Following up on my post yesterday about my own journey with science, I wanted to offer some words of encouragement to those who are still in the early stages of their own journey. I was prompted to write them by Dr. Isis, as part of her excellent and inspiring Letters to Our Daughters Project. Dr. Isis launched this project to fill a particular need she saw for connecting young women making their way through scientific education and careers with the perspectives and wisdom -- and most of all the stories -- of more senior women who had navigated some of the same terrain.
While the exhortations below were initially addressed to our scientific daughters, I hope that they may also be of use to our scientific sons.
As you pursue an education in science, and perhaps consider a career in science, you will encounter challenges. Do not let these challenges put you off. While science can be beautiful, captivating, and deeply satisfying, it can also be hard. The people around you who seem to find it totally easy did not always (or will not always) find it so. If they did, chances are they were just skimming the surface, missing some of the scientific puzzles worth puzzling over; once you notice them, it's hard to let go of them.
Doing science is something that is learned. It is not an intrinsic quality of a person. This means that you are not allowed to decide you are bad at it if you haven't been immersed in learning it. And, if you want to learn how to do science -- and want it enough to devote your effort to it -- you can.
Understand that part of the challenge is not the mechanics of doing experiments or fieldwork, but the big gap between learning information and making new knowledge. You will need to be patient with yourself as you learn and you will have to refrain from doubting that you could be clever enough to make new knowledge. Many people less clever than you have done it.
Assume that you will need help from others (to learn strategies for devising empirical tests of hypotheses, to learn experimental techniques, to learn good ways to analyze data, to learn how to fix equipment when it breaks, to learn how to file the necessary paperwork). Don't be shy about asking for help, and don't be stingy about offering your own help to others. The building of scientific knowledge requires a community, and grown-up scientists ask for help all the time. (Sometimes they call this "networking", other times they call it "directing graduate research".)
If you can, join a research group where people cooperate and collaborate. Sharing information makes the climb up the learning curve less lonely, more fruitful, and frequently even something resembling fun. There's also a useful side effect here: you end up nurturing each other's excitement about doing science.
Make a point of taking stock on a regular basis, so you appreciate all the knowledge and skills you have gained. Of course, you'll also be keeping track of the knowledge and skills that you don't have yet, but want. (That list always seems longer, but there's nothing wrong with that. It means you're unlikely to end up with nothing to do.)
Now we get to a big issue: After you immerse yourself in learning how to do science, what about careers? Will you automatically be a scientist when you grow up? And what happens if you decide you want to be something else?
Please trust me that putting yourself out to learn how to do science -- and doing actual science as you are learning this -- is a worthy end in itself. Building understanding, even if it's just your own, is a good thing, whether or not you end up deciding to make doing science your life's work. And deciding to make something else your life's work does not undo what you've learned, nor what you've contributed to building new chunks of knowledge, nor what you may have contributed to the experiences of your colleagues climbing up the learning curve.
You can still love science and see other pursuits. Science can handle that kind of relationship, and your happiness matters.
If you decide that you want doing science to be your life's work -- if it feels like science is making a claim on your heart -- the perennial problems of the job market may present daunting challenges.
Don't give up.
If your heart is set on doing science, find a way to make it so. Pay attention to the advice your mentors and colleagues have to offer about finding a scientific career, but be ready to think out of the PI-at-an-R01-university box. There are many other situations where one can do science and be happy. (This is another one of those instances where it's good to ask for help and to share information.)
Make sure the grown-up scientists training you understand your devotion to science. Nudge them to live up to their responsibilities to create conditions where there is room for the people who are devoted to science to keep making contributions within the field, and to have their contributions valued.
If your choice is not to go forward as a researcher in the field in which you received your scientific training, keep in touch with the grown-ups who trained you. Let them know that your appreciation for science has not wavered, even if you've chosen to make different kinds of contributions. Maybe, as you're catching up with each other, you will even recognize some of the ways that the things you are doing are of value to science and scientists.
You may have a personal relationship with Science, but you will also have an important relationship with the scientific community. When this community raises you to be a grown-up scientist, you can leave home and make your own way in the world, but the connection to the community doesn't ever really go away.
May this community be a source of strength and comfort to you, whatever path you choose.