13 November 2012

Impostors in synthetic science

An interesting article about "impostor syndrome" popped up in my twitter timeline this afternoon. It took a few moments to realize the article wasn't talking about some sort of animal mimicry. Rather, it refers to a prevalent phenomenon in the sociology of academic scientists, where we hesitate to offer information or opinions for topics outside our highly specialized area of expertise.

This topic is of particular relevance to me, as my brain has always functioned at the level of "big picture." I recall an assignment from high school English for which my classmates were selecting research topics related to a specific book, while my topic encompassed "feminist literature from the twentieth century." Yup...broad patterns.

In my current position, I think often about the push for specialization in methods, techniques, theory, and research programs. NESCent focuses on synthetic science, which involves fusing sometimes seemingly disparate research areas to achieve novel conclusions or tackle innovative questions. Synthetic science, therefore, is full of "imposters," since we constantly broach new theoretical areas and incorporate methods/results in non-traditional ways.

I'm totally okay with this label. It was nice to read this article and think about other types of scientists that regularly face this issue of being "PhD generalists," not just once during a career (i.e., changing from animal to plant research), but on a daily basis. The thoughts from other self-described impostors at the bottom are also enlightening, highlighting not only the characteristics of such researchers but their value as scientists as well.

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