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Mommas, don’t let your babies grow up to be…

August 5, 2010 54 comments

Here’s an article making the rounds, which is funny because it’s so true.

http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/2010_07_23/caredit.a1000072

Good morning, children, and welcome. Today’s science demonstration will require a laptop, a printer, and 20 liters of coffee. This experiment is called “Applying for Funding.”   <snip>

Real scientists never enter a lab. We work our whole lives to become, if we’re lucky, managers of sorts. We oversee, we organize, and we teach. We attend meetings and send e-mails. We think, we write, we debate, we format, and we complain. The day-to-day job of a scientist — a real one — isn’t too different from that of, say, an insurance claims adjuster.

The article is mainly about the fact that the public perception of science as a profession is shaped largely by mad-scientist movies and whiz-bang demonstrations.  I’d have to add the constant stream of news stories in which some tiny incremental improvement in the state of our collective knowledge about how some ridiculously complicated natural system works and what we can do about some immense problem of human suffering, some little grain of sand added to the sandcastle of the Global University, is oversimplified and treated as an Amazing Breakthrough.  We seem to forget, in the phrase, “quantum leap,” that a quantum is actually a teeny-tiny itsy-bitsy eeeny-weeny change.  Similarly, in those news stories, the contribution of the Lone Genius Scientist is overplayed, forgetting about the legions of graduate students and postdocs who actually do the work, as well as the centuries of giants upon whose shoulders they all stand.

For those who have read the twisted tale of my life thus far and how I got from being the youngest in my class to being the oldest in my class, finally finishing school (this time for sure!) at the tender age of 42, you’ll know that I started life as a starry-eyed molecular biologist.  I was going to cure cancer.  Because although I knew intellectually that science was a lot of hard work and a very long process, some little part of me still held onto the magical belief that you had a brilliant idea on Monday, did the experiment on Tuesday, got data (cells gotta grow overnight) on Wednesday, published on Thursday, and on Friday were on the plane to Stockholm.

It took literally ten years (four as an undergrad, during which I was involved in bench research almost all the way through, and six as a grad student), before I understood what this article is talking about, and realized that my extraverted novelty-loving big-picture-oriented but not-much-of-a-schmoozing personality was not a good fit for the real life of a scientist.  I’d be a good grantwriter, I suppose, but ugh, not what I want to actually do for a living.

So my point in making this post?  Gifted kids need career guidance.  Early and often.  So many of us are afflicted with “the perils of multipotentiality” — we can go in many different directions, we have many different interests and talents, we have many choices.  Sometimes we foreclose too early, other times we wander without direction.

Very often what a field looks like when we’re kids has very little to do with what it looks like when we’re adult practitioners.  And very often what a talented kid looks like when they’re very young has very little to do with what an eminent and creative practitioner of the field is going to look like in adulthood.  Knowing a lot of facts about science or having precocious math procedural skills (which is what precocious science-y math-y kids often manifest with) is a great potentiator of creative thought later in life, but it isn’t the same thing.  Some kids are just good at piling up facts.

Reading biographies of famous individuals, particularly those written for younger audiences, doesn’t help all that much, I’m afraid.   Those tend to contribute to the same misconceptions about heroism and breakthroughs and such.  Same with having occasional visits in the classroom or one-time shadowing experiences — again, the focus tends to be on the gee-whiz aspects of the career, a sales job more than anything else.

Kids need real information about what those people really do all day, what the life is like, what personality characteristics and working styles are good fits for it (and which are not!).  What I think is most helpful is for those kids to have ongoing mentor relationships with adults in the field, folks who will honestly answer questions and suggest routes by which kids can meaningfully explore and pursue their passions.  They should also volunteer information that fell into a kid’s blind spots, stuff they didn’t even think to ask about.  For example, my Little Bird, who wants to be a veterinarian, found out from her mentor that a huge part of the job is about dealing with humans, keeping the patients’ owners happy, because no cat ever brings themselves to the vet.  Perhaps obvious in retrospect, but not obvious to a caring and empathic tween girl who loves animals and science.  If a kid feels weird or intimidated about asking for a mentor, remind them that most people who are truly passionate about their careers also love to share that passion with others, especially young folks who might want to grow up to be like them.

(side hint/plea — if you love your work, offer to mentor kids who are curious about it!  Not every kid has easy access to a family friend who just happens to be in your field.)

Mentors can also help link a kid up with long-term experiences where they can get their hands dirty and become part of the action, particularly as they move into the teen years.  Trying something out, over a long enough time to get past the “squeeeee!” stage, is terrific.  Worst case?  The kid finds out that it’s not what they thought it was and they’d rather go in a different direction in the same field or pursue other passions entirely.  Not such a bad worst case — better than finding it out six years into graduate school.  Best case?  The kid gets experience that both helps them understand the complexity of a field and, oh, by the way, looks great on applications.

As an adjunct to learning about a career in depth, kids need to learn about themselves. Knowing about your own personal learning and working profile, in its many dimensions (subject for a future post), is important.  There can be many different ways to be good at a profession, of course!  But if you don’t know what your own strengths and weaknesses are, you can neither think about how your current style might match up nor think intelligently about what you might want to develop about yourself in order to become a better match.  Introspection can be a valuable tool for this — books like What Color is Your Parachute? (oh, look, there’s a teen version — I haven’t read it yet, but I’d consider that a good bet as a starting point) can help structure some aspects of the exploration.  It can also be helpful for kids to ask the adults in their lives to share their impressions — chances are good that no one vision of a kid will be perfectly accurate, but when diverse sources start to give convergent data, that’s something to take seriously.  Getting professional help (from a formal assessment, a therapy relationship, a career counselor familiar with gifted kids (i.e., who won’t just say, “Ooh, you’re so wonderful, you can be anything you want to be!”) can provide another helpful outside perspective.

What else do people think would help kids make smart career choices?  Chime in below!

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