On the Importance of Being a Scientist

As a Graduate Student Researcher we can identify as a student, teacher, or even an employee. But do we ever identify as a scientist? And if not, why not?

On a whim, I introduced myself as a “scientist” rather than a grad student in front of a large group of non-scientists. After explaining my unusual school situation several times to non-scientists after moving to LA, saying “scientist” just seemed easier. Despite the word scientist not appearing in my job title, I didn’t think I was wrong. After all, I have 2 degrees in biochemistry, am working on my third, and my days are spent designing and conducting experiments. Additionally, graduate students and post docs carry out a large portion of the NIH and NSF funded cutting-edge research that continues to place America as an innovative leader. I do the things that scientists do, so why couldn’t I call myself a scientist?

So I was surprised when someone, after finding out that I am a 5th year PhD student rather than a fully employed “scientist,” responded with “Oh, I thought you were a real scientist.”

Real scientist, eh?

superscientist

I’m going to call this image “Super Scientist”…Me. Wearing a lab coat. Because that’s what real scientists do, right?

I wasn’t offended. Graduate student researchers walk a blurry line between student and employee—and that’s not necessarily well-known in other areas. While a masters student in accounting may spend his or her days taking classes and doing projects, a masters student in science usually does research and teaches college courses.

 

However, the comment did get me thinking about my identity as a student and as a scientist and how that has changed over the years. In graduate school, we identify ourselves by our current year in the program. Our year describes our experience, knowledge, and what challenges we might be facing in coursework, teaching, and exams. Saying I was a “first-year grad student” meant that I was drowning in coursework and teaching while trying to find a lab to call “home”—senior grad students took pity on me with a reassuring “if you can get through first year, you can get through grad school.” Because I was never expected to know how to do anything or work independently during that first year, I didn’t. And I was okay with that. I checked with my advisor or lab manager before every experiment and ran to one of them with every issue I faced rather than attempting to figure it out on my own. As a fifth-year student, I still don’t know everything, but the label comes with more confidence. People ask me where things are and how to perform protocols. They value my opinion for experimental design and interpreting results. I work more independently, trouble-shoot issues on my own, and sometimes even solve problems for others.

Yes, experience plays a large role here. But how much does our self-identification play into our ability to succeed?

In their book “Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard,” Chip and Dan Heath say to “cultivate a sense of identity and instill the growth mindset” when trying to instill change.1 This can be change within ourselves, others, or a company. They argue that when we label ourselves differently, making the change is much easier. For example, a student that is not doing well in math will never improve if they label themselves as “bad” at math. Instead, by instilling a growth mindset that says “Math is hard. But you are smart. And if you work hard, you will get better at math,” students are much more likely to improve. Similarly, if we tell ourselves that we are “only a first-year” or “only a student,” we may never push ourselves to be an independent researcher during graduate school. The reverse can also be true. If the label “student” is only applicable when in traditional learning environment, we would never learn new things and stop progressing.

How we identify ourselves and others can have a huge impact on our success. The next time you catch yourself saying “I’m only a student” or any other phrase that minimizes your knowledge and contributions, think about the implications. Yes, we still have a lot to learn, but we will always have a lot to learn. Use what knowledge you have now and let it grow—I bet you will be able to go a lot further.

1 Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Crown Business. 2010.

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