science + art = ?
December 27, 2013 4:56 PM   Subscribe

Please help a generalist brainstorm on what to do for a living. I'm finishing up a PhD in the physical sciences, and I love art and design. I'm happiest if I can constantly learn new subjects and if I can make things every day. How do I bring the parts of science and the parts of art that I love into the working world?

I'm finishing a PhD in experimental science (nanotech). Graduate school has been a great experience, but I've realized that don't want to be a professional scientist. I love the problem-solving, the creativity, and the public speaking aspects of science. I love working with tools, so experimental science was a good path for me.
However, I also love starting new projects and learning new things, so I'm frustrated by the (necessary) specialization of academia. I enjoy connecting ideas across fields much more than I enjoy being an expert. At the moment, I'm a generalist living in a specialist's house.
Throughout undergrad and graduate school, I've managed to accumulate most of a BFA (though those classes have been taken pass-fail). I'm passionate about installation art. I love working with my hands and problem-solving new materials. I absolutely blossomed in my conceptual sculpture class, because I had freedom to work with a variety of materials and follow my interests where they led.

Ideal job:
I like working with other people, though I'm also good at working on my own. I don't necessarily need to be doing science or art, but I need something creative where I can both plan and execute projects, and have the satisfaction of seeing something I imagined coming into the world. Something that requires learning a variety of new subjects and connecting them. I'm computer-fluent, but don't want to spend significant amounts of time coding.

So far I've thought about being a museum exhibit designer or working at a maker lab, but I was hoping to pick up a variety of other ideas here. Thanks!
posted by you're a kitty! to Work & Money (20 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
posted by oceanjesse at 4:59 PM on December 27, 2013

Have you considered being a professor at a teaching college? Lots of project planning and executing. I teach lots of things that are far afield of what I studied in grad school and learn new things all the time. And your art skills could make for some really cool teaching demonstrations.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:02 PM on December 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

So far I've thought about being a museum exhibit designer

This is what I was going to say after reading the first section, for what it's worth. Perhaps slightly closer to your wheelhouse might specifically be in a science centre/museum. Plenty of opportunity for interdisciplinary work, and you'd already have a decent grasp of the underlying principles being explained, I'm guessing.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 5:04 PM on December 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Based description of the ideal job, architecture might be a good choice. Architects need to have individual artistic vision, but also need a grounding in science and team management to make that vision into reality. Creativity, problem solving, working with tools, working with you hands, using a variety of materials; architecture checks a lot of your boxes.
posted by chrisulonic at 5:27 PM on December 27, 2013

I realize they may not specifically address your art interests, but I wonder if any of the CLIR Postdocs might appeal to your generalist/science/maker interests. There are a wide variety of positions (so don't assume they're all exactly like the first one you click on), and it's a good program, from what I understand.
posted by unknowncommand at 5:27 PM on December 27, 2013

A friend of mine takes old sample slides and turns them into jewelry. Also, you could go the route of science photography or illustration.

I also like the teaching professor idea. You obviously know your stuff, and if you can create stunning visual or tactile examples of the concept, students will love that.
posted by Turkey Glue at 5:31 PM on December 27, 2013

I've got a friend who works in "Science Education". She works part time at one of those Science centres for kids, and part time going to schools to do demonstrations of various science principles. It sounds like that sort of thing would be right up your alley, but I'm not sure how you would get into it. (She did an actual degree in Science Education, but I'm sure that isn't necessary.)
posted by lollusc at 5:34 PM on December 27, 2013

If you are looking for narrow ideas about what niche jobs to pursue, your question may get a few suggestions worth pursuing.

I'm going to ask a few relevant questions, though, in the interest of the other 100 times this will come up this year.

Where are you? How much money do you need to make? How good is your art? How good is your science? Can you make do with absolutely no resources? Have you ever sold anything you made (art)? When do you want to start this? How are your self-marketing skills? How do you deal with failure and stress?

A few observations... I have friends who have been doing art for 50 years and make little to no money at it. They are world class artists. I have other friends who are decent engineers who make a pile of money, by comparison. My favorite post-doc biologist used to dumpster dive for pizza at Papa Johns post-closing. Science is not a path to money, but art is most definitely a path to poverty. There is little public support, grants are competitive, there are a million artists, and who wins in a given year is random. Not 'talent' based, but the random vagaries of popularity.

To combine the two (art/science), it makes sense to get the income issue dealt with (unless you are already independently wealthy, in which case ditch science and rock out.) I do know a rather large number of scientist/engineer types who make art. They can afford to. They can also do stuff you can't do if you ONLY have an art background.

