A struggling student of nature

Am I a scientist? It seems like a simple question requiring little more than a "yes" or "no", yet I am at a loss as to how to answer it. Even though I have been called a scientist by people I respect I cannot bring myself to use the term to describe myself.

It is not that I am holding onto some vaunted ideal of what a scientist is or should be. It is not as if a PhD, a prestigious academic prize, or a paper in Science is required to lay claim to the title. Instead I think of a scientist as someone who actively participates in research (or has done so in the past) and shares the results of their inquiries with others. It is an active process that requires more than being an "armchair theorist."

By my own definition, then, I am not a scientist. Despite my desire to do so I have not conducted any research and it does not appear that I will be able to anytime soon. At best I am an amateur historian of science,* a subject area I am enthralled by but did not intend to fall into.

*[I am not using "amateur" in a pejorative sense here. I study the history of science because I love doing so. At the same time, however, I have neither received professional training nor can a make a living from my work.]

Will I ever become a scientist? I have no idea, particularly since I will not be going to graduate school. (At least not for several years.) For the past several years my wife has helped support me while I have struggled to complete my degree, and when I finally finish this summer it will be my turn to support her as she starts graduate school. We cannot afford to both be in graduate school at the same time, meaning that I will probably be about 30 by the time reentering academia even becomes an option.

This is not to say that I would consider myself a scientist merely by dint of being a graduate student. Rather I do not have the money, connections, or time to carry out the research that I could if I were enrolled in graduate studies at a university. I also have to work to make sure the lights stay on, and this means that I do not have the time or money to volunteer to get experience in the museums of New York or Philadelphia. I simply do not have the same freedom to pursue my ambitions that other students do.

This is extremely frustrating, and it is comparable to how I feel when I visit museums. I can look at the displays and think about what I am seeing but I cannot touch or interact with any of it. I have learned a lot from books and technical papers but what I truly crave is practical knowledge, the details and methods that cannot be learned from reading alone. This recalls the maxim of the 19th century naturalist Louis Agassiz, "Study nature, not books", as the type of education I so sorely desire can only be had in the field and the prep lab.

I do not wish to depress myself too much with the realities of my present situation. Much of my anxiety comes from the uncertainty that hangs over the near future; will I be able to make a living as a science writer or will I have to go back to grinding boredom of the name-tag jobs I used to work? Probably the latter, but I cannot say for certain. No matter what happens, though, I will remain a student of nature.

For as long as I can remember I have wanted to be a student of nature. As with many children this primarily manifested itself in a period of dino-mania in my childhood when I would dig up my grandparent's backyard in search of a Triceratops skeleton or Edmontosaurus eggs. The focus of my interest later switched to sharks, but when I reached college I became more interested in starting a band than studying science. I still kept up a sort of "passive" interest in natural history, but it wasn't until I was barred from talking about evolution to a class of elementary school students that I felt truly motivated to educate myself about science.

That was almost three years ago, and at this point I cannot even imagine what I would be doing if my interest in science had not been reinvigorated. There has not come a point where I have felt satisfied with what I have learned; the more I think I know the more questions I have! It's not something that I can simply give up or put aside until some later time. Whatever else I may end up doing I will probably be a student of nature for many years to come.

Given my affinity for science it would be a shame if there was no way to turn what is now a hobby into a career. If I cannot be a scientist I am going to have to try a different career path, and that is why I have been putting more effort into essays for this blog, proposals for magazine features, and my book. Becoming a science writer is presently my best chance to pay the bills by doing something I love to do, and since I am going to keep learning and writing anyway why not get paid for it? It will probably be a few years before I can write for a living and I will probably have to work a job I don't particularly like to keep myself afloat until I do, but right now it appears to be my best option.

As I have said much of my anxiety stems from my worries over what will (or will not) happen in the next year. Maybe I will be able to sell my book and start making headway as a writer or maybe I will have to once again wear a Target nametag. I have no idea. For now I am just going to keep learning about the questions that fascinate me. I hope that someday I will be able to contribute something, however small, to help answer them.


