I just had a revelation. I am a scientist.
Submitted by Christie Canaria on Tue, 2010-09-28 22:58
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OK, so maybe not a revelation since that implies I discovered something I didn’t know before. Let’s say instead that I previously struggled with what being a “scientist” implied and then had an epiphany.

I mean, I’ve been doing science, employing scientific thinking, and practicing the scientific method for half my life now. Some (my family, for instance) might say I’ve been a scientist for a while. I got hooked early into wet-bench research during high school while working in a university research group and then continued on with grad school and a post-doc. While in academia, many of my role models and peers were working towards a singular career goal; to become a Principle Investigator (PI).

As a PI, you get to lead your own research (perhaps with your own people). You write your own grants. You are an expert in your field. It’s a wonder that science-loving folk would want to do anything else! Being a PI is the epitome of being a scientist!

Except that I knew pretty early on that I didn’t want to be a PI. Or rather, after working in the biotech industry for a few years between college and grad school, I had a hint that there were other exciting, fulfilling career opportunities that lie beyond being a PI. I decided to go to grad school because I saw it as a vehicle to more job opportunities beyond the average “research associate” position. And then I decided to take a post-doc position because it looked like a pre-requisite for any employer to hire me as a scientist.

Then, one day, it happened; I was hired as a scientist at a government lab. For the first six months, though, I didn’t feel like a scientist. My lab badge read “Research Scientist”, but in my mind, “Scientist” was still synonymous with being a PI. My thoughts would stray to, “Have I worked this hard to still be working under someone else?” or “Don’t I want to be the best in my chosen profession?” and “Shouldn’t my career goal be becoming a PI?”

But then I remembered:

  • I will always be working for someone else, even at the PI level. At a government lab, I actually work for the American people.
  • There’s more to scientific careers than basic research. Science policy, law, and education come immediately to mind.
  • My life’s work would be more ideally spent leveraging my personal strengths and talents.

I have no doubt that I could be a PI if the role were required of me. After all, that’s what all my training as a grad student and post-doc was about. However, I would have to work very, very hard to do it well and my competitive streak just isn’t that high. At this stage in life, I understand myself enough to know that such a career persona would require disproportionate effort, to the detriment of my family, social, and inner personas, each of which is also important to me.

I’ve also learned that the happiest people are the ones who enjoy what they are doing. In my estimation, it follows that you enjoy what you do when you do it well. So, figure out what your strengths are and start there.  Over the years, my fortes developed along the interpersonal and verbal communication lines, which is really ironic considering my awkward and shy childhood and adolescent years.

These days, however, I find I thrive in group settings. I love being around people, talking to people, and working with people. Thus I arrive at my resolution: I am a scientist who does more than science. I am a motivator and communicator and liaison and ambassador. My diverse science background leaves me comfortable talking with physicists, chemists, biologists, and theorists. And right now, for my vastly collaborative research projects, I don’t know if there’s a better role for me to keep the science going strong.

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