What type of scientist do I want to be?
December 5, 2020 9:01 PM   Subscribe

At the tender age of 32, and with no college degrees whatsoever, I have decided that I am going to become a scientist. I'd like to start pinning down, however roughly, which STEM field I'm aiming for. Are you a scientist or otherwise working in a STEM field? Do you love, hate, or just tolerate your job? Does your job fit any of my criteria below, or do you know of one that definitely does - or definitely does not? Please let me know!

I've already applied for grants and been tentatively approved, and the ball is rolling. I can't describe how much it means to me to finally know what I want to do with my life. I realize this journey is going to take years, but I'm very anxious to start figuring out which STEM field I'm aiming for. I do have plans to talk with a career counselor, but I could really use all the input I can get.

Here are the 3 main things that I'm looking for:

1. I desperately want to work in a field where I can keep learning, incessantly, for the rest of my life. I want to know everything there is to know and I want to learn as much as I possibly can in my lifetime.

2. I want to do something that matters, something that I can feel actually contributes in a positive way.

3. Money is clearly not my primary concern, but I do want (read: need) to make a liveable, decent wage with which I can support my family.

My strongest interests:
-Nature/animals/the planet
-Continuous learning

Some of the ideas running through my head:

-A field that would help address climate change?
-Something working with animals or conservation?

I'm trying my best with Google but I'd love some insider's opinions on which fields might actually offer what I'm looking for.

Other potentially useful details:
I do have a day job that will support me through the years (and years and years) of school.
My wife is posting this on my behalf, so there's probably nothing relevant in her post history.
"Scientist" may be too narrow of a definition? Definitely STEM related.
posted by quiet_musings to Science & Nature (14 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
What can a technologist do about climate change may be an interesting place to start. It focuses more on people who are already in tech fields and want to apply that to helping stop climate change, but I'd imagine it could be helpful for you as well.
posted by wesleyac at 9:16 PM on December 5, 2020 [2 favorites]

I think actual science degrees at school do little to scratch the itch of learning about something interesting, and then being able to contribute meaningfully. There are too many science schools and departments, and too few bleeding edge of innovation out there.

However, the one thing I have gotten a TON of satisfaction is from learning DIY - especially around HVAC, plumbing, and electric work. If my life took a different path, I would have been very happy as an electrician. If my life gets too far askew, that's 100% my fallback plan. There are so many different types of electricians, for so many different types of projects, work is vaguely transferrable to factory work, construction, even some engineering. There's an active apprenticeship program, it just has a lot of pros.

Trades and DIY use a ton of science too. But instead of taking tests about it, until you are senior enough to write tests for other people, you are using what you learn every day.
posted by bbqturtle at 9:23 PM on December 5, 2020 [6 favorites]

Ecology is an important field that benefits well from strong math skills. You can work in public, private, or educational sectors, or some mix of all. Almost any aspect also has strong relevance to climate change, which can also be a focus.

I am an academic researcher in ecology with a background in math, but there are lots of relevant jobs at all levels involving research, assessment and mitigation of impacts of industry on ecosystems.

Likewise there are jobs at all levels involving conservation and land management, and all this works within a context of climate change (and land use change) too.

All of these can offer lifetime learning; you will never understand it all.

You can get degrees in conservation biology or environmental science (and policy) or impact assessment etc.

A degree in math may offer you the best variety of potential grad school options if you're set on that, you can get in to lots of science PhD programs with a BS in math and some coursework in the area.
posted by SaltySalticid at 10:03 PM on December 5, 2020 [7 favorites]

I want to know everything there is to know and I want to learn as much as I possibly can in my lifetime.

Molecular biologist here just popping by to say that the first half of this sentence contrasts a bit with my experience as a PhD researcher in the life sciences. What I really enjoy about doing science, as opposed to just reading about it, is that I'm mostly grappling with understanding what we don't know, usually within a fairly narrow bound so that I can experimentally test out a few discrete models for what might be going on, mechanistically. I didn't actually enjoy the didactic portions of my undergrad science degree at all, but the prospect of being the first to solve a tiny intracellular mystery, or to even come up with the right approach to figure out what's going on in a cell/protein/disease? So motivating for me, but each of those pieces of knowledge are hard earned through weeks or months of work. Planning experiments in my field has a definite continuous learning and hands on aspect, but requires a lot of digging in deep into the technical weeds vs reading and learning broadly across disciplines. There's never a lack of things to learn (and it's impossible trying to keep up with the literature of new findings), and plenty of opportunities to chase projects into whole new subfields depending on where the biology takes you, but the idea of knowing everything there is to know, even if you're just talking about known knowns in human biology, is less feasible than memorizing all of Wikipedia. I love it. Every single conversation with a colleague is an opportunity to learn some mind blowing fun fact about how biological processes work, mechanistically, and how those same processes get messed up in disease.
posted by deludingmyself at 10:21 PM on December 5, 2020 [10 favorites]

Best answer: Hello HI I am a working scientist! I am -- variously -- an entomologist, a molecular biologist, a bioinformatician, a developmental biologist, and (in the process of becoming a!) toxicologist. I'm also an adult learner -- I went back to college when I was in my late twenties. So I started graduate school when I was 30. I have a PhD and am in my second postdoctoral position. I am planning to apply to tenure track jobs this year, because I love teaching and I want to have my own lab.

