VC is a hobby. Watching and discussing volcanoes can be one of the highlights of anyone’s day. No special background is required: everyone can join in, and anyone can spot something others missed. Here at VC, watchers discovered new vents during the first Fagradalsfjall eruption (well before we called it that) which the Icelandic authorities had not yet noticed – and which they received with thanks. Questions are asked, and answered, discussion points are raised and not always resolved, and images and videos of eruptions are shared. Articles explore the background or just celebrate a particular volcano. It is a community of people of any background – or none.
Hobbies are personal. We don’t need to justify it to anyone else. It does not need to pay the bills. But it can become more. There are careers in the topic. They are not easy ones. It is hard to get into, demanding when in it, intensely competitive, lacks job security and hardly pays the bills. But it is also exciting, rewarding, and unique. It is the world of the academic. What is it like?
The World of Science
It is completely international. People of all backgrounds and nations work together and compete. The commonality is the interest in one particular area of science, and it can create a tight-knit community. It is a world that does not sit well with many government policies to reduce immigration. Fairly regularly, countries make it harder to hire academics from abroad, but it quickly makes the universities less competitive. We compare it to the world of sport: imagine football teams being stopped from hiring (’buying’??) talent from abroad while being expected to compete with the best in the world.
It is very conservative. We do science the way it was done 200 years ago. The methods and instruments evolve rapidly and are often new and well ahead of the ‘state of the art’ but the structure remains the same. There are rules. The data have to be correct. An experiment should get the same result no matter who does it: unrepeatable experiments cannot be considered. On the other hand, it has to be authorative: someone needs to put their name on the result. There is no such thing as anonymous science. Wikipedia does not qualify.
It is intensely competitive. There are many more people entering the field than there are academic positions available. People compete for limited funding, with the need to become known and recognized. The emotional cost can be high. And even the best never feel good enough. It is like a high jump competition where the bar is always put a little higher than ever before. But it is also about becoming part of a community, perhaps the most international one in the world.
It is a life of true life-long learning. Scientists work to extend knowledge, not repeat it. Every day is there to learn something new, either new understanding, new methods, or reading up on new developments elsewhere.
Opinions and speculation are allowed and encouraged. In fact, science progresses by disputes and many conferences are remembered for the arguments and disagreements. But in the end, data rules. Opinions need to be phrased as a model, and are tested against their predictions, not against the seniority of the proposer. Senior people may have more factual knowledge and have seen many of the theories proposed by younger scientists before. Their opinions may carry the weight of experience. But in the end, science looks at the data. Even Einstein was found to be wrong – on occasion.
How does one get into volcanology as an academic? It is obviously a branch of earth sciences. People work mainly in academia, some work in volcano observatories, and some in museums. The type of work varies tremendously. We have seen volcanologists dangling buckets into lava: they may do rock analysis and work as geologists. Some study the gasses coming out of volcanoes and are closer to climate and weather science. Some study the human side of volcanoes: why do people live near them, how are hazards perceived. Some study volcanophysics: the complex interaction between many processes involving magma and lava. Archaeologists study the sometimes lethal interactions of volcanoes and people of the past.
Many scientists travel a lot. That may involve field trips to volcanoes of interest. Some, like the US volcanoes are accessible in comfort. Others may not be. ‘Volcanoes are like a box of chocolate; you never know what you are going to get’! There are scientific conferences, essential to share results, to have discussions and arguments, but also to build community.
How is science organised? A lot is based on tradition. Change can be slow. Senior scientists act as the safeguard of tradition. They are in the various grant and hiring committees and make sure that new people fit with the standards of yesterday. There are official bodies: the Learned Societies which exist in some countries. There are also international bodies, such as the International Astronomical Union which speak on behalf of the scientists to government and society. On occasion they have actual powers. For instance, time standards are maintained by the IERS, established by the IAU: they decide when to schedule a leap second. The downgrade of Pluto to a dwarf planet was also done by the IAU. The rule is that scientists advice but don’t rule: they are not politicians. But there are exceptions – such as our clock.
The world of science, with all its innovation, progress and discovery, is an old one. It developed around a university system that dates back a thousand years, and still has aspects that people 500 years ago would recognize. It can be slow and intensely frustrating, but it has served us well and still works. It brings together the future and the past.
The guild of scientists
Guilds were the trade unions of their day. Their origin lies in the Middle Ages, during the rise of the city economy. People made and sold their wares in the city. Naturally this gave rise to competition: as today, it was always possible to tempt buyers by making something a little cheaper but a lot worse, and just as today, this combination could be irresistible to people needing to count the pennies. (I would certainly not name Amazon as an example.) The self-employed tradesmen found it convenient to band together and set standards – to protect both the trade and the traders. These became the guilds, one for each trade. The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, all had their own guild. The city rulers were happy to oblige and to restrict a particular trade in their city to members of their guild. Some of these might surprise you. The first universities were set up by guilds of students! This is how the word ‘college’, which describes a workers’ collective, became used for universities.
