Some jobs are just jobs. They don’t define you in any meaningful way. When I worked various jobs at restaurants or clothing stores in college, I didn’t feel that it was part of who I was. I didn’t identify wholeheartedly with being a waitress or a cashier.
Some jobs are more than that; it isn’t just what you do, it reflects part of who you are. “Scientist” falls into this category. Science isn’t just what you do when you are at work. For many scientists, it becomes part or our identity, and our choice of becoming a scientist reflects something about our way of perceiving the world around us. As children, we were the ones driven by curiosity to tinker, experiment, and try to solve all of the riddles we saw around us.
I took my scientist’s perception of the world for granted throughout my undergraduate and graduate education, having been surrounded primarily by other scientific thinkers. I didn’t recognize in myself anything unique, because I was only around other people who viewed the world as I did, thinking critically and analytically about pretty much everything.
After graduate school, I followed my husband to a small town lacking a scientific community. It was then that I began to notice that I, not so much disagreed with people, but that I went about acquiring and filtering information in a way unlike many others. Conversations about things relating to science and the environment didn’t proceed the way they had with my peers in academia. Finally it hit me – oh, it’s because I am a scientist!
I can’t just idly wonder about things or hear something that doesn’t sound quite accurate without diving deeper. I find myself up after the kids go to bed sifting through GoogleScholar to find the answers to questions that came up with friends. I can’t help mentally devising experiments that I will never perform, reminding people that anecdotes are just anecdotes and are not generalizable statistically sound conclusions, and saying things like “well, actually research shows that ….” while talking with other parents at the playground. In short, I am a very annoying (though well-informed) conversation partner. I felt relief in pinpointing why my prior conversational norms seemed to have been turned on their heads. It was because I am a scientist!
The problem, of course, is that I am not a practicing scientist anymore. Sure I have some lingering data sets and drafts from some side projects during graduate school, but they sit unopened gathering digital dust. As a biology instructor at a junior college, I talk about science everyday, highlighting research by some of my science idols, former colleagues, even my own from time-to-time. But do science? Nope. No longer a producer of science, I am now a consumer, and the loss of my identity as a scientist is something that I didn’t anticipate when leaving research behind.
So what I wonder is whether what you do has to be who you are? I still feel so much like a scientist, maybe more than ever now that I so clearly recognize it as a prevailing part of my personality. Can I be a scientist even though I don’t do science? Or is it time I start more wholeheartedly identifying with my new position in life, part-time science educator/mom?