Friday, February 13, 2009

Why Am I A Scientist?

A recent post by Ambivalent Academic on the positive side of her ambivalence to academia and a spinoff post by PhysioProf over at DrugMonkey have got me thinking about why I'm embarking on this journey into academia in the first place. 

I never really thought of myself as a "scientist" in the making, even though my field is a social "science." Even though the term should be defined by the use of the scientific method for the purpose of inquiring into the ways the world works, my image of a scientist has always included test tubes, bubbly liquids, expensive microscopes, and lab animals. The field of psychology has historically fought to be recognized as a science, and in my mind I guess that fight wasn't all that important. My thought process about the subject included the line "As long as I get to do what I want to do, who gives a shit if the rest of the world considers it a science or an art?"

When I joined the blogosphere, I was (and still am) reading blogs by physiologists, computer scientists, neuroscientists, biologists, pharmacologists, and I just recently added a human embryonic stem cell researcher to my blog roll. Psychologists are scarce in the blog world that I have come to be a part of, and I largely expected not to be taken seriously in the science aspect by my blogger pals. 

That has absolutely NOT been the case. 

For that reason, I have begun to think of myself as a scientist-in-training, rather than just some random prospective grad student interested in the art of understanding human behavior. This revelation has not changed my goals, but it has given me a great amount of confidence to know that my field is respected by the scientific community (at least the blogging niche anyway). 

And thus I decided to write this post as I realized that psychological research qualifies me to answer the question, "Why am I a scientist?"

I could have gone into counseling or clinical psychology and spent my days in an applied setting where someone else's research and theory dictates my ability to help clients and patients. I flirted with the idea for awhile, mostly because of the independence the field provides. What stopped me was realizing that most clinical and counseling psychologists are outside of the research community and very few keep up with findings in related fields that could have implications for their work. It's not their fault that this happens - juggling a schedule of clients and maintaining connection to the clinical/counseling fields is more than enough to fill their time. 

I wanted to be one of the people generating new ideas about human behavior. I wanted to be one of the people whose research may influence policy decisions on a local, national, or even global scale. I can't say that I'm in it for the money (heaven knows....) or the fame, but my ultimate goal would still be to become a world-renowned expert on gender and intergroup processes. I would love to be just like this guy - to be awesome AND have a TV series based on my work!

But none of that influenced my initial decision to pursue academia. The real reason behind that stems from my desire to be a professional student for the rest of my life. Seriously - if I won the lottery, I would spend the rest of my life taking college courses and racking up degrees in every field I had time to study. Academia is the closest thing I can realistically get to that goal. 

Why do I say that? I consider research to be self-directed learning. I consider academia to be (ideally) an environment that fosters intellectual stimulation and collaboration. I aspire to be a researcher who collaborates with scientists from other fields. For example, in studying gender, why wouldn't a social psychologist want to collaborate with a biologist studying human sex differences? A biologist's knowledge of the psychological side of gender is likely to be limited, and by all means my knowledge of biology is minimal at best. But if you combine the two areas of expertise, logic should dictate that any research that would come of the collaboration would be better than research from just one or the other. Academia makes that collaboration possible to researchers who seek it out. And both of us, in the process, would learn more about the other's field while getting paid for it (professional student).

That's why I love the blogosphere so much. Yeah, I might ask fellow bloggers some seemingly stupid questions about the work that they do, but it's because I'm genuinely interested in what they have to say about it. I much prefer to learn from people than textbooks (especially textbooks I don't have a prayer of understanding without the guidance of an expert). I love hearing ideas that other people have, especially when they come from a different perspective than my own. So you could say that, at the core, my pursuit of academia is really a pursuit of knowledge - just like AA said in her post. 

I also really, really look forward to teaching. I have no doubt that it can be a real pain in the ass, but I have to imagine that those few and far between students who get inspired by your work make it worth it. The undergrads who come to you during office hours and say "I'm really interested in what you're doing in your lab. Can I help out in some way?" Or the idea of prospective grad students from all over the world looking you up on your institution's website because an article you wrote made them think that you'd be an awesome person to learn from. A professor's real legacy is the students they teach and mentor, even (and sometimes especially) when those students go on to disagree with you in their later careers. In psychology textbooks (particularly on personality theory), theorists are introduced by explaining who they trained under in a family tree sort-of way. If I go to grad program #4, a textbook might someday explain a theory I proposed by first saying "JLK was the first graduate student of Dr. Y, where she elaborated on Dr. Y's theory of XYZ until it developed into the following theory." Later, a textbook might say "Suzie Smith was a student of JLK's when JLK was developing ABC theory. Suzie came to disagree with the foundation of JLK's theory, and proposed the following alternative."

I think it's cool how that works. 

So those are my possibly naive reasons for pursuing academia. Who knows? Maybe once I am actually IN grad school I will feel differently about it. But for now, social psychology consumes me on a daily basis and I consider it to be some of the most exciting stuff in the world. And I can't wait to be part of the excitement. 


Professor in Training said...

it has given me a great amount of confidence to know that my field is respected by the scientific community (at least the blogging niche anyway).

Our opinions are the only ones that matter :)

Ambivalent Academic said...

This is a really excellent post (I'm starting to sound like a broken record over here).

