The “curse” of success in science

(This post may seem like boasting just as much as it seems like complaining, for which I apologize in advance.)

Those who are regular readers of this blog may have noticed that things have been a little quiet again for the past couple of weeks.  It turns out that I’ve been almost entirely buried under a mass of bureaucratic tasks, which I’ve managed to dig myself out from under, at least for a while.

As a graduate student and post-doc, I always marveled at how senior researchers would burden themselves with a large number of bureaucratic tasks, such as journal editing, academic committees, article reviewing, proposal reviewing, and conference organizing.  I confidently reassured myself that I would never allow such tasks to bog me down and take away from my true academic love, namely research.

What I hadn’t counted on is the fact that, as I’ve become more established and well-known in my field, I’ve made friends with lots of people who are journal editors, conference planners, and book publishers.  I end up refereeing some 20 papers a year for journals, simply because I’m friends with a large number of editors.  This year, I’ve taken a rather high-up role in the organizing of a major optics conference, primarily because two friends asked me if I could help them out.

I can’t complain too much, because it is quite flattering to be asked to help with these things, and it is quite interesting to see how things work behind the scenes at journals, conferences and publishing houses.

It may be a little too enlightening, however.  When I was younger, there were a number of conferences I attended where I thought to myself, “Who organized this mess?”  Today I realize that it was probably someone like me: a person hesitantly agreeing to accept an organizing role and now scrambling to get the pieces to fit together as a coherent whole.

The situation is analogous to growing older in general.  As children, we tend not to worry about things too much because the “grown-ups” are in charge and will take care of everything.  Then, inevitably, you suddenly realize one day that you are now the grown-up — and nobody gave you an instruction manual for the job!

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7 Responses to The “curse” of success in science

  1. The Wife says:

    Honey – I tried to muster up some sympathy for you, but I couldn’t. Welcome to my world of work…

  2. Blake Stacey says:

    Along the same lines, I discovered that when one works in an “interdisciplinary” group, one can find oneself volunteered for tasks like assembling the conference proceedings volume, because one is the only person in the group who can do LaTeX. Funny, that.

    • Blake: That is a perfect example of another “double edged sword”! On the one hand, you’ve got a sort of job security as The Only Guy Who Can Do Task X; on the other hand, you’re The Only Guy Who Will Ever Be Asked to Do Task X!

  3. Nick says:

    Congrats, I think? I imagine you’re very busy but that just means that other people trust you get stuff done. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

    • Nice wrote: “And there’s nothing wrong with that.”

      I guess that’s why I said the post would sound just as much like boasting as complaining! It is very nice to have friends and colleagues that actually trust you go get things done. The part I didn’t anticipate, which really motivated the post, is that it is much harder to turn down people you know very well — and as you get more established, you end up knowing lots and lots of people! If miscellaneous strangers were asking me to do all this extra service work, I would have a much easier time saying no.

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