How do folks react when you say, "I'm a scientist..."

@dnghub Twitter Feed

I recently read this great post on the Terry blog, whereby Elysa talks about preconceived notions of success and how a person's profession may relate to that. In particular, she used the example of Anne Wintour, the celebrated editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine, who by any measure is "successful," but because that success is rooted in "fashion," there are many who may not acknowledge her work as significant.

"they find what I do very amusing." Anna goes on to describe her siblings and their respected career paths- a brother who works to find housing for those who can't afford it, a sister who defends the rights of farmers in Latin America, and her brother, the Political Editor of The Guardian. Anna calls her siblings 'geniuses' but, clearly hurt, she is explicit that they do not hold the same acknowledgment of her work. Why not?

Add to that, a great comment in the post that details a personal experience:

As a former Fashion Design major with minor in Illustration, I can honestly say I have been in Anna's shoes. Well maybe not her exact pair of LV stilettos just yet!

A personal story comes to mind to illustrate this . . . Two years ago as I was traveling home for Christmas, a charming young accountant intrigued by my new copy of the Economist initiated a flirtatious conversation we me (I know what you are thinking, Santa did give me an extra Christmas present!). We bantered back and forth on domestic politics and foreign affairs, until he asked me my major . . . needless to say his whole demeanor changed. I went from the feisty sexy female to the small town girl next door. Words like 'cute' became more prevalent and the discussion made a sharp turn to the light side.

This all got me thinking about the "scientist" label, and how I've seen people react to me when I use it. It's quite striking actually - there tends to be a little surprise, but also a sort of instant respect that comes along with the title, which I find quite odd given the general skepticism many in the general public seem to have over things like genetic modification and climate change.

The label is also great with young children. Many of you know this already, but it's very cool to tell school children that you're a scientist. In fact, I think it's one of the great perks of the profession - to be able to get children enthusiastic just by telling them what you do (note to those scientists who don't go to their local schools to chat - you should definitely try it. It's a marvelous experience, and certainly one that can make you even more passionate about what you do)!

I should note that when I do use the label, I tend to approach it with a focus on my role as an educator - i.e. scientific literacy in general, which presumably is something that everybody agrees is a good thing. In fact, it's a compelling point that I still label myself a "scientist" when the majority of my work these days is focused on literacy. Maybe this has something to do with the positive connotations you get from the label.

I any event, I'm curious as to what the reaction might be if you label yourself something a little more specific. Say, if you introduce yourself as a "geneticist" or a "climatologist."


This, I'm sure is something that many ScienceBlog readers have done: You go to a party, you meet some people, introductions are made, and someone inevitably asks "what do you do?"

So what do you say? And what is the reaction?

More like this

O.K. Sorry this took a while, but you know, things are busy, having just finally launching the Phylo game website. A while back, I mentioned getting an acoustic bass, and wanting to work on yet another science-geekery song. This one with a biodiversity theme and the inclusion of reader supplied…
Last night, I dreamed that I had a closet full of seriously amazing shoes, from strappy stilettos to lace-up boots. When I awoke and remembered that my closet is actually full of uncomfortable work pumps and trail runners, I was disappointed. But I knew who to blame for my dream: Isis! Ever since…
[A regular reader, SciMom at Doubleloop, thanked me for putting up this post on my old blog this past Wednesday. As I don't believe that any of my new SiBlings here covered the passing of this amazing scientist, I am reprinting it here for our new and more diverse audience.] Cancer research and…
Lake Louise Well, it's nice to be back from our little Canadian Rockies roadtrip, and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by the relative ease of having two young kids stuck in the back of our minivan for hours on end. It's actually been a while since we've ventured on a "real" trip, having…

When you tell people you're a botanist, they begin pushing the riff raff off the sidewalks in front of you and yelling, "Make way, a botanist is coming."

I work in a biotech firm (as a biochemist), and will often say that "I'm a biochemist." This generally works really well, but I always avoid mentioning the biotech side of things. People seem to associate that with swarmy for some reason.

Well, my wife is a veterinarian, and I am a chemist, so most of our friends are pretty highly educated types, and that accounts for a lot of our parties.

However, with the Offspring, my wife has made new friends among other parents, and those are a more general population. In those situations, I have found it easiest to tell people that I teach chemistry at the Local University. They think they understand what university faculty do, so it saves me from having to go into details of research, which they don't understand anyway because their usual response is, "Oh, I never liked chemistry in high school."

Those who know enough about science to know that my actual job is that of scientist with teaching to pay the bills also know enough to talk about details of what we do, so if they bring it up, I'll do it.

