Careers in science desk: From “successful scientist” all the way up to “freelance science writer”

Here's Kathy Weston (Science, February 04, 2011) on, among other things, the surprising importance of networking – unless you have already got a Nobel prize:

My initial conviction — essential for anyone who wants to make it as a scientist — that I could really make a difference, maybe even win a few prizes and get famous, eroded when I realized that my brain was simply not wired like those of the phalanx of Nobelists I met over the years; I was never going to be original enough to be a star. This early realization, combined with a deep-seated lack of self-confidence, meant that I was useless at self-promotion and networking. I would go to conferences and hide in corners, never daring to talk to the speakers and the big shots. I never managed, as an infinitely more successful friend put it, "to piss in all the right places." [ … ] What could I have done to check my descent into mediocrity? I should have put aside my fears of looking dumb and got on with the networking stuff anyway. And — very importantly — I should have found myself a mentor. Every scientist needs someone in a position of power who has faith in his or her abilities, to provide advice and do a bit of trumpet-blowing on his or her behalf. I should have taken more scientific risks, gone for bigger stakes, and thought harder about direction. Finally, I should have followed my instincts and quit my job before it quit me — but I was hampered by an exaggerated terror of being labeled a failure. (In fact, none of my friends and family seems to care a hoot about my fall from grace, and of course I should have known that all along.)

Much food for thought here, on women in the competitive world of science.

Part of Weston's difficulty was that, like most women, she simply couldn't ignore relationships, on the theory that if she was a big success, they would take care of themselves. This puts me in mind of Cordelia Fine's timely dismissal of research on supposed innate differences between men and women.

Yes, most such claims are easily debunked – but the anomaly remains, and Weston depicts the outcome astutely.

All that said, science writer is a great career choice – if you like writing. Of course, if you write sympathetically about ID theorists, you must live with a troll monitor around your neck, but in some places, that's a distinction.

Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.

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