Home Science Communication What will you be? Doing science vs being a scientist

What will you be? Doing science vs being a scientist

by Eva Amsen

What will you be when you grow up? When I started my undergrad in chemistry, I remember my grandmother asking me what I would “be” when I finished. Well, nothing really. I’d have a degree in Chemistry, but I wouldn’t be a chemist. And six years later I’m closer to being a biologist, even though I know almost nothing about plants or animal physiology and only have an amateur knowledge of ecology.

Other family members went to trade school, or to a career-oriented college, or have college certificates they needed for jobs they were already doing. Everyone just “got a job” after they were done with whatever school they did, and the job they got matched the school they went to. University arts & science degrees aren’t like that, but sometimes science degrees pretend they are and that’s what makes it all so confusing.

In undergrad I was involved in organizing a city-wide career fair for science students. Both universities in Amsterdam organized this event for all their science programs. Companies from all over the country came to meet the students and tell them about the jobs they had to offer. But they didn’t hire MSc graduates. They wanted either lab techs or PhD’s. It was the same with all the companies we visited on excursions or study tours. People asked how they could get a job there, and they were told they needed a PhD. In some rare cases there were internships, or internal PhD programs, but what it all came down to was: you can get all kinds of jobs with a university degree, but if you want to actually have a career related to the field you’re in, you need to do a PhD.

Obviously this is not just true for industry jobs, but also for academic jobs. You need to do a PhD if you actually like the field you’ve been studying. So the only fitting career move after getting a BSc or MSc degree seems to be to enroll in a PhD program. That’s the one job you are trained to do.

So now you’re in a PhD program. “What will you be when you finish?”, your grandmother might ask. Well, nothing, again. You can now, if you want, try to find a job in industry. But I know someone who was interested in an industry job and still ended up doing a postdoc for a few years because he didn’t qualify.

Oh, yes, here is where you have to explain to your family that after 8-12 years of university education you are still not qualified to get a job in your field – you have to do a postdoc. So, because you’ve had all this training and you still really like the field you’re in, you now go on to do said postdoc. Let’s say for the sake of self-pity that your field is a biomedical science field. I’m using this area as an example, because while in theory you can be done after two years of postdoccing, there aren’t actually any jobs for you after that time other than… MORE postdocs!

“But what will you be when you finish?” “Postdoc again! Yay!”

The problem is not that a science undergraduate degree is not a career-oriented degree. It shouldn’t be. History, English, Philosophy, and some of the social sciences aren’t career paths either. But for those fields people seem to know that, and yet people associate science with something that leads to a job. They picture a scientist in a lab somewhere, and don’t realize that the people at the bench are either lab techs or university students or graduates at some point in their training. It’s all training, it never ends.

A select few will eventually have their own lab, and if their grandmother lives to experience this they can tell her that they now are a scientist. Finally, at the age of 35-40 they have what the family would consider a job. And then they spend the next few decades struggling to get grants and write papers just to be able to keep that job.

The problem is that science programs pretend to be career-oriented. They train you for the job of research scientist, but there are way more students than ever needed to fill these jobs. I’d guess that about 10% of PhD students end up with their own lab. Everyone else has to find an alternative career. But if 90% of the graduates of a science program need to find an alternative career, is it still alternative, or is that just what people do with their degrees?

I’m not saying that science should be career-oriented – not at all! PhD programs never are. The difference between a PhD in English and a PhD in a science field, however, is that people know that the English student got their degree purely out of an interest in the subject material. They might be a professor one day, or they might end up doing something totally different. That’s fine. But people expect science PhD students to be training for a job in the field and are surprised if the graduate is among the 90% who doesn’t end up running their own lab. (“Oh no? What will you be doing then?”)

There are a few reasons for this:

1. Because industry can require a science PhD degree for a job, it is a training for a job outside academia to some people. Nobody requires a PhD in English to work for a company, so you know the English grad students aren’t in it for the money.
2. Because science degrees themselves are research-based, and students spend all their time working in a lab as part of the degree, they very closely resemble programs that do train you for a job. Dentistry, Medicine, Nursing, Teaching – they all have components where the students acquire the skills they need in their career. This makes it seem like the sole point of a PhD program in science is to provide the student with skills in doing lab work so the students must all be very interested in working in a lab for the rest of their lives.

Why can’t science PhD’s be treated more like humanities PhD’s? Many people are in a science PhD program for the same reason someone would enroll in a humanities PhD program: they liked what they learned in undergrad and want to study the field a bit more. That’s it. No career objective. No ulterior motives. No answer to “what will you be?” But somehow they are expected to “be” something when they’re done. Not just more learned in a tiny area, but be a scientist.

I don’t want to be a scientist.

