Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Doing Science and Being a Scientist

It's been a really long, tiresome, but educational job-hunt season this year and I'll be the first to admit it.  Teaching outside of my usual student demographic has taught me a lot about myself, the world, the educational system, and goals for higher ed.  Many moons ago- more than I care to admit- I started graduate school with the idea that I would work someday in a research lab in a big R1 school and spend most of my time working on research.  Thanks to funding cuts to grant providers and educational institutions, the impossibly low grant funding rate, high stress levels and my aversion to them, and my interest in not going absolutely insane, I've had to rethink those goals over the years.  At this point in time, I'd be happy with a full-time teaching job, and time around that job to work on research on my own terms.  I'm trying and most days I'm successful, but it's hard not to see that view as admitting defeat. 

Kevin over at Deep Sea News recently wrote a great piece about why he's leaving science that has gotten a lot of attention and had people speaking about the problem of scientists leaving the sciences.  Unsurprisingly, the conversation struck a cord for me, and left me grasping for a solution.  Having a historian in the house, I often go to historical contexts and similar situations across history, and this current paradigm does have some historic precedent.  Not necessarily people leaving the sciences, but people choosing to work on science outside of traditional science careers (the lab, engineering, etc.).  My personal interest in identity lead me down a thought path that, for me at least, was helpful, and might be useful for others in some sciences as well. 

The question in my mind came down to "Am I a scientist inherently, or is my identification as scientist tied to my career situation?"  And in my case, the answer was that I don't "do science" but instead I "am a scientist."  Especially in a world of growing crowd-source funding possibilities and citizen scientist initiatives, being a scientist outside of the walls of funded science research in industry and the academy has never been easier.  Obviously, not all sciences are going to be able to work in this way, but for ecologists like me, I think this may be a viable option.  The hard part is the issue of privilege, because precious few people can take on the weight of student loans to get through a higher graduate degree, which means the perspective of people doing this is likely to be limited.  For our family, however, this seems to be a good compromise.  I'll continue teaching, part-time as I have been or hopefully full-time in the near future, and I can use my "off" time to further my own research, participate in citizen science ventures, edit and write academic papers, and stay connected to the academic world in those ways. 

You can take the scientist out of the lab, but you can't take...  That started out better than it ended up, my apologies, but I hope you get my drift.  I don't have to let my career define me, and there's no reason that other researchers can't follow this same path for a while.  The older professors have to retire sometime, right?  Until then, I'm going to keep doing what I do and remember what my parents taught me- Do what you love, and love what you do, and you'll do it better than someone who does it for the paycheck.

And in other news- you'll be seeing an additional page on here soon, as I was accepted for the Sigma Xi Student Showcase

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