Rethinking the Scientific Career

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Image: Nick Amoscato, Creative Commons

By Emily S. Bernhardt, Steven J. Hallam, Julian D. Olden, and Wendy J. Palen 

Earlier this year, the marine ecologist Jane Lubchenco called on environmental scientists to make the "quantum leap into relevance." Her clarion call for activism in this time of political upheaval received a great deal of attention, but it was her final remarks that resonated most strongly with the four of us as midcareer scientists.

"Don’t forget to carve out time to connect with nature and people," she wrote, "so as to recharge our batteries and remind us of what’s important."

We agree — and think it’s more important than ever for academics to remember why we love what we do and why it is worth doing.

A career in science should be an adventure on a long and winding path rather than an uphill slog to a peak that few have ever attained. Science is about interacting with and discovering the world, so isn’t it a shame that so many of us are persuaded to walk the same narrow and well-trodden path to perceived academic success?

Colleges and universities have become incubators for "small ideas," wrote Donald and Stuart Geman, brothers and mathematicians, in a 2016 essay. Faculty members strive for widespread recognition but have too little time for the sort of meandering, deep-thinking adventures that can lead to big ideas. The standard career path promotes people who bag the big grant and pump out publishable units, and tends to ignore scientists who convey creative stories that don’t translate easily into numbers on a spreadsheet.

We think it’s time to reimagine scientific careers as choose-our-own-adventure stories rather than a race to the top of Mount H-index.

The four of us chose careers in science because we love the spirit of discovery and the promise it holds to improve the world around us. We have managed to survive in academe because we have successfully navigated the traditional path of acquiring sufficient grant dollars, publications, and citations to maintain academic jobs.

But at many points along the way, the external benchmarks of academic success have been sadly misaligned with our creative aspirations, intellectual curiosity, or drive for societal impact. The academic reward system stifles individual creativity and narrows the range of contributions that are valued. It rewards the solitary iconoclast over the skilled collaborator or coalition builder, and pushes early-career scientists to prioritize financial opportunity over fortuitous innovation and greater societal impact. The current system also continues to reinforce existing gender, cultural, and socioeconomic biases.

Scientific success is much more diverse than the narrow version recognized and reinforced by the academic reward system. While systemic changes are needed within research universities, we believe that individual scientists have an equal or greater power to transform the system. After all, we are the academy. By modeling the change we want to see in the world, we create an authentic driving force for collective action.

Rather than putting up more signposts along the same old path to academic success, let’s re-envision the scientific career as a journey through a landscape filled with almost unlimited opportunities for discovery, intellectual satisfaction, and societal impact. How do we create that culture? Here are five guidelines to encourage people to pursue more creative, more engaged, and more fulfilling careers in the scientific wilderness.

  • Consult knowledgeable guides. Scientific training pressures you to specialize, but push yourself to seek a broad range of advisers. In graduate school and throughout your career, seek mentors from diverse fields and backgrounds with the experience and know-how to help you recognize opportunities and balance the inevitable trade-offs that arise. The best mentors will reinforce your sense of purpose and help you push past academic norms. In return, look for ways to guide others. Nowhere is that more important than in recruiting new people and perspectives to science. One of us has been lucky enough to work with a series of environmental lawyers. Their insights into the most important intersections between policy and science have spawned new basic-research initiatives whose results can immediately inform modern environmental-policy decisions.
  • Learn from off-campus trailblazers. The biggest scientific prizes are awarded to those who take risks and enter new intellectual territory. It’s time we also found ways to reward scientists who take risks beyond academe and who experiment with new ways to engage the public and effect positive change in the world. For many scientists, any work outside of academe is viewed as a distracting tangent, but it is only through direct and diverse efforts that science can truly be of service to society. Let’s identify, celebrate, and support such efforts. One of us has had the opportunity to work with ecologically oriented entrepreneurs whose interests in sustainable development have engendered new translational research projects and start-up companies focused on energy and materials production from renewable resources.
  • Go off-trail yourself. Academic freedom exists to allow us to take risks and unpopular positions. In short, those of us with tenure should use it. We should not squander that gift or shirk the associated responsibility. Embrace opportunities to act as public intellectuals. In that role, publishing our own science is insufficient. For our research to matter, we have to make sure the public understands its significance and relevance. And that means creating and sustaining new partnerships within and outside of academe. One of us took such a risk: It started off as a small idea sparked over drinks, and eventually became a new multidisciplinary center that promotes innovative solutions to complex environmental problems and that seeks to foster collaborations across broadly diverse disciplines and employment sectors.
  • Don’t hike alone. It is always more enjoyable to navigate your career with a community of like-minded people. But don’t hike only with people who are just like you. Intellectual fulfillment and discovery increasingly require collaboration across disciplines — as does effective public engagement. Seek unconventional partnerships and be attentive to implicit bias in choosing your mentors, colleagues, and trainees. Regardless of whom you choose as companions on your journey, maintain those relationships by intentionally encouraging and celebrating both small steps and giant strides. One of us has begun a partnership with a computer scientist, a mathematician, a public-policy expert, and a historian to bring data science, narrative, and visual art together in an effort to convert big data into environmental storytelling applications.
  • Appreciate the view. Don’t ignore the vistas on the journey toward any summit. Many exhilarating moments in a scientific career are not captured by traditional benchmarks and yet contribute substantially to career fulfillment. Relish the moments when you turn a student onto a big idea, when your mind races with inspired thought, and when you see your work entering public discourse or influencing policy. Share those moments with your colleagues. Post about them on Twitter and Facebook. Celebrate the experiences that bring you professional joy.

It is one thing to suggest that people take personal responsibility for reimagining their own careers, but fundamental reform of the academic reward system in the sciences is required.

Sharing our discoveries through publication will always be a critical component of the scientific journey, but publications need to be recognized as tools in service of discoveryrather than the primary currency of success. Institutions should reward scholarship in all its forms.

Change within our institutions begins with each of us choosing to respect the divergent paths that allow people to achieve highly fulfilling and engaged scientific careers. Established scientists who attain positions of influence have an additional responsibility to expand the criteria that are used to recruit students, award degrees and prizes, and hire and promote faculty.

If we can embrace the trails less traveled, celebrate the vistas of novel inquiry and engagement, and recognize the value of our fellow travelers with greater intention, science will be more diverse, more inspiring, and far more enjoyable. Those of us that are tired of toiling up Mount H-index should be empowered to take a break, look around, and appreciate the landscape we have traversed. Instead of racing to become the CEOs of our individual "small idea" factories, we should spend more time blazing new trails and illuminating the fascinating topography of the scientific landscape for future explorers.

Emily S. Bernhardt is an associate professor of biogeochemistry at Duke University. Steven J. Hallam is an associate professor of bioinformatics at the University of British Columbia. Julian D. Olden is an associate professor of aquatic and fishery sciences at the University of Washington, in Seattle. And Wendy J. Palen is an associate professor of ecology at Simon Fraser University, in Canada.

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