There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
– Charles Darwin, in the earlier editions of Origin of Species.
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to celebrate two phrases.
First we shall consider the poetic truth of “endless forms most beautiful.” Let us pause and ponder the truth of these words. In the middle of our busy lives, let us stop to weigh this in our hands. Yes, life is made of endless forms most beautiful and wonderful.
Now let us turn our minds to “There is grandeur in this view of life.”
Because there is.
Even if you’re deciding to make Science your ex, Science is an ex you will never regret having, an ex who is patient and respectful of your boundaries, an ex whose experiences made you slightly better, more rounded, with more exquisite edges.
If you have left the field of academia or research to pursue another career, well done: you have not failed but become more evolved. If you are a graduate student right now, thank you for your work: these pains, too, shall pass. If you are a science lover or a science groupie, be glad. Rejoice, for the sun is coming again.
You will never regret pursuing your interests in science. When you practice research or academia, you are merely engaging in a form of work in a cultural environment that may be unsupportive or frustrating. It is not Science that hurts you or holds your head underwater; it is not Science that you are bad at, it is not Science that you hate. It cannot kill, but it does love, and you cannot be unfaithful to it for your other loves are its other faces (Humanities, Mathematics, Higher-Arts and Competitive Scherenschnitte). Fear not, and do not be afraid: your passion walks with you, as it always has and always will. Your curiosity, your education and your experiences will nourish you for your entire life. Forever and ever. Amen.
Welcome to Girls in Science Part Two: It’s Okay to Like Science As Just A Friend.
If you are a junior researcher, and you’re becoming aware of the fact that academic culture is not all that it could be, it’s okay. We’re going to work on that part. In the meantime, let’s remind ourselves of why we do this.
There IS a Reason Why We Do This To Ourselves
I love biology so very much, you see. There is no aspect of it I haven’t. I remember scrambling around in the blazing hot sun in a bikini top, dredging for ticks in a scrubby corner of the countryside that I had carefully determined carried a high population of dog ticks. I scraped a white bath towel along the bushes, picked off the clinging ticks, popped them into a vial, and extracted their RNA to determine some small part of the evolution of life on earth. I remember teaching a classroom of fellow students about fish biology, with my trained pet fish in his carry-container distracting and exciting them with his tricks. I remember dissecting the dolphin, the great weight of the pruning shears that shore through the ribcage to reveal the grand architecture of the heart, and I remember winning a prize for the short story I wrote about it later. I remember crying in the bathroom after killing my first laboratory mouse, but how beautiful her insides had been, how grateful I was to her for her parts and the sum of her parts.
I remember the human heart, disconnected, in a plastic box, beating with shots of electricity. I remember the lesson that I have seen at every level, from the cells frozen in liquid nitrogen that spring joyfully back into life, to the way I have clawed myself out of despair, to the way that groundhogs, thin and weak, tumble from their burrows into the new spring. Life strives. Life clings to existence with the last shreds of its fingernails, and if it does not have fingernails it clings on with every strand of its nucleic acids. Life is a self-replicating molecule, the greatest defiance of
entropy that the universe has put together. I find a lot of hope in this.
The joy of a field vole, tagged and numbered, as I released it to burrow into the welcoming earth: today nobody will be eaten! I hope to remember that forever. The way my plant-pathology professor diagnosed my beloved pet orchid with a disease that sounded like *Creeping-Mumbles*, and cured it – a miracle! The way a sea turtle’s skull, when cut with a bone saw, smells distressingly like Doritos – and its vivid green fat smells like buttered bacon, a difficult problem to overcome. The quiet dignity of a human cadaver and the way a tattoo looks when its owner is dead. And, too, the molecular side of things; the joy that can be had in data. This many sparkles of light pass through a sample of this protein density.
grown on a bacterial plate. The dance of life expressed from atom to animal, from equation to ocean. There are a thousand small magics to have, here. The small explosion in your heart when you first see your name as an author on PubMed. I’m a motherfucking scientist.
But I am not going to be a white-coated Professor Biologist when I grow up.
And that’s okay.
Let’s just admire this for a while. Say it out loud, if you need to! “After all of this work, I may not be a scientist when I grow up! AND THAT’S OKAY!” Maybe set it to music. Do a little dance. This work has not been wasted! You’re just going to evolve a little bit! You and Science are just going to be friends, and that’s cool! It’s all going to be okay.
It’s Okay to Like Science Only As A Friend
On April 3, 2012, I didn’t have a blog, but I did read Captain Awkward, and I was particularly motivated to respond to her Reader Question #220: Doing What You’re Good at Isn’t The Same As Doing What You Love.
