How different careers are perceived- Scientists are people too!

I’m going to take a quick intermission from posting about the Arctic Lindy Exchange to talk about something that has been on my mind due similar, but distinct conversations, that I had in Iceland and then a week later when I was back home.


It was the last official night of the Arctic Lindy Exchange and some of us Lindy Hoppers were eating dinner together before the last dance of the exchange.  We were talking about dreading our return to the working world when one of the participants began listing off our various occupations. “Education, computer, law, science…”, she stated, pointing at each of us.  And that was it.  No ranking of difficulty, no acting like one job was more important, or world changing than the rest.  We were all equal and just playing our own individual roles in the world.  It was so extremely refreshing compared to what I am used to and what I experienced one week later at my church.
It’s now the end of August and all the students are coming back to town for college. The members of my church are currently hyperaware of young faces and are making an effort to make us feel welcome, though several of us had been going to that church for at least a year.  Last Sunday, the topic inevitably turned to, “So what do you study?”  I cheerfully told the woman that I was a graduate student in microbiology, choosing not to explain that I would be switching to the student affairs program in a year.  The woman’s eyes widened (like this: O.O ) and she said something along the lines of: “that’s quite the difficult program!”  The two undergraduates who I was with study social work and political science, two majors that did not garner such a wide-eyed reaction from the woman.
And that’s how it often is.  If you study/ work in science, engineering, computer programing, math, or any other “left-brained” activity you generally receive wide-eyed stares and comments of, “You must be really smart!” or “I could never do something like that!” It makes me want to scream!  I don’t understand why our society has labeled technical fields as something daunting and only done by the smartest of the smart and doesn’t acknowledge fields such as education, the “soft” sciences, and other people-skill heavy fields in the same way.  Why, when someone says they’re a teacher, do people rarely say “Wow, that’s a really hard job!  I would never have the patience to work with so many children at once!”?  Is it because people have this perception that teachers, artists, and social workers are utilizing skills that come “naturally” where scientists and the like have to acquire knowledge about thousands and thousands of facts?  Because learning how to be a good teacher is not easy.  Learning how to paint, take eye-catching photographs, and work with the people in the context of social workers is not easy.
Truth is, part of me will miss the wide-eyed stares and the comments that let me know people think I’m intelligent and working in a challenging field.  I doubt that saying I am studying student affairs will earn me any wide-eyed stares.  However, a larger part of me will be glad to leave my identity as a scientist behind because the wide-eyed stares and brief admissions of awe are usually where the conversation ends when I meet new people. (See another scientist’s blog for a similar perspective here).  Once they’ve expressed their amazement at what I am studying, they quickly turn back to my non-science friends, asking them to elaborate about their plans for their degree or the specifics of their job.  It’s as if they’re afraid they won’t understand what I’m talking about if they ask me questions, or as if they’ve already pegged me as just one more socially-awkward scientist that probably can’t hold a conversation with “normal people.”
Now, this is just a generalization of my experience when talking to new people and it is certainly not the only type of interaction I have had.  Plenty of people simply say, “That’s really cool!” when I tell them I’m a microbiology student and they quickly follow up with questions about my specific research, or my interests outside of school.  Lindy hoppers are especially good at this, perhaps because we’re all already very passionate about dancing and we understand that those we dance with are passionate about their jobs as well, no matter whether that job involves science, teaching, computers, art, writing, or business.  So to the Lindy Hop community- I would like to thank you for making me feel included despite my day job as a scientist!  Perhaps together we can make sure people of all occupations feel affirmed in their choice of career and help them know that we understand how much hard work it took to get there!
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2 thoughts on “How different careers are perceived- Scientists are people too!

  1. good read. I get those wide eyes from time to time (electrical- and computer engineering) and almost always try (usually seemingly futile) to convince people that it's not about being smart. It's just different skills. I personally don't get the whole “smart person” deal and dislike the societal definition of “smart” altogether. Why is it less smart to be good with children than numbers for example?

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  2. I often get similar comments, usually followed by “my [male relative] was a [insert type of engineering completely different from yours]” in an effort to make a connection.

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