Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A lot about science, a little about art...

Because that's kind of the story of my life.

I get asked a lot about trying to juggle a career in science (or graduate school) while still keeping up with art as either a job or a serious hobby. So I thought I'd make a post that basically sums up my thoughts on both.

First, I am not a professional artist, and I'm not a professional scientist. Yes, I have a PhD in biology, but I don't currently work in research (and probably never will again). What I currently do is teach science to high school students and teachers. I work in science outreach at a large university, and it's a good compromise for a lazy jerk like me.

See, science and art are similar in one way (okay, probably more than one way, but I'm trying to make a point here...): you really have to love them to do either as your professional career. Really love it. Art people, you know what I'm talkin' about! It is hard to convince yourself to pick up a pencil and draw when you don't love it. And when you're your own boss, sometimes the only thing getting you moving in the morning is your own boot in your butt (that, or the fact that the rent is due). Well, science is the same way: you determine your own success. There's no 9-5 job in science. There is the constant struggle to get funding, to publish more and better science, to come up with better questions. If you don't absolutely love it, you will absolutely hate it. And you won't get far.

Let's say you're thinking of a career in science... There are two basic trajectories you can take beyond the particular subject you might be interested in studying: basic science or applied science. Don't let the name fool you - basic science rocks! This is what you do if you're working in academia: paleontologists, evolutionary biologists, botanists, theoretical physicists, virologists, ecologists, typical mad scientists, etc. Sure, you might be asking questions and doing research on subjects that some people think don't matter, but you're doing stuff that interests you. That's not to say your work won't have applications for the 'real world', they just won't generally be the main focus of your research. Basic researchers work at universities. They tend to teach a lot (depending on how many grants they have and how big they are), and they get to run a lab full of PostDocs, grad students, and undergraduates. It pays badly at first, and then very well. And there's the struggle to get tenure, which can gut-wrenching.

Applied scientists work in government labs, or in the biotech industry. I don't have much experience in this area. It pays better, generally, and sometimes it's more like a 9-5 job. But, again, I don't know much about it.

Either way, the path to each of these careers starts in graduate school. So what's graduate school in the sciences like? Well, it's nothing at all like your undergraduate degree. First, you will not take very many classes, which was great for me because I hate useless class work. Second, if you do take classes, they will most likely be designed for graduate students - e.g., small panel-type discussion groups. Third, you will probably teach. A lot. And you will have almost no idea what you're doing at first. Last, you are responsible for your own project (that you either come up with on your own, or get assigned to you), so you need to be prepared to manage your time. And you will need to publish your work. There's a lot of writing in grad school. Yes, even in the sciences.

So how do you get into graduate school? The most important thing to keep in mind when applying to graduate schools for the sciences is that you're not looking at a particular school so much, but a particular professor who is working on projects that you find interesting. There's some leeway, but generally you'll have more freedom as a grad student to choose your own projects if you enter a lab in a basic science department. And don't 'just apply': you've got to contact the professor, talk to him/her, visit the lab, to have the best shot. The most important thing to keep in mind when applying to graduate schools for the sciences is that you're not looking at a particular school so much, but a particular professor who is working on projects that you find interesting.

Anyway, I love science and I love doing research, but I found that the grant writing and the constant competition for money and to publish and to be the best just wasn't for me. You've got to be a little insane to get really, really good in science. Maybe you have to give up a little too much of your life. I think I'm happy where I am right now. And I can still live vicariously through my husband, who's a full-time scientist.

So the art part... You will still have time to do the things that you love. I made quite a lot of (really bad) art while I was in graduate school. I think if I wanted to push myself now I could probably build a career in art. But I don't. Because I know I would face the same problems again: to get really good, you've got to give up a lot. You've got to be able to pick up that pencil and draw even when you hate the subject (or are just mildly bored by it, which could be worse). And I know I don't want to do that. Maybe that makes me a pussy (probably), but I don't care (I care a little, but not enough to do anything about it).

Well, that was rambly... Time to get back to work!


seajay said...

The last paragraph really struck me. its always nice to hear a reminder about how hard this pursuit is going be.

nice and scary. and exciting. and depressing. and fun.

Andy said...

Hope you don't mind a total stranger posting a comment.... But your post mirrors so well what my current thought process is, I couldn't stop myself.

This post really struck me because I'm currently a married 25-year old trying to "break into" conservation biology. I have applied to two Master's programs in genetics (I did the whole meet-and-greet, talked to professors, etc, you were talking about). One will probably accept me, the other could go either way.... Still haven't found out. I want to be at a place where I won't have to worry about money as much, but honestly I think I would be happiest working for a non-profit, saving the environment somehow. Bye-bye money...

And art. Also my other love. I say I "should have" double majored in art and biology (instead of biology and geology), but actually my second science degree is really coming in handy. I'm now taking art classes at a community college--much less expensive, and they have evening classes which work with my demanding work schedule. However, I LOVE art, and because the biology was so hard to get into (and you have to be the kind of person who does not take rejection personally), I have thought about "abandoning" biology for art instead. I even started my own little business with my husband, Tarantella Design, but I got so involved with grad school applications I haven't put any time into making it make money.

anyway, thanks for your thoughts! Maybe someday I will find a way to balance art and science.

By the way, I love your art style and your talent, it's absolutely beautiful.