My own art incorporates functional technology. I plan/expect to never sell it, but I price it for what it costs and what it is worth to me. At the same time, I have done scores of product and machine and test equipment designs that are art in their own way. Those I sold handsomely while i honed my skills as a maker of whatever I want to make and developed artistic sense and some level of maturity. But it's all for me. Whether anyone 'gets it' is irrelevant. I am exploring what I want to explore.

Point is, if you want to eat, you need an income. If there were lots and lots of art/science hybrid jobs out there, the competition would be brutal. You can invent your own, of course, and then you can add business to the mix of skills you'll need.

I don't mean to pour water on your fire, but I do think if you want to seriously pursue art, you can do it in conjunction with anything that will pay the rent. All of my successful artist friends are supported in their addiction in one way or the other by viable jobs.

BTW, a successful artist (in my definition) is one who produces his/her art and meets whatever financial objectives he/she sets. That doesn't mean you have to make a million. It means you need to make whatever you want to make from it. Including nothing.

Good luck. You CAN do it but in many ways, it's your first piece of art/science... a self designed career you create from imagination and work.
posted by FauxScot at 6:03 PM on December 27, 2013 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: FauxScott — all great points, and things that have been wheeling around in my head a lot lately. I should have clarified that I do need to make a living, and that I'm nowhere close to pursuing art as a career. I recognize that a fine arts career is not a financial possibility for me. What I am hoping to do is find a way to bring some of the elements of art that I enjoy into my day job. Right now there's a strong dividing line in my life between art (free time) and science (work) and it's workable, but it isn't ideal. I'm hoping to discover some career ideas that might at least offer me some of the joys I get from art, even if they're not specifically "look, art plus science!" careers. Architecture, as chrisulonic mentioned, would be the sort of job that sits somewhere between the poles of my two interests (though going back for more school at this point isn't really practical).
posted by you're a kitty! at 6:24 PM on December 27, 2013

The physics teacher at our high school also teaches the horticulture class and the floral design class. Maybe something like that but with subjects relevant to your interests?
posted by tamitang at 6:42 PM on December 27, 2013

Commercial design/marketing/sales of lab equipment or science tech?
posted by Schielisque at 7:19 PM on December 27, 2013

I really feel that this is the golden age for people with science/engineering backgrounds who are also interested in design.

Interactive Design, jobs in advanced fabrication and 3d printing with unique materials, e-textile design and fabrication, and industrial design consulting are all areas you might be a good fit for.
posted by deanc at 7:27 PM on December 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

Design strategy, like IDEO, etc.
posted by emkelley at 12:04 AM on December 28, 2013

The good news is that you're doing this the right way round, science -> art vs. art -> science, mostly for the financial stability reasons mentioned already.

I would give academia a second chance because there is at least the possibility of interdisciplinary work, and a general push to expand STEM into STEAM, if you're in the right department. I'd also recommend just seeking out like-minded artists and collaborating with them. Frequently artists have a highly developed craft in their field but technical knowledge that's been cobbled together on a need-to-know basis, so artists will LOVE you if you can help them make things happen.

I'm a musician/composer, and as a grad student I had the good fortune to work with a professor in the engineering department who was also a very accomplished musician. She managed to bring the art/science thing together by doing research into music expression, and the uniqueness of her research has served her really, really well. So that approach is possible in academia, though maybe that kind of thing is too specialized for your tastes.
posted by speicus at 12:47 AM on December 28, 2013

The other thing about artists and scientists is that both tend to vastly underestimate the levels of skill and craft involved in the other profession, as well as the time it takes to get good at it. This is another reason why I tend to encourage collaboration rather than taking on both roles yourself (unless you've really been doing both full steam ahead the whole time).
posted by speicus at 12:49 AM on December 28, 2013

Response by poster: Great feedback, thank you all! And just to be clear — I'm an enthusiastic art student, but nowhere near a serious or professional-level artist. Art gives me a joy and satisfaction that I haven't found elsewhere, but science is definitely my professional strength at this point.
posted by you're a kitty! at 1:03 AM on December 28, 2013

Having both a serious science background and a strong visual sense is going to serve you well no matter what. In this information age, data visualization skills are hugely, HUGELY important. Get a real science job in your field and make yourself invaluable by being able to present your information in interpretable ways to your colleagues, your stakeholders, and the public.
posted by Sublimity at 6:27 AM on December 28, 2013

I'd suggest you also look into doing science work for companies that supply the arts. As a theater technician, I see all of those things that (if we're doing it right) the audience never sees. And it's all networking, engineering and physics. I'm willing to bet that there are lighting equipment companies that are looking for your skill set.
posted by Morydd at 7:36 AM on December 28, 2013

This is a really fascinating question to me because I'm pursuing computer science and design (at the undergrad level, through a specialized interdisciplinary program) and so the quandary of how to engage in STEAM and not just STEM is pretty familiar.

