The research world is necessarily built around researchers who are driven by questions. But I think most researchers are not driven by the question, but by the enjoyment of simply doing research. In the end, this forces many of us out of the system, and ultimately science loses what it has invested in us.
In my adopted hometown, Barcelona, the word for researcher is investigador. I always thought it was such a great way to describe that intrepid, sometimes obsessive character that many scientists have. Like the ones who are already planning a new day’s analysis while scrubbing their armpits before heading into the lab. Or like those who lie awake at 4am agonising over the details of their Conclusions section. You know who you are. I mean, once you get past the non-existent job security and laughable salary, being an investigator has got to be one of the coolest jobs ever. The only thing, I came to realise, is that the investigators are only part of the picture.
After an undergraduate degree, masters, PhD, and three postdocs, ten years ago I finally faced up to my apathy and made the liberating discovery that I’m not an investigator after all. I’d kind of stopped getting excited about the latest papers, about designing the next incisive study, or about creating new collaborations at international conferences. What really interested me was simply working with my data, presenting them in more insightful ways, learning how to do new types of analysis, optimising my protocols, and polishing my papers to perfection. And not because any of this was going to change the results, but just because I’ll know I did it right. In short, I realised that I’m not an investigator. I’m a worker.
I loved doing research, and I wasn’t really that bothered about what inspired the research question, who funded it, how many papers would come out of it, or what would be its place in the cosmos. I just wanted to do a great job because that’s the way I like it. I wanted to be like one of those naturalists from the 1800’s who’d hike off into the jungle to find some new species of butterfly, not because that’s what they wrote in their program grant, but simply because it was a joyful endeavour that increased the order of the universe. And because some rich person felt it needed to be done. I’m a worker who just wanted to do research because it was fun. And I was pretty good at it.
And now for the rant.
The research world is no place for a dreamer like me. In the research world, a person with years of experience and skills, and a passion to do things well without having to elbow their way up any ladders, is not a weapon to be deployed at the cutting edge of knowledge. Rather, we’re often seen as some strange little creature who lacks the drive to make it to the top. Or worse still, who doesn’t really know what they want. Sadly, once you’ve hit your second or third postdoc, if you’re not already on the way to starting your own group, usually you’re not thinking ‘Wow, people really value me!’, but rather ‘What’s wrong with me?’
When I finally got over my self-doubt (it happened just before 1am one October night), I discovered that in fact there is nothing wrong with me. I’m a worker, and the system’s just not set up for me. I felt so much better when I realised that – I could finally reconcile my passions with my career prospects. I had bags of skills, intelligence, experience, and drive that could be used to do cool things to push the envelope. It’s just that the research world hadn’t (and still hasn’t) yet figured out how to take advantage of me or the global army of other research workers who just want to do a great job. And I realised I could no longer sacrifice my energies on the altar of knowledge – I had to leave research and choose a new career path.
Thankfully, ten years later I still get to work with science and researchers every day.
So if you think you might be a worker like me, congratulations on making this important discovery. Make no mistake, we blue collar researchers are the engine room of the knowledge economy – the investigators point out the horizons, and we workers pull the oars to take us there. We need the investigators, and they need us. For the moment, I don’t have any proposals on how we can change our lot as the un-esteemed masses.
But in the meantime, whenever you feel your impostor syndrome kicking in and you think you might be some kind of fraud, remember this: you are amazing, and what’s more, indispensable.
So, say it once and say it loud. I’m a worker, and I’m proud.