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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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  1. Hmm…you know I’ve had a lot of similar thoughts regarding academic/career options. I’m having an extremely difficult time trying to get in touch with the enthusiasm and general optimism I had as a freshman pre-vet/bio student. I still feel like the worsening of my depression and anxiety in college as well as the onset of my physical disabilities affected this as well. How could I perform the work I want to do and be outside/in the field all day if I can barely stand for more than a few hours? I have a lot of internalized abelism to work through still but I’m trying to stay hopeful. You are definitely one of my mentors and motivators and I hope you continue doing the work you need to do.

    1. Sometimes we have to craft our own careers instead of following what’s already out there. I believe you can change the world, and just need to find the right avenue. One that complements your strengths.

  2. Yes! Exactly this – I felt the same way and was struggling so much with mental health. I took a leave of absence to explore a variety of careers (public health, program management, science writing, etc…) and totally found my calling in science education. I LOVE what I do, and I never looked back. I left my PhD program (with a masters), and truly found my passion. I always thought I had to finish because I told myself I would, and I signed up for this and the whole “what would people think if I left” – but the best thing I ever did was leave grad school for my mental health and career. Now I get to be immersed in science and be happy doing it! Leaving isn’t for everyone – but if you don’t need the PhD for your career why put yourself through the misery of it? – You don’t have to do anything that doesn’t make you happy!

    1. Thanks for sharing your story! I agree that we are often shamed not to leave the PhD track, even if it’s obviously not right for us. I know at least 2 people who wanted to leave and were shamed into staying at their universities. And, after a year or two, they still are pretty sure they want to get into careers where they don’t need the PhD. So glad you found your passion. Hopefully I’ll be there soon. 🙂

  3. If you feel you have mental health issues, you need to address those first, before going forward with any of your other plans. How can you make a clear, informed decision about what will undoubtedly be life-changing decisions unless your mind is functioning properly?

    1. Addison, your statement sounds very judgmental and ill-informed to me. There is no specific way a mind “functions properly”- we’re all quite different and have our own set of unique and challenging circumstances in our lives. Do you know much about health issues or more specifically mental health disorders? Anxiety and depression are very common and are often managed- not “cured”- through various treatments and approaches that work for the individual, they don’t just “get fixed.” Part of the author’s entire point is that academia is not set up to support people with different abilities (such as mental health issues or I would add invisible disabilities, chronic illnesses, etc.), and that we are losing out on rich and varied perspectives to help inform research and scientific work when large diverse groups of people do not feel supported to enter the field. People who have chronic illnesses and/or mental health challenges are just as worthy of belonging in academia.

      1. “Part of the author’s entire point is … that we are losing out on rich and varied perspectives to help inform research and scientific work when large diverse groups of people do not feel supported to enter the field”

        I’m so glad you picked up on this, though I didn’t stress it in this post. I’ll be devoting an entire post to this exact idea in the near future. This goes beyond what we currently think of as “diversity” and into ability (mental and physical and emotional), socioeconomic experience, cultural beliefs, and more. I hope you’ll keep an eye out for it and chime in with your thoughts.

    2. Hi, Addison. Thank you for bringing up this important point and giving me the opportunity to explain further. Mental health issues are often not things that you can just “address” and then move forward from. As I mentioned above, I’ve been dealing with depression and anxiety since I was in middle school. I’ve been medicated, seen therapists and psychiatrists, tried alternative medicine, and more. I’m doing science because I love it. I’ll make decisions as they seem right for me. And if I change my mind later, that’s okay, too.

      I started out in Film & Television after high school. I stopped back then because I was dealing with social anxiety and gender dysphoria (you can see my about page to see about my being transgender, will be talking about this in a future post). I worked retail for 5 years before going back to school, and even changed from pre-Pharmacy to chemistry to biochem and now I do cancer bioinformatics. I’m 31 years old, meaning I’ve been dealing with these issues for over 2 decades. I don’t think it makes sense to keep waiting.

      I believe that people with mental health issues can be great PIs, and I think people with mental health issues can also be great researchers in industry. But neither is *built* to work with people like me, so my endeavor into alternative careers is to find a way to love science and protect my mental health. I hope this helps you understand why I can just wait until my mind is “functioning properly”.

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