A really lovely student had written in stating:
It is three months till I graduate and I hate my degree and I hate the course I am doing and I have done for the last few years. I am the first person in my family who had the potential to go to university and to do a hard Science degree, I was always interested in Science and Biology and I thought it would transition well, but it hasn’t. I can’t tell my family how much I hate it because they are so proud of me and I really don’t want to disappoint them, I can’t tell my friends because there is a pervasive sense of elitism and I am afraid they will think I am worthless…
Commander Logic wrote a beautiful and eloquent response to this person, explaining that one is never under any obligation to do work that they hate.
I felt that I had something to offer as well, so I wrote the following. I still stand by it quite firmly a year later. It is something that I would like you to hear, Dear Reader, so here it is.
My response to the LW:
I’m an “English” person whose strengths were always in creative endeavors; my weakness is arithmetic. So obviously everybody pushed me towards what they saw as my Calling: ELODIE IS AN ENGLISH PERSON! I had a professor in college write a plaintive comment on one of my essays: “Would you reconsider going to graduate school in English?” There is always this perception that one shouldn’t ‘waste’ their ‘talents,’ that you can only do One Thing With Your Life, that science/math/technology are completely incompatible with art/theater/English and the skills you need for them are never found in the same person, that all scientists are uptight logical nerds WHO ARE TOTALLY CURING CANCER SO THEY ARE BETTER THAN EVERYONE!!!1!! And meanwhile all liberal arts majors are fun creative freaks who HAD THE COURAGE TO FOLLOW THEIR DREAMZ GUYS WE ARE MUCH BRAVER AND AWESOMER THAN PEOPLE WHO FOLLOWED THE MONEYS!!!1!
When actually there is no such thing as any of that. Just like there is no wrong way to be a woman – no matter how much everybody wants to squish you into the mold of Princess or Tomboy – there is no wrong way to be a scientist, a creative person, an academic, a person.
There is this massive perception that You Cannot Be Happy in Science (ESPECIALLY IF YOU ARE A CREATIVE PERSON WITH A SOUL), and I see that in a lot of the comments here. Without contradicting the wonderful advice you’ve already received, I want to point out that they all reflect the dichotomy you mentioned: that people are going to interpret your dissatisfaction with your educational experience as a sign that YOU WERE BORN TO BE A LIBERAL ARTIST NOW COME SIT WITH US COOLER KIDS. It doesn’t have to be that way – not if you don’t want it to be. You define yourself, sweet pea. You always have and you always will. When you strip away the pressure of other people’s expectations and interpretations, you’ll find yourself at the core; burning brightly, fierce and beautiful, a scientist and a writer and an artist and a student and a person and more than a person; an entire universe, an ecosystem, a library, a story.
And here is something I can promise you: Every molecule of ATP in your body crackles with your electrical purpose. Every twisting spiral helix of your DNA is purpose. Every cell in your body (and there are many) sings to help you. Every boring textbook protein, every stupid cycle, every annoying molecule has been supporting you all along, patiently and faithfully rooting for you, turning sugar into life for you, hoping that you’ll do well. The neurons you’ve burned out during classes – they’ve grown back for you, stronger and more connected than before. When your nerves burned with pain, they did it to save you from being hurt again. The fragile beauty of your bones supports you. You are architecture and electricity. You are story and song, ancient and young. You are made out of stardust and memories; you are an ambitious bony fish. Every scrap of you is independent, living, thriving, burning with purpose. Even when your brain is tired and you’ve used up all your serotonin and all you can bring yourself to do is eat Reese’s cups and mainline LotR, you’ve already made it, you’re already wonderful and whole and complete.
In the center of you is a little glowing golden thing that begs for a calling. What if I told you that your problem wasn’t necessarily science, but fear and sadness? That you might be quite good at biology, but you enjoy Evolution more than Molecular? (God who doesn’t though.) That actually, you want to study dinosaurs instead of cancer? (Do it!) That the pressure you’re feeling is because you feel like you have to be some person that you’re not? When Watson, Crick and Rosalind Franklin “discovered” DNA, they didn’t invent it; it was a double helix, inside everything living, all along. All they did was hack their way to it, lost and confused and crying out. The answer was there. The answer is in you. Not in other people. That’s where the code you’re asking for is. It’ll be hard work to find it – sorry.
I majored in General Biology and minored in English. Surprisingly, despite everybody telling me that I was too pretty/fun/creative/flighty and would HATE THE WORK AND SUCK AT IT, I’m a scientist, a happy one. While I don’t have a master’s or PhD, I’m a damn good technician. I get my name on papers, I contribute intellectually to important research, I earn a steady and respectable salary, and I regularly beat out postdocs for positions. (You don’t have to do arithmetic in lab/research settings, BTW – we have these amazing widgets called calculators!) And surprisingly, following science does not automatically equate to following the moneys. There have been periods in my life where I was a starving scientist. Quite literally – working on the Cure for Cancer while actually going hungry. Science is not a stable, secure position. Like any other form of academia, it is nomadic, competitive, and poorly paid. So don’t do it if you don’t love it – and don’t decide you hate it until you understand what it means to you. The last year of my Biology/English degree was absolutely miserable, as I constantly wailed that what I wanted to do was to take off all my clothes and run screaming into the woods so that nobody else could write their feelings on me.
