Identity Crisis – how to get over not being an expert

I noticed something interesting looking at the analytics for this blog.  (Sue me, I’m a data junkie).  It appears that my posts that ramble on about how I got to this position, or my existential struggles along the way get more hits.  I was initially a little surprised by this since I figured you, my lovely audience, were drawn here for useful tips but I see it’s just to witness my inner turmoil and angst.  Well I guess I should give the people what they want, after all I am an artiste, I mean a scientist, I mean a manager, shoot…what am I?

This is a question I ask myself fairly regularly, and one that several people have asked me in one way or another recently (usually under the guise of asking how I made the switch from a technical role into a managerial role and how I feel about it).  Am I still a scientist?  And if not, does that matter and how do I define myself now?

For so long, through my first job out of undergrad, through all my subsequent schooling and jobs, I’ve always considered myself a scientist.  Getting my first publication was a verification of that identity and it felt SO good.   I had worked so hard to get to that point, the point where I was a published scientist, one with a paper where I was the first author (trust me, this is a big deal).  It felt so validating.  It felt like the fulfillment of the dreams I’d had as a little girl playing with test tubes in the kitchen trying to make invisible ink.

There is also something that resonates with people when you tell them you’re a scientist, a respect that you can see reflected back in their face, and the instant recognition of what you do, or at least what they think you do.  There are many ill-conceived notions of what it means to be a scientist but its still way easier to explain that being a program manager or something of that kind.

Looking back, it was probably too big a part of my identity.  Science became all-encompassing nin an eat, sleep, dream about it kind of way that threatened to drown out other interests that I’ve picked up along the way in life.  However, I’m assured from grad school colleagues that this is quite normal..

Given that I never planned on continuing as a lab researcher when I was done with my PhD, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that this question has come up. I don’t think I was surprised that the question arose but more surprised about how I felt about the answer. I suppose I always thought I would be allowed to keep the scientist label, or least allowed to think of myself that way, as I progressed in my career.  I’m noticing now that it is not really going to be that way.  Having stepped away from the lab without doing a post-doc (or 3), becoming a professor and publishing even more papers and switching fields to boot, means that I even though I have those 3 letters after my name, I will not be viewed as a scientist by the scientific community.  The question now becomes not so much, how do I feel about stepping away from the technical work but how do I feel about other people’s perception of my scientific identity?  Do I need to be a technical expert to succeed?  I’ve given quite a bit of thought and here’s what I’ve come up with.

Despite the recent shift in thinking that technical expertise is essential for good management (cite HBR article), I now know I can be a good manager without that.  I’m actually a better manager than I ever would have been a lab scientist (see article about why I decided to leave the lab). I also know that individuals with deep technical experience can be great managers. So in thinking of success in terms of my ability to be a good manager, being a scientist doesn’t have any bearing.

The second aspect is my relationships with others in the workplace, especially with external partners.  I have to say that there is some impact here.  This one is harder to tease out though.  Since I switched areas of research some of my inexperience is due to new subject matter. I have come across some resistance to my presence in my position because I’m not a statistician or not an HIV scientist but that has not been the norm and since my last position was in an area I didn’t know well either, I’m used to doing the extra research and asking the right questions to get the information I need.  So I would call this one a draw.

Finally, there’s my own perception of my identity.  Why is it so important to me to say that I’m a scientist?  Is it because it was a dream of mine for so long and I can’t let that go?  Is it because it’s easier to explain to immigration officials in other countries?  Trust me, trying to explain what a program officer does or a senior manager does just results in more time going through the line, especially when you just got off a long flight (“no, I just give away money for other people do the science”, “no it’s a team of statisticians, you know, number crunchers”).  Having done some self-examination for a while, and in my more honest moments, I know this one comes down to ego.  I like the prestige of being a scientist.  I like the response I get from people when I tell them that’s what I do. And it’s time to let that go.  I didn’t get into science to feel good when I told random strangers my profession.  Years of living in Washington DC, where your value is tied to who you work for, have be de-programmed from my brain but I think I’m making progress on that one.

Now, when I’m asked, my response is that I made a conscious decision to step away from the technical lab work.  I did it because it best reflected both where I wanted my career to go and what my strengths are.  Yes, I still miss it sometimes, and I still get to be immersed in science for my job, I still get to interact with brilliant people and talk about the details of antibody binding (insert happy dance).  Also, I’ve done my research, I have contributed to the scientific annuls.  No one can take that away from me.  I will always be proud of that.  However, I also get to have a new kind of pride, the pride of managing a team of driven, dedicated and smart individuals all working to a common goal and that shared pride in a shared goal is even better.

My conclusion is that I may not be technically a scientist anymore and that is OK. So much has changed for me in the past few years and I’ve taken on a number of new identities that have nothing to do with my career (wife and mother, for example) so I think I can let one go.

I’d be really interested to hear what you think.  Do you still consider yourself a scientist?  Do you wrestle with a new identity?  Am I just over-thinking this whole thing? (A distinct possibility)  Will I ever write a post that doesn’t contain too many parentheses?

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