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I was 3/4 of the way through my comment when the cat climbed on me and deleted it. Oh well... I think you should research a teaching or research assistantship in biology/paleontology, etc. It's how I got thorugh grad school. You teach labs or do research and you get paid for it (as well as get your tuition paid). That way you and your wife may be able to go at the same time. Good luck!

I agree with you on the definition of a scientist. It is just easier to do if you have a PhD (having done science along the way, of course). My wife got her Masters while I was on active duty with the Guard. I got my Masters while she was a faculty member at the university. My PhD was paid for by a combination of fellowships, research and teaching assistantships.

I would encourage you to focus on finishing your Bachelors and enjoy it just to spite them. I graduated on scholastic probation with a low C average. You have made connections with a lot of people in the field. Make it known that you are looking for a way to do your graduate work and maybe something good will happen.

I don't know whether you can make a living as a science writer. I have coauthored a book and written several popular articles. Maybe $1,000 all told. You have the skill in any case.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 24 Feb 2009 #permalink

I understand how you feel. I just finished my 20-year-long "4-year" degree at the end of 2007, and am now waiting for our living situation to stabilize before I think about where and what to do for graduate school.

One of the attractions of industrial microbiology/biotechnology for me was precisely the fact that it actually can be feasible for me to play with the science outside of a specialized academic or commercial setting in the meantime. In your case, you may not get to handle too many fossilized bones directly, but I imagine you could work a field-trip or two into some vacation time and mine the literature for things to think about. That ought to at least keep you primed for graduate school when you have time to return to it - or at the very least set you up with the mindset to do some "citizen science".

Given your writing and photographic abilities, maybe you could get on with a museum, zoo or aquarum in the display and public relations departments. Maybe a deal to work part time and pursue a graduate degree at the same time.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 24 Feb 2009 #permalink

I think of Colonel Sanders. He was a character who drifted from occupation to occupation for most of his life without much success. The only thing he was good at was frying chicken. Eventually he met up with a slick salesman and was a multimillionaire by the end of his life. What I'm getting at is that sometimes things take a while to fall into place. Get the Bachelor's out of the way and whatever you do, keep writing! You have a fan club here.

I can't argue with what you say about (not) being a scientist, as I am much the same. I have a B.Sc., but does that automatically make me a scientist, seeing as I'm currently not working as one, nor formally studying? I tell people I'm a scientist as it is a good way of concisely describing my intended career that I am just at the beginning of. If being honest to yourself is that important, go with the handle you've given yourself, it's all taxonomy after all, or should that be "careeronomy"?

As for what you should do, definitely try to find a job that gets you by, with something to do with natural history, whether it's at a zoo, museum or library. Your reputation as a science writer (which all your readers can vouch for) should help in finding a job like this... formal education isn't, and shouldn't be, the be all and end all to having a science career. I've considered quitting it altogether many times and just enjoying natural history as a pastime, but I've persevered all this time through thick and thin, because hopefully it'll all be worth it. Also, there's no rush... you're in your early 20s and healthy, go to grad school in a few years if you must, think of all you'll learn between now and then anyway that will benefit you by the time you start graduate studies.

By the way, museum curators (most of the ones I have met, anyway), would let interested "amateurs" in to the collections, if you have the need. It's no trouble where I am anyway.

All the best!

i second jck! you have a fan club. keep writing.

i suspect this blog will lead you towards the goal of becoming a scientist in the meaning you apply to the discipline.

if i were independently wealthy i would sponsor your post graduate education. alas a review of my bank account precludes such largess at this time.


I highly recommend that you read through Jeff Martz's "Advice for Aspiring Researchers" at his Paleo Errata blog (http://paleoerrata.blogspot.com/2008/11/advice-for-aspiring-researchers…). Frankly I do not see any reason why you cannot fall under his category #1.

