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?


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.


I am a Scientist AND a ___________.

Embrace the AND: Work-Life Balance for Women in STEM to Promote Equality in the Work Place

Today is National Women’s Equality Day (apparently it is also National Dog Day, which makes this female scientist with 2 dogs very happy). I consider myself very lucky as a female PhD student in a STEM field in 2016. Female scientists before me have sacrificed in ways that I do not need to and have paved the way for acceptance and encouragement of PhD seeking females. My female role models throughout my many years of school have been in all stages of life from single to married to mother. All are intelligent women who have made great contributions to society in their roles as scientist AND woman/wife/mother/mentor/sister/aunt/etc. All of my research advisors (2 during my undergrad and my PhD advisor) are male. Each has been supportive of my career goals as a woman in STEM. In fact, my PhD advisor once told me “You don’t have to go into a specific career if you don’t want to. Just make sure the reason you aren’t pursuing it isn’t because you think you can’t because you’re a girl”. Still, as a PhD seeking woman, I often get asked the question “What are you going to do when you get married and have kids?”.

science AND

Perhaps it is this question that makes women wonder early on whether they will be able to fulfill roles as scientist AND mother. Maybe this is what makes many women feel that they need to choose one path over the other. A career in science has been traditionally thought of as one that requires COMPLETE devotion. Even many men (whereas most men never need to choose between fatherhood and a career) have forgone families in order to dedicate their lives to science. Although more women are earning PhDs than ever before (41% of STEM PhDs were awarded to women in 2009), the number of female scientists pursuing careers in academia does not hold the same proportion. * Further examination into the personal lives of these women has revealed that unmarried women and women without children are more likely to pursue and hold tenure-track positions in academia than married women or women with children. These statistics indicate that the lack of work-life balance in academic and STEM fields may be causing women to leave science.

Stereotypes and “traditional” attitudes are not the only factors preventing women from achieving a work-life balance. Policies regarding maternity and paternity leave in the United States force many parents to choose between a career and childcare. The United States is the only developed country with no guaranteed paid maternity or paternity leave. California was the first state to have a paid leave program for new parents and large companies such as Netflix, Facebook, and Virgin Airlines are working to offer more flexible plans to help new parents. These policies work to create a better work-life balance to recruit and keep talent. But can these same types of policies be applied to careers in science? After all, 36% of researchers with children report a negative impact on their career if they pursued a work-life balance. ǂ Statistics such as these beg the question: are we losing talented female AND male scientists who want to have a family or a more balanced career and life?

The National Science Foundation (NSF), a major funder of scientific research in the US, is working to incorporate policies to support a healthy work-life balance. Specifically, they aim to increase the placement, advancement, and retention of women in STEM disciplines. Some of these policy changes include¥:

  • Flexible deadlines and extensions for submitting grants
  • Supplemental money in grants for research technicians
    • In labs where the majority of experimental work depends on graduate students who do not cost very much money, an experienced research technician can be a valuable asset if the advisor is unable to devote all of their time to the lab. Research technicians are rare in new labs that have limited funding. However, this is the time that many people may want to start families and need to devote time to their personal lives.
  • Incorporate family-friendly practices and policies in NSF’s CAREER (early development program for professors), all post-doctoral programs, and graduate research fellowship program.

Basically, as a leader in science in the US, the NSF is working to lead by example to other funding agencies, universities, and scientists to change what it takes to be a successful scientist. These policies will hopefully take unnecessary pressure off of early-career researchers who have or hope to start families while trying to succeed in the world of academia.

But, when all is said and done, how do you actually improve your work-life balance?

The Association for Women in Science conducts a workshop to develop a personal plan to achieve the work-life balance that you want. Here are a few recommendations from the AWIS to achieve your own work-life balance, or, as they define, “the level of personal fulfillment and professional success that are right for you”:

  • Define your situation. Work-life balance is a personal decision. Define what your own values and priorities are that will constitute your own balance.
  • Develop a strong support system. Family, friends, and close colleagues can all serve as support, coaches, and mentors when trying to achieve your balance.
  • Plan and prioritize. Keep your focus on your pre-determined priorities and learn to say no to non-priorities. I love Galit Lahav’s article “How to Survive and Thrive in the Mother-Mentor Marathon” where she advises others to “compartmentalize your brain and calendar”. When you are working, be at work. When you are at home, be at home. Don’t worry about home when you’re at work and vice versa. This will make you more efficient and productive in the end.
  • Learn to say “no”. This one seems to be especially difficult for females compared to males with 55% of females struggling to say “no” compared to 47% of males in science. And saying “no” doesn’t only apply to tasks and favors colleagues, friends, and family ask of you. You might be saying “no” to doing your own laundry or cleaning (you can pay people to do that) or to how well a project needs to completed (is there a “good enough” point?).
  • Set guilt-free boundaries. If you need to leave work early to pick up a child from daycare, then come in early so you don’t need to feel guilty. Make others aware of your situation by setting clear boundaries from the beginning rather than feeling guilty later.
  • Recharge your batteries. Remember that you have to take care of yourself in order to be of any use to anybody else. Sleep well, eat well, take breaks, exercise, and do activities that you enjoy.

“Every time we are saying ‘yes’ to something, we are saying ‘no’ to something else.” –Tara Teppen of the University of Illinois, Chicago

*National Center for Education Statistics 2010-028; NSF SRS InfoBriefs 08-208, 11-305

ǂAssociation for Women in Science Work-Life Balance Executive Summary

¥ Balancing the Scale: NSF’s Career-Life Balance Initiative