I feel like there are two hard truths about trying to be an interdisciplinary individual:
  • The academic and professional worlds are optimized for people who concentrate in one thing. I'm not saying that cross-discipline knowledge isn't valuable and helpful. In technology, for example, much is made of the "designer who can code" and the "engineer who can design" types, but very rarely will those people be put in situations where they are doing serious hardware/software engineering and also serious design work. Part of it is a typical corporate desire to fit people into more conveniently-shaped job titles. The larger an organization is, the more likely this is going to be. So you're inevitably going to have to fight a bit to get an interdisciplinary role, and probably end up being in charge of carving out particular responsibilities that suit you.
  • You can't be really good in two fields the way a similarly-dedicated person could be good in just one. That was awkwardly worded, so I'll try to explain. Time is a zero-sum game, to some degree. You can become significantly better in science than a lot of your peers and significantly better in arts than any of your science peers or a layman, but you can't really be world-class in both. One thing that's been tough for me, actually, is realizing that I'm always engaging in a compromise if I study both. If I spend x hours in one field, then I don't have that time for the other, and someone who invests the same number of hours as me into one field only is going to always be ahead of me trying to split my attention. So that's always a bit of a constraint on what you do, and the solution is not to try to directly compete with an arts person who's been spending all their time on it while you were doing a PhD in nanotech, but to find interesting areas where your scientific background provides additional value.
That being said, I'm hopeful (for myself and for you) that there are meaningful ways to combine your interests without undue compromise. Here are the options I can think of:
  • You could work at a small company that lies at the intersection of science/art. A sufficiently small company will prefer and support a generalist or someone who can handle two+ normally disparate roles. There could be a range of involvement from "I'm on the science side at a company that interacts with the art world" (e.g. this company called Artsy which employs both art history types and computer science types in an art genome project) to being able to wear a scientist hat and an artist hat for different projects or even different days.
  • You could start your own initiative at the intersection of science/art. Of interest may be this (funded) Kickstarter that was initiated by interdisciplinary filmmakers interested in biology and the arts, and which covers amateur biologists and the work they do. It's called DIYsect: Filming Biotinkering for the Web. There's also a company called Nervous System which does 3D-printed accessories that are algorithmically generated but modeled after biological structures. It's quite likely if you want to do some similarly integrative project you'll have to start it yourself, and maybe find co-conspirators who is as invested in the interdisciplinary life as you. It could be a company (at the scale of a lifestyle business or larger if you can grow it) or just a side project you can be pretty invested in and that gives you a foothold in both fields.
  • You could build an enjoyable career mostly in the sciences, and engage in the arts or integrative science/art on the side. One thing I personally considered was making a living as a software engineer and devoting a lot of my spare time working with organizations that support the arts and creativity in youth (e.g. an organization like 826 Valencia or CSSSA). I actually feel in general that a lot of the interesting interdisciplinary gigs involve teaching and mentoring and enthusing about the intersection of these areas, so:
  • Educating people about the intersection of science/arts. I feel like affluent school districts, science museums, or adventurous arts education programs might be a good place to start looking into, as lollusc suggested. This would basically sidestep the industry tendency to silo your skills and contributions, and I think you'd be able to find organizations that are more supportive of interdisciplinary study. Your background in science/arts is probably strong enough to afford significant/meaningful roles teaching both sides.
I think other things you could look into (to get an idea of potential projects or applications or initiatives you could do/be a part of)—the integrative tech/science + arts/design projects going on at the MIT Media Lab, since they're generally unfettered by traditional discipline boundaries. I also linked the STEAM (STEM + Art/Design) initiative above, and I think it might be interesting to see what organizations support the program, how they implement its ideals, and maybe reaching out to see if there could be a role there for you.
posted by Sudo at 6:07 PM on December 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

My sister's similar to you and was thinking at one point of going into museum exhibition design. She did a course in Science Communication - using mass media to talk about scientific topics - and found it interesting.

Pireeni Sundaralingam works with cognitive science and poetry; it might be worth following her work and career. (I took a poetry class with her this past year, though we didn't get into the science much.)
posted by divabat at 4:19 AM on December 29, 2013

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