As you know, if you've been reading or watching this train wreck called Educated Woman for any period of time, I've been spinning my wheels at a turning point for a while now, trying to figure out which way to go. I guess I've been waiting for inspiration to hit like a bolt of lightning--because my deciphering tea leaves and discovering the prophecy so hasn't happened yet. I keep poking