My every-day right now consists of rearing animals, doing repetitive assays to generate data, and analyzing data. I do actually love it -- I love every day I go into the lab and look around and think "They just let me come here and do whatever I want to do." But there is a LOT of monotony. In the labs I've been in, we have had undergraduate researchers who were very unsatisfied with how repetitive things are, and how much of a grind it can be just to produce a little bit of data.

This is why one of the best pieces of advice I've ever gotten about doing science was -- pick *methods* that you like doing, and then apply those methods to questions that are worthwhile.

Do you want to go to graduate school, get a Masters Degree or a PhD*? Or do you want to have a job after 4 years of school? If the latter, steer thyself towards the engineering schools. I highly admire civil and environmental engineers -- they are the unsung superheros of our society. Chemical engineering will tend to lead towards the oil industry, but not exclusively. Materials science will, if I'm not mistaken, lead you to become a high level transmutation wizard. Engineering isn't the only option here, you can get jobs "in industry" with a 4-year-degree in biology, or physics, or chemistry, etc., but engineering is a more secure path to having gainful and fairly lucrative employment after 4 years.**

If you do want to go to graduate school, be aware that you will probably need to narrow down to a field -- a major -- pretty soon. However, I don't think you have to do it *too* soon. As an adult learner, you will probably appreciate your university's general education requirements more than your younger peers: you'll have to take a little bit of everything in your first two years, including a core math and a laboratory science course. That might help you get a taste for some things. But you should start thinking now about really what kind of science and technology you really like. Take some time to reflect on what kinds of news articles you're drawn to; what Metafilter posts do you typically click on; just what sort of thing do you find yourself always wanting to know more about?

On the subject of being a lifetime learner, yes, you have come to the right place. You will never learn everything that there is to know about your field, no matter how narrow and specialist you get. It is impossible. As scientists working together, our bets are all on being able to hold a whole lot of information all together, and being able to collaborate effectively. You will discover as you develop as a scientist what exactly it is you are going to excel at, what you're going to be able to learn very deeply, and what you're going to have to leave in the hands of others. (... I know enough Bayesians stats to get by, but I will never be an expert and will always have to outsource my phylogenetic trees.)

One small bit of advice I must give you now, even though you may not be able to act on it very soon-- it will be important for your future opportunities that you get into a lab as an undergraduate researcher *very* early on. Like, ideally, if you can start working in a professor's lab in your first year of college, that would be great. Again, being an adult learner will work in your favor -- faculty are actually pretty keen to hire responsible, mature adults to do lab work. You should expect to be doing about 6 to 9 hours of work in a faculty member's lab per week. But -- at least in biology -- it's crucial that you get into a lab by the end of your sophomore year. Faculty members are much less keen to take juniors and seniors into their lab that have no lab experience, because they feel that they will not have enough time to train them to do the work *and* get good work out of them.

Gosh, there's a lot more that I'd want to say, but I think I'm getting a bit rambly. MeMail me if you want me to ramble more!

* By the way -- you should be aware that it will not really be possible to keep your day job during grad school. Research-based graduate programs, both MS and PhD, typically do not require tuition (you should NEVER pay for a graduate degree that isn't a professional school degree) and will instead actually pay you a stipend in exchange for you providing 20 hours of service a week in the form of teaching or research. They do this because you cannot do a research-based graduate program part-time. Academia (right or wrong, and it's wrong) becomes all-consuming at this level. Some programs will even retain the right to kick you out if you are "moonlighting."

** I'm betraying some weird academic prejudice here -- I think of engineering as "more applied" and CLAS as "more theoretical". None of that actually holds.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 10:22 PM on December 5, 2020 [13 favorites]

I'm an engineer working in R&D with a physics degree, and there are so many places in industry that let you keep learning forever. Although I personally like to learn new things but I like it concrete and known, so, "this particular widget has a control parameter out of range because the motor shaft came loose" is more satisfying than "here are all the academic studies that have been done about motor design parameters" to me.

The nice thing about engineering is you can often skip the PhD. Our most research-oriented teams, the ones that come up with the new insulating material for the tiles and the new vacuum pump designs and the new laser technologies, those are all folks with PhDs but the rest of us get to learn from them and ALSO learn all the things around making that from an idea into a reality - how many lab benches do you need to do the testing? How much redundancy for a particular reliability level? What kind of vibration isolation design is needed? Etc.

