Thursday, July 12, 2007
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
, 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
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?
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
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
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
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.
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.