Bradley van Paridon: Realizing I Wasn’t A Great Scientist
Updated: Sep 29, 2019
“I was able to leave academia and embark on the career path I always wanted — that of a science journalist."
I’ll be the first to admit I was not the best scientist.
I did finish my Ph.D. so I must have done some things right but honestly, I credit a lot of my success to the mentors and supervisors I had, along with my supportive friends and family. It is also because of these people that I was able to leave academia and embark on the career path I always wanted — that of a science journalist.
I suspect that I am certainly not the only person that found themselves in graduate school due to a lack of knowing what else to do. I have always enjoyed science, especially biology, and set off in this direction after high school. First, I had lukewarm aspirations of becoming a teacher and this soon shifted to being very enamored with research. Undergraduate research projects got me more excited than the thought of being in a classroom teaching children and so I made my first leap which landed me in a Master’s program.
— I’ll be the first to admit I was not the best scientist.
After two years in the Masters and without enough data to really write a compelling thesis, at least in my own opinion, I had the option to extend my degree to a Ph.D., which I did. This was the first time that I felt like I was making the decision because I wasn’t sure what else to do and not because I was really excited about the prospect of continuing. Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy my project and what I was doing and I absolutely loved the people I was working with. I don’t think you could find a better ensemble of graduate school supervisors or committee members. But, somehow I began to feel more and more that life as a researcher and academic would not motivate me enough to be the best I could be. I started to think about how this would be a disservice to myself and the colleagues both present and future that I would be working alongside.
I knew I wasn’t alone, at least in the feeling of uncertainty about life after graduate school. Often, fellow students would talk about what to do after grad school. For some this stemmed from not wanting to stay in university research, for others it came from a place of fear about the lack of tenure-track positions and the need for a “plan B”. No matter the reason though I remember a lot of talk about leaving academia and reassuring each other this was OK. For all the talk though it still felt like giving up or somehow being a less than ideal option. All this changed however when I was lucky enough to become part of the Host-Parasite Interactions Group (HPI) at the University of Calgary.
…researchers are just like anyone else, they happen to be experts in some subject areas, but this doesn’t mean they know everything or should know everything and this training leads to many different fulfilling careers.
In short, the HPI was started by several professors at the university as a means to collaborate on research and importantly for me, provide career guidance for students. As I mentioned I have always had an interest in science and for as long as I could read I have consumed popular science books and magazines. The idea of writing for one of these types of publications always seemed like a far-fetched idea, a career path better suited for someone else, someone more creative perhaps. So, I never pursued it and I think was in graduate school in order to still get my science fix. Then I started volunteering with the HPI and ended up at a career day for grad students. Here, I met a popular Canadian scientist, science communicator, and TV host Jennifer Gardy. Listening to her speak and the subsequent discussion I had with her sealed the deal in my mind that this was something I could and should pursue. From that point on, I still had about two years left in my degree program, I took every opportunity I could to get involved with outreach activities, blogging, attending workshops, whatever was available to learn more and fill out some lines on my CV.
It is at this point that I must again credit the professors and manager of the HPI group and my supervisors. When I started too openly talk about switching paths once I finished no one batted an eye and in fact seemed genuinely excited and interested in the idea. They gave me every opportunity to write for HPI websites, set up a blog for students and staff, organize and partake in outreach events and they graciously provided me funding to attend the Beakerhead Science Communications course which gave me a flying head start into the science communication/journalism world I find myself in today.
I count myself very fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time, surrounded by academic advisors who saw the importance of exposing their students to new career paths and supporting them in reaching these goals. And, while I don’t think I had what it took to be a great scientist, and it remains to be seen how my journalist career will work out, I do want to give myself some credit. Perhaps this little pat on the back to me can also serve as advice to others who find themselves wondering what to do next. I credit myself with being honest with myself about what it is I am not good at and more importantly what it is that I am passionate about. I also credit myself with taking a few leaps of faith; first, the leap into research and, second, the leap out. I think if you head in a direction that interests you there will be many doors that line that path. Some of these will open, some will not, but when they do you need to be ready to jump through. Of course, this step into the uncertain is infinitely easier when you have a solid support network but all I can say is that so far it has served me well.
Not all of us are cut out to be great researchers or professors. It does not mean however that graduate school is a waste of time or that the people who leave academia are “failures”. More and more I see this being talked about and written about and I think it is an important message. The HPI group definitely realized this and made it a core focus of their program, something I think more graduate schools should emphasize. I also think this speaks to a perception of academia and science that exists within the field and outside of it, that research and academia is infallible and it carries an illustrious prestige, the so-called ivory tower. Of course, the people who dedicate their lives to this deserve all the accolades they get; after all, they are working for all of us. However, they are just people, each on their own journey and no one way is correct. Seeing the humanity behind research I think will relieve some of the pressure graduate students feel and demystify the process to the public.
This has become my goal as a science communicator and journalist. Not just to explain and champion research, but hopefully, to show people and remind students, that researchers are just like anyone else, they happen to be experts in some subject areas, but this doesn’t mean they know everything or should know everything and this training leads to many different fulfilling careers. This is perhaps the topic of another post but the main things I have taken from my experience so far is that, for science or life, curiosity is key, recognizing what you don’t know is crucial and pulling the threads stemming from these two areas are the best rabbit holes to tumble down.