About a month ago, I asked the principal investigator of my lab what I, as an aspiring neuroscience researcher, ought to be doing at this point in my career. For reference, I am a 22-year old college graduate who is working part-time in neuroscience lab, and planning on applying to grad school in Fall 2014. The advice my P.I. gave me was surprisingly sanguine, basically suggesting that as long as I was hard-working, clever and collaborative I would have nothing to worry about. When I pressed him for specific actions I could be taking (such as learning molecular biology, or joining a journal club), he didn’t discourage me from pursuing these things, but assured me that I would have ample opportunity to explore particular interests once I got to grad school. Overall, I came away from this discussion satisfied. Although I would have preferred some more specific guidance, the simple wisdom I received was a welcome antidote to hyper-specific, anxiety-inducing genre of grad school advice that one encounters on blogs and forums. However, as more time has passed since this conversation with my P.I., I have become increasingly dissatisfied with his response. No longer profound, it seems trite. To be sure, my P.I.’s advice was genuine in its intent, but it nevertheless reflected the biases he has on account of already being an established researcher. Moreover, as a preternaturally intelligent and tenacious guy, he possibly never felt so insecure in his career prospects that he would pore through megabytes of grad school application tips in the vain pursuit of some paltry stratagem for distinguishing himself from the competition. Perhaps his own bouts with laziness never impaired his productivity to the extent that mine have. (Perhaps I am making nonsense assumptions on no evidence other than my bare-bones impression of my P.I.’s life experience? This seems likely.)

This all leads me toward some overwhelming, universe-disturbing question: Do I have what it takes to become a scientist? The mere act of writing that question is enough to provoke some deep anxiety, because, for better or for worse, my identity is wrapped up in my conception of myself as a competent scientist. Part of me immediately screams out, “Of course you are! Don’t be ridiculous. You’re working at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory for goodness’ sake! Didn’t they discover the structure of DNA there? The name-recognition alone will guarantee my success!” In my unguarded moments, merely rehearsing these bromides is sufficient to alleviate any career-related anxiety I might have, but in my more reflective moods I recognize the many self-justifying biases that underlie this thinking. How convenient it is that I am guaranteed to be successful and happy without any behavior modification whatsoever! Seriously though, I recognize the gravity of this decision, and am prepared to accept the fact, if it be true, that I am not capable enough to be a scientist. I really want to make a rational, bias-free decision, and I feel I have just completed the first step in this process by opening up my theory (of my own aptitude) to falsification. Unfortunately, given the nature of this research question, all the data I collect will be non-quantitative and sometimes wholly subjective. (But this is unavoidable, and my emphasis on falsifiability is more aspirational than literal, anyway.)

As soon as I finished writing the previous paragraph, in which I articulated the importance of seriously considering the fundamental question of whether or not I’m cut out to be a scientist in the first place, the first thought that popped into my mind was, “How can I apply this insight into advancing my prospects as a scientist?” To have such a thought (a) underscores what I mean when I say my role as a scientist is central to my personal identity, and, more importantly, (b) makes a mockery of my attempts to approach this issue rationally, since it presupposes a particular answer. How frustrating! The stakes could hardly be higher, and I’m still having difficulty focusing sufficiently on the problem.

Perhaps to introduce the question “Well, what do I mean when I say I want to be a scientist?” would serve only to distract me from my original question, but, since I’m struggling to answer the original question, moving onto a different-yet-related topic might prove salutary. I’m partial to Jerry Coyne’s formulation of science being “broadly construed as a set of methods used to find reliable truths” (1). This accords with the conventional definition of science as the sum of the evidence, theories, and practices of disciplines such as physics and biology. Coyne’s conception of science can be extended into less rarefied, more mundane domains such as evidence-based approaches to exercise and self-development. Sam Harris pushed this broad view of science even further –into numinous territory– in a 2007 speech about atheism and mindfulness, where he spoke of our individual lives as scientific experiments in how best to achieve happiness (2).

It’s my role in the conventional conception of science (the one with peer review, professorships, and confocal microscopes) that I am fretting about. This exercise in distinguishing these different connotations of “science” has actually been quite edifying, because it compelled me to recognize that my self-identification as a “scientist” combines all three of these connotations. So, although I would feel sad jettisoning my dreams of being an active researcher in the neuroscience community, such an admission would not constitute a total upending of my self-understanding as a scientist. Nor would my non-involvement in research constitute an abnegation of my commitment to, and affection for, science research; former Microsoft executive Paul Allen, who spearheaded the Allen Brain Institute, is the ultimate example of a non-researcher having a positive impact on the research community. (3; more on ABI in a future post)

Believe it or not, I’m very sensitive to the potential for self-fulfilling prophecy in what I’ve written thus far. To be clear, for the foreseeable future I plan to continue working in my lab and going about my business as though I was absolutely certain of my current career path. If this course-of-action seems blasphemous from the point-of-view of rationality, that is only because this blog post is not just rational self-reflection, but also self-help. It’s completely true that I want to know whether or not I am truly cut out for a career as a research scientist. However, it so happens that by reflecting on this painful question, my mind –perhaps seeking respite in the lesser of two unpleasant cognitive states– conveniently finds the motivation necessary to focus on concrete tasks that make me a more competent researcher. That being said, thinking about this issue has already spurred me into finishing one concrete task –namely, maintaining the fledgling blog. Welcome to Neuroplume!!!

(1)  Leon Wieseltier Attacks Pinker for Scientism

(2) Sam Harris – AAI 2007 – The Problem with Atheism (video); relevant transcript

(3) Allen Brain Institute, homepage

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2 thoughts on ““Do I dare disturb the universe?”: considering the “overwhelming question” of whether neuroscience research is right for me

  1. “I do not think that they will sing to me.” It is natural to be afraid. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t qualified, it only means that you are sensitive and imaginative. Scientists need those qualities too.
    My father used to say that there were enough people in the world who would put you down, you didn’t need to do it to yourself. While I understand that’s not exactly what you’re doing here, I think you should bear in mind that questioning whether you are suited to something, in and of itself, indicates very little (imo) about how suited you are.

    And if it’s not neuroscience research, it will be something else. You will contribute to the sum total of good in the world; of that, I have no doubt.

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