What if you like science, but only as a friend? If you became a starving artist instead, would you still have a deep and abiding sense of wonder in the natural world? Would you still watch David Attenborough documentaries and love them? Would you buy your children a toy microscope? Would you identify cool trees every time you go hiking, and notice the different biomes and ecosystems, and explain them to their friends so that they got excited too? Would you play Pin the Beak on the Finch for Darwin Day? Maybe you just don’t like science! But if you think you’d still probably do any of those things, than at least you’ve had an education that taught you important skills about critical thinking, the scientific method, observational skills, making connections, seeing the microscopic and the macroscopic in the same picture. And that will inform your future careers in essay-writing and law and music and politics – a biology degree is a lovely useful thing – and you can walk away and be grateful at the same time.
Nice to meet you, by the way. I’m Elodie. I’ve been a paleontologist, neurobiologist, population geneticist, biochemist, molecular biologist, cancer biologist – and a writer (science AND creative writing, thankyouverymuch) artist, activist, art model, storyteller. I have done what I’m good at and what I was terrible at, what I loved and what I’ve hated. I learned everything about myself and what I wanted to do. I got better at things I was bad at. And I’ve felt what you’re feeling now, when I was where you are now, and I didn’t get to Happiness by letting anybody – no matter how wise they were, no matter how much they loved me – tell me what would make me happy. I found it by listening to the little glowing golden thing, and not other people. Good luck, darling; I am rooting for you and your truth, more than you know.
From Elysia to the LW:
Hey, LW, I wanted to come back when I had more time to give you a couple more thoughts. Sorry this got super long, but hopefully these can help other people in similar situations – there are many of us struggling.
You said, “I was always interested in Science and Biology and I thought it would transition well, but it hasn’t.”
What was it that you were interested in? When I was a kid, I loved fossils and butterfly raising kits, but when I first got to use microscopes, I was hooked. If there’s something you love about biology or another science, you might try to find it now. Even those of us who have known since childhood that we wanted to be scientists have gone through phases where science was the last thing on the planet we wanted to do – my fellow PhD students and I chatted about our “if I leave here, I would do _____ ” plans A LOT. (Mine? Librarian.)
Academic science is a culture that…has some problems. People tend to admire it a lot – like your family! – but it’s just another thing to do, not inferior or superior to politics or poetry or plumbing. There’s this focus on making scientists that are all the same kind of person (the lab coat, hardass researcher & professor), but science isn’t one thing, and the people who do it should be encouraged to find what’s in their hearts and go for it.
If you DO want to keep to something science-y, in addition to the things that FarmerStina and OtherBecky and Latining listed as jobs, here are ideas (US biased, since I want jobs here, but there should be national equivalents):
- non-profits devoted to conservation, education, biotechnology
- startups in biotech and medicine
- groups like National Geographic, national/local/university-based science museums, acquariums, Discovery Channel, etc.
- international groups, like UNESCO or WHO, or other aid organizations
- science reporting, working for publishers of science textbooks and popular press books (my friends did this! they acquired book projects, managed them, etc., and knowing biology helped so much), science libraries
- governments often need science policy advisors
- administrative assistants (in a variety of flavors) to help manage programs in science, or to work for companies who do science – accountants and business managers and schedulers and IT and all sorts of people who know about the biology? INVALUABLE
- customer service, troubleshooting, etc.; field scientists who teach people how to use equipment or to implement methods in their own labs
- fisheries observing, crop management, wildlife management, forestry, farming
- crop improvement (breeding, pathogen testing, genetics of other sorts)
- epidemiology and public health, from statistical analysis to surveys to emergency planning for emerging diseases to intervention plans for ongoing problems and public interaction
- park rangers, field guides, naturalists
- pharmaceutical companies need people to do research, sales, marketing, patient monitoring, patient communication, policy/legal advising
- tutoring, afterschool programming
- technicians! so many labs need someone to help keep things clean and stocked, or help with generating some data – tons of levels of experience are okay here – and this applies to hospitals as well as academic/research institutions
There are many, many jobs out there for people who have a degree in biology or science. A lot of them are for a year or two. If you opt for those, you are not committed to staying in science! You can just work to pay the bills for a bit! And if you find that your heart is leading you in another direction, or you’re not sure, that’s okay, too.
Me again, responding to Elysia on the subject of parental pressure:
(My [ideal secondary career?] Librarian.)
