ALL the questions: Notes to a young scientist writer

In early November I had an email from Kelly, an environmental science student finishing her MSc. She’s at a crossroads, with loads of questions about career trajectories. Should she do a PhD? Can she be a writer AND a professor? Would she enjoy being a professor as much as she’d enjoy writing? What are the pros and cons of doing interdisciplinary research, and how do you balance an academic career with family?

Since these big questions come up frequently in grad student discussions, debates about academic vs. non-academic jobs, and life in general, I thought this info could help more readers than just Kelly.

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Dear Kelly –

Thanks for writing to me, and hope you’re enjoying a good holiday break with winter weather that’s somewhat bearable. I’ll try to answer your questions as best I can, and hope that readers will provide more suggestions in the comments.

1. Should you do a PhD?

If you want to be a professor – yes. If you want to be a writer – that depends. Science writers have a range of backgrounds, from journalism degrees to PhDs and everything in between. Ask yourself:

  • Do you have funding in place – or the opportunity to obtain funding – to support a PhD?
  • Is there a burning question you’re keen to answer, that will keep you going through 4+ years of research on the same topic that can get incredibly frustrating?
  • Is there a research group you’d enjoy working with on this project – in a location you can handle living in – for those 4+ years?
  • Do you have a good support network: friends, family, who can help you out when you reach that stage where the whole thing seems useless and you can’t figure out why you’re wasting your time on it?
  • But most importantly – what is a PhD worth to you? Not just the financial investment, but the time and emotional cost as well.

In my case, I was originally going to do an MSc and then go into writing. It seem logical to get more in-depth science training while taking writing and editing classes on the side, and then move on to a writing career. The trouble was that my research project ballooned (and who could pass up two more Arctic field seasons!), so I ended up switching from an MSc to PhD program (in hindsight, not something I’d recommend to other grad students. I hear The Lab and Field may be covering this in a future blog post…). But if I’ve learned anything in the past year, it’s that you have to move forward from your decisions rather than looking back and wishing you could undo them.

2. Maybe it would help to figure out whether you want to be a writer or a professor, or combine both. The best way to do that is to get scientific and do the research!

Hell, don’t just read about it – talk to people who have followed the various career paths you envision for yourself. What do they like and dislike about it? How did they get to where they are? Sort of like you’re asking me, I suppose. 🙂 Just remember that everyone’s experience is just that – a personal experience – and not necessarily the way things will work out for you (for good or for bad). But it’s all valuable information as you saunter down the career path.

Once I got on the PhD path, I started to see academia as my best – and sometimes only – option. Partially because writing and/or science communication was somewhat denigrated by my peers, and also because I began to think I’d become so specialized that there was little else I was suited for. Unfortunately, I didn’t make a critical distinction: I was good at science, but less suited to science culture – particularly academic science culture. This is where it would have helped if I’d known more about what a professor’s job was like on a day to day basis. Some people are well-suited to it, others not so much – and only you can decide which category you fall into.

3. Since you’re drawn to interdisciplinary research, it’s worth considering the pros and cons outlined in some of these resources.

My research has always been interdisciplinary, due to a combination of interest and necessity. My PhD straddled glaciology, meteorology and hydrology. I got into forest snow studies at my first faculty position, because it was closely related to my PhD work and the only way I could get funding at the time. I blame my geography background, in that I’m inordinately fascinated by the connections between seemingly discrete processes and topics. I’m always looking at the big picture, searching for patterns linking disparate nuggets of information. This is how I went from looking at pine beetle impacts on forest snow, to studying wildfire impacts as well. To looking at the effects of forest disturbance and climate change on fish. And because we’re a country surrounded by and dependent on water, I’ve always been interested in the policy aspect of all of these environmental science research results.

It certainly hasn’t been an easy road – some of which I covered in this post. But it seems there are more of us out there than we realize, and there’s certainly a place in science for both specialists and generalists, inter- and uni-disciplinary researchers.

