Thursday, 2 April 2015

Being a human first and a scientist second

Being a scientist is a strange occupation. I know that we're viewed as 'not quite the same' as other humans and bizarrely, we seem to strive toward that narrow view of ourselves. Being a scientist, particularly an academic one, is full of the pursuit of higher ideals and striving to advance human knowledge. Isn't it?

For a long time now I've had a feeling that something is wrong with this. At times in my career I've had the thought that everyone else seemed fine and that it must be me that somehow didn't fit in. It's easy to think that is because I'm a woman in a very male dominated field. But really, it's not the reason. The reason is because I'm a human first and a scientist second.

Over the years cynical scientists may realise that the upper echelons in this game are filled with egocentric academics who have stuck it out longer than anyone else, many of whom have made many personal sacrifices along the way. Late nights in the lab are de rigeur, as is having only a passing interest in ones children or simply choosing not to have any at all to get ahead. Even as junior researchers we were told we must move around the world if we wanted a good network and any chance of pursuing our 'dream' career. (One might well ask ‘whose dream, anyway?’) 

Faced with this ultimatum: "you must compromise your life to keep doing the job you love", we almost all decide to make sacrifices. In many cases it is a life affirming and enriching experience. But just because it can be positive doesn't mean we should sacrifice our happiness or career if moving is not right for us. But those who can't, by and large, leave to go do something else. I have seen this play out over and over again with the peers that I studied with.

In an often unfamiliar place and culture we come into work each day and effectively go into battle. We might be competing for favour with the Professor, competing for grants, or good students, or teaching ratings, or first author on a paper, publicity or book sales but make no mistake we are forced to compete. So rather than genuinely supporting one another we in fact each try to call one another out for being wrong. We justify this animosity by affirming our belief that what's important is doing things 'right'. (In reality this is usually competitiveness masquerading as pedantry). 

Surely all those years of training should be put to good use and we should act 'like scientists'? That means being or at least trying to be totally objective. It means sucking it up when Professor Big Shot totally slates the work of a research student who was only presenting it because their own supervisor, Professor Big Ego told them to. 

This process can and often does turn nasty. I can't tell you the number of heated arguments I've personally witnessed which came down to attacks on personal character. I won't relate the multitude of stories I've heard about the horrible way that people have treated each other 'in the name of science'. Those who can't hack it leave to go do something else.

I'm no longer surprised when people call time on this career. A person is quite sane when they call into question whether its the right decision to leave behind family and friends (their key support network) to have a job on the other side of the world, if it later turns into a battleground laced with an undercurrent of fear of inadequacy and being an impostor. Even if the higher ideal of contributing to knowledge is still there, it can be hard to hold onto that single positive straw when the rest of the structure of your life has been broken.

So scientists, do you value yourself first or your science? All your training, all the stories of the heroes and heroines of science, the career fairytales all force you to make one decision: science comes first. Self comes second. Those who think otherwise, they leave too.

The main problem I have identified here is that scientists on the whole view each other as scientists first and humans second. Fundamentally, scientific workplaces and scientific training lacks empathy. It has taken me many years to realise that I was effectively forced by the education system to focus on the sciences at the age of around 15 or thereabouts, which is really very early in life. This means I have over the years been robbed of opportunities for emotional and personal growth that I may not have missed had I studied say philosophy or literature instead. 

By surrounding myself with scientists, even the most lovely and inspiring ones, I reduced my ability to learn to empathise, to be creative, to accept and to tolerate the imperfect because I had it drilled into me to be rigorous, objective, rational, logical and perfection seeking. While the rigorous parts of scientific research demand those things, I realise now that it was this focused training (which I was, unashamedly, very good at) which subsequently set me up to fail with regards to the kind of challenges I'd face after my PhD. It has been a long hard road to make up for that.

Many years ago I was asked the dreaded job interview question 'what is your greatest weakness?' to which I responded 'fear of failure'. 

Yet, I am imperfect. When I fail - and it is a when not an if - I want to learn from it, not feel compelled to hide it away in a box called 'unpublished work'. Personally, failure has taught me my strengths and weaknesses as a scientist. I am still learning to accept it, but I am doing a lot better than I used to. 

I count it as a very good thing that many of my best friends are musicians, humanities graduates and scientists who have much broader interests, they have taught me a lot. It's also a good thing that I've spent so many years ignoring the well-intentioned advice of some of those more senior to me. 

Over time, I have been developing a list of guidelines that I would ask members of my imaginary future research group to follow. Perhaps you can help me add a few more?
  1. Members of this group will treat each other as human beings first, and scientists second. People are the first priority in this lab (not publications or citations or h-index or anything else...)
  2. Empathy is encouraged.
  3. You are encouraged to dare greatly but to take responsibility for your daring.
  4. Creativity is at the heart of all we do.
  5. Failure is to be embraced, not hidden.
  6. Feedback will be constructive. 
  7. Honesty is required, as is tact.
I recognise in all of this that I'm one of the lucky ones. I've generally had very positive environments to work in and amazingly supportive colleagues who have, on a number of occasions, had my back when I needed them to. I've also been very lucky to have a number of 'sponsors' or supporters both male and female to offer me advice, mentorship, contacts and other countless small steps up when I needed them. Many people don't have this, but I want to support them and let them know that it can be better. It really can. 

We should all remember that we are human first and scientist second. No matter how hard we try, this will always be the case. We just need to learn to embrace it.