Naturejobs journalism competition winner Ashish Nair celebrates the cornucopia of skills owned by scientists
In today’s competitive world, it’s become increasingly common for scientists to question where their skills and knowledge will fit outside the lab. Academic research is a harsh place, littered with the victims of funding decisions and research projects that didn’t quite go to plan. The idea, even amongst scientists, that we are highly specialised professionals with no role outside the lab has become a persistent limitation in this search. So, what is the need for a scientist in any other capacity?
The truth is that the average scientist is no mere lab rat. We are highly creative individuals, and our art is funneled through a labyrinth of practical parameters and peer-review procedures to yield solutions to real-world problems. After all, what is the scientific process? We identify a problem or a gap in existing knowledge. We then process reams of information that have been validated by repeated parsing through the filters of academic cynicism, slowly creating a solution to the problem. Finally, we make this solution a reality, using a disciplined approach to cut through the dross and reveal the gold within. On the way we have to navigate practical considerations such as gravity; animal ethics; proteins that won’t refold properly. It is this unique combination of creative energy and attention to practical detail that is the soul of good science; and is applicable to any field and vocation.
More importantly, science demands that we constantly learn. We’re all highly adaptable individuals who have the drive and mental flexibility to adjust ourselves to new skills and occupations. Even the academic cynicism we’re required to cultivate is a valuable tool outside of science. We’re expected to judge a concept and its application quickly and efficiently; not just in terms of practicality, but also in terms of financial realism. No board of bankers is more hard-headed than a panel of grant reviewers. This also enables us to tell snake oil from the next best idea. We know what’s really present in that new miracle pill or skin treatment and if we don’t, we know where to look for answers.
By the same token, scientists are also excellent salespeople. After all, we have to market our research to secure funding from oft-skeptical donors who may not have the understanding or patience for the fine detail. A successful scientist is armed with a range of verbal and written presentation skills, allowing them to showcase their work in the best possible light. And that’s a talent worth having, no matter your profession.
In summary, the average scientist is a wholesome blend of technician, odd-jobber, salesperson, researcher, writer, presenter and a general jack-of-all-trades. Even chefs, since we prepare buffers and broths on a regular basis; and which human epicurean is more difficult to please than a dish of cells requiring just the right amounts of antibiotic and growth supplements? Finally, we are also teachers. We learn skills and techniques from our supervisors. And we pass them on in turn. The question, therefore, is not what alternative occupation may suit a scientist. It should be which occupation deserves the repertoire of skills and knowledge that only a scientist can bring.
Ashish Nair is a researcher who discovered to his amazement that his written thesis apparently described a cogent, well-executed PhD project- despite all evidence to the contrary. He now invests more time in his writing. He is especially interested in travel and science journalism.