I used to be a scientist

In this blog I question what it is to be a scientist. Or what it is to claim ownership over any area of knowledge at all, actually. It’s the career introspective that culminates in a Twitter debate which gives me some life affirmation.


Earlier this year I stood up in front of a bunch of Ph.D students and tried to do stand up comedy around the fact that I used to be a scientist. Despite a terrific 2nd line,

It’s been 159 days since my last experiment.

(Thanks Daniel.)(And it really was 159 days. I counted.)

the whole set was not my best. I think the reason was that I wasn’t confident enough with the subject matter. I couldn’t see the comedy because I didn’t think it was particularly funny at the time.

I knew I was leaving science long before I left it. Towards the end of my Ph.D, the love of academia had worn off. I looked at my supervisor and his colleagues, and some of the difficult decisions they had to make on a daily basis. The difficult balances between doing research, and applying for funding to do research. Teaching quantity, or quality. Career, or family. Success, or sanity. No amount of research joy could overcome what – to me – are some overwhelming downsides.

After my Ph.D, I took a postdoc because I desperately needed the cash. And it only served to confirm my suspicions, academia wasn’t for me.

In that mess, I found a new passion – science communication.

Why I love science communication is the fodder for a whole ‘nother post, but the point of this story is my position of power in the science communication hierarchy: I was a tame researcher. With a paid position in a research institution, actively carrying out research. I had descended from the ivory tower and wanted to preach to anyone who would listen. I was the frickin’ holy grail of science communicators.

I’m not saying I did the world’s best job of it, but I enjoyed myself, people enjoyed me, and I made a little difference to the world.

Nowadays, I am less of a deity. For I am no longer a paid researcher. I am a Researcher Development Officer. I do not fall into the Research branch of the University Staff Structure, and don’t I feel the difference. I can still carry out science communication, but it’s entirely off my own back. I have to prove my worth before I can add to a project, and I can’t really do it as part of my job.

Within my new role, I could still carry out research if I wanted to, but I simply don’t have the time. And I’d have to learn a whole new research discipline first. I can still put an institution after my name and sound like I have some credibility, but no one would be so bold as to call me a physicist, or an engineer; except me, my friends, and my mum.

But I still feel like one. I think like one. I shout at the news like one.

Last week I met an amazing chap at the Science Communication Conference named Benjamin Palmer, and we talked about what it is to be a scientist. Although we concluded that it is that state of mind, that reasoning, that logic; I still don’t think that anyone would be confident enough in that to announce themselves as one, if they only think like one.

You wouldn’t get the BBC calling you up to speak on the Today programme.

(Well, you shouldn’t.)

Recently I found myself out drinking with a bunch of my old colleagues at the Research Institution. After we’d laughed and joked about the state of the place, the people, the communal office (!); the conversation turned to some recent result where a researcher had claimed that they could harvest the same electron from an organic semiconducting device multiple times.

Now, if I can claim to be a scientific expert about anything, it’s organic fucking devices.

Maybe it was the booze. Maybe it was my eagerness. Maybe it was the fact that these colleagues didn’t actually see me put 7 fucking years into becoming an expert on organic semiconducting devices; but nobody wanted to hear my opinion. I was no longer their equal, and no amount of flashing my geeky tattoo would convince them that I know my shit when it comes to charge carrier transport at the organometallic interface.

The whole thing left me quite dejected. Had I thrown it all away by leaving research?

I just always thought that you’d do something really great, Nicola.

– Said a friend’s dad.

Had I given up my opportunity to do something really great?

I’d been struggling to come to a decision on that matter until just the other day, when I got myself into a Twitter debate. Not a proper one. I just poked a bear and the bear grumbled and then I became less bold with my opinions. But still, it was enough to scare me into questioning why I had poked the bear in the first place.

What was the subject of this debate?

Well, it wasn’t science. It was the Science Media Centre. Specifically, whether or not they’re evil.

I am not now, nor have I ever been employed by the Science Media Centre. I do not work in journalism. I do not work in PR. A couple of guest appearances in the Guardian Higher Education Network do not a news media professional make. And yet here I was, bold enough to add my two cents to the debate. To poke the bear.

When the bear grumbled, I instantly started questioning myself. Why the fuck had I done that? What the fuck qualified me to think I could denounce the article live on Twitter?

And it comes down to the same question as to what makes a scientist.

That state of mind, that reasoning, that logic.

I spent a month volunteering at the Science Media Centre. I know how they operate. I am aware of the issues around that operation, and the subsequent debate over their evilness.

I have the right to an opinion. Without qualification, but with integrity and credibility.

When it comes to science, I do have a qualification. But that does not preclude anyone from having the same integrity and credibility that I can claim to have, providing they’ve done their research.

I may not be a researcher any more, but I am still a scientist. And nothing is precluding me from doing something really great.


About nicolajrolfe

Dr. Nicola J. Rolfe is currently looking for her next opportunity to make a big splash in East Kent industry.
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