A new kind of scientist

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.

SAMSUNG CSC
Mulalo Doyoyo: an engineer and researcher from Limpopo who is a business owner, inventor and lecturer
Mamphela Ramphele
Mamphela Ramphele is a South African doctor, struggle icon, academic, top business woman and author.

 

Elon Musk
Elon Musk is a South African-born Canadian American who studied Physics and became a business magnate, investor, and philanthropist.

 

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.

 

So, what brings you here?

When I meet another person pursuing their PhD, I am almost always tempted to ask them, “So, what brings you here?” This might actually interest me more than their research topic. I exaggerate, but it’s something I think about quite a lot.  This interest in other people’s motivations might stem from my own preoccupation with why I am pursuing a PhD. The answer to this depends on how my research is going 🙂

hows research
Not my advisers, of course… 🙂

I decided to do my PhD when I realized that I could not wait the indefinite number of years required to become an expert in Public Health. Building expertise through experience in Public Health is tricky because the field is so broad. In my short career, I had already worked as a community health researcher, a program assistant, and an analyst in two unrelated fields. The Masters in Public Health degree I held was multifaceted enough to allow this.  This was a blessing and a curse. On the one hand you need a job, and a generalist degree allows you to secure one much easier: on the other hand, you need deeper technical knowledge and a stable trajectory to build expertise in a field. And since we all need jobs, the market largely dictates where we end up.  In African public health, donor interests and political whims sway policy and dictate whether your sub-field is hot or not.

If you are like me and prefer to delve deep into your area of interest, jumping from one random job (however interesting it may be) to another can be seriously stressful. And, honestly, I’d already realized during my Masters that I am attracted to practice that had a heavy research component to it. The broad coursework was interesting but the most enjoyable part of my Masters in Public Health was the thesis year. I finally got to choose a topic I liked, and conducted research that contributed some knowledge to the world. I published and I was hooked. I knew that I loved research and wanted to do more of it. As my early career trajectory oscillated somewhat uncontrollably between unrelated public health fields, from infectious disease epidemiology to health market analysis, I knew that I needed to pause. I needed to go back to the basics, shut out the noise, and find my happy niche in the minefield that is Public Health. Something I wouldn’t mind dedicating years of training to, fighting for opportunities and innovating.

I’m not sure what works for others…

 

reasons
Definitely don’t do it to be called “Doctor!”

Apparently you shouldn’t do a PhD get out of a bad job or find one, simply to be called “Doctor”, or to impress your friends/colleagues/family. In South Africa, I would venture to say, you should also not do it simply because the government is eyeing your demographic group for some sweet, sweet funding.  All of these things are real motivations for people to pursue a PhD, however. Do you fall in any of them, and do you think it affects how you work at all? Because sometimes I wonder if the reasons for doing a PhD really matter, in the grand scheme of things. If you are putting in the work, do your motivations really make a difference?  A completed PhD dissertation, done for the right or wrong reasons, is a completed PhD dissertation. Right?

“A completed PhD dissertation, done for the right or wrong reasons, is a completed Phd dissertation”

A PhD is balanced with so many other demands in our lives. If you are me, these include young children, a rising cost of living, and the constant pull of exciting opportunities “out there”. And then I have to wonder if my personal motivation, the intrinsic pull towards knowledge, is going to be enough?