Thursday, July 12, 2007

Dr. Dilettante?
By Ellen Fitzsimmons

Over the past year, I have struggled to make a decision about my career path -- government research or academe?

Three productive and enjoyable years at a federal research facility -- combined with zero job offers from academe -- convinced me that government research was the best path for my skill set. I still think so, but I have had little success in securing a permanent job in any of the federal agencies to which I have applied.

I probably sound like the Schopenhauer of the biological sciences, but I am starting to question my entire academic background and every decision I have made to round out and broaden my CV.

The path I followed during my doctoral studies was somewhat of an aberration from that traveled by most graduate students in my field. While I had a focused research project that resulted in an acceptable dissertation, I also taught a multitude of classes, including several completely unrelated to biological science. I did field research, public-policy consulting, and taught high-school students about the lives hidden between river rocks. To my mind, those experiences were necessary for several reasons.
Many of those activities took me away from the lab, and away from Professor McLoopy, my unappreciative and critical dissertation adviser. They helped to build my confidence and they just plain made me happy. When I am outdoors, it is impossible for me to be unhappy, even when being stung by nettles and attacked by deer flies. (It's better than being stung by McLoopy indoors.)

I also felt that I needed breadth in my CV. Depth is a given in graduate school; course work and dissertation research give you depth. Experiential knowledge outside of your specific discipline gives you breadth.

I became the jill-of-all-trades and prided myself on having broad knowledge of the natural world. I can spit on soil and tell you if it's loam or clay. I can isolate RNA from cells. I can tell you about forest succession and the steps involved in sexual differentiation all in the same paragraph. I can even tell you about public policy related to the natural world, from the history of the U.S. Forest Service to the management of laboratory waste.

Who wouldn't want to hire such a vessel of knowledge?

Apparently, everyone.

Well, strike that. I did get a job offer this spring. I turned it down, and I don't regret that. It would have been a great job that involved working with a dynamic group of people. But it wasn't research. And my gut said "uh-uh." Even after getting rejected for jobs that I really, really wanted, my gut still feels good about not taking a job that I didn't want.

So that's where things stand. I'm beginning the final year of a great postdoc at a federal research facility. Maybe it's the ominous phrase "final year" that has me moping around like Eeyore from Winnie-the-Pooh.

I guess to those making hiring decisions, breadth screams lack of focus. And a perceived lack of focus means pathetic.

I really don't think of myself as pathetic. I like to think that I am an adventurous explorer, like the scientists from days of yore. A true Alfred Kinsey, able to study gall wasps and human sexual behavior, all in the span of one career.

Call me Dr. Dilettante, but I am a biological scientist who likes to dabble. If I want to know how the liver secretes proteins, don't I also need to know about the proteins, the entire endocrine system, interactions among systems, even the evolutionary biology of the organism under study?

I have never really understood the appeal of exploring one tiny little grain of rice when the whole field beckons. I want to ask questions that provide answers about the natural world, from the micro to the macro level. Like almost all other scientists, I am the little kid who never stopped asking why. I just never learned, or wanted, to tune my focus any finer than "biological sciences." (Uh-oh, maybe I do lack focus.)

I suppose I've been selfish in doing what I want rather than what I should. I am not independently wealthy nor do I have a rich donor throwing money at my research. Grants that start with sentences like "my research will explain how a grain of rice grows by examining every event that occurs in a field of rice" do not get financed. Even I, Dr. Dilettante, understand that research needs money and that money comes from well-written, focused grants or project proposals.

So what am I questioning about my academic background?

I question whether my desire for breadth has turned me into Dr. Gray, and I don't mean the cute, wispy Meredith Grey of television fame. I mean gray as in foggy, undefined, and, yes, unfocused.

I thought it was cool to be able to embrace so much knowledge with my disciplinary titles. Now I am not so sure about the dazzle of multidisciplinarity. Job descriptions may indicate that multidisciplinary research is desirable, but I think that means being able to study cancer biology in a cell line or in freshly harvested cells from a mouse, not being both a molecular biologist and an epidemiologist.

I am going to spend this last year of my postdoc defining my research self. If I keep cranking out research papers in my current subfield, I guess I won't have to do much work; I will have defined my research self through the scholarly discourse of publications. Sigh. I can't help but ask if that is the way I want myself defined.

Regardless, this year is going to be a challenge. I have to find a position with an employer who wants a Dr. Dilettante with a side of Dr. Expertise, rather than a Dr. Expertise with a side of Dr. Dilettante.

Ellen Fitzsimmons is the pseudonym of a Ph.D. in the biological sciences. She is chronicling her search this year for a new position in academe or government research.