Mine = science writer and editor, partner’s = organic farmer. Having backup plans at various stages of realism and development is pretty much par for the course in science/academia. Every single scientist I know, from geophysicist to clinical scientist, has at least one other hat (jazz drummer, lumberjack, professional hula hooper, landlord, science journalist) in a field that they have training and success in. Everyone should have a backup plan, and the nice thing about science is that it’s flexible/crazy enough for you to invest in one.
Academic science is a culture that…has some problems
Oh god, LW, again, if you take one thing away from all this, take this pleasethanks. It is not just you.
As I was reading these comments (and wishing I could have coffee with everyone, especially Elysia) I also had another thought for you, LW – your parents. They’re a problem. A wonderful, loving problem that will fuck you up if you keep letting them. Address them. Address their fears and concerns, but don’t take offer to take them on any more. Explain to them, if you can and want to, but be aware that they won’t always hear what you’re trying to say. A really difficult thing about the parents of academic scientists is that they aren’t aware of what you actually do and how you actually do it; they assume that if you’re smart, you’re good at science. If you’re good at science, then you get your BSc. When you have your BSc, you just go to grad school (parents envision this as just like undergrad, but with, perhaps, slightly harder exams or something.) Then you immediately move to MIT and start working as a lecturer, perhaps – parents aren’t clear on this.
Parents have not heard of post-docs, grants, fellowships, visas, or the two-body problem; they think that you actually have a choice in where you live and work. Parents only have a misty idea about what publications are, and what authorship is. But within a few years, parents know, the Tenure Fairy bops you on the head and you become a professor who makes $100,000 a year; parents are very, very sure on this part. Poor parents! When you actually explain to them who you are and what you love and what you do, they begin to cry because all they hear is “I will never own a BMW! I won’t be able to support you in your retirement! You have failed as parents! Hahaha!” In parent-logic, you are their wonderful smart child, and so you Deserve to be Rewarded with jobs, prestige, privilege and cash. Where is your job just out of college? they ask. Where is your spouse? Your house? Your doctorate? Your children? Why haven’t you achieved X milestone by Y? Shouldn’t you have a Nobel Prize?
Now, there are a lot of things wrong with this, and luckily the reasons are mostly rooted in love, but you’ve got to address them. To members of the previous generation, things like the recession, the stagnation of American science funding, the secret sucking lack of academic research positions, the rise of the global market, increased competition, inflation, the unrealistic expectations engendered by the Baby Boom and the American Dream, and Tedious Old White Guys Clinging to Their Tenured Positions With Their Cold Withered Clawlike Hands are things that will not affect your job prospects, because you’re smart and they were good parents. They honestly do think that slapping a PhD on yourself will mean that you will never flip burgers, because they raised you to believe that PhDs are easy, but flipping burgers is a dehumanizing and degrading symbol of your entire family’s failure.
Parents, no matter how liberal their politics, want to believe that their child will win the race by being smart and working hard. That mindset has a lot of cultural roots, but for various reasons, it’s pretty damaging, because our generation lives in a much different world than our parents thought they were building. A lot of the things they’re pressuring you to achieve just can’t be done, LW. None of us can do them. It’s okay. You’ve got to stop internalizing these expectations. You’ve got to redefine success. You might not be able to convince your parents and friends, but you damn well better learn to convince yourself.
There Is Grandeur In This View Of Life
The thing is that parents, mentors and the academic system itself don’t seem to recognize that many people who leave academia step into a variety of rich, rewarding careers. If you’re in this system, you feel that To Leave Is To Fail. It’s not. If you’re thinking about entering the system, it’s something that’s good to know and prepare for, since statistically speaking, you will leave. (If you’re not an academic, I’m sorry for boring you with these posts. I love you. Come back soon!)
If you are a scientist of any stripe at any level, I would like you to walk away from this post feeling just a little bit more okay about your life and your choices.
It’s a hard job that you’re doing. I appreciate that. I recognize that. And we’re going to start talking about it. You’re not alone, and your feelings are real.
Thank you for your work.
It’s going to be okay.
The Girls in Science Series So Far!
Part One: Kids Don’t Rule the World, Even if They’re Sexy. I recommend reading through the comments, which are wonderful (as always.) I feel really lucky to have such a cool group of people sharing their thoughts and experiences.
Coming Up Next is Part Three: The Poison at the Root of the Tree, addressing the endemic problems of science culture – which affect both men and women. We’ll discuss the research that shows that women seem bear the brunt of the burden, which suggests to me that again, it is not “lack of interest in science” that is responsible for the gender gap but “an unsupportive science culture that promotes and maintains a regressive status quo.” Junior academics fear talking openly about these problems, since admitting that they affect you is perceived as talking yourself right out of a job. Meanwhile, the lack of honesty and communication about these issues drives many bright, promising young researchers into mental & emotional anguish. I’m going to talk about it, and if you’d like to add your voice and experiences, the Contact form can be used anonymously.