Am I still a scientist?

I’ve been having a bit of an existential crisis lately spurred on by my recent defense and various articles and twitter posts. (You may have noticed this from my most recent post about updating my blog).

I’m graduating…and I’m not going on to do a PhD. I’ve never been sure that I wanted to do a PhD, and over the last couple of years I have realized that I don’t want to continue doing my own research. This is kind of strange to me because ever since I was a kid, I saw myself as a scientist. I was the child that watched Animal Planet and the Discovery channel. I practically had “Walking with Dinosaurs” memorized. But over the past two years I have felt a disconnect in my brain between loving science and not being in love with research.

This has left me to ask the question: Can I still be scientist and not be conducting research? Do I lose credit as a science writer or is my master’s degree enough?

Recently I read a great article discussing this issue and its highlighted in this tweet if you want to read it.

To give you an overview, it’s about Malgosia Pakulska, who is a communications and development officer for the Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Studies. The article details how she originally thought she was going to go into academia. Her goal was to eventually become a professor, but then she lost motivation. She began trying to justify her original plan to become a professor by saying she would just take the first academic position or maybe she’s be more interested in her post-doc work. Either way it seemed like she was getting burned out, but she found that her skills learned during her PhD were just as applicable in other subjects. That being a scientist is a mindset not a career.

I’ve been struggling with feeling that if I’m no longer doing research, I will no longer be a scientist. Part of my fear is that I will no longer be seen as credible (even though I know that my master degree will always be there). I’m afraid that people won’t believe me when I write about science or give my ideas about science.

I think I’m also afraid internally that my life will somehow involve less science. Even though I know research isn’t for me and academia is not something I would enjoy, I still enjoy learning about science and questioning the world around me. I want to continue to ask questions, to seek out answers, but I’m afraid that I won’t be able to do this as I move forward.

And this is all incredibly silly. Just as Pakulska says in the article, being a scientist is a mindset not just a profession. I find this is especially important to remember as I’ve been applying for jobs, some of which are outside of science. Graduate school teaches you so many more skills outside of research…

Time management, organization, writing (think back to your first proposal), communication and team building skills, management experience, presentation and public speaking, basic email etiquette, and don’t forget your ability to learn.

As a graduate student, you are probably an expert at learning. Everything we do is learn new skills and about the world around us. We are also ridiculously good at learning on our own. We can pick up a textbook and filter that into our minds.

Finally, something that I keep telling myself is that I will always be a scientist because I will also be using my brain to critically think about the way the world works. It doesn’t matter if I am writing a thesis on a subject or a 500 word article, I strive for knowledge and I want to share that knowledge with the world. I’ve always loved the writing and editing process of science because this is where I actually get to be a scientist. Anyone can collect data if given a basic methodology, but not everyone can analyze and then synthesize that data so that it makes sense in the broader context of the world. That is a job of a scientist.

So I keep telling myself that I will always be a scientist as long as I keep thinking critically about the problems present in our world and work to mitigate those problems. Even if I’m not behind the microscope identifying invertebrates or in the field digging pitfall traps.



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