4. Balancing an academic job with family responsibilities is tough – as it is for many jobs. From key career stages coinciding with a woman’s prime childbearing years, to managing the time demands of fieldwork on top of teaching and administration, to dealing with family responsibilities in a system that assumes you’ll work 24/7…there’s a lot to consider.

I’ve never wanted kids, so that didn’t factor into my career decisions. But just because you don’t have kids doesn’t mean family is any less important to you. Family can include your parents, siblings, extended family…even the close social community you connect with and that supports you. This is critical to everyone – especially in the early years on the tenure track when it seems you’re on a hamster wheel that won’t stop turning.

It also has to do with personality. Some academics are excellent at balancing work with family life, for example leaving work at 4pm to pick up their kids, and not getting back to it until the kids are in bed or 8am the next morning (whichever comes first). I admire them for it, because I’m definitely a workaholic. There are all sorts of reasons for this, and I’m learning how to manage some of them. But it makes it really difficult to do ‘just enough’ rather than overdoing it, to decide when enough is enough versus when you’ve reached the point of diminishing returns. I once gave a single-slide presentation to my colleagues summarizing the projects I was working on and students I was supervising. When I finished my allotted 3 minute spiel, they asked me if I ever slept (for the record, I can’t function on less than 7 hours a night). Another situation in which it would have helped if I understood the specifics of a prof’s job – and my ability to manage them – before choosing this path.

So Kelly, I’m glad you got in touch. Hopefully these resources and snippets of my own personal trajectory help as you consider your future. While I’m flattered that you see me as someone who can help find a way through this thicket of uncertainty, I’m reminded of how different our lives seem from the outside looking in. To you, I’m a successful researcher and writer, an interdisciplinary scientist, finding a balance between family and work. To myself (and, I suspect, to some others) I’m a failed researcher with a penchant for flitting between research topics but never settling on anything for long, a wannabe writer and editor hopelessly out of sync with the freelance landscape, a (partial) shell of a person who’s a bit manic about work and has troubles balancing work and family. While that’s partially my illness speaking, it just goes to show what Dani Shapiro wrote in her latest blog post:

Do any of us have perfect lives? Or do we carefully curate our public personas, keeping our true selves safe, hidden from view? Of course, we show only what we want the world to see.

Keep talking to people and asking questions – and ask yourself the tough questions, too. Remember that, regardless what decision you make now, you can always change your mind. And for those of you reading who are already well along your chosen career path – consider sharing your story like Dezene Huber did in this excellent post. It could help readers more than you realize.

Merry Christmas everyone, enjoy the holidays and all the best for the New Year!

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9 thoughts on “ALL the questions: Notes to a young scientist writer

  1. Great post, Sarah – thanks for sharing. I was at Kelly’s crossroads a few years back, and while I knew the PhD route was the right choice for me, the most important element of my process was finding the right research group. Even if you obtain the funding and have the right project and a great support network — without a research group environment that fits with your character, it’s all worthless. The challenge, of course, is understanding what research group environment you require!

    • Thanks for this, Chad.

      I agree a good research group is key. And if it doesn’t seem like a good fit even after you’ve started working there, you can always move to a different group. No one talks much about it, but it can be done!

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  3. Having lived with people who have the PhD and are going through the PhD process, I have to say this is fantastic advice. You covered so many aspects of the question. Great job!

    • Thanks! Please share as you see fit, I was mainly hoping that grad students and those contemplating grad degrees would read and think about what they really want, and why.

  4. Another nice piece of reflection, Sarah! And definitely one I will read again once my Ph.D. is done. Thank you. Throughout my whole journey of education I’ve always wondered whether I’d like to take the science communication or the academic career path. Amazing how you’re giving both a very good shot! I also get bored getting too specialized and hence end up never getting very good at just one thing. Even though society is applauding specialists, I believe there is a place for people that can link between disciplines and different worlds of thinking. Just like in science where we are constantly trying to find that research gap, we need to find that gap in the (working) world and not just fit into one prescribed job description!

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