Ask Dr. Isis – Can Someone Like Me Be a Scientist?

I have decided that the last month of pregnancy is a cruel joke perpetrated by an unloving god.  The other day I saw my doctor and she asked me if I have a “birth plan.”  I told her, “I don’t need a plan.  I just want it the fuck out of me.”  She said, “How about if I write, ‘Just hopes for a healthy baby’ in your chart?”  I replied, “That’s not the same thing, but you can write whatever you want.  Oh, and I’m going to want an epidural.”

You should take all of this as evidence of my current mood before you read this entry.

Now that I am finally settled into my new blog – I’ve got the joint smelling like jasmine and shoe leather and the comments are in a rare form of hilarity – it occurs to me that I have been neglecting my email.  It’s time to remedy that.  I have chosen to share with you the longest email I have ever received.  Why?  Because reading this email took the kind of stamina I imagine it must take to summit K2.  One in four of you simply will not make it.  Not because it’s not a reasonable email.  It’s just sooooo damned long. 

Get your crampons, muffins.

Oh lovely Dr. Isis,

I have nearly emailed you several times with career-indecision-related questions, but each time have deleted my drafts and moved on. I have a bachelor’s of ARTS. My degree is in Peace Studies, I earned it almost 3 years ago. I am proud of my participation in a budding field of study and I think a BA is a good thing. Despite the fact that I have hit a wall repeatedly trying to get any work beyond the “barista” level.

The reason I’m writing to you is that the clouds of indecision and the feeling that I am only worthwhile if I sacrifice my own happiness and earning potential to directly serve the poor and oppressed have cleared up.  I have realized I want to be a scientist. I think it’s what I’ve always wanted. In high school my science classes were my favorite, even though I sometimes struggled. Just after high school I traveled to Ethiopia where I taught English and Physics and saw AIDS in action for the first time. I was resolute that I would help stop the disease one day. In college I was pre-med for a few weeks but I had (and still have) so many other interests I couldn’t bear to focus so closely. I over-extended myself to try some of everything.  I took more than the required credits for my major, completed a Biology Minor, studied two foreign languages, ballet and modern dance… I took philosophy classes for fun as well as sculpture and creative writing.

After graduating I tried to work in Public Health (a field I still hold in high esteem) but the only jobs available were not even jobs…they were volunteer opportunities. I took them anyway until I had severe episodes of panic and depression due to my feelings of helplessness and the fact that most months I was able to pay my bills but had only $30 left for food and life. I was also living in Seattle, and as  a California native, the lack of sunlight had a huge effect on me. There came a moment when I knew I had to either kill myself or move back home. Fortunately, I moved back home.

I’ve been living in a glorious land of sunshine for nearly a year now, and am recovered. I’ve started a semi-profitable tutoring business focusing on Science and Math. I love teaching, and imagine I will always be a teacher in some way. But I believe that teaching should come from a depth of experience, and that is something I don’t have in the sciences.

Just today I had an informational interview with a Clinical Lab and it seems to me that becoming a Clinical Laboratory Specialist, more specifically, enrolling in a particular course to become a Clinical Genetic Molecular Biologist Scientist could be a good way for me to participate in science. I will have to make up some physics and other classes to cover the difference between my Bio Minor and a BS…and I look forward to the prospect.

My question for you though, is twofold: is it okay for someone like me to be a scientist? I am a people person, my strengths are not in math and consistency. I am a natural teacher, I love communicating, problem solving, listening networking and interpreting. I am creative and think outside the box, but tend to make errors on repetitive tasks.

And, do scientists with PhD’s consider CLS’s to be REAL scientists? Am I selling myself short by not going into academia?

I admire you and read your blog regularly. Though this is the first time I’ve got up the gumption to email you.

-Undecided about BS with a BA

Figure 1: Holy fuck, I’m exhausted.  I love you muffins, but we need to work on brevity.  1300 words or less, little darlings.

First and foremost, I want to address this idea of “Will PhD scientists take me seriously?”  Some of us are cool as hell, but the majority of PhD scientists are humorless ass barnacles.    And what does it matter if they think you’re enough of a playa to get invited to their biscuit party?  The scientists that I work with generally value the non-PhD bench scientists they encounter, but every field has a hierarchy.  And within every hierarchy there are ego-driven nutters willing to tell you some cock and bullshit story about all their bench prowess.  Instead, you should be asking whether there is a market for non-PhD scientists.  I think generally, “yes”, although the bad economy has touched every industry.

The other thing to address is this issue of whether it is alright for “someone like you” to be a scientist.  I’m not sure what that means.  I’m not sure that there are particular traits that necessarily make someone a “good scientist.”  Other than, maybe, liking science.  I like communicating and problem solving and networking.  Critical thinking and math were things I became more proficient in while I was in graduate school and with practice since.  But, I like to do science.  I like to ask questions and I like the scientific method.  So, I am a scientist.  Because, at the end of the day, sitting with a huge pile of new data gives me a science boner.  Writing a grant or a paper with those data is enough to put me over the edge.  Should I be a scientist?  Balls if I know, but I love it.  So, I’m a scientist.

It’s worth taking some time to evaluate why you want to be a scientist.  Not that I discourage you from a career in bench science, but there are a number of ways to use your talents to support science.  What is it about bench science that draws you? I’d caution you from pursuing science because you have a dream of curing some disease.  Certainly many of us make valuable contributions that translate into benefits to patients, but very, very few of us are going to be the one who conquers some illness.  So, unless you want to end up like St. Kern of the Carcinoma, it’s worth evaluating your motivations.  Otherwise, that’s one hell of a benchmark for success.

