The path to becoming a scientist

Thanksgiving is over and the holiday season is upon us. This time of the year can be busy and quite exhausting with all of life’s obligations. I always try to set aside a day away from the rigors of modern life, especially when things get hectic. My preference is take a long solitary hike in the woods and reflect. This helps to bring my life into perspective and give thanks to the people, experiences, and opportunities that have shaped who I am today. It was during my latest hike that I started to reflect on my time as an ecologist and that hiking (in no small part) is what started my path to becoming a scientist.

So what does it take to become a scientist? Caroline has already done a beautiful job describing what a scientist does (here) but what are some of the potential pathways to a career in the science? Like every journey in life there are multiple paths to get to your destination. While this sentiment is highly clichéd I think it is a powerful statement, especially when it comes to STEM careers. The same sense of fear and apprehension reserved for the four horsemen of the apocalypse is how many approach the thought of careers in science, technology, engineering and math. Some common fears that I have heard expressed include “I am not smart enough” or “I was never good at math”. STEM fields are seen as so mentally rigorous some people are led to believe that they have to be born with an innate desire and blinding brilliance in order to become a scientist.

When reflecting on my own experiences in the sciences and speaking to others in my field I realized this self-doubt is a common obstacle that prevents people from pursuing a STEM career. However, it is my belief that becoming a scientist is more about being curious, hard working, and most critically, being given the opportunity to showcase that, more so than perceived natural abilities. This is why I believe it is critically important to highlight some of the non-traditional paths to STEM careers with the hope of empowering folks who have the ambition or the passion for STEM careers but may lack the confidence or support structure to achieve their goals.

By no means can I offer an exhaustive account of all pathways to STEM careers but instead I offer my own story as well as some of my colleagues to help give some insight to our respective backgrounds and how we became scientists. I would argue that most of us take three types of paths: a direct, delayed, or circuitous route. The stories that I have chosen will hopefully highlight this.

Dom’s Story (the direct path)

In my mind, Dom’s story represents the idealized pathway. He told me as a kid he enjoyed looking for bugs under rocks and by the stream near his house. When it came time to go to college he majored in biology because of his curiosity of bugs as a kid. After finishing his undergrad he pursued his Ph.D. where he currently is studying biodiversity and systematics of the cockroaches of the Guiana Shield.

Megan’s Story (the delayed path)

Megan’s recounted this story to me “As a kid, I dreamed of becoming a paleontologist. Growing up in rural Connecticut, I spent most of my childhood outdoors exploring nature and pretending to hunt for fossils. But I wasn’t a huge fan of school when I was young and I didn’t apply myself as a student.

As an undergrad, I came back to my dream of becoming a scientist and started studying environmental science. But when it came time to take subjects like chemistry and physics, I chickened out because I was convinced I wasn’t smart enough. My father never graduated high school and thought formal education was unnecessary – not a stellar role model. My mom, on the other hand, while working to support two kids, went back to school and graduated college the same year as my sister and I both did. She taught me the value of education, hard work and dedication. But I still had no idea how to pursue a career in science or that I was even was capable of it. Academia seemed way out of my league. I gave up on environmental science and switched my major so I could get out easily in four years and limit the student loans I was racking up.

After graduating, I spent the next decade working in bars as a waitress, bartender and bar manager. I hated every minute of it. Finally, my husband convinced me to get back in school and give the science thing another shot. I started taking biology, chemistry and physics classes at Rutgers University in Newark while still working full-time at a bar in Hoboken. Slowly, I realized I was capable of succeeding in the science courses I had shied away from in college. I even worked as a teaching assistant in the chemistry lab. I was teaching other people chemistry. The thought of that seemed preposterous up until it happened.

But make no mistake, it was all ridiculously hard work. Aside from that, it never feels cool to be surrounded by peers a decade younger than you and tenured professors who are barely your age.

