Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Science makes us feel stupid

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


  1. Great post Suzie. At least working in accelerator science at a facility, I am fairly settled, at least for the moment. The feeling of joy I get whenever I understand something new is what keeps me in the job, but the rabbit hole is very, very deep, and I know that ultimately I will, and can understand very little of the whole. Rather be doing this than anything else though.

  2. "Because, let's face it, who wants to pay rent and move around the world every 2-3 years?"

    For me, moving around the world was one of the most rewarding aspects of my early career. The chance to live in places completely different to anywhere I'd ever lived before was wonderful, and personally very enlightening. Travel broadens the mind; living in a place for a couple of years, even more so.

  3. Someone told me that, in a career in films "you don't eat often, but you eat well." It's the same with job satisfaction in research I think.

    Congratulations on the 10,000 views by the way :)

  4. While I totally hear what Zen is saying about travel, I have lived on three continents in as many years and I'm tired of it. Life is so basic when you move all the time. How 'bout treating post docs like valuable employees instead of this spend all your savings to move to the other side of the world every year bullshit. Like how 'bout 3-4 year contracts because we all know every worthwhile project will take that long anyway, and a moving allowance.

    Last night I got home from a long day of doing the kind of work we should probably have a technician to do and thought "You know what would be really good right now? A smoothie." And then I remembered that I had to part with my blender three continents ago and settled for eating frozen berries out of a bowl. It would be nice to feel like an adult again. Feel like I might own a blender, or have a partner, or be excited about science. But this is shit. And I am definitely looking for job options that are not in research because I'm tired of being treated like a lab rat.

  5. Would love to chat ladies... 5 years after achieving my B.Sc. in honors physiology and pharmacology.. i have floundered around doing nothing with my academic background; just indulging myself in the finer things of life (shoes, handbags, wine, sun). I am now taking a marketing program and when introducing myself, without fail, I always make the remark, "I am absolutely passionate about pharm/ phys/ path... but i want to wear nice clothes!!"

  6. Interesting post! And I can see your point that feeling stupid is essentially part of being a scientist as we continuously challenge our knowledge. But I think feelings of inadequacy are more common for a different reason. This blog post describes it much better than I could, outlining depression and PhDs in the US: http://www.universityaffairs.ca/speculative-diction/my-grief-lies-all-within-phd-students-depression-attrition/
    After reading the above article, I certainly identified with many of those emotions during my physics MSc, in particular 'imposter syndrome'. I had very much wanted to do a PhD but lacked the intellectual self-confidence to do so. Unfortunately in my experience, most of my supervisors were highly dismissive if you showed any sign of struggle - emotional or intellectual. Looking back, I wish I’d cast aside the doubts they reflected on to me, but I didn’t quite have the balls back then! After being told many times that if I couldn't stand the heat, I should get out of the kitchen, I sadly left the world of science (but with a hope to stay within its realm through science communication instead) - but it seems sad to that it keeps happening to so many others!
    I have many friends who have finished or are in the throes of their PhDs, and the lack of support seems depressingly common. From what I gather, it seems that everyone expects to have some kind of breakdown during their PhD - a self-fulfilling prophecy, perhaps! Now (with some balls grown) I spend a lot of my time reassuring my friends that all will be well and that they can do it – it seems rare to get any positive encouragement, which seems vital in such a long-term endeavor. I think it’s crazy that such talented and passionate individuals should be worn down and eventually driven away when all it might take is sitting down once a week with coffee & a cake and asking how people are doing.
    This advice could go some way to help maybe: http://sciencehastheanswer.blogspot.com/2012/01/things-i-wish-i-had-known-when-i.html
    In my view, some in the scientific community seek to intimidate those junior to them to the point that they wish to discontinue – is it done to test them? See if their worthy to stay in this field? Perhaps (and we all need to grow a backbone) but whittling away at people’s confidence like this is very damaging, not only to their academic career.
    Yes, science can be extremely challenging, but the challenges should be in the lab, on the chalk board and in text books, not from the community itself. Supervises, lecturers, colleagues and other students should be helping those to enjoy and flourish within it rather than making them feel they have to suffer to prove their worth first.
    (This is a sweeping generalisation here –and quite a rant! There are some absolute gems out there, of course... let's have more :))

  7. Hi Suzi (and thanks for linking to my blog post Briony).

    Science is hard work, there is no question about it and the politics that surround it can make it 100x harder work than it needs to be at times. I dislike the attitude that many people have of putting others down to prove their worth.. (not everyone is like that though). Critical assessment is part of science, but it shouldn't be a personal attack or nor should it be used just for the sake of it. But that seems to be the way it is in science..

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