If I would say this out loud to my family, they would be shocked: What will you be then? Why did I spend all those years studying science if I don’t want to be a scientist?

Because I love science.

I did biochemistry because I love how proteins and cell signaling pathways all interact with each other and are species- and cell-specific. Incidentally, this is also one of the reasons I hate actually doing experiments in cell signaling, because everything interacts and is cell-specific, so it’s almost impossible to draw any conclusions or see any dramatic changes. But it’s cool, isn’t it? It’s amazing how cells can fix problems in one pathway by using an alternative route, and how all cells are specialized. I just don’t want to do the lab work to prove that.

I want someone else to do the lab work and spend five to ten years figuring out a tiny detail about one protein that nobody outside of the field has heard of, and I just want to read about it when it’s done, and think about it and piece it all together and talk and write about it. And then I want to pick up a paper from a totally different field and read about that for a while, and be curious about all these different areas and all these people working to find out tiny bits and pieces of our world.

That’s why I spent all these years studying science.

What will you be?

I still have no idea.

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David Whitlock July 19, 2008 - 1:48 AM

I don’t think that being a scientist is something you “want” to be; at least it wasn’t for me. As I see it, it isn’t a “choice” but rather it is the way that one is; the way that one’s mind works. There are a few quotes from Louis Armstrong that come to mind. He was talking about music, Jazz in particular, but I think it holds for doing anything on a certain level.
_Man, if you have to ask what it (jazz) is, you’ll never know._
_There are some people that if they don’t know, you can’t tell them._
_If ya ain’t got it in ya, ya can’t blow it out._
I actually think of myself more as an inventor than as a scientist. I have to be a scientist and have a sufficiently correct and precise conceptualization of reality for my inventions to actually work.

Sabine Hossenfelder July 19, 2008 - 8:57 AM

When I went to the university I kept telling people I’m a student. Shortly after I made my MD I had to fill out some form that asked for my profession (forgot for what purpose). I thought, well, at some point I will have to drop telling people I’m a student. So from that time on I consider myself a ‘physicist’. It is sometimes a bit odd admittedly, because people have no clue what it is I’m doing if I say so. Neither do I consider myself as so very close to physics specifically – I would prefer ‘scientist’, but that is rather vague and begs for more specification. Part of the problem is that the word ‘Postdoc’ in Germany is not very widely known, so one ends up in endless explanations of the academic system. In the USA I figured as some point when I say I’m a physicist people keep thinking I’m a physician who doesn’t speak English very well (and then they start talking about ‘this problem’ they have which I’d rather not want to hear), but the term ‘postdoc’ is fairly widely known.

Matt Brown July 19, 2008 - 2:59 PM

Eva – if you love reading and writing about science, but not actually doing it, you should (and probably already have done) consider a career in publishing.
There are many roles from journal editing to podcasting…even hosting events in Second Life. And you meet the most fascinating people.

Eva Amsen July 19, 2008 - 4:31 PM

I have thought about editing, but it seems I’d have to move for it, and I have to stay here for a while (immigration stuff).
I’ve done some science writing on the side, and I want to keep doing that, but I don’t know if I can make a living out of it, and that’s what scares me so. (And my family still wouldn’t understand why I did 12 years of university to become a writer)

Henry Gee July 19, 2008 - 10:55 PM

Eva, don’t worry. I’m 46 and I _still_ don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.
I think your excellent post touches on a relatively recent trend, which is that people do not tend to stay in the same career for their whole working lives, with the result that people do not feel the need to be ‘defined’ by their career choice. Of course, elderly and more traditionally minded people have a problem with that.
Before I moved to Cromer, when I still lived in London, it so happened that many of the other School Run Dads I knew were taxi drivers. When anyone asked me what _I_ did for a living, I felt that it would take longer to explain than there are planck lengths in a furlong, so I muttered vaguely about working in publishing.
So, there I was, one day, walking to the _Nature_ office, which is as the world knows behind Kings Cross Station, a part of the world more usually associated with prostitution than publishing (Oh, _I_ don’t know) and I was spotted by one of the School Run Dads – at the wheel of his cab, at the taxi rank.
“Oi! ‘Enry! ‘ENRY!!!” he bellowed.
“Are you talkin’ to me? I said, are you talkin’ to ME?”
_Appealing my rejection decision? Go on, make my day._
… so the word got round the school that the reason Henry was vague about his job was, well, you know. Next day at school I was greeted with friendly jibes such as;
“bin’ savin’ fallen women, ‘Enry?”
to which my response was
“Sure, I’ll save you a nice one for sixpence”.
Matters only calmed down when I presented a copy of a book wot I co-wrote
to the school. So then the word got round that whatever it was I did behind Kings Cross Station, that was obviously my business — but what I did for a _living_ was write books about dinosaurs.

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