Can we compare scientists to rock stars?

Yesterday I was promoted to the level of Honorary Associate Professor and for some reason it got me thinking about the parallels between scientists and rock stars.

You can’t see it? Let me explain. Most musicians start out by learning an instrument, by training their voices and by learning about music in general; most scientists learn train within in a specific area of science while learning about the broader field. A musician may join a band early on, just as a scientist will join a lab pre- and post-PhD. Most musicians start out writing and releasing songs without recognition; some may be classics, but most are average quality. Most scientists start out by writing scientific papers; some may be citation classics but some wallow in obscurity for years garnering single figure citations. And maybe being awarded a platinum disc for selling a million records is like reaching 1,000 citations?

However, we all know that rare case of a musician or scientist seemingly coming out of nowhere and zooming meteorically up the charts with their first release/paper.  Often such people are lauded and sometimes, hype creeps in. Some may continue at that level, others crash and burn.

What other parallels are there? Is finding a good music manager akin to finding a good lab head or mentor? Do young scientists ever get ripped off by a lab head “borrowing” their ideas. You bet, although a great synergy between a mentor/lab head and young Postdoctoral researcher can really bolster their career and help them navigate “The Business”.

How about salary? Well, surprisingly there are parallels there too. Both musicians and scientists are mainly in it for the love of it and often settle for a pittance and on rare occasions may be financially rewarded for performance. When they make it big and play large stadiums or  lecture halls, they may get their fares and hotel paid for. I even once saw a scientist trash their hotel room.

Recognition? Here are where things start to get a little different. Rock stars are recognised wherever they go by a broad section of the public. Top scientists get recognised only at their specialised conferences. Very rarely, your Sir Richard Dawkins or your Baroness Greenfield will be recognised by many, but even then, at levels much lower than rock stars or sports players.

Finally and almost inevitably, some rock stars and scientists drop out of the field because of disillusionment, burn-out or lack of funds. Coincidentally, both seem to end up rather unexpectedly as school teachers. But we all know the true heroes of science – the Mick Jaggers and the Leonard Cohens of the field. They have triumphed despite rough beginnings and bad living. Let us celebrate the whole span of the scientific career and aspire to be as they are, for one day, someone may just stop you in the street and say, “I know you, you’re… that old science guy/gal”.  

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