Surviving as a Scientist: Ruminations of a Geek Girl Scholar

05 · 14 · 09

By @ArkhamAsylumDoc


I am not supposed to be a psychologist.


In college, I was a computer science major and math geek.  I was drawn to the clear-cut, straightforward—and, dare I say—binary approaches to problem-solving. If there were a fail-proof algorithm for choosing toothpaste brand, I would employ it.  So how did I end up studying the most nebulous subject: human behavior?   


Psychology is not, despite mainstream opinion, about helping people.  Anyone who says, “I just want to help people” is full of it, and will likely fail as a mental health clinician. Success in this field comes from the exploration—and ultimately, the advancement—of predicting behavior within and between humans.  Thus, treating patients moves beyond helping the individual (which, most will say, is part of your goal) and toward elucidating complex patterns and interactions to improve our ability to predict behavior.  One single factor change—say, uncovering a new symptom—can re-shift your entire explanatory model and, ultimately, your treatment plan.  Widen your lens, and soon you’ll find yourself working with neurocognitive, physiological, and molecular genetic factors. Try treating someone with panic disorder without addressing the anatomy of a panic attack.  It would be like describing diabetes to someone without mentioning insulin. This is why psychology is perhaps one of the most difficult scientific fields. Yes, I nearly referred to psychology as a hard science. The study of human beings is anything but soft.  


I am a scientist at heart. What does that even mean? Lucky for me, guest editor J. J. Abrams brings this sentiment to life in the latest issue of Wired Magazine. Abrams ingeniously reminds us geeks that the passion lies in the mysteries of our pastimes rather than the end goals. Whether we’re into magic, video games, puzzles, or scientific research (one of my own psychology professors was spotlighted), it is the pursuit that is most rewarding. “We should never underestimate process,” Abrams tells us. “The experience of the doing really is everything.”  Yes, we want to win the big boss battle, but we secretly hope his demise unlocks an even bigger boss so that the game is not completely over.


But not all is perfect in our quest.  In academia, believe it or not, some think our quest needs angrier dragons and vaster moats.  Indeed, one of the major issues for the field of psychology in the 21st century is its place in the sciences. In this month’s issue of the Monitor on Psychology, Dr. Steven Breckler takes what I think is a brave approach in suggesting that we, as a field, need to demand more from our incoming scholars.  If college students believe that psychology is the “easy major” then it is our own fault as the professors, researchers, and advisors making it so.  In fact, Dr. Breckler believes that we should raise the bar of undergraduate training by including what he refers to as the basics of scientific education: math, physics, and biology, to start with. Given the new priorities of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH, debuted to most geekgirls as the villain in The Secret of NIMH), this seems a good direction. 


Psychology is not alone in the struggle to uphold its relevance. Recently, the New York Times posted an article describing graduate training in general as Detroitesque. In other words, higher education sets you up for failure by providing you skills that will be obsolete by the time you finish your program. Once graduated with your shiny Ph.D., you will find yourself alone in an abandoned warehouse surrounded by scrap metal.  This is certainly not a new concept; however, it is perhaps the most dangerous message reaching undergraduate scholars in the current economic atmosphere. Signing on to six years of education with either no or very little pay and then realizing you have missed out on an income akin to 6 x (insert your friend’s salary who barely finished undergrad and got into web marketing) can certainly be upsetting (see panic disorder). This is the relentless, looming cloud over your head that makes you think, why the frak am I doing this?  But if you are truly a scientist/magician/mathematician/gamer at heart, you will sign on to that long term pursuit if only for the self-directed lulz. Because that’s the kind of lulz we are into.


The NYT also describes another facet of graduate training in the sciences—and this is particularly important to writers. Your publications will likely end up in obscure, never-heard-of scientific journals. This is true. You’ll find my latest work in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (what, you aren’t a regular subscriber?). This aspect should not deter students. And it is, in fact, not a sign of failure (as the NYT seems to propose), but a sign that your colleagues deem your discoveries worthy of an audience small enough to be considered elite. Your work has reached the top! It’s propped so high that most don’t see it (and don’t care to).  True—many scientists in their respected fields would argue that their audience is not intended to intersect with that of The Oprah Magazine. For most, science is not the path to celebrity. And while the fire under us is perhaps fueled by the notion of making big discoveries, what we truly want is acknowledgement from colleagues in our own field. And well, our moms, who still ask us, “why didn’t you become a medical doctor?”


I miss the simplicity and concreteness of Turbo Pascal. Shortly after training in this program, I learned that it became obsolete. I never upgraded, but I figured there weren’t enough mysteries there for this geek girl.


  1. Very interesting article! You made some very good points, that I agree with. Funny thing, I’ve a degree in Psychology but ended up as a programmer turned web developer. Our paths are the complete opposite. My reason for the direction change, very simply put money. Found out in order to do anything with Psychology and make some money along the way, I needed to get a doctorates but being a single mom at the time didn’t make it a viable solution for me. Thanks for the article enjoyed it. Psychology is still one of my loves. 🙂

  2. Wow, an alternate reality! Very cool.

    For women (perhaps an entirely different article), the decision comes with a set of pitfalls: the delay of offspring, attenuation of resources over time, the onslaught of intergenerational guilt! For those that will STILL sign away their soul, it is genuinely for the quest to win it back!

  3. I too am a geek girl working on dual majors in psychology and sociology. This is my 2nd go-round, so needless to say, this resonates deeply with me.

    I dare say it’s true for all of us.

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