The "I am doing something valuable" feeling is an interesting problem though. When I'm talking with environmentalist or lefty friends I often find myself trying to justify, like, should the tech industry even exist? Am I just supporting child slavery in the cobalt mines by coming up with new ways to build better computer chips? Why do we even think it matters to build a quantum computer? But what actually brings me life satisfaction is if I am contributing something that is valuable to the people around me. I've stayed in relatively neutral-to-positive fields, not extraction or weapons or surveillance, and when I find myself questioning "shouldn't I be working on climate change or something" it usually is a sign I am unhappy and feeling unvalued for other reasons.
posted by Lady Li at 8:36 AM on December 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: First, some more fuel for your curiosity. You should also check out what PhD computer scientists are researching! If you're curious about math and engineering, you might be interested in computer science research as well (especially where it overlaps problems such as climate modeling or algorithmic justice).

Second, some practical advice. I'm not sure where you're based, but at least in the US, the salaries of professors at public universities are often a matter of public record. Look some up. Check institutions that offer PhDs and also some that don't, if you can find them. There's a huge variation in potential salary across the fields you're considering. Though maximizing salary may not be hugely important to you, salary tracks with geographic flexibility. Fields where scientists are paid less are also fields where scientists have to move more often and take more temporary positions before (if they're fortunate) they find a permanent job. Talk to your spouse about how she feels about moving, and potentially moving multiple times.

Finally, a networking offer. I've got a PhD in math. My spouse has a master's degree in engineering, is employed by a physics department, and was a non-traditional student (as you will be). You are welcome to MeMail me if you want to hear more about our experience or different fields of research!
posted by yarntheory at 10:20 AM on December 6, 2020 [4 favorites]

You might want to thinking about science communication as well. The world needs more people who can take what the academics are doing and break it down so the common person can understand it. One person you might want to look into is Alan Dove. He has his PhD in virology but is now a science communicator. He's one of the hosts of the very popular podcast, This Week in Virology. This definitely checks your life long learning box as well as doing something that matters.
posted by kathrynm at 11:56 AM on December 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

Am research scientist/academic. Going to chime in here with a bit of a caution: a PhD is by no means a guarantee of a job as a university research scientist (i.e. academic). Academic (science) jobs are insecure for many years after finishing a PhD, and you may not succeed in getting a permanent position despite being very good at the research. We graduate far more PhDs than there are jobs in academia.

So if you want to complete X years study and then have a job long term, or don't want to move around every three years chasing post-doc positions, or would be in trouble if you are out of work for 1 year, seriously consider more secure options.

On the other hand, if you are okay with the insecurity and happy to divert outside of academia if necessary, then research science definitely fulfils your lifelong learning desire. However, I'd strongly advise you to think outside of the academic box - there are some great suggestions here - and look for fields that are actively growing, and are short on qualified people.
posted by neatsocks at 1:22 PM on December 6, 2020 [4 favorites]

A brief plug for my own field, biostatistics. This work might tickle your mathematical or logical fancy, and perhaps even more strongly your desire to keep learning -- I collaborate with scientists who were trained in all sorts of fields, and there's no way to do that well without constantly reading new stuff about their science. The degree is also nice because it's flexible: you can go all the way and become a stats professor and do your own research, but you can also find jobs in academia that don't require that level of investment, like mine as a university researcher (though I do have a degree in another field also), or you can work in industry, or government. Most sectors have some role for people who know how to make sense of data, and the pay is usually reasonable, though hugely variable. The one downside is that the usual "union card" for a practicing statistician is a masters degree, so you might not be able to get really exciting work straight after undergrad.

Many science and engineering fields require an intro stats course in their undergrad curriculum anyway. You might get a taste of whether you like it then.
posted by eirias at 3:44 AM on December 7, 2020 [2 favorites]

Just popped in to say I'm surprised no one has mentioned alternative energy as a field yet!
posted by ZenMasterThis at 4:06 AM on December 7, 2020

Wait, you applied for grants and have been tentatively approved for them? How cool is that! What kind of grants are these? What did you say in your grant applications? Is there any science you're interested in? What made you decide to be a scientist?

What an intriguing Ask! I look forward to your answers!
posted by MiraK at 10:45 AM on December 7, 2020 [1 favorite]

OH man, I want to join eirias's stats lobby. Getting *any* undergrad STEM degree and then getting an MS in stats will make you a highly desirable data scientist, and would mean that you would be able to move into any field that tickled your fancy. Biostatistics is probably one of the most important fields right now. If you could apply to PhD programs saying "look I can just do generalized linear models, okay? like it's not a big deal" a lot of faculty advisors will say "Great. Let's get started. I can teach you the field-specific content along the way." That did work for me, more or less -- I came to grad school already knowing how to write Python and bash scripts, which back in Aught Twelve made me something of a minor computer deity in a biology department. I'm still able to trade pretty effectively on my computational skills. Skills skills skills! People love 'em.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 11:23 AM on December 7, 2020 [2 favorites]

Would you be interesting in teaching high school?

There’s a ton of stuff about it that is crazy making, but I can’t say I’ve ever had a job that is equally intellectually stimulating and meaningful. Between learning about my subject, learning about teaching, and learning about the learners, it is incessant.

There is definitely a need for science educators and if you are in a state with a strong union, you can make a decent living with good benefits.

Some high schools do have pretty impressive laboratories also.
posted by Salamandrous at 2:56 PM on December 11, 2020

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