How do you contribute to science?
My instinctual answer for so long was: become an academic and publish cutting-edge research, pushing humanity’s knowledge forward.
This seemed pretty obvious. My reasoning was that scientists are the ones who do the science, so of course that’s the way to contribute. It was part of why I continued my scientific education past my undergraduate degree. I wanted to contribute, and going into research seemed like the primary (and perhaps only) way to contribute.
Now, I know that this is not the only way.
As I’ve gone further and further into my PhD, I’ve seen how there are other options available. Contributing to science doesn’t have to be as an academic. Here are just a few examples of other careers:
- Research scientist in industry/non-profit/government.
- Science teacher/educator.
- Science communicator or journalist.
- Administrator within a scientific organization.
The point is that contributing to science isn’t only the purview of academia. There are many ways to contribute, because science is an activity requiring a diverse group of people. Even more, getting a PhD isn’t necessary, though it can be helpful.
So why did it take me so long to realize there are other pathways to contributing?
I suspect the main reason is exposure. Throughout my undergraduate and graduate education, there were seldom people that I interacted with that were outside of academia. My exposure to people doing scientific work outside of academia was basically zero. This reinforced the idea that science only happened in universities, and being an academic was the only way to contribute.
This is quite similar to the lack of knowledge students coming out of secondary school have about potential careers. How are you supposed to choose from the possibilities if you don’t even know what they are? When I attended secondary school, I don’t recall ever hearing about being a scientist, and it’s just a coincidence that I went down this path. Likewise, as I’ve gone through my graduate education, all I’ve seen is “academic” as the future path available to me. In both cases, a lack of knowledge about potential careers is a detriment.
As I continue my PhD journey, I’m thinking more carefully about how I want to contribute to science. How do I want to work? What kind of questions fascinate me? What paths are available to me?
All sorts of people in very diverse careers contribute to science. It’s a mistake to think (like I did) that you can only make contributions to science by being an academic.