11 June 2015

Career choices hang on narrow threads

The third person from the left in this picture (with moustache, sitting down) played a critical part in my career path. And he probably never knew it. He didn’t supervise my post-doc, wasn’t my doctoral supervisor, nor undergrad mentor.

That man was Dr. Bob Arms, and he taught me introductory psychology. That’s it. I’m not sure I was ever in his office for any length of time. I don’t even remember taking a second class from him.

But he did such a great job of teaching that class, and was so well-spoken and funny and warm and made you feel welcome in his class, that I pretty much chose my major based on my experience in that introductory class.

I chose psychology as my major even though I was initially more interested in biology. But when I looked down the hall at the biology labs, I saw a lot of cat dissections. I was more squeamish then, and wanted no part of cutting up cats. I was more interested in behaviour and organismal biology.

Because I was a psychology major, I met Jennifer Mather, who shanghaied me into research. Because of Jennifer Mather’s research, I got back into biology in graduate school, and here I am back in biology as a career.

On such narrow threads do entire careers hang.

I tell this story because it’s easy to forget that when people are choosing careers, particularly very early, they have choices. And the options are wiiiiiiiiide open. It takes very, very little to nudge people into one path that leads to one career, and even less to derail them from a path that leads to another.

A lot of scientists got into this business because of Star Trek or Jurassic Park (one of my students) or Raiders of the Lost Ark. People might become a scientist because they read one book. (For one person I know, it was Carl Zimmer’s Parasite Rex.) There’s been research that suggests a lot of students, like me, pick their majors because of their experience in the first class they take in a subject in university.

In the fallout from Tim Hunt’s sexist comments about “girls” who “cry”, predictably, some people have suggested that anyone who would have left science because of comments like Hunt’s... wouldn’t have made it anyway. They weren’t committed to the cause enough, they should have grown a thicker skin, they need to be passionate and recite “Sticks and stones” under their breath until their bad feelings go away.

For example, Joanna Williams at Spiked wrote:

But are women scientists really so fragile that they’ll be discouraged by a flippant comment made on the other side of the world?

They’re not fragile. They realize that have better things to do with their time that deal with crap. When someone witnesses a person – a person who is renowned as a leading scientist, a person at the top of the game – making derogatory, bigoted comments, the witness will see that as a signpost, turn away, and never. Look. Back. Because there are a lot of other worthwhile careers and jobs that might not treat you bad.

For example, Lindsay Waldrop wrote:

I saw Tim Hunt give a lecture as a first year student in college. If he'd expressed those views then, I might not be in science.

There is a myth that being a scientist isn’t a job or a career, but a calling or vocation. The corollary is that people who want to do science must be willing to put with anything. That, my friends, is bull.

As I mentioned on Twitter, it isn’t reasonable to ask people to put up with an indefinite among of crap for an indefinite amount of time to join a profession. People do not have infinite patience, and they shouldn’t be expected to have infinite patience.

Make no mistake: people, particularly young people, will walk away from scientific careers because of comments like Tim Hunt’s, whether they’re on international news media or in a classroom. And we’ll never know how many have done that.

Picture from here.

1 comment:

Madam le Consul said...

This is totally true - I've seen it happen (and had it happen to me) again and again. After a year of full-time college and several years of desultory night classes about nothing specific, I discovered the subject I had been born to learn during the first five minutes of a class taught by a quiet, unassuming, non-personable man whose class on medical anthropology most students half-slept through. My final career as a US diplomat was wonderful, I did great work and was recognized for it, yet I fell into it absolutely and purely by chance.