active fields of research have some number of annual conferences and any professional will be expected to attend one from time to time. Typically a research lab or university will provide all or part of the expenses for that.

A big part of the financial picture for reserachers traveling to exotic locations to do their work also depends on private fellowships. Organizations such as Fulbright and Guggenheim tend to be extremely competitive, but they provide a considerable chunk of cash for those who win, usual enough for a whole family to live in the location of their choice during an year-long fellowship. Other fellowships are available to graduate students and those just coming out of college. For instance, the Watson Fellowship gives a recent college graduate money for a year to use on just about any plan that they can come up with. Needless to say, that on’es extremely competitive too.