The unspoken concept of “true scientists”

There is often this unspoken concept of the “true scientist” : the person who is wholly dedicated to their science. Science is all they talk about and they never take a day off. They eat, sleep, breathe science and it isn’t “work” for them because it’s their passion, their life’s mission. They’d never resent working late because it’s all they want to do. They’d move across the world to do their research – there’s no sacrifice too big to pursue their thirst for science. They’re also probably a white middle-class straight guy – but that’s a story for another blog post…

Now, I love doing¬†psychiatric research – I frequently feel ridiculously lucky to get to do the work I do and genuinely can’t imagine a more rewarding or exciting career. And yes, I definitely get swept up in analysing new data or reading around an area that I want to try to get to the bottom of and I will happily spend an evening chatting away about my work. And yes, when necessary, work takes over and I don’t have space or time for much else (apologies to everyone I ignored during the last month of my PhD!). But, science isn’t my whole life – I spend a lot of time thinking about other things and doing other things!

Sometimes all I can think about is getting to Friday and spending the weekend with my fiance and friends. Sometimes I am sick of my work and literally anything else is more exciting than editing that paper I’ve been putting off for weeks. Sometimes I can’t find time to read academic papers but can magically find hours to read recipes books or rewatch old episodes of Gilmore Girls that I’ve seen a million times already. Sometimes I need a day at home because I’ve had a really rough week. Sometimes I take extra time in the morning to cook a nice breakfast, put on some bright lipstick, go out and feed the birds in my garden. There’s a lot of times when other stuff in my life takes priority over science, and there are certain things (especially my loved ones and my mental health) that I wouldn’t sacrifice for any job.

At times this has made me question whether I am a “true scientist”, whether I’m dedicated enough, whether I fit in, whether I have what it takes in the competitive world of academia. I’ve felt like I need to hide how much time I’ve spent on other interests, or simply hide my interests because they’re too “frivolous”, not intellectual enough. But – occasional imposter syndrome aside – I know that I am a worthy scientist. I know that the other aspects of myself and my life don’t take away from my love of science or what I can contribute to my field. I know that the other aspects of my life are really important and valuable and keep me sane! And I now see the “true scientist” concept as not only pretty damn unhealthy and incredibly alienating, but also… simply untrue.

What helped me was seeing scientists (competent, successful, productive scientists) on Twitter who post about all kinds of things mixed in with their science – their families, their pets, their holidays, the books they love, the TV they watch, the sports they do, the restaurant they’ve enjoyed, their fiercely held political beliefs, their witty one-liners, or simply just other academic subjects which they aren’t an expert in but find fascinating.

I think this is important because the concept of the “true scientist” does a lot of damage to those within the scientific community – to name a few, it’s surely linked to the culture of being over-worked and under-paid (“we don’t do it for the money, right?!”), it’s especially damaging for academics with chronic physical or mental health problems or academics with caring responsibilities, and it has a lot of gendered and racialised factors (which, as I said, is a whole other blog post).

Additionally, I don’t think it’s helpful for people who read and hear about science to think of scientists as these alien creatures with no social life who live in lab coats and talk only about science (often using unintelligible jargon). It makes us easy to put on a pedestal as weird geniuses and one big monolith of “scientists”, leading to some people blindly trusting any media article proclaiming “scientists say….”. It makes people feel like they couldn’t possibly understand our work because they’re not scientists. Equally, it makes us easy to dismiss as people completely out of touch with “the real world”, with ideas that aren’t relevant day-to-day. It’s also incredibly alienating to people who might be interested in learning more or becoming a scientist/researcher/academic.

So, with this blog I’d love to help break down the harmful idea of a “true scientist”. Maybe if you know that I’m a scientist who occasionally burns her baking, loves reading psychological thrillers (even the rubbish ones), has shockingly bad general knowledge, and is motivated to do research into mental health partly because of her own history with depression, I’ll seem a little bit more real – not flawless, not in a bubble, not so different from you.

And to the other scientists out there, with a life outside of science, you’re not alone!

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