What am I really?

originally posted on LabSpaces

A short while ago, Microbiologist XX lamented about how little she gets to use her favorite science tool – a microscope. As a fellow microbiologist, I sympathized with her. Until a few weeks ago, it had been years since I peeked at my bugs under one of these amazing little guys. Some recent data, however, prompted the need for a gram stain, which I haven’t performed since I was an undergraduate (some 12 years ago). After scanning a protocol online, I thought “no problem”. I had forgotten how much of an art this protocol was when I first learned it, though, and it took several hours and attempts to finally get an answer I could trust. This experience got me wondering, am I really still a microbiologist? I spend most of these days doing molecular biology, lately even dabbling into some biochemistry (which is really quite fun, considering my fear of chemistry). When doing genetics, I feel a bit more like a microbiologist (streaking and patching bacteria out on plates day after day can do that), but genetics is more of a means to an end for me. This may seem like a stupid question, but it’s brought up some issues for what seems to be the focus of my life these days…the TT job search, better known as “what the hell am I doing with my life?” Enter in a brief interlude by The Talking Heads, since I haven’t gotten this song out of my head while writing this post.

So maybe the more apt question for this discussion is, am I just a microbiologist? During my first year on the job hunt, I only applied to positions “in my field”. But the current dearth of available jobs has got me branching out quite a bit more this year. Not only that, there are many labels I feel like I fit under now. Depending on the week and what aspect of my project I am currently focused on, I feel like I could be considered a biochemist, geneticist, molecular biologist, or, yes, even a microbiologist (I did just do a gram stain after all ;). Yet I wonder how much of a stretch it is to be applying for some of these other positions. How much should I spin the cover letters/research statements, and is it even considered “spinning” if I just focus on the aspects of my project that more closely fit into the job description? Am I locked into ignoring one aspect of my project if I take a job in a department focused on another field? Will I still be able to enjoy interactions with other microbiologists if I end up in a job outside of “my field”? Do I even need these interactions to do my job well? Am I wasting my time and the time of search committees in these department by even applying?

I’ve already answered some of these questions, and, in general, I’m considering each of these “stretch” jobs on a case-by-case basis. In some situations, when there are other microbiologists at the institution, and the job description seems open enough, I feel completely comfortable moving forward with the application. For others, Hubby and I think about the place and institution as a whole: would we (both) be happy living and working there, even if my job was quite a bit different than what I imagined? When the answer is yes, I’m applying. I do still wonder how much, if at all, I should alter the focus of my application in these cases (guidance here would be fantastic).

The biggest thing I’m learning, or trying to learn, right now is to be open-minded. Not only about where I want to go or what kind of job I want to do, but also about who I am as a scientist. The fact that what I actually am is unclear could be considered a strength. I’m asking an interesting biological question, and I’ve got a lot of tools and knowledge at my disposal. The fact that I’ve picked up this knowledge without somebody holding my hand should translate to a nicely diverse research program in the future. And, while I likely won’t need to be a gram-stain aficionado to run a successful research program, I know how to get one done if needed.

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