Am I a scientist?

When I ask a question it is generally followed up by another, and another, and another, ad infinitum. Occasionally this can get on my husband’s nerves and he often begs the question, “Why can’t you just let it go and take it on faith?!” Today, I responded, “Uh…hello!? Because I am a scientist!”

After this exchange, I took a step back and realized for the first time that this is now how I see myself, identify myself, as a scientist. This is kind of a big deal, at least for me. My question is why did it take so long for me to see myself this way? I have been doing research science since 2002. I started in college studying the link between behavior and hormones in baboon juveniles at Princeton. I really dove in and developed a passion for it. It was new to me then, and I was in college. I was doing science research, but would I call myself a scientist at the time? No way! I thought the term was reserved for professionals…professors…white lab coats. Okay, so I wore a white lab coat. Clearly that was not sufficient. Also not sufficient…I kept a lab notebook, formed hypotheses, collected and analyzed data, wrote a paper, presented my findings at a symposium. In other words, I walked and quacked like a duck, but I never saw myself as a duck. I guess this is why they call it, ‘impostor syndrome.

I went on to do a masters. I also worked in a lab…like a real job – not an internship. But I never felt comfortable calling myself a scientist. When asked, I would say, “oh, I’m not really a scientist…not yet anyway!” In my mind, since I was still in school and that meant that I wasn’t yet a scientist. Can this be true? Of course not! Only this wasn’t at all clear to me then or for years afterward. In fact, I remember conversations in my third year of getting my PhD when fellow graduate students and I lamented that we were all frauds! I know that is only a small sample of the population of graduate students, but this problem appears to be widespread. Check out this recent article in Science Magazine. Fanuel Muindi you are singing my heart song!
Impostor syndrome is a real thing – with real consequences, especially for first generation students, women, and minorities. Just as Susan Gardner and Karri Holley, who researched the topic in their paper, “Those invisible barriers are real”: The Progression of First-Generation Students Through Doctoral Education. Their focus is on how this disproportionately impacts women and minorities. That’s me…check and check. It is worth noting for me the biggest barriers to my progress as as a scientist have not been real, but rather imagined. I didn’t see myself as a scientist and I didn’t see myself as being able to do what scientists do.

It really is a shame because research has shown that self-image, seeing yourself as a scientist, is a crucial part of the puzzle when it comes to retention in graduate school and beyond (Pell, J Anim Sci 1996, 74:2843-2848). Okay, I haven’t done my due diligence here, but I hypothesize that students that identify themselves as scientists early on are more likely to present their work, more likely to publish, and more likely to continue on in a career in science.

Somehow over the years I was able to buck the idea that I was not a “real” scientist. Largely, this process was gradual – with starts and stops. However, there was one big leap forward. This was in the publication of a sole author paper (Couret 2013, Environ Entomol 42(4):614-626). This was HUGE for me. I learned a ton, but the focus here is on how it changed my self-image. It made such a positive impact on my confidence in my ability to have a career in science that I wonder if graduate schools should create a more formal way for students to write single author papers. Perhaps programs can even create a fund just for this purpose – because the major downside was that I had to pay for the publication fees myself.  At least in ecology and evolutionary biology, single author research papers are more rare. Science is collaborative, projects are large, and that is one great way to do good science. You can likely gain a lot of the same confidence from being the first author on a paper with more co-authors. But, if I am being honest, having done both, there is something different about a single author paper. It’s probably that you don’t have the safety net. It’s like the first time the training wheels come off the bike. Exhilarating and terrifying!

Reflecting on my process of self-identifying as a scientist, I wonder what someone could have said to me to change my perceptions earlier on. I’ve decided to take a stab at that. Here is what I would say to my past self.

Dear Young scientist,

Being a scientist is about using a certain approach to learning about the world. You chose this path because of your insatiable need to ask questions and get some answers, even if only to then ask better questions. Turning curiosity into formal inquiry, that is what makes you a scientist…right now.You are learning skills to help you do this formally and rigorously. That is what will make you a good scientist.

You may not look like the image you have in your head of “a scientist.”

Go look in a mirror.

That is what a scientist looks like.

Don’t wait for someone else to make it official. No one else can tell you who you are. The day when someone says to you, “you are officially a scientist,” will never come. How you see yourself is a choice. What you do with your time is a choice. If you decide to do science – then you are a scientist. It’s that easy! Just like if you some day decide to write a blog – you are a writer/blogger. 😉
My advice is not to wait for anyone to green light your goals. You will hear a lot of voices telling you why it can’t be done. Don’t be one of those voices. Set your own agenda and execute. When in doubt, listen to “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips.

Sincerely,
Old(er) scientist

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2 thoughts on “Am I a scientist?

  1. I love this! I especially love your letter to your younger self. You’ve accomplished so much and you’re such a legitimate scientist, and yet you have still struggled with these identity issues. I can definitely relate. Although I still don’t consider myself a scientist, I’m kind of further along, haven’t used my degree since Soraya was born, and questioning what path to take from here. I have found myself spending so much more time looking into different work opportunities than actually doing something that would help me gain some experience. That’s how I’ve been procrastinating. Now I’m committed to dedicating some time every day to work on a project and gain experience and less time thinking about what I could be doing. I’ve decided to take myself seriously, even though it’s so much easier when you have a whole institution or group of professionals/journals/international academic community taking you seriously. We all need mentors, and I hope you can be mine!

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