May 7, 2011

Drinking with chemists

Tonight I went out with my friends in the chemistry department. We met playing intramural sports a couple of years ago, and we have been going out to watch playoff hockey. Sometimes the conversation naturally turns to chemistry -- lab equipment, chemicals, materials, reactions -- and I can't follow it at all. Their experience of graduate school is completely different from mine. They work closely with professors, and with each other, and it sounds like bad ass technical science.

Talking to chemists reminds me that the graduate school experience varies widely by discipline. They are treated more like employees than students, and they spend most of their time contributing to the research that is coming out of the department, rather than thinking of paper topics and working on their own. After graduation, it's common for them to immediately start post-docs with the department so that they can continue working on chemistry research for the university.

Sometimes I wish I worked in a field with shared research goals. It's a privilege to be able to study anything I want, as long as the topic fits vaguely into the definition of my discipline. At the same time, it's easy to feel like my work doesn't really have a purpose other than being interesting to me, and perhaps helping me to get a job. I imagine that researchers who study cancer or chemicals or biology are like teammates in discovery, eager to contribute to important research goals that everyone agrees are important. When they have conferences, they don't have panels where they ponder the relevance of the field -- they talk about how to advance the goals of the field.

I'm sure that in reality, chemistry isn't as different from social science as I might think. But my occasional jealousy of my friends' collaborative work in "the lab" does make me think about the aspects of social science that are less than motivating. I love exploring my own topics and ideas, and I believe that my research questions are important -- but the way my field is set up, sometimes it's like we're all just talking to ourselves, and not contributing to the real world or helping anybody, you know? And I wish that I didn't have to start my presentations by convincing the audience that my topic is worth studying at all.

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