Asking the Right Question

Dorothy Boorse

As I reflect on my time as editor of The Well, I am struck by how many wonderful pieces we have published over the years. For ten weeks, The Well will share some of my favorites from the past in a TBT (Throw-Back Thursday) series. Enjoy! — Marcia

Gordon College professor Dorothy Boorse tells her story of the intense pressures to succeed in academia and her conclusion that the right question is not “what is your publication record?” It is one of my favorite pieces at The Well since it describes the joy of doing the work of a professor as part of a balanced life. 

When I received the job offer for my current position, I was an ABD PhD student. Thrilled to be offered a job before my degree was even completed, I enthused about the offer to a woman scientist visiting our lab.

“Oh,” she said, “I could never go to one of those small schools. I like research too much. I have a friend who went to a small school. She did research weekends and summers and after fifteen years she couldn’t keep it up. Now she just writes about education.” This last sentence was said as if writing about education was definitely a fate to be avoided.

I felt like the wind was taken out of my sails. I had just received a job offer, something every finishing PhD is desperate for. I could not do a postdoc because my husband, after years of a horrible job, did not want to move and then move again in two years. I could not see how it was all going to work and then, there it was: I had a job. I had prayed for this, fretted about it, worked hard for it, rejoiced over it — and this woman was dissing it.

Eight years later I can say she was at least partly right. I am at a small school, some of my research has not gone the way I planned, and I am looking for the next research direction. I teach a great deal and I write about education. I wish the research was going better. But the thing this older colleague did not mention was that I might like my life.

I am a firm believer in the ecological principle of allocation. You can spend energy on one thing or another, but you cannot maximize more than one thing. The career track I have is one that works well for a generalist. I am opportunistic and take many of the openings that come along. This means I have testified before congress, been on task forces for the school, written papers on cool topics I am thinking about, and make time for things like this essay. It also means that when I sit down to do a research paper, I have sometimes lost my steam and it takes a while to get my head into it. It means it is harder to focus and that at the end of the day, there is no one thing I am known for more than everyone else.

But when I look at the world, the most productive scientists I see have cut many other things out of their lives. Some have no children; many have no pets, don’t care for elderly parents, do not read literature, and do not mentor a range of students. For them, this may not be a bad thing. This may be the situation that works best for them. And I have to admit, there are some high-powered scientists who seem to have most of these things as well as the science and remain centered people. But not everyone has the same total skills or energy. So I have to face the trade-offs I need to make.

But even when I put it that way— “I may have less total energy than someone else and because I have to spend some on my family and I have so many teaching and other responsibilities, I can’t be as productive a scientist” — I may be saying something true, but I think it is the wrong truth. It answers the question, “Why am I less productive than someone else?” and it is in the end a petty and self-justifying, defensive answer.

In my best moments, I take an entirely different approach. Then, I do not look at scientific productivity as the only measure of success. Rather than asking, “Am I doing everything I thought I would do?” or “Am I doing as much in my field as other people?” I suggest we ask, “Am I contributing to the world?” and “Does my life work?” A Christian can ask, “Am I doing what I think God is calling me to do with my talents and abilities?”

For me, I believe the answer to these latter questions is yes. Of course, I am not a farmer, orphanage operator, goat owner, or major author, all things which I could have envisioned myself wanting to be at points in my life. I am not at a major university where the air is full of learning, the labs full of the latest equipment, and every sidewalk conversation pushing the edges of current knowledge. My publication record is low. But I know, when I look at the things I am asked to do, that I am doing well in my job. I know I like having a mentee visit every week and try to figure out her direction in life. I know I like taking students in the field. I like reading papers in major journals and helping students understand them. I like seeing students go to graduate school and make their way in the world.

I work at an institution whose mission I fully support and whose administration is strong and communicative. I particularly like teaching. I love being able to think about interdisciplinary things and having a voice in the direction of the institution as I sit on a variety of task forces and committees. I am so committed to my institution that instead of some of the research I might have done, I have spent part of the summer writing a pre-proposal for a new major, being on a task force for a new core course, and proposing a stewardship committee.