Beyond that, find some scientists in your field of interest and talk to them.  Ask yourself, “Why this particular field and not another.”  If bench science is what’s calling you, then pack up all oft his baggage and go be a scientist.  Who really knows who is supposed to be a scientist.

13 responses to “Ask Dr. Isis – Can Someone Like Me Be a Scientist?

  1. “Hey I got a PhD! I’m finally at the top!”

    Um, no. You’re suddenly at the bottom of an entirely new hierarchy. So, if you make tenure and a PI, then you’ve made it? Nope. You’re just at the bottom rung of the PI ladder, with people with more and larger grants, with multiple labs in multiple countries, with lucrative bestseller book contracts way higher up. Even the people who get a free trip to Stockholm belong to the plebeian masses that have yet to receive two Nobel prices.

    If status is important to you, stay well away from the academic world.

  2. Sounds like Undecided’s interests are roughly in my neighborhood. There are actually tons of opportunities in public health, but many of them require a MPH or MS degree. I also work quite a bit with clinical lab people (in micro), so there are definitely opportunities to “do science” there, but likely not as a PI. Drop me an email if there are any specific questions I could answer about the field, opportunities, etc.

  3. Pingback: what kind of people become scientists? « the path forward

  4. OF COURSE Undecided can be a scientist if she (he?) wants! There is no particular personality test or requirement. I know scientists of all types of behaviour, temperament and with a wide range of hobbies.

    In fact, if she (he?) is interested in teaching and also understands sculpture, I would think that she would be in a fantastic position to teach students about aspects of 3-dimensional thinking and visualisation in any area of science.

    You don’t have to be good at maths to love science, and it is perfectly OK to be a people-person, and we NEED passionate and highly educated science people to teach the next generation (AND maybe to branch off into serious educational research later, like I did and I loved it).

    As Isis-the-wise-goddess said, if you need particular skills or techniques, then you can learn them if you have had a good basic science education that teaches you how to learn, how to think and how to analyse a problem.

    So, Undecided, GO FOR IT. If you still want to, after taking Isis’ advice and talking to more people.


  5. As a longtime member of our graduate admissions committee, I can assure you that we are open to all sorts of backgrounds – we’ve had great PhD students who were all manor of humanities majors, performing artists an musicians – even lawyers. But the one thing we always look for is a clear sense that you know what you’re getting in to – that this isn’t a passing fancy. And by far the best way to do this is to work in a lab – and to have a project of your own. It matters less what the field is than that you are engaged in research – not just pipetting for a project you dont understand or care about. This is 100x more important than background. We’ve rejected straight A biochemistry majors from Harvard who didn’t leap at the opportunity to be in lab and didn’t care what they were doing once they got there.

  6. Performance artists? And….LAWYERS??

    Only in Berzerkeley….

  7. they’re basically the same thing

  8. tend to make errors on repetitive tasks

    If you’re considering any area of science based on bench work, forget it.

  9. Holy crap, that’s a long e-mail. If you want it so badly you can taste it, and wake up knowing that this is the only thing for you, go for it and never look back. If you’re not sure when you start, grad school will make you want to kill yourself way more than winters in Seattle. Guaranteed.

  10. email.. long… did. not. read.

    no way this girl becomes diligent student and grind it out bench tech.

  11. I decided sophomore year I wanted to switch from architecture into geology. I LOVE geology. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, I went with the B.A. track so I could get out faster. Sometimes, I really wish I hadn’t done that because I feel like a total loser/failure because I despise, hate, vehemently hate math with a passion. I love physics, though. I love physics equations, but Calculus will reduce me to tears. Sadly I also work in sales (quotes/proposals). I picked up a minor in English and a professional writing certificate so I could ultimately do technical writing in the oil and gas industry. I love writing, I love TECHNICAL writing, and I love geology. I’m stuck in a tough decision right now (working full-time at a entry-level, 20-something K a year crap salary) between parting with a a great, smart, knowledge-loving guy in the college town (500K people) and hoofing it over to Houston to be a technical writer (software) for the company I’m with, OR staying here in Collegetown, USA and making pocket change the rest of my life. Ultimately I am going to probably work for at least a year at the company and then see what his plans are. If they don’t have me, well, SEE YA!

    In Houston I can at least get the technical writing job experience I need without having a full English degree. Then, that plus my background will get me into the actual field that I want. I really want a great career…but I don’t want to be a single old cat lady for the rest of my life…and I refuse to settle with any random schmuck that comes along. This guy is actually…intelligent. Geeky. I love ’em.

  12. As a lab technician who’s done some teaching, I’d say don’t sell yourself short as a teacher because you think “teaching should come from a depth of experience.” (In my own experience I’ve found that when I use the word “should” in something career-related it’s a sign that I’m following others’ expectations, and not my own.) I used to think that I’d be a great science teacher because I have experience actually doing science. Ha! When I pull off a good teaching moment, it’s not primarily because I’m a trained scientist who deeply understands the science. It’s because I’ve learned to be a decent teacher, listener, and communicator. Plenty of people with a deep understanding of science couldn’t communicate it to a beginner.

    Of course, if you’re saying teachers should understand the way the scientific method works in actual science labs, I agree that would be awesome. And there are plenty of ways to get that — professional development, workshops, summer internships for teachers to do research in labs, etc.

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