What Kind of Scientist Are You?
By Bryan Sim
Immediately after defending my dissertation, I bought some celebratory chicken nuggets, and took the best nap of my life. When I awoke, I didn’t feel joy or elation so much as a massive sense of relief. I felt like the person I was in 2012, before my first day of graduate school.
Back then, I believed that science had a place for outstanding students such as myself. As an adolescent, I was constantly made to stand outside of the classroom (hence, “outstanding”). Sometimes, I lined up with my co-conspirators, other times I stood trial alone. A particularly creative teacher once made us hold roses for talking in class.
To be fair, I was a glutton for punishment. Once, during Home Economics, I flooded the kitchen while my desk partner threw our potatoes and onions out of the fourth-floor window. Another time, I wrote an essay likening my country’s Ministry of Education to the Third Reich. My English teacher did not enjoy being compared to Hitler, but she was probably angrier that the essay was supposed to describe my best holiday ever.
Still, I loved to learn, sometimes obsessively. As a nine-year-old, I spent hundreds of hours learning how to make colorful, seizure-inducing webpages. At the age of thirteen, I learned to play the guitar on my own, and practiced till I had to ice my wrists. Overall, I was not a bad student; I just didn’t like being taught.
As a budding academic, I lived in fear that I would have to repay my karmic debt when fate finally had me teaching undergraduates. Hunched over our laptops in Starbucks, I related this concern to my friend and colleague. She was working on a paper, and I was “helping” …by distracting her with questions like “Why are we doing this to ourselves?” My gut told me that we had taken on the stress and massive sleep debts because we were both idiots, but she painted me a picture of her six-year-old self crying in the bathroom after learning that the ozone layer was dying. I laughed, mostly because I would probably never be that civic-minded.
Over the next five years, I learned a lot about psychology, but more than that, I learned more about what science meant to me, and my place in it. When I felt the relief wash over me after defending my dissertation, it was because I was finally able to remove a mask that I had been wearing for a long time: The mask of the other type of scientist.
In my opinion, there are two types of people who pursue academia: People who care about what they are studying, and people who care about how they study it.
I have friends whose “personal brand” is of a scientist studying “X.” In my conversations with them, I come away with the feeling that whatever data they collect or experiment they run is merely a means to an end – that end being the furthering of a line of research that they’re passionate about. Academia caters almost exclusively to this type of scientist. Building and propagating your own line of research is how careers are built. And, in my opinion, is also how some careers are destroyed, and science is harmed.
Unfortunately, I am not that kind of scientist. Over time, I realized that I didn’t particularly care about what I was studying. I cared about how we gain knowledge about the world. I found that I was happy doing research on trivial things for fun, but that I didn’t enjoy “building houses” or “castles,” or whatever analogy is used to denote one’s legacy of research. I especially didn’t enjoy the notion that I had to “defend” my line of research from evidence to the contrary – I always thought being wrong and changing tack was a valid option.
After the celebratory chicken nuggets and nap, I began my (as of right now, still successful) journey to leave academia. I soon realized that the stigma of working in “industry” was unfounded, and more importantly, that I could be a scientist anywhere, as long as my job involved learning about some aspect of reality the “right” way, with people I enjoy working with. This, if you think about it, is the core of any good business: You work with a team to figure out if your hypothesis of what people want is true, and the results — user or financial growth — speak for themselves. I find this process immensely satisfying.
I don’t know if I’ve finally found my “calling,” but by the standards of my current and my 2012 self, let’s just say I’m closer than before.
Bryan Sim completed a Ph.D. in social psychology at New York University before sailing away into the sunset to work at a startup in Silicon Valley. He currently works at Owler.com, a business intelligence company, where he uses all the skills he learned while skiving off in graduate school.