“You, Non-scientist!” or What Not to Say to a Young Science Professional


With two simple words, my fears about making a career change in science have come to a reality. Last week, a well-respected senior scientist at work took a look around to make sure no one could hear him and then shouted, “You, non-scientist!” Of course I, being the non-BS person that I am, looked quickly around to make sure the coast was clear and rebutted with a non-verbal gesture that got my point across quickly. On the surface, I took the seemingly harmless joke and played it off without a care in the world, but deep inside, those two words reverberated throughout my entire core and continue to repeat like a broken record.

To put the comments into perspective, last week I transitioned away from the lab bench and extended my contract for two months to assist a research center with contract closeouts and annual review preparations. In line with my technical project management career goals, I decided that this move was best to gain more hands-on experience with project management tasks. As a master’s level-scientist, I have been seeking a career route that will allow me upward mobility, as I nearly have a panic attack thinking about being chained to the lab bench for the rest of my life. For over a year, I have been evaluating what career path will allow me to merge my technical background with an ability to push projects forward and support scientists in achieving their research objectives. To me, the answer is clear: technical project management. I have come to terms with the fact that I may need to leave science for a while to gain needed business and management skills to achieve these career objectives.

So as I hang up my lab coat for now, I have been worried about how others in science will perceive me, whether I will lose all credibility and end up barring myself from a transition back into science. Perhaps I worry too much or I am just a highly sensitive person (see Zinemin’s post on HSP), but does that really matter? If the words of one scientist have such a profound effect on another, are they worth saying? The egotistical side of science continues to perpetuate, and no wonder scientists (especially women) continue to leave this world behind them at disappointing rates.

LESSON LEARNED….the Hard Way: Mentors need to learn the value of supporting young science professionals in a wide range of science careers and to internalize their personal career biases. (Or, as in the words of the slogan made popular by the American Chemical Society in the 80s, research mentors need to recognize that “it takes alkynes of people to make a [science] world!”)

14 thoughts on ““You, Non-scientist!” or What Not to Say to a Young Science Professional

      • marksackler says:

        Not really. I am selling to these people, so I have to take whatever they dish out. Fortunately I am older then most of them, so they maybe respect my gray hair if not my scientific knowledge. I actually am a non-scientist, at least in terms of formal training, but I have only seen small hints of what you were getting at probably because of being older. I did once get the non-scientist comment from a sales colleague nearly thirty years my junior. I just brushed it off as he usually respects my age if only for superior business experience.

  1. Donna Kridelbaugh, MS says:

    A comment from my engineer friend JP that he posted on Facebook: ‎”You do not get paid to work on your thesis, you get paid to do whatever I tell you to do” suspiciously absent from the list. Yes, actual quote.

  2. Donna Kridelbaugh, MS says:

    A comment from Gabriel Guzman (Professor at Triton College) that he posted on LinkedIn: Once a scientist, always a scientist, even if you choose to leave the lab bench. Many can work at a lab bench, be good at it and still not being able to fully understand science. It is the ability to put together what the data is telling, the implications (and the limitations), what does more for science, than the number of techniques we master. That ability, I fear, hard as it is to cultivate, may not be a priority in the education of new scientists.

    • Sandlin says:

      I want to cultivate ‘this once a scientist, always a scientist’ mindset. But I share your worry that the longer I am away from the bench, the less I look like a scientist in that community. Thanks for being brave enough to share your thoughts on this!

      • Donna Kridelbaugh, MS says:

        Sandlin, thanks for the support! I am not sure if I am brave or just mentally tired of being aware that these attitudes persist. We know that we are still scientists, so now, we just have to find the right supportive environment in which others have the same “mindset”….

  3. Kathy Gant says:

    I’ve rarely been in a laboratory since I earned my Ph.D.in physics. But I still think I do “science.” Science is the mind frame you bring to the problem and the way you look at the world..

    • Donna Kridelbaugh, MS says:

      Kathy, thanks for the comment, and I am sure you are definitely still doing science! Like you said, I don’t think the learned ability to approach every problem with an analytical viewpoint is something that goes away overnight…

  4. Donna Kridelbaugh, MS says:

    A comment from Stephen Pribut (Podiatric Sports Medicine Specialist) that he posted on LinkedIn:
    “Being a scientist is a state of mind. It starts with your education and learning, continues with research and experiments, but manifests itself whether or not you are at a lab bench. While Newton did experiments including poking himself in the eye to see what happened – his mind was his greatest research arena. Einstein’s greatest theories were certainly not done at a “work bench” but were experiments of thought as he himself described them. Unless you give up the patterns you’ve developed of scientific analysis and thinking you should always be able to continue being a person of science and a scientist.”

  5. Donna Kridelbaugh, MS says:

    A comment from Susan Carson (Founder at Smart Leadership Coaching) that she posted on LinkedIn:
    “Isn’t it amazing how useful non-verbal cues can be! Even poor ignorant people can get it. Seriously, this had happened to me when I was working in pharma. I had had a role working closely in science with clinical and regulatory. I was accepted as one of their own. Then I was offered an interesting position in marketing – in new products where I thought I would be participating in taking the science – the good stuff – and making into products to help others. I was proud of myself – until my former scientific colleagues turned away – and called me a traitor that I was now a marketeer! So I totally loved your article. I hope that the people who really need to see it, do.”

  6. Donna Kridelbaugh, MS says:

    A comment from Linda Koshy (Post Doctoral Research Fellow) that she posted on LinkedIn:
    “It’s not often that the curtain of cold war in the lab get ripped off with such open verbal and non-verbal expressions. Yet, when it does, a lot of pent up steam come out and it feels liberating. It takes guts to choose the less trodden path. I can recall a similar situation once faced in a lab, this was more like “You Non-physician turned scientist!”.”

  7. schadtc says:

    From what I have observed as a coworker, I think you have thoroughly proved your abilities and dedication as a scientist in the lab over the last couple of years. What this really proves is that some scientists truly have no social skills. Sounds like one of my colleagues at work needs a talking too. Just let me know to whom I should direct my scorn 😉

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