Scientist by Nature

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?

15 thoughts on “Scientist by Nature

  1. Science requires a level of engagement with your profession that other careers do not; you need to know a lot about a narrow field, and this specialization causes us to think and discuss differently, even with people outside of our chosen field. I do find it weird to talk science with non-scientists, and I sometimes wonder how the world operates for non-scientists. Their human experience is probably somewhat different than mine…

  2. I empathise … oh how I empathise (been there, done that, have the t-shirt etc). But fundamentally I have come to the conclusion that science is not a “job”, it is a state of mind that is fully formed by training (as in your title, “scientist by nature”). You have the state of mind, you have the training, you ARE a scientist and you always will be. “Science” is not one-to-one and onto with “research”. Research is a specialised niche that is necessary in the whole process of the community learning more about the world, but is not necessary for every scientist to “do” in order to be called a “scientist”. Hold your head up with pride and don’t be shy to declare that you are a scientist.

    In any case, you are still working in the field of science. Moreover, you are still “doing” science when you research facts to back up something you want to know about. Your “job” is extremely important in the future of science in our society. More than “extremely”. One of THE most important things anyone can do to foster a rigorous scientific sense of enquiry (even though not all your students will go on to “be” scientists, they will all be influenced by your thought patterns. You will not know how you have influenced some of them, but you will have done so).

    I know scientists who work in other fields after their initial training – they possibly are “naturals” at scientific thinking anyway (eg Law, history research, journalism etc – and one is an ordained Pastor in a church); their mindset is forever that of a scientist and they approach their work and their conversations the way you describe you do; sometimes giving their colleagues the benefit of an idea out of left field.

    Science is not merely a job, it is a way of thinking and approaching problems. Enjoy your skills at this. Be proud. I’m proud of you on behalf of all of us who think similarly.

  3. On re-reading, I notice I have over-used inverted commas in my comment above. I was trying to add some emphasis about particular use of some words. Bad literary style I know, but I hope it helps convey my meaning.

  4. I think your story shows that you can always interact with others/the world as a scientist without producing new scientific knowledge as your profession.

  5. I don’t think you have to have a new-science-generating job to be a scientist. To me it’s more of a way of life than a job. Personally I know a very good scientist who happens to teach high-school band. She doesn’t generate new science at all, but she approaches questions as you describe, gathering data and reaching conclusions, that’s being a scientist whatever your job title may be. At least in my opinion.

  6. Exactly what AEM said. Your students will benefit from having an actual scientist as a teacher, knowing that anybody is a scientist, if they choose to be, without necessarily publishing papers all of the time.

  7. Almost everything said above is spot on, but there’s an important additional theme that’s been missed: Education, the conversion of information into knowledge, is the singular most important job of a scientist. Whether educating themselves, or educating others, discovery of new information has no value if it is not converted to knowledge, and disseminated beyond the lab book.

    This is not simply a fortune-cookie truism, and there are far, far too many people in the sciences who have the curiosity of a scientist, but who lack the drive to generate and communicate knowledge from the fruits of their curiosity. I’m not sure what to call these people, but I would propose that they do not have the “souls” of real scientists. The educator role of a scientist is in no way a lesser role than the researcher role, and it’s a sad comment on the state of the sciences that real scientists have allowed the educator role to be denigrated.

    So, don’t give up your identity as a scientist just because you’re not an active researcher today. As others have said, you really can’t anyway; Science isn’t a job, it’s a lifestyle and way of thinking. However, please DO embrace your new opportunities and identity as an educator, and use those opportunities to become an even more complete scientist. The world needs more real scientists who understand the value of both research and education, and the road you are on is a noble one.

  8. What a great post. I am a scientist in a horribly run DoD lab. I realized I had to quit but there are so few other jobs in the area that I began wondering what I would do if I woke up tomorrow and was no longer a scientist. I knew it was ingrained in me and struggled with the concept of no longer carrying that identity. So I began looking at how I could still do science without being chained to a horrible beauracracy. I realized that math a computer science are great fields where I can work independently with very little cost. I now perform experiments or analysis on public data. I’ve begun offering my services and to academic and corporate scientist who don’t always now what can be done with thier data. I’ve kept my day job for a good stable salary and benefits but now do whatever science I can but
    without any care of the buearacracy. I get a sense of satisfaction knowing I’ve replaced my salary with 1/10th the effort yet still get a good salary and benefits in spite of the middle management pension trolls.Each “job” seems to justify and empower the other.

  9. very soon after reading this post, I read a wonderful short story (that could have been written about me, and you, with a little poetic licence thrown in). It is ‘Self Raising’ by Tania Hershman, and it covers ALL the issues brought up in this post, in literary form (which is what literature and art are supposed to do – reflect our society back to us). It is in the collection of hers called “The White Road and other stories”. She has degrees in science and philosophy of science, and has been a science journalist. I recommend it to help you feel you are not alone.

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  11. Once you go to school to “learn how to analyze and think about things,” you don’t just give it up, even if you no longer do bench research. I really enjoyed the subject of this post, and I too, have thought that if (when) I am finished with my postdoctoral studies, and perhaps chose a career outside of academia, will I stop being a scientist? And it goes even deeper for me–will I mourn the loss of bench work in my life? Will I forget how to manage my projects, think objectively, be able to critically and dispassionately analyze my work? I don’t know… I hope that being a scientist is a part of me that will always be there. And things that I have learned in my 25+ years of schooling will stay with me until I am old and gray.

  12. I went through exactly this identity crisis after realizing academic research was not what I wanted to do with my PhD. I felt like an imposter answering “I’m a scientist” when people asked what I do, because I work as a university administrator. so for a time, I said, “I’m trained as a scientist” and that made me feel a little better. But I have come around to the same conclusion- I can never NOT be a scientist. It is fundamentally how I view, perceive, and interact with the world. I sometimes say I’m a retired research scientist, sometimes say I’m a non-practicing biologist, sometimes I say “back off man, I’m a scientist” with the lilt of a ghostbuster…

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