When I was in college and told people I was a chemistry major, the usual response was, "Oh, me and math never got along," and they were inevitably what we called "I Don't Know Business" majors (as in, "What's your major?" "I don't know, Business")

I'm going to school for neuroscience and I come to find any mention of said science or scientist is usually an instant conversation ender with the opposite sex especially. It is usually met with an uncomfortable look or a uninterested "that's cool." followed by a swift getaway, using too many "big words" also is met with the same disdain.

I've found that sticking to the general scientist label is the best way to go. If I introduce myself as a bioinformatician then I tend to get the glazed over look (although bioinformatician is something less well known than say botanist or geneticist). Scientist has an overall positive effect I think.

It's funny that Andrew mentioned his experiences, because when I chat with guys, often mentioning the scientist (and even bioinformatician) label, makes them more chatty!

When I tell people I'm a chemist, I usually get reactions ranging from "that's hard" to "I hated chemistry" to "I liked chemistry but I just didn't get it". When I tell other chemists that I'm a physical chemist, I get similar reactions.

I don't see any problem with taking a person's career into account when trying to gage what kind of person (s)he is. Both the position and the company will say something about the persons interests and abilities. For instance, Wintour clearly has a successful career, and I bet she's very good with grammar and writing. However, if anyone thinks that editing a fashion magazine has a positive societal impact like finding housing for low income people or working for the rights of Latin American farmers, they've got to be kidding themselves. Fashion magazines engage in flagrant conflicts of interest by giving advice about products for which they advertise. They promote consumerism and the belief that a woman's value is based on looks. They may contain the occasional good article, but that doesn't make up for the other 95% of rubbish. Wintour is doubtlessly famous and well respected by her readers and peers. But if she wants to be respected in the nonprofit, humanitarian circle, she's not going to impress them with her current career.

This is actually an interesting question. I just introduce myself as a graduate student at this point, and let whoever I'm talking to assume what they like about my field (I'm a supramolecular chemist).

But this ties into a discussion I was having with someone a few weeks ago; the thought was, the reason scientists in the media get maligned as Ivory Tower Liberals so often is because we *don't* refer to ourselves as scientists. We say we do R&D, or teach, or are in bioinformatics, or marine ecology, or botany, and it goes over peoples heads that that makes us scientists; they assume scientists would say, "I'm a scientist" if you asked them what they do for a living.

My colleague has a joint appointment; in social situations, if he wants to end the converstion, he tells the other person he's a physicist, if he wants to keep talking, he tells them and oceanogrpaher.

Me, I'm always a physicist, and hence usually alone at parties.

Typical responses to saying I'm a chemist:
1) "Wow"
2) "I hated chemistry"
3) "Wow, I hated chemistry"

Before returning to school to get my PhD in Cognitive Science, I was an actress/waitress for many years. It was fascinating to observe how differently people reacted to the *exact same me* from one year (actress) to the next (grad student at prestigious university).

I'm lucky: when I say I'm in Cognitive Science, people usually say "What's that?"... and when I tell them, they say "Cool!". I think it's because everyone has a brain, and almost everyone is curious about how it works.

Only very rarely do I go into any detail whatsoever about what I actually *do*, research-wise.

Back in my younger, single days, I found it to be a really good "guy" filter.
Guy: What do you do?
Me: Experimental high energy physics.
At this point, about half the guys would silently vanish. This let me spend quality time with the ones who thought that physics was cool :-)

When I want to talk to the person who asked me this, I reply that I am an astronomer. They usually get excited and want to talk about something they'd heard about recently.

When I don't, I tell them that I am an astrophysicist. They usually get big eyes, say "ooooh," nod, and back away slowly.

Just finished a graduate degree in epidemiology. When I told people what I was studying, they immediately thought I was a skin doctor (epidermi-ology... true story) and showed me their ashy elbows.

Then I finished my degree and now I work as a health economist. Even people in my research team don't really know what I do.

I've now got my "explaining what I do for a living" speech down to 25 seconds.

I am a theoretical solid-state physicist. Computers + physics + math seems to trip just about every "run-away" reflex the general public has.

Fortunately, I met my wife (she majored in education, and was a teacher until she realized just how cruel the teaching system truly is to teachers) in physics club. Hooray for that, or I'd be living with a cat and 7 other guys in some run-down apartment just outside of campus. :)

I've been asked repeatedly if "plant pathologists" are who you hire to figure out who murdered your roses, accompanied by laughing at how pointless my discipline is.

After introducing myself as a "graduate student," and getting the inevitable "what field?" I usually avoid saying "psychology" or "developmental psychology" because the first response invariably is something like "you'll make a great therapist!" (yes, I would, but I'm not in a clinical program) or "so can you tell me what's wrong with me?" (yes, I can, but no, I won't). So I use phrases like "cognitive neuroscience" or tell people I do research on the evolution of the mind. That usually gets the point across.

