CONvergence, SkepchickCON, and Things Other Than Money That Increase Utility Levels

Today at CONvergence I went to a panel discussion on evolution. The panelists included PZ Myers, Bug Girl, Greg Laden and Matt Kuchta (my personal favorite – like a much better version of Ross from Friends). I enjoyed listening to what they had to say, and I also enjoyed (some of) the questions they took from the audience. I particularly liked the fuzzy dinosaurs bit, but more on that later.

I made the entire room laugh. I didn’t do something terribly embarrassing, either. I actually used a bit of wit to make people laugh. It was fun. The panelists got on the topic of science and how we have a never-ending stream of questions to find answers for. Bug Girl and PZ joked about how nice it would be if there was just one question, they answered it, and then got to go have a drink and be done. Talk continued for a minute or two, then circled back to this idea. In a brief moment of relative silence, I said, “If science were that easy, you wouldn’t have a job and wouldn’t have any money with which to buy your drinks.”

It’s fun to make people laugh.

The panelists responded in what I consider to be a silly way. Keep in mind these are people that appear to enjoy their jobs – they have very clear passion for the various topics of their research and whatnot. They responded with, “You think we get paid for this?” PZ actually said he thinks he would make more money if he were a refrigerator repairman like his father wanted him to be (only if they’re unionized, PZ).

Here’s my problem with professors and researchers throwing those comments out there: there is more than one kind of compensation. Monetary compensation is certainly important, but the level of utility* reached by a professor paid $60,000** is probably higher than the level of utility reached by someone doing mindless data entry all day for the same pay. Simply being able to research something you have a passion for is basically compensation when we consider utility levels, as is being able, in the case of a professor, to live in a college environment. Whatever its issues, I think we have to admit that the college environment is rather more friendly than the rest of, well, the universe.

I’m not saying researcher/college professor is a glamorous or well-paying job. I’m just saying that there are actual reasons why it’s not, and that doesn’t make it a bad job by any means.

* I refer to the economic concept of utility here. It roughly translates to level of happiness. Often economists use income as a proxy for utility because income is far easier to measure and standardize. When we speak qualitatively, though, it is more reasonable to use utility as that term encompasses more contributing factors than just monetary income.

**Random number. Don’t throw a fit.

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