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.