I used to work at the NASA Johnson Space Center. It was a great kick to go back to my high school and whip out a sapcesuit glove and talk about what is required to go on a spacewalk. Sadly, the kids would be very enthused right up until when they asked what I had to study to get that job.

It didn't work so well with the ladies since most of them in the area were either employed by space-related firms, Petro-chemical, or cancer research. The ones that weren't in those fields were tired of hearing men in those fields brag about themselves.

Tough crowd.

I'd describe myself as an attractive female who does not look like your typical "scientist". I try to avoid saying outright that I'm a neuroscientist, as this usually elicits outsized reactions that I'd rather not deal with. However, if I do mention the N word, I get one of three reactions:
1) "WOW! you must be REALLY smart! "
2) glazed eyes and "oh".
3) "So what's it like operating on people's brains??" (Many people assume a 'neuro' prefix makes you a neurosurgeon, as well as having a PhD or doctorate makes you a medical doctor).

However, like other female commenters mentioned, it's a good guy-filter. The glazed-eye guys quickly move on. Then, if a guy shows genuine interest and starts asking intelligent questions, I know he's worth talking to.

I am a climatologist, and when I tell people that, I usually get a strong response aligned with the politics of the situation. Either "Good for you, we need to stop ruining the planet" on the one side; or "Guess we're all doomed, huh? (sarcastically)","You scientists don't even agree on any of that", or "Nobody knows what will happen, it's too complicated" on the other side. (I interpret these generally, by body language and subsequent quick change of subject, to be polite versions of "I think you're full of crap".)

Fortunately, the people who think global warming is a liberal hoax usually don't pursue the argument further and just awkwardly drop the conversation or change the subject.

Occasionally I get "Oh, that sounds really interesting and important", which is probably the response most scientists hope for.

If I suspect I'm talking to someone argumentative and hostile to my field, I don't tell them I'm a climatologist, I tell them (in increasing order of avoidance) that I'm a geoscientist, a physicist, a scientist, or a researcher.

If I tell them I'm a physicist, I get the usual responses: "Oh, you must be smart!" "That must be hard." "I was never good at physics."

I studied astronomy in university and found that mentioning I was a science major was a disappointment for most women. On the other hand, the women that didn't mind or who found it interesting were usually much better choices in terms of general intelligence. Saying "I have a degree in astrophysics", while descriptive of the nature of the field, usually kills the conversation, but adding "I've always loved the stars" adds a touch of romance that goes over well.

I'm a rocket scientist.
I work for NASA.
Sounds a whole lot cooler than it is.
Nobody does anything you could recognize
or pinpoint or point at in a news photo.
And much effort is wasted on things that never happen, or won't happen before I retire.
I wanted to be Graham Bell, but my PhD got me a job as Mr. Watson: "Watson, come here! I need you!"

My business card says "Biotherapeutics Research Scientist, Protein Engineering." I have degrees in biology and chem eng. I do a good amount of molecular biology and a good bit of process engineering, to make drugs for Evil Big Pharma.

Possible answers:
"I'm a scientist"
"Oh, I hated dissecting frogs in school."
I work for Satan--Big Pharma.
*flees in terror*
"I invent cures for cancer."
"Oh, dude, Big Pharma will hunt you down and kill you or something. You're not allowed to do that."

My wife is a church musician. When I tell her friends I am an ichthyologist, I often get blank looks. Sometimes I am asked if I worship fishes. This generally leads a good natured discussion.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 26 May 2010 #permalink

My experience is almost identical to MRW, only slightly different order of operations.

1. I hated chemistry! (to which I always reply, "that's because it's not taught well.")

2. Wow, you must be smart! (to which I always reply, "if I was really smart, I'd be rich, too.")

The glazed-over look, not so much, but I do love trying to explain scientific concepts to people in ways that help them understand the world better.

Go Science!!

When I was getting my biology degree for some reason the first question was "are you going to med school?" (no) followed by an in-depth description of some medical issue, to which I told them to see a doctor.

Now I'm some hybrid software engineer/biologist running a software team for a biomedical research institution doing cancer research (among other things). I gave up explaining though.

stmas present!). We bantered back and forth on domestic politics and foreign affairs, until he asked me my major . . . needless to say his whole demeanor changed. I went from the feisty sexy female to the small town girl next door. Words like 'cute' became more prevalent and the discussion made a sharp turn to the light side.

This all got me thinking about the "scientist" label, and how I've seen people react to me when I use it. It's quite striking actually - there tends t