The guilds grew into powerful organizations. Their role was in part a social one, ensuring adequate income for the skilled craftsmen they represented, reducing conflicts, and ensuring a standard of quality. Different trades would yield different power depending on how important it was for the city.
Guilds traded with each other – and the merchants also banded together. In one extreme case, this led to the formation of the Hanseatic League, an early European common market which bound together cities from the Netherlands to the Baltics in cross-country trade. The word ‘Hanse’ came from a word for guild. In its heyday, the Hanseatic League covered some 200 cities. The east-west division in Europe still runs along the edges of the Hanseatic League, with Poland and the Baltic republics on the western side and Belarus and Slovakia on the eastern side. Although never a political or military organization, the League held considerable power over much of Europe. You could argue that parts of Asimov’s description of the Foundation is based on the original Hanseatic League.
While the guilds acted in the cities, the countryside was free – here people could do whatever they wanted. This is the origin of the ‘cottage industry’, the free-market economy away from the cities. Lacking the power of the guilds, it allowed people to make a living – just about, as without an organization behind them, they could charge little. Free, but poor.
Over time, some local guilds did become political organizations with could be stronger than the city rulers. But after the Middle Ages, as the power of the state grew, the power of the guilds reduced. Being city-bound, they could not compete with the newly emerging nations. The Hanseatic League also disappeared at this time. The guilds held on until the 18th century, but they failed against the industrial revolution and its emphasis on labour rather than craftsmen.
There has been much discussion whether the guilds were good or bad. As always, both aspects were present. By and large, they worked well for the members, did a reasonable job for the city but made life more difficult for outsiders. There was much scope for corruption, where people had to pay to become member and being allowed to carry out their trade. It stifled competition, and thereby innovation. It foreshadowed the battle between social and financial capital. Both capitalism and communism attacked the guild system – one of the few things they agreed on! One wonders how much of that was based on both their needs for cheap labour.
There are some remnants of the guild system in our society. These are the professional organizations. They act as ‘accrediting institutions’ which for instance allow someone to use a title as an ‘accredited’ worker. They do not have the power to stop anyone from carrying out a trade (with exceptions), but they do set the requirements for accreditation and they act as the awarding institution – in spite of not being a university with degree-granting powers.
There are exceptions to the lack of power. Some professions, such as teaching, remain licensed. The licensing authority is often the government but there are at least two areas where other ‘councils’ act as licensing agency: health and law. To give examples, to work as a dentist in the UK requires a license from the General Dental Council and to work as a solicitor is handled by the Law Society. They act on behalf of the government but are nominally independent.
The scientific Learned Societies in a way also act as a new incarnation of the old guilds, by validating scientists through membership, although this membership is very much optional.
One aspect of the old guilds has left a lasting legacy in our society. This is especially in Germanic countries. It is the concept of the apprentice, and the progression afterwards. It is the process one needs to follow to become a recognized master craftsman.
An apprentice would be taken on by a master craftsman. The apprentice would live in the master’s household, and receive accommodation, food, and training. In return, the apprentice would work for the master for a certain number of years, and a fee may have been payable. At the end, the master would provide a certificate proclaiming the apprentice to have become a craftsman – ready to start work. The apprenticeship was normally for seven years, starting in their early teens. It was very much like our high school and ended with a diploma.
For many professions and/or regions, this was sufficient. But going to work as an independent was often not that easy. Competing with the master was not optimal and in any case, in many towns there was only room for one craftsman in that particular profession. If employment by a local master craftsman was not possible, the graduated apprentice would have to move elsewhere, like birds flying the nest. The search for a new place to work and live could be long and difficult, and a return to the parental town might never be possible. Some would become accepted as master craftsman by a guild. Others would work in employment for another craftsman. Much of the medieval building work was done by such people, who perhaps had to move on when the building was finished.They would be paid per day. The French word for ‘day’ became used for these travelers: they became known as journeymen.
Some professions took more training than an apprentice would have. Examples are carpentry and portrait painting. This became organized by the relevant guilds. The journeyman would register with the guild on arrival in a city, and try to find employment. The guild would help with this, or provide onward traveling expenses if no employment was available locally. The employment would typically be for six months, and at the end the employer provided a certificate for the work. After a set period of such employments, the journeyman would have earned the right to become a master craftsman, and take on an apprentice, thus restarting the cycle. This period of training would take a minimum of 3 years and one day, during which period the journeyman was not allowed to return to their home region. It became known as the journeyman years. These travelers played an important role in the cultural life of Europe from 1400 to around 1800, as an itinerant work force spreading and creating a common culture. In the cities, as many as 80% of the working craftsman would be born elsewhere. As nowadays, there were problems with this system. In times of unemployment, cities could restrict immigration. Amsterdam, as an example, became a more cosmopolitan city in part because it had few restrictions on journeymen even in harder economic times. Other Dutch cities were much more restrictive.