When I was in graduate school, I was taught by a number of excellent limnologists. The mental model we were given of the academic life was that of a cohort of fish, something called “young of year.” As a fish cohort, we were supposedly thrown into a lake with resources where we had to compete. The best would get more resources, work harder, grow faster, and eventually be the fittest. These would succeed and get the best academic jobs, get the best grants, and become leaders in their professional societies.

One professor declared in a seminar, “In the end, what stands is your publication record. Jobs may come and go, spouses may come and go, but at the end, what you have is your publication record.”

This astonished me at the time and does not at all reflect my worldview. Although this person was an eminent scientist whom I highly respected, I felt empowered to strongly disagree. I disagree with his statement and with the “young of year” metaphor. I am not in competition with my cohort of fish friends, trying hard to be the one with the most papers at the end of my life. In fact, I suspect that one of the reasons many women drop out of the scientific world after getting their PhDs is that they often do not accept that as a life goal.

Two years ago, at a major conference, I began to feel validated in my view. Several colleagues, all more scientifically successful, bemoaned their priorities which had left them at mid-career lacking in relationships, spiritual life, hobbies, and any non-work related activities. Several envied my life and said that they were beginning to set limits on their scientific work. This was a first and felt pretty good.

But feeling good because other people envy my stable family life or the breadth of my interests is not what I want either. Someday I may meet people who have all of those interests and are very productive scientists as well, and then I might be tempted to bitterness. I really mean something else — looking at the whole effort of science as a collaborative effort, rather than a competition.

I have a very different metaphor for my role in science. I am reminded of the action of ants in a forest. When they reach a barrier such as a stream, many cast themselves out to form a chain, and link together so that others in the group can cross on top of them. Some of the first ants to reach the stream may not be the ones who even end up crossing the stream at all. Neither is the one that crosses first necessarily the most fit or in some way the best of the ants.

The ants have a group goal and individuals have different roles in achieving it. As in the ants accomplishing a task, I view my profession, specifically that of ecologists, as a group trying to accomplish a task. Our task is to find out more about how the world works, monitor the status of ecology around the world, and disseminate that information. Such dissemination is done so that new scientists can be trained, non-scientists can be better citizens, people of faith can better be connected to science, managers can better care for resources, and politicians can make better decisions.

I am personally more of the disseminator than some of my colleagues, even though this activity is not considered true science. But past precedents have shown that scientists doing only science do not necessarily better the world. They can be separated from the world by a gulf of misunderstanding. So disseminating science from the ivory tower to lay people is useful and furthers my profession, whether I become a famous scientist or not.

Whatever your role in the scholarly world, ask the right questions and have a mental metaphor that accurately reflects your worldview. For me, the picture of ants accomplishing a task by division of labor, unhindered by false pride, has been a more useful model than that of competing young fish. This collaborative image has helped me to ask, “Am I in the right place? Am I doing the right things? Is this where God wants me?” For now, I think those answers are yes.

Find other articles from this series at Marcia's Picks.

Dorothy Boorse received her doctoral degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and joined the Gordon College Biology Faculty in January of 1999. Her primary research and teaching interests are in aquatic community ecology and invasive species. She spends a great deal of time connecting science to non-scientists and looking at ways science and faith integrate, particularly in the area of environmental ethics. Dorothy is the co-author on an environmental science textbook. She also was lead author on  "Loving the Least of These: Addressing a Changing Environment,” a report on poverty and climate change published by  the National Association of Evangelicals (2011). Dorothy is married to Gary Wernsing, and they have two sons.


Thanks for sharing your experience! It's easy to let our culture tell us what we ought to be doing, and much more important to be asking what God is calling us to do in our given context. I've had wonderful mentors who published widely, and wonderful mentors who spent hour after hour with students, leaving them little time to publish. Some stay engaged with scholarship, others let it go and spend their time in primary sources, still others invest in their churches and communities. I'm glad there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to an academic career.
I'm a "disseminator," too, which is why I spend time blogging ( when I could be doing more research. I'm encouraged by the way you've embraced that role with joy!

Jan 9, 2013 9:59AM by

This article is very encouraging. Indeed, it prompted me to write a reflection of my own. I find the imagery of the ants particularly striking. It is refreshing to read such a biblically centred approach to academic success and its measurement.

Aug 17, 2008 10:43AM by Anna Blanch

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