A degree does not make you a researcher (although it helps with the training). What is needed is an inquisitive mind, a good work ethic, and a willingness to put in the hard work involved in learning everything you can about a specific topic and then developing and testing your own hypotheses on that subject. There must be a vertebrate paleontology collection somewhere nearby where you can get started. There is tons of undescribed stuff in museums just begging to be worked on, and always new ideas and insights to be found in material that already has been described. What group(s) interest you? What questions are there about that group, taxonomic, phylogenetic, biomechanical? Even the history of the group makes for an interesting research topic.

Research isn't something that necessarily has to take up 40 hours a week, it can be done in bits and pieces. If you have enough time to write two blogs you have enough time to do research. And guess what? When you are putting together material for a blog post, what are you doing? You guessed it... research. Go for it man, make the dream a reality. It is really not that hard if you are willing to try. BTW...Getting a few papers under your belt as an undergraduate makes you really attractive for a graduate position when you finally have the time.

Good luck.


Keep up with the professional networking is my advice. Daniel Brown invited me to "linkedin," which is apparently a way for aspiring professionals in any field to network; avoiding the limiting but necessarily so features of jobsearch and posting sites.

This blog you are in is a great resume-c.v. reference.

I would also chime in with those that have suggested a job hunt in the museums to provide a base while you build up a career in (good) science writing and/or journalism.

I agree with all of the above. Meet people, stay linked. Keep writing. But really, doing science is not just about getting your hands dirty. If it was, theoretical physicists would be lumped in with philosophy. And most of the profs at my school haven't touched a bench in years, and no one would deny that they are scientists. Science is your passion, so you might as well give up and make it your title. :)

Brian, I am probably in a similar position to your wife in supporting my spouse in her education. It's been a long road to subsume my dreams of more education and different career while she pursues hers, but I still believe it's worth it for us as a couple. I imagine it is for you as well. Her triumphs are ones I share in as more than a cheerleader.

Very few people I've met have ended up where they thought in terms of career and educational trajectory. But most are relatively happy. And in case Target is back in your life, remember you have a terrific community online to escape into. It's certainly helped me, and I cannot overstate that.

We cannot afford to both be in graduate school at the same time

The European mind boggles.


What a country where you need to be rich to study. What a third-world country.

By David MarjanoviÄ, OM (not verified) on 26 Feb 2009 #permalink

I'm an American and I was still thinking almost exactly what David Marjanovic wrote. It's even worse when you consider that, in the US, most people can't even afford to put themselves alone through an undergraduate program. It's not just the European mind that boggles.

I have a former student who worked at the Boston Museum of Science for several years with a BA (in geology). Among other things, she helped design a geology exhibit that would be accessible to blind people.

I don't remember how she got started in the job. Possibly through an internship that grew? (And now she's got a PhD in vertebrate paleo.)

Anyway, there is natural history interpretation work for people with a 4-year degree. If you're going to be within commuting distance of Philadelphia and NYC, keep your eyes open, and keep networking - something might turn up.

In the end, scientist is just a label. As long as you are doing what you enjoy and what interests you, whether you are a scientist or not should be irrelevant. The only validation you need is how you feel about your work, not what titles that work may grant you. From reading your blog entries, you are studying what genuinely interests you, because your passion in the subject shows in your writing.

I agree with everything everyone said about connections ... go to all writing related conferences you can. Join the National Association of Science Writers, go to their conferences, make friends on their chat boards, etc.

You said:

"I will not be going to graduate school. (At least not for several years.) For the past several years my wife has helped support me while I have struggled to complete my degree, and when I finally finish this summer it will be my turn to support her as she starts graduate school. We cannot afford to both be in graduate school at the same time, meaning that I will probably be about 30 by the time reentering academia even becomes an option."

First: 30 is not too old to go to grad school at all. My best students are usually 30 and over. Second: Many graduate writing programs -- given your experience, writing, etc -- offer assistantship positions that cover tuition (usually plus health insurance), and a stipend for living expenses. That plus some freelancing can do the trick. Third: Until you're able to go to school, I'd suggest you attend some writing seminars and conferences that let you work with established writers to develop your chops while also networking, learning the business of science writing, etc. Happy to answer questions if you have them.