The tradition of the journeyman year still exists in Germany. It was briefly re-popularized in the 1990’s. These journeymen still have the traditional uniforms for each profession. Newer versions of the tradition exist, for example as the European Erasmus scheme which encourages students to do part of their study at other universities in different countries. They are the modern journeymen.
But there is one profession where this journeyman system still very much exists: science.
The traveling years
Universities provide layers of training. The standard layer is that of the undergraduate degree. This suffices for the majority of professions. But for some professions, a postgraduate (also called ‘graduate’) degree is required or helpful. This degree provides a doctorate, or PhD. It takes typically four more years of study and involves a research project done under supervision – the supervisor is normally a professor in the university department. The degree may require courses to be taken, but the research project and resulting thesis are the main part. Depending on the topic, field work may be included. The student should expect to have seen all aspects of the research and done much of it themselves.
A PhD is enough for some jobs in industry or government, but to become an academic requires even more training. This is done as either a postdoc, funded for a particular project, or a fellowship which allows the person to do their own research. A few people will continue to work for and with the PhD supervisor but most will change, and many will move to a new place of work. Many go abroad, to other countries. There are no rules but the period may last 3 to 6 years before an academic position becomes a possibility. These are the formative years. It is also the time when the person develops their international connections and recognition. Much of the international culture of science is based on the movement of people during this phase. Many of these people will never go back to their home country. Not every country takes part. In the US, the postdoc circuit exists but is more commonly used to move around within the US. Smaller nations don’t have that option. A recent change is that more people from the non-western world are now taking part. Science has become more global.
The system is a modern version of the journeyman years. The PhD is the apprenticeship. It is important to pick the right supervisor and project as it is hard to change mid-project. During the postdoc or fellow period, it is important to diversify, by learning new techniques and expanding into new research areas. That is best done by finding a new supervisor to learn from!
The wandering years are accredited in two ways. One is by letters of reference. Different from what is common elsewhere, in science these letters are send directly to the institution advertising a new job, and not given to the applicant. It is seen as a personal recommendation, and it has much more detail than just ‘person A worked here at this time and did not cause trouble’. The second accreditation comes from papers published by the wanderer. These papers should show that the person is becoming independent, is not just following instructions but is developing their own ideas. These two aspects replace the old ‘certificate’.
There are alternatives to academic positions, exit routes from the journeyman years. In volcanology, volcano observatories or museums may offer positions. Some people become teachers, some find work as editor in academic publishing. People with volcanology experience are an obvious target for mining companies. Carl has written about geothermal power from volcanic areas, another potential route to employment. The skills that people have learned, especially independent thinking and problem solving, can be applied in many different jobs. And some careers go in very unexpected directions: one expert mountaineer who had climbed extensively in the Alps and who reportedly (I have not found confirmation of this claim) had written about volcanic mountains, became Pope Pius XI.
But most people who are living their scientific journeyman years are looking for a position in academia. Workload is high, pay is not, pressure is constant and expectations are sky high. In recent years abuse of science and scientists by the public (and in some cases by politicians) has become more prevalent. But for them, no other job compares. The excitement of discovering what no one knew, and telling students, fellow scientists and the public about it, is a unique experience. Teaching students at all levels is rewarding. Academia is about creating human capital, developing the people who understand ideas, facts and numbers, who can do the hard jobs and be creative. The movers and shakers of the future are taught by the scientists of today.
The personal cost of the wandering years can be high. It is a lonely life. When in a relationship, the partner may struggle even more. The pressure of performing is enormous – no results, no future. Friendships and relations can be lost in the distance. The total lack of job security takes its toll. And living abroad brings challenges, some cultural, some practical. Not everyone is keen on having foreigners around.
Scientists are human. They make mistakes, and some are not nice people. Supervisors can have too much power over the younger people in the field, who depend on them for direction and support, and often for help in finding that elusive next job. That power has been (and is) misused by some. Things are improving but science too has needed it’s ‘me too’ moments, and there is much to be done. Tight knit communities can be too willing to overlook (and hide) the behaviour of some.
We have learned that people always need to have a route to raise issues that goes around the supervisor – a second supervisor, a mentor, or an anonymous helpline. During the historic journeyman years, the drop-out rate was high. People would walk out and leave. That could be career ending, but perhaps these also were cases where power had been misused.
Scientists are human. The caricature of the evil scientist or the ivory tower isolationist is just that – a caricature. Some are outgoing, some are not. Some are spiritual, some are not. Some are great teachers – some are definitely not. What binds them together is curiosity, and a wish to expand our borders of knowledge. Otherwise, they are just people.
The World of Science
This is the world of science. It is much more than fishing for magma, although that adventure can be part of it. It is a culture and a community where people from everywhere come together. It is not for everyone and has its enemies. But neither the scientists nor the world could live without.
(If you wonder what counts as science, do read about Science and pseudoscience)