Thursday, May 31, 2007

"I Want to be a Scientist When I Grow Up!"

I am hungry to be a scientist.

When I was a little kid, Scientist was an extraordinarily romantic notion. I've mentioned before that I was drawn to all types of Useless Science from a very young age, and they all seemed to have fantastic jobs associated with them. Marine biologists spent all of their time on boats and in mile-deep ocean rovers discovering new species of squid. Paleontologists lived in tents and always had a half-excavated dinosaur under the nearest tarp. Astronomers lived on mountaintops and peered through telescopes every night while their data analyzed itself. Archaeologists traveled all the time and had Harrison Ford hats. Everyone was perpetually on PBS, and everyone was undyingly passionate about what they did.

Well, the PBS cameras haven't shown up yet and I'm surrounded by grouchy grad students, so that bubble has definitely been burst! But we've been asked how we are hungry, and I'm still hungry to be a scientist. The dramatized notion of what this means is long dead, replaced with the land of tenure, publication counts, field work, funding, and conference proceedings - and in all of its administrative gore, I still want it.

I have finished just one year of grad school. I am just shy of 23 years old. I am definitely a fledgling scientist when it comes to years of experience in research, paper-writer, advising (I've just started helping my adviser's summer student this past week, which is a whole new experience), time-management, committee-work, grant proposing, etc. Right now my age and my training level effectively invalidates any of my efforts to be really taken seriously as a professional in most people's eyes, even if I'm sometimes right. And I realize this.

What I'm really eager for is to get the necessary experience under my belt, to the point where I am looked at as a Scientist rather than a Scientist-In-Training, where my intellectual ideas are educated enough to be given weight and my contributions are treated professionally. I really seriously adore what I do, and when it all comes down to it I just want to reach a point where I am participating fully in my field. Even if this means less time doing research and more time spent on committees, it will mean that I am a professional in my discipline. I may still be a young professional. I may still be an inexperience professional. I may still be a "female" professional, something which I think will actually become more emphasized as I progress through graduate school and post-docs and the surrounding population of females is depleted at every turn. But I will be a professional. I would like to naively hope that at some point I will step back and look at myself and realize that I have become what I wanted to be when I started down this road as a college freshman.

This whole feeling simultaneously inspires fear, skepticism, and excitement.

On the fear side, I know this is partly driven by a desire to "arrive" as a Real Scientist in order to examine what sort of lifestyle it demands and decide once and for all if this is what I want, which is a decision I can't make as a beginner-grad-student.

The skepticism comes from those early PBS-Scientist days: when we're pre-teens and teenagers, we all desperately want to be "grown-ups", because everyone knows that when you're a grown-up all your problems are solved and all of your anxieties magically evaporate. As the equivalent of a Useless Science preteen, I'm hoping that this isn't just another version of "I wanna grow up". I KNOW that being a post-doc and a tenure-track professor can be incredibly hellish and that people look back on the straightforward graduate school years with longing. But it doesn't stop me from wanting to cross over the point where I am taken seriously as a scientist.

The excitement is really the best part. When I considered the "How we are hungry" question, this was the only answer that I could even imagine, and there's something extremely reassuring and pure about that fact. I'm hungry for lots of small things (more time with TB, a car, a tomato-and-mozzarella sandwich...), but what I am hungry for more than anything else is what I am working towards harder than anything else: to reach a position where I am building a life, professional and personal, as a Scientist. Not as a student. Not as a scientist-in-training. Not as someone whose hopes and dreams can be brushed aside by people with dismissals of "Oh, you're still too young to know what you want" or "Wait 'til you see what science is REALLY like, then you'll be sorry". As Elli the Scientist.

Now about that sandwich...

5 comments:

Addy N. said...

Elli, you inspired my scientiae carnival post- I am 36 and still don't feel like a "real scientist"! Check out my post & thanks for the inspiration.

doc-in-training said...

Elli, I like your post. I'm a first year grad student, and I want to be a real scientist too, but you've articulated it so much better than I have. ^_^

nicole said...

I'm applying for grad school this fall after working in industry for a little bit. I'm hungry the same way you are -- even though I'm 26 and have been doing science for a living, I still don't feel like a "real scientist." Thanks for putting our thoughts into words!

Ellinoora said...

At my last conference, somebody approached me as their Expert and treated me the way I always treat people of whom I think that they are Scientists. It felt very weird, almost like an out-of-body experience. I don't believe I'm an Expert, let alone a Scientist but apparently I must be putting up a good front because some people actually think I am. Still. Very weird feeling...

yenithinks said...

Hey, I just searched "I want to be a Scientist" and your post came up.:-) How fitting for me to read your post at this time of my life when I am at a crossroads, of choosing between that dream and the more practical option of picking professions "that would be easy to get me a job." Glad to know there are many people out there who share my views.