I was interested in studying bird conservation as a graduate student, but I didn’t have a lot of experience working with birds, actually I had no experience whatsoever. Some friends had told me about a wild bird rehabilitation center in our area. I started volunteering, and eventually working there to learn everything I could about my feathered subjects. Later, I noticed that Rutgers Newark was offering a class on bird ecology, so I contacted the professor and enrolled in the course. After meeting with him, he set me up as an assistant on a research project, which eventually became part of my dissertation. I graduated with my PhD in biology this past summer thanks to some serious dedication and a great advisor who for some reason or another never gave up on me.

I also had a baby while I was in the PhD program. Yes, that’s possible, not easy, just possible.

Turns out taking the road less traveled has its perks. I won a scholarship for academic merit that’s given to students who excel despite a “non-traditional” path to graduate school. It was the first time someone from my institution was selected for this award. Sure, I regret that I gave up on my dream for a while, a really long while, because I didn’t have to. The point is, it didn’t stop me. So, here’s the moral: if you want to be involved in science you just have to work for it and forge your own opportunities. It will completely suck at times and be hard as hell, but nothing is predetermined by your mistakes, your age, or your family history. People will tell you not to do it because there are precious few jobs out there for PhDs, and they’re right, you should know what you’re up against. But if there’s something you want to discover and that discovery has an impact, it doesn’t matter where you came from, it just matters that you make it happen.”

My story (the circuitous path)

As I child I was very lucky to grow up surrounded by a national wildlife refuge, especially in the densely populated state of New Jersey. As a kid I would have all sorts of adventures in and around that wooded sanctuary. My grandfather further fostered this love of nature by taking his grandchildren for adventurous hikes in the woods of eastern Pennsylvania.

When I was old enough I had a summer job working at the national wildlife refuge I grew up in; mostly trail work but with some biological opportunities sprinkled in. I also worked at a local greenhouse where I soon learned I had a knack for remembering plant names and traits. I loved the natural world and could see myself doing something in the outdoors. Early on, my dream was to become an archaeologist (in no small part due to the Indiana Jones franchise) because I enjoyed history and did well in the subject (plus bullwhips are bad ass!). I enjoyed biology too and was fortunate enough to have great teachers in middle (thanks Mr. Remole!) and high school (Thanks Mr. Hosp and Mr. Kromer!) but struggled in science and math.

When it came time to go to college I could only get into a community college as my grades suffered in high school because I was a slacker grunge kid. Due to my fears of failing in science I did agricultural technology (AKA-school to become a landscaper) instead of biology or ecology because the program class requirements were harder for those degrees and I thought that the subject matter would be too difficult for a dummy like me to do well in. As it was, I only did really well in the courses that interested me and damn near failed everything else.

After community college I was fortunate enough to find a temporary job working for Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge; the same place I had all of those childhood adventures. This job, along with the feeling of despair of being a townie, motivated me to refocus my academic attention. I went back to community college and enrolled in all the classes I did poorly in to up my GPA. After I was confident my standing was good I applied to a four-year school and majored in biology. During this time I started a family, worked part-time at the Great Swamp, and went to school part-time. I finally did well in school, not because of any innate brilliance but because of hard work, determination, and a new found maturity. These changes paid off and I graduated with honors. The next step was graduate school and it is where I find myself now.

My path was certainly circuitous. I worked at a greenhouse, did landscaping, had a temporary job for the government, and was on again off again with classes and pursuing science. Although I always had a passion for ecology it was a winding road to get where I am today. Thankfully, my persistence and determination allowed me to stay in and around the field I loved until my maturity and work ethic caught up. I certainty had the background in nature, the curiosity for the world around me, and eventually a good work ethic and of course, many, many opportunities. I am fortunate, especially for the people and institutions that gave me 2nd and sometimes 3rd chances. They have allowed me to live my dream.

Please don’t let the stories end here. Share this blog and share your stories in the comment section! Perhaps you will inspire the next generation of scientists…

4 comments on “The path to becoming a scientistAdd yours →

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  1. Thanks so much for posting this. I’m starting school again this coming January (after a 10 year hiatus) with my goal to earn a degree (my first) in bioengineering. I’ve always been interested in science and engineering but went in a completely different direction my first time in college and floundered for a couple of years before deciding to get out into the working world.

    Megan’s story closely mirrors my own (including a fear of failing at all of the STEM courses I’ll have to take), but I feel much better knowing that others have struggled with the same doubts.

