General

So you want to be a scientist

So you want to be a scientist. A scientist is an inquisitor, a person who researches, acquires knowledges and passes it on…teaches, transmits, tests. I started my journey toward scientist-ness as a sophomore in college… In those days, I skipped down the hallways full of hope, stars in my eyes, wonder in my mind. There were so many possibilities. Research I conducted led me to new ideas, new challenges, and my brain was stretched and scrunched and squeezed and pulled in every direction. College research was exciting. It was a brand of work that relied on the simplest ideas with the most basic tools and the most clever manipulations and applications. We had limited resources, but I readily took advantage of them with my ideas.

I started graduate school in awe of my predecessors and hoping for a continuation of the mental marathon I had run through college – hoping for that sense of pride and accomplishment in the work I was doing. Instead, after running for two hours, I felt that I was left with no water, no food to fuel me, and eventually the path I was on led me to a cliff.

To the left is a dense tangle of prickly bushes. To the right is a parachute being guarded by a rattlesnake.

I don’t mean to say that I am in a hostile environment under the guidance of poor mentors. But rather, the match wasn’t right for me. I needed to be challenged, told I was wrong every so often, given feedback, given more direct support and guidance related to the quality of my research. Instead I was given a vast amount of freedom, emotional support, and little feedback on the quality of my work.

I don’t mean to say that I haven’t been successful by some standards. I’ve published two first author papers, with another submitted. I’ve taught several courses independently while still working on my Ph.D. I am making progress (albeit slow and with little feedback) on my thesis work. I’ve applied for grants (albeit unsuccessfully for the most part), I’ve participated in outreach and committee work. I have many experiences.

And yet, I don’t feel a sense of accomplishment. I don’t look at my published journal articles with pride. Rather, I hope that they go undiscovered. Unread. Missed by the public eye. Because I see flaws in them. I see the ways in which they could have been better. Ways in which they could have been better that I didn’t have the tools or skills to apply. Ways they could have been better that I would have expected someone to push me toward….new applications or twists of the mind that I didn’t have the skills to do myself.

I’ve taught myself a tremendous amount and learned from many people. But learning does not equate to being challenged or pushed or geared or guided or tested or tried. Learning may mean adapting, but it doesn’t always mean paradigm shifts or dramatic improvements in my way of understanding science.

And as I start applying for jobs and interviewing, I wonder, am I qualified? Do I have the necessary skills to be a college professor? Does what my CV show reflect my ability?

And that leads to…am I sure that is what I want to do? Do I have the energy? The knowledge base? The skills to pass on to my own students?

And then to…what has my training prepared me for? What would I be best at? What would I enjoy most?

So, I wanted to be a scientist; it’s what I trained for. But I haven’t quite figured out what that means for me yet.

I guess I could find a way to cut through the prickly bushes to the left of me. To create a path that would likely lead to cuts and scraps and misery. I could turn back, find something a little easier and more manageable that I know I’d excel at. Or I could face fears and try something new? Test myself by putting myself in the uncomfortable situation of not knowing what my future holds.

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