I recently visited a good friend who has always had an awesome attitude to his science. In order to not reveal their name, I will call them Bob.
All through Bob's PhD he always seemed really motivated even when metaphorically beating his head against the wall trying to get some obscure results. But what's important to me as a scientist is that Bob always asked the BEST questions - the ones I really hadn't thought about before but make me think in a new way about my research. I think this quality of Bob's could make him a truly great scientist - I have always really enjoyed having science discussions with him.
I was a bit shocked then, when I caught up with him recently, to find him using words which I keep hearing more and more now that my 'cohort' are finishing PhDs and moving on. For those that choose to continue in research I hear words like "feeling isolated", having a lot of "self-doubt", wondering if science is "for me". I hear people saying this not just occasionally, but when it comes down to it, all the time!
Perhaps I'm only noticing it because I've been doing postdoctoral research for just over a year myself and I have at times (OK, quite often) wondered the same thing?
To top it off I keep discovering awesome scientists leaving science to go and do other things not because there aren't any jobs*, but because they don't enjoy it any more or because they don't feel they are good enough. I've heard this from both men and women, although the women seem to be more open about their feelings and reasons for leaving.
To be fair, a lot of people I know in this position are talented science communicators so will still be using science, just not in a research career. But... surely there is a failing of the "system" somewhere here where our bright, talented, promising PhD graduates suddenly feel like they just aren't up to the task of actually doing science?
It would be easy to blame it on training, on supervisor support, on any number of things. But perhaps it's just that today, more than ever, we strive to have jobs that we enjoy, that mean something to us and that are satisfying. Science is (often) not a satifying job on a day to day basis. You can spend weeks working on a single problem feeling like you're bashing your head against the wall and then discover it was all for nothing.
One of the things I've come to realise is that just loving science isn't quite enough. You have to be prepared to feel stupid on a day-to-day basis. Because sometimes, that's just science. Thanks to a great discussion I had recently with a guy who introduced himself as Bill** I have come to recognise that it's not just me who feels stupid in science - in fact there are many arguments to be made that if you've stopped feeling stupid then you've stopped really doing science.
This is a career in which we uncover the unknown, and it's not easy. But at the same time, recognising that everyone else feels the same way is worth a lot to me. So for now, at least, I'm sticking with it. I just hope I can convince my friends to do the same...
*As a side note there are obviously many other reasons why people leave science, but this is just one that I've been coming up against a lot recently. The "bright, talented, promising" people that do PhDs often quite rightly feel they would get more satisfaction elsewhere. Somewhere with scientific challenges, but a career that has good rewards for hard work, where their efforts are appreciated (and not quashed by ambitious senior postdocs scrabbling to get recognition to get the next job), and where they feel some level of job security. Because, let's face it, who wants to pay rent and move around the world every 2-3 years? Very few relationships can stand that and anyone wanting to 'settle down' and have kids or buy a house has an almost impossible task if they are in the academic science post-doc circuit unless they are very very lucky.
**turned out he was Bill Phillips, 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics