Bias.

I have been trying to explore alternate careers to working at the bench and been having a hard time in doing so. I am more and more convinced I don’t belong in academia, though that doesn’t provide an instant idea for what I do want to do. 


I’ve also been told that if I leave academia, it’s almost impossible to get back in. Which is likely true. I’ve also been told it’s harder beyond the ivory tower to have a stable job (I would argue that there’s not much stability within the ivory tower anymore either). 

Something most postdocs, grad students, and a few PIs are increasingly mindful of  the bias within the academic system to keep people within academia, pursuing that path alone. Leaving science is still considered ‘failing’ or dropping out; as if it’s as bad as dropping out of high school- you’re ruining your bright future! Never mind that there are plenty of successful people outside of academia. 

I had a moment the other day listening to a podcast that showed me just how deep that bias is instilled within me as a scientist. Cara Santa Maria is a science correspondent at the Huffington Post. She has a video series there called ‘Talk Nerdy to Me’ (good use of a pun there), she’s frequented a lot of the podcasts I listen to as a guest to talk about science- usually neuroscience as that’s her background. I’m a fan of her work and her mission to communicate science to the public; ideally increasing scientific literacy (it helps that she looks like she can rock out too). And similar to me, she’s fairly open about her experiences with depression; something that does seem to afflict science-types more frequently than the general population.
I like her, but I found myself cringing when she was introduced as a ‘scientist’; my visceral reaction was ‘No, she’s not’. In a technical sense that’s true- she’s currently a reporter. I don’t think she’s in a lab doing experiments. However, that is a narrow definition of a scientist. Once you’ve done work in a scientific field and move on, does that revoke your scientist card? Cara was smart, I think, and got out at a master’s degree and is now successful in her role as science correspondent at the HuffPo (I say that since it is increasingly apparent that very few grad students/postdocs will get academic posts these days). And I don’t think that the fact she doesn’t have a Ph.D. was the reason for my reaction. 

I have drunk the Kool Aid as it were that there is only a narrow definition of a scientist. A science box as it were. I would compare it to ‘the man-box’; where there is a narrow definition of what a man should be; and I’m trying to move away from the ‘how I should be’ way of thinking. People are diverse. So are men (and women!). So are scientists.

The bias that academia, and toiling away in the lab is the only place for scientists clearly runs deep. I remember hearing stories about how Carl Sagan was somewhat Ostracized by fellow astronomers because he spent a lot of time communicating with the public (OK, so I give him flak too for his intonation of ‘Billions and billions’*). It does seem that things are changing. The next generation of scientists seem to engage and communicate more than in the past. But I do wonder if people like Neil deGrasse Tyson get guff from ‘real astrophysicists’ for his public engagement (there’s no question that he’s a nerd celebrity). I think he still is a scientist who does some research still though. 

I am trying to be mindful of my own biases (just read previous posts- I am biased against myself a lot of times), but this one struck me deeply. No wonder I have a hard time stepping out from behind the bench to really go after a 2nd career path. The bias against it is really deeply seeded inside me. It’s not that I wouldn’t stay in academia, I do, however want to openly explore other things I might do. And right now, in my head, I feel pigeonholed. 

The lesson: Be mindful of how you’re feeling and figure out where your biases are that might be holding you back from exploration. 

*It has been pointed out to me that Carl Sagan never said ‘Billions and Billions’. And after some brief research, indeed, he didn’t, but apparently did emphasize the ‘b’ in billion (from Wikipedia):

Billions and billions

Sagan with a model of the Viking Lander probes which would land on Mars. Sagan examined possible landing sites for Viking along with Mike Carr and Hal Masursky.

From Cosmos and his frequent appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Sagan became associated with the catchphrase “billions and billions”. Sagan stated that he never actually used the phrase in the Cosmos series.[37] The closest that he ever came was in the book Cosmos, where he talked of “billions upon billions”:[38]
A galaxy is composed of gas and dust and stars—billions upon billions of stars.
—Carl Sagan, Cosmos, chapter 1, page 3[39]
However, his frequent use of the word billions, and distinctive delivery emphasizing the “b” (which he did intentionally, in place of more cumbersome alternatives such as “billions with a ‘b'”, in order to distinguish the word from “millions” in viewers’ minds),[37] made him a favorite target of comic performers, including Johnny Carson,[40] Gary KroegerMike MyersBronson PinchotPenn JilletteHarry Shearer, and others. Frank Zappa satirized the line in the song “Be In My Video“, noting as well “atomic light”. Sagan took this all in good humor, and his final book was entitled Billions and Billions, which opened with a tongue-in-cheek discussion of this catchphrase, observing that Carson was an amateur astronomer and that Carson’s comic caricature often included real science.[37]
He is also known for expressing wonderment at the vastness of space and time, as in his phrase “The total number of stars in the Universe is larger than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the planet Earth.”

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Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

One thought on “Bias.”

  1. I'm inclined to say that Cara *isn't* a scientist, myself, but that's because I hew more to the technical definition you mentioned. On the other hand, my version of the technical definition is a little more broad; I define a scientist as anyone who is using the scientific method to add to our knowledge of the universe, and communicating those results to others. My definition includes everything from research scientists in academic labs to amateur astronomers searching for new stellar objects and amateur taxonomists search for new species; even a kid's science fair project can make them a scientist, if what they're doing is new and they report it somehow (even if that's a poster at the fair!). I don't claim that my definition is perfect, but it works for me as a rough guide. And by that definition, Cara isn't a scientist. She *was* a scientist, but now she's a reporter / science communicator / etc. As you mention, Neil deGrasse Tyson is still actively doing research, so I would still say he's a scientist; if he stopped doing that and focused entirely on communication of science, I wouldn't call him a scientist any more. This comes with no judgment or moral implication, but as far as labelling goes, that's how I would do it.Conversely, while it's tempting and inclusive to define Cara as a scientist, where do you stop? The word doesn't seem to have a lot of useful meaning if everyone who *communicates* sciences is labelled a scientist. And I don't think that many of them would call themselves scientists, either; I don't think that Ed Yong or Carl Zimmer, for instance, label themselves that way, though they produce absolutely fantastic material. (P.S. Loved the post, but posting a comment on here is really difficult; none of the login options work for me. Google says I'm unknown, but you can find me @BehavEcology. :)

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