  2. Like the other people listed here, today I am working towards a PhD in biology.

    I am the daughter of city people. Generations upon generations of city-dwelling folk since they arrived to these shores. However, in the 80s, New York City became a place where you didn’t want to raise kids if you could help it. So like many others, my parents packed up and left for a new way of life. We ended up somewhere in central New York near Canada at the beginning of spring. I was five years old at the time. Spring in the countryside was magical for a city kid. Things were muddy and green and the world seemed endless. We had a huge hill behind the house that led to a forest. From somewhere beyond the forest there were cows! I know this because they escaped one day and came down the hill from the forest. My younger sister thought they were big dogs. Spring slipped into summer as I spent most of my time and the subsequent years exploring this novel and living world around me until my teen years when I became caught up with academics and extracurricular activities. I did very well in school and actually had a preference for History, but opted to pursue Science because it was more pragmatic. At the time, I wanted a degree in Meteorology. I loved all things weather and wanted to be a storm chaser (one with a degree!). Mind you, I set off on this path *before* Twister came out in theaters.

    Despite the hours I spent in the woods and my curious nature, it wasn’t until I went away to college that I realized that there were things to know about nature. That the birds were species and species had behaviors and ranges. I think I heard once that bluebirds were on the decline, but that stands out as probably being the only thing I knew about birds. I remember looking for bluebirds after that, but all I ever saw were blue jays. And I doubt that my seven year-old self knew there was a difference. Eventually I found myself in DEENR (Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources) at Cook College, Rutgers University. I started off as a Meteorology major, but eventually moved two floors down to Ecology due to tremendously involved and supportive faculty, particularly Drs. Joan and David Ehrenfeld. There as an undergraduate, I was eager to learn all the things I had taken for granted as a child. I also learned that the childhood I had was becoming a thing of the past. These lessons have prompted my forays into ornithology, ecologist, conservation, climate change and education.

  3. Dear Tony,

    I hated science as a kid–I found the scientific facts that I was forced to regurgitate in school both boring and unrelatable. Growing up in a suburb outside of Houston, TX, I was removed from the real world of science. But then, by chance, I found myself living on Lizard Island, Australia, spending my summer studying the ecology of coral reefs. I thought “this is science?!”.

    I’ve been doing science for 10 years now, and I just completed my PhD at the University of Florida, studying the impacts of human activities on coral reefs. I want my work, and environmental science in general, to influence the actions of the public, to lead to a sustainable future. But I’ve come to the realization that science is not enough — many people, like those in my conservative hometown (and like myself, previously), feel indifferent or even negative toward science. These are the same people that love wild animals but have not been exposed to the connection that science facilitates conservation of these animals.

    Perhaps it is due to the countless dollars devoted by lobbyists to undermine environmental science, or it is due to the countless number of distractions every person now faces in the golden age of social media, but in my estimation the process of science, in all of its utility and objective glory, is kept secret from the public. It’s time to get the secret out…

    Thus, we need mass science communication through art and entertainment to show the ‘non-choir’ that science is not only non-political and immensely useful (i.e., vital to our future), but it is awesome and accessible to anyone, from any background.

    As a consequence, my science career has taken a turn for the ‘hybridized’ — I am part scientist, part science communicator. To help me build appreciation for science, share my videos [] and subscribe to my YouTube channel. Read more about my efforts at my campaign website:

    All the best,
    Mike Gil, PhD

  4. My path was direct, but I didn’t always know what I wanted to be. At various ages I thought I wanted to be a farmer, a vet, a Quaker (yeah, I know), and a doctor. In high school I loved science the most, and by taking some intro classes over summer school, I was able to take as many advanced courses during the regular school year as possible. Thank goodness for that freedom! In college I bounced around in Biology until I graduated a Nutrition major (go figure). During college I had discovered ‘research’ as a viable career path to stay in sciences, and developed a passion for conservation and ornithology, which is what I mainly targeted in my pursuit of grad programs. I’m now on my second postdoc, and seeking to continue in science in a non-academic setting. You learn so many skills in science, and I can’t appreciate that enough.