Sunday, December 02, 2007

transcending the debate

Another scientiae carnival is up, hosted by kate, and this time I thought I might write something for it... although I doubt anyone currently in academic science really wants to read anything I have to say here. The topic is transcending the debate… its about what you think of the big picture of science, your life in it and about moving on.

So what did I do in this big picture?

I left it.

You know what? I love science. I do. It's fascinating and thrilling and constantly changing. It excites and stimulates me. I still freelance in basic research, I still read papers, I follow blogs, I critique my husbands papers. I love it. But I don't love BEING A SCIENTIST.

Did the earth just crack open? Armegeddon start? A scientist saying she doesn't love being a scientist - didn't the world just end?


Isn't that giving in, giving up, selling out? I musn't be smart enough, good enough, experienced enough, tough enough. There are a number of things which still researching scientists could say about me, and most of them about my failure. I mean some are about my terrible dress sense and distressingly loud laugh, but we’ll ignore those for now.

Interestingly, some of the most critical are women scientists. Because I've let the team down. I didn't see it through. Grit my teeth and refuse to give in to this male dominated field. Fight the good fight so the next generation would have it easier. The pressure from academia is that their path is the only right one - anything less than professorship is failure. And should anyone dare, DARE, go into industry...well those are all the second class scientists, right? They can't be the best because we know that the best stay in academia.

Ooooh. Have I stepped on any toes yet?

So how did I get past this mindset? Well that was easy! Follow this simple recipe:
-spend two years depressed
-put on 20 kilos
-drink yourself to sleep every night
-almost destroy your marriage
Mix into a thick dough, knead brutally for a few years and then bake at 7000°C until you implode.

It took a lot of heartache and a lot of time for me to be able to admit to myself that, while I love science, nothing bores me more than being hemmed in to researching some tiny little aspect of some already highly specific field. That to me, doing PCR after PCR, gel after gel, purification after purification... well, I may as well just be repeatedly filling out Form 325bII in a random office somewhere for all the excitement that brought.

The grand picture thrilled me. The day-to-day work? It bored me to tears.

But to tell people that, to admit to the world that I don’t want this life, this uncertainty, this pressure, this boredom, this sexism, this poverty, this frustration, this fight? THAT was the toughest thing I’ve ever done.

Can I still call myself a scientist? I don’t know. I’m still doing occasional work, so I guess for the next two months I’m a scientist. And then maybe a few months after that I’ll be a scientist again for a bit.

But it doesn’t matter. Call me whatever you want. A scientist. An ex-scientist. A cop out. A failure. I’m more than that now. Science is a part of me, but to define myself by that alone… well, I want more than just that life. I want all the lives I can live. I want to be an entrepreneur, a musician, an explorer, a writer, an astronaut.

I want it all. And science couldn’t give me that.

So I left. And it was the best thing I did for my career.


Schlupp said...

Excellent post. It's horrible that it took so much heartache.

romi_moondi said...

This was really uplifting to read, if that makes any sense...

The bean-mom said...

Wonderful, wonderful post. I love those lines--a scientist for two months? And then not? And then a scientist again?

I think your entry fits perfectly with the Scientiae theme this month. "Scientist?" "Ex-scientist?" It's about transcending labels, transcending an identity defined by one narrow career path.

Dr. J said...

Thanks for the responses everyone. Dropping out of the academic career path is certainly not a subject which is easily broached in polite scientific society, so I'm glad you all found it interesting/useful/uplifting and could connect with it.

ScienceMama said...

Wonderful post!

There are a great many scientists who feel the way you do. They just don't always have the balls to say it outloud.

EcoGeoFemme said...

This is my first time at your blog and I really like this post. Part of what's so scary (to me) about considering a non-research career is that they tell you that you can never go back. But, if you're an on again off again scientist, maybe it's not entirely true that to leave means leaving forever.

Dr. J said...

Ecogeofemme: My on-again-off-again role is based on the people I knew before leaving and the nature of the field I'm in (of which one aspect is primarily computer based). Before leaving I'd already worked for two large companies and so they know me and what I can do. Now, whenever they get internally swamped with data, they just outsource some of their work to me. Basically I'm a service provider with my own micro-company. I can see that not all science fields are as amenable to such a set-up, but it's one that works well for me at the moment.

EcoGeoFemme said...

That seems like a cool situation. But I still think you can call yourself a scientist if you want. People who earn 90% of their income waiting tables still call themselves actors if they audition and get the odd part. So an on again off agin science gig should qualify you for the title 'scientist'. Surely you don't deserve the title failure.