In many ways, Harry Potter had a pretty brutal life. He was orphaned, had abusive foster parents, and a spooky nose-less dude with a huge-ass snake tried to kill him all the time. Harry Potter had to fight hard for years against tough odds, and that’s metal.
And though being a scientist is also metal, the transitive property doesn’t work here. Though there is an entire genre of rock music dedicated to the Harry Potter universe, doing science isn’t like the Harry Potter universe, at least in one critical way I want to write about today.
In the Wizarding world, if you possess magic powers but were born to non-Wizard parents, you can expect the following: once you come of age, an owl will fly all up in your house to deliver a letter announcing you are a wizard. Pack your bags, because you’re headed to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to start your official training.
In both grad programs I’ve attended, and from reading many a grad student forum on the internet, I see a lot of students make the same mistake I did. I waited a long time for an Owl to bring me my Science Acceptance letter, but my letter never came.
For years before grad school, I contributed to quality research, all the time waiting for some sort of external confirmation that I was finally ready to be a scientist, that I had enough skills and experience to be Worthy. Worthy for what? Mostly worthy to be an author.
I spent many work hours—literaly hundreds, for some—on projects that became peer reviewed publications, in PNAS, Ecology, PLOS ONE, Ecosphere, Bioscience, Biological Conservation, more PLOS ONE, even Nature. My name is listed in the acknowledgments of several of these quality papers, but I’m not an author on a single one.
Now, I could launch into a long tirade about the differences between Ecology and Molecular Biology in terms of how much work warrants authorship. If I’d spent as many hours collecting data as I did for these ecology projects while working for molecular biology labs, I probably would have been assigned authorship on most in a heartbeat, but that’s a cultural difference between fields and a topic I’ll elaborate on in another post. This isn’t some epic, albeit ridiculously passive aggressive, attempt to call out people I worked under for not giving me enough credit.
The point I want to make here is that, because I suffered from serious imposter syndrome, I never actually fought to be an author on any of these projects, and that fault is entirely my own.
If I wanted to be an author, I should have told the people that brought me on the project, and asked point-blank what they felt I needed to do to be worthy of authorship. Instead, I toiled away for countless hours in the lab or field, meticulously producing metric ass-loads of beautiful data. Then I handed over all that beautiful data and stepped away, because I didn’t feel like I was “Worthy” enough to analyze it or contribute anything meaningful to the manuscript.
At some point shortly into starting grad school the first time (see here for more details), something finally clicked in my head. I know things about stuff. I have skills! I can design experiments and keep track of data and make smart decisions on the fly when protocols don’t go entirely according to plan.
Though I didn’t start out with all the biological knowledge, per se, that I have now, I had most of the skills that make a good scientist from the very beginning. If I’d been more assertive and had more self confidence, I could have been an author as an undergrad! Hell, if Natalie Portman can publish a peer-reviewed paper as an undergrad, I could have, too. (But actually, serious props to Natalie Portman. She’s a bona fide scientist, a great actress, and is doing quality work for young women in STEM fields, too!).
So to all you young scientists out there, I hope this post can be your Owl.
Believe me when I say: you are already a scientist. If you keep at it, you will learn more, and you will learn from mistakes you make, and yes, you will become a better scientist. But that doesn’t mean you are not already a scientist. Even if you aren’t consciously aware that you are a scientist, it’s still true.
Or, to misquote the immortal words of Harry Potter’s old friend, Hagrid: “You’re a scientist, Harry.”
Go get ’em.