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Not being the “perfect” scientist


When I was in my senior year of undergrad, I was talking to my then research advisor about my plans for the future.  I was applying to any MD/PhD program that I could get a free application for, as well as PhD programs around the US.  I was never really sure exactly what I wanted to do.  My future was defined as “doing translational research”, much I’m not convinced that I really understood what that meant.  Being open also meant that I didn’t choose graduate programs that were a good fit for me, only those I had heard of.

My criteria for PhD programs were simple: in a city with a good transit system, transgender healthcare benefits, and good weather.  I didn’t concern myself with the research or the faculty.  I’m not sure why.  I knew that I wanted to get my MD because I wanted to be able to treat the many people I had met who had been denied healthcare.  Research-wise, I was a blank slate.

I was talking to my advisor that day about these vague plans of mine, and he said something along the lines of “Don’t discount doing research.  There aren’t enough researchers who think about science like you do.  Think about becoming a PI.”  PI meaning principal investigator, as in, the person who advises and runs a lab.

I did think about that, and it became my new plan.  When I started my PhD program, I decided that my goal would be to one day have my own lab, do my own research, mentor my own students.  How fun, I thought, to ask intriguing questions, to be in a lab all day developing experiments and to interpret scientific results to change the way we think about the world.  But did I really understand what being a PI meant?

I started working on my PhD, and I love doing research.  I’m surrounded by intelligent people who think critically about their science.  I’m observing interesting trends, forming hypotheses around them, and testing those hypotheses using available data.  It’s amazing.

But then I see my PI, and those around me.  They are spending all day in meetings, writing grants proposals, deciding where to publish next.  They are advising and directing research, but rarely are they in lab actively looking at the data and pushing things forward.  And I started thinking, maybe I don’t want to be a PI.

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What else is there?

Oh, the grand question that seems to be on everyone’s mind these days.  If you don’t go into academia to become a PI, what choices do you have?

The first one most people will remind me of when I bring this up is industry.  While I understand the allure of industry (it generally pays more and there are more opportunities available), I just don’t think it’s for me.

So my mind goes back to my previous life, when I was working in film, writing and editing, and I think, “Well, I guess I just have to do that.  I can somehow mix the two.”  So far, I’ve found little resources for breaking into it.

And in my mind, I hear that voice of my undergraduate PI, telling me how much the scientific world needs me as a PI.  And I think about how much we need queer scientists, and how much we need trans* scientists, and I feel like I HAVE to, I have no choice.

When your mind gets in the way

I’ll likely devote an entire post to mental disability, but I think it’s important to note here that the academic world in biology is not set up for those with differing mental ability.  And while I’m able to think and reason clearly, I am not convinced that the academic setting is appropriate for me.

The first is imposter syndrome.  There is a lot of information out there on what imposter syndrome is and how to overcome or deal with it.  And while I have a pretty strong ability to work through hardship (e.g., homelessness, poverty, job loss), I still find articles like this hilarious.  I’ve read probably a hundred of them, and I have not found one that makes me feel like I deserve any of the success I’ve had.  When I was young, I was diagnosed with depression, and I’ve struggled throughout my adult life with anxiety and panic attacks.

And I have to ask myself, at what point do I admit that I’m incapable of a certain job?

I truly believe that if I put my mind to anything, I can achieve it.  It’s how I made it through undergrad, how I’ve made it into graduate school.  However, when I ask myself “will I make a good PI?”, it’s hard for me to say yes.  I’m a great mentor and teacher, I’m a reasonably good writer.  But how can I sit with a student who has imposter syndrome and say “No, you’re truly awesome and don’t realize it” when if someone tells me that, my first thought is how naive that makes them sound.

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So what makes the “perfect” PI?

To me, the perfect PI is able to do the following:

  • Manage their time effectively
  • Take harsh criticism, multiple failures, and lots of distractions
  • Mentor students and post-docs
  • Write a lot
  • Sell your science
  • Be on committees
  • Develop a research program which benefits the university
  • Get and stay funded
  • Remain relevant and innovative

I’m sure there’s much more, but let’s start here.  Could I do these things effectively?  Yes, I believe I could.

But that doesn’t mean that I’d be able to keep a healthy mindset while doing this day in and day out.

At some point, every scientist must admit that they will never be perfect, that our science will never be perfect either.  What we do with that knowledge is up to us.  For many other graduate students out there, industry is a handsome alternative to the uncertain world of academia.  For others, the gains of pushing our collective knowledge forward one peer-reviewed paper at a time outweighs the inner turmoil of being a fraud.

For the rest of us, there is escape and alternative careers.

I’ll be exploring these alternative careers in a separate post, and hope you’ll join me.   What alternative career have you explored?  What considerations did you make when thinking about a future in science?  Have you found mentors for alternative career options?

Followup posts about alternative careers

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