I wanted to comment on the same quote as PiT.

Your field is respected by scientists because it attempts to apply scientific method to human behavior. Scientific Method. Slam dunk.

There will be "hard scientists" who turn up there nose at psychology research because the nature and ethics of conducting experiments on humans can sometimes limit the rigor with which information can be gathered. Nonetheless, we're people too and we want to know how people work. So if you can apply the scientific method to human behavior, however problematic some of those experiments may be, this or best hope of understanding human behavior in a systematic testable manner.

Is it perfect? Is it infallible? Of course not, but neither is physics or biology or any other hard science.

Welcome to the fold.

Anonymous said...

I think what we share is passion for our work that non-academic folks don't understand. We get crazy excited about our work, which is exactly how I pictured my career - doing what I love and not thinking it's work.

leigh said...

you're just as much of a nerd as the rest of us- if anything, a nerd in educational transition who is dealing with the withdrawal by doing a shitload of posts about her field. totally awesome. of course we respect you, you fit right in. calling bullshit on some hypotheses you think are bullshit and telling us why, then laying some serious groundwork on your own interests... that's all scientist.

JLK said...

@ Anonymous: You said "doing what I love and not thinking it's work" - right ON. That's such a huge part of it and I wish I had included that in my post. I've worked in jobs and industries that offer a lifelong career if I wanted them - but they've always been "work" to me, whereas layin' down some gender info for you folks is what I do in my leisure time! I can't wait until I get to lay it down for students and colleagues in my field!

@ leigh: That is the sweetest, nicest comment I have gotten so far on my blog. I'm going to read it over and over again whenever I'm lacking confidence. So thank you for making me smile at 2am after a very shitty friday night. :)

DuWayne Brayton said...

One of the things that really struck me, as I got into reading and commenting on Seed's sciblogs, was the respect with which I was treated. In the context of conversations that required logical arguments, I was accepted for what I had to say. And in the context where evidence was key, I was accepted as long as I could produce evidence to back my assertions.

Nobody gave a shit that I was a high school dropout. Rather, several people were impressed, because it implied a drive to learn for the sake of learning.

This is, in large part, what has driven to get an education and become a scientist. Scientists generally are more interested in solid, logical arguments and evidence to back them, than in the degrees of the person making them.

That, and I have always been keen on furthering our understanding of the world around us.

As for the idiots who believe that psychology isn't science, because of the limitations on research - fuck 'em. The same limits exist in every aspect of medicine.

Science is what brought us out of the dark ages of psychiatry, wherein the treatment of persons with neurological issues unbelievably horrifying. Science has brought us to a point in which people with very serious disorders can often lead productive, reasonable lives.

All right, time for me to shut the fuck up and get back to writing. If I can make every paper I write absolutely exceptional, I'll be able to transfer with a secondary associates in English. (They are decidedly not into CLEP exams, but may make an exception for me)

Nicky said...

Thanks for visiting my blog! I wanted to tell you that I think becoming a mother while still in grad school was absolutely the right choice for me. In fact, I believe that it is often a good choice for women who plan an academic career. I'm happy to have you follow my blog to see how it's going for me, as you think about your own similar decisions.

Having said that, please don't get discouraged by what I've been writing about lately. Being in grad school and being in a relationship and working and being a parent are always a careful balancing act, and my balance has been far, far off for the last few weeks. It's hard, and depressing, but I have no reason to believe that it will remain quite this bad in the long term.

Good luck!

Stephanie Zvan said...

Funny, that was exactly the same reason I didn't go into clinical. I would have loved to help people by doing it, but (and this was many years ago) I couldn't find the evidence that I would be.

Great post, JLK.

JLK said...

@DuWayne - I love you cuz I think you're awesome. You don't have to back your shit up with evidence around these parts! ;)

@Nicky - Thanks for venturing on over for a visit! When I have some time I'm going to go read through your archives. I haven't made it past this month yet. I know you're going through some extra crazy stuff right now - I hope everything works out!

@Stephanie - Good to see you back around here! I thought maybe I'd started boring The other thing about not going into clinical is that I just don't have the patience to listen to people whine all day, and unless I went into some super specific disorder treatment, that's what most of my days would entail. lol

scicurious said...

You hit the nail on the head JLK. My love of science has a LOT to do with my desire to be a perpetual student.

And absolutely we respect psychologists! Exactly as AA said, practical application of the scientific method, sounds like science to me.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Your motivations for deciding to go to graduate school sound very solid to me. My own were extraordinarily haphazard in comparison.

JLK said...

@Sci - neuroscientists and psychologists (I think) have to respect (and love) each other! The two fields are so intricately intertwined that to focus on one without paying attention to the other would do a real disservice to the study of the human brain. You and I will forever be stuck with each other! ;)

@CPP - I would LOVE to hear your reasons for going to grad school. Will you post about it?

JLK said...

@Sci - neuroscientists and psychologists (I think) have to respect (and love) each other! The two fields are so intricately intertwined that to focus on one without paying attention to the other would do a real disservice to the study of the human brain. You and I will forever be stuck with each other! ;)

@CPP - I would LOVE to hear your reasons for going to grad school. Will you post about it?

viagra online said...

I'm a scientist because I want to know the secret mechanics of all.

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