I had some time to reflect on my career after the Science Forum South Africa meeting at the CSIR in December last year. Before I began my postgraduate journey, I thought that pursuing a PhD was all about equipping me with the skills I needed to do a job or more specifically to be a scientist. Back then I didn’t understand what a scientist really was.
While the movie Outbreak did give me an idea, some of my teachers and even my dad painted a completely different picture. To them, a scientist worked in a lab, wore a white coat and did really complicated experiments to test hypotheses. Scientists didn’t venture out, they only cared about publishing and, where they could, they stayed away from the limelight. Over the years I have met some scientists like that but there weren’t many. Was this the career I really wanted to follow?
Yes. My love for science and the need to satisfy my curiosity overpowered any stereotypes that might have discouraged me. Fortunately, as I started on this journey, I learned very quickly that a scientist was nothing like what was described to me—unless you wanted to be that kind of scientist. Being a scientist was so much more.
Why was I thinking about this after the Science Forum? For anyone who hasn’t been to one, I encourage you to attend. It really is something special. The forum brings together scientists, journalists, policymakers, business people, etc., from around the world, to discuss the importance of science, technology and innovation for development of the African continent. It also seeks to unify the African science community so that we can work more closely together to build a better continent for everyone.
The scientists I observed at the forum weren’t wearing lab coats, they weren’t hiding in their labs, and they weren’t sitting in a corner huddled over a laptop. The scientists I met were leading panel sessions and science talks. They were asking questions of other scientists, policy makers and business people. Some scientists weren’t scientists anymore — at least in the strict sense — they were starting their own companies, managing others, running communication firms, doing PR, advising ministers and so on. These scientists were different.
While the training of scientists hasn’t changed too much over the years, there are a number of critical skills, general and field dependant, which one will acquire. Outside of science, companies have found many of these skills useful for other tasks. Ever analysed large amounts of information with some comparative work? You might want to look at becoming a market research analyst. There are many more examples where training in STEM can be used for a variety of jobs—old and new.
As scientists we are rather lucky. There aren’t many careers which offer the same kind of flexibility and allow you to diversify. Being a scientist is not a dead end (nor is the path there straight). I have found that as a scientist— a microbiologist, in my case—I have been given more opportunities than I could have dreamed of. Yesterday, I took part in a science communication competition. Today, I have written a blog piece. Tomorrow, I will lead a discussion inspiring young scientists. The day after that, I will carry on my experiments. In a few years, I might lead a panel discussion on policy change in Africa at the Science Forum as CEO of my own private consulting firm; or perhaps I will be on a tropical island somewhere celebrating my Nobel Prize(!). As a scientist, we don’t need to keep our science in the lab, there’s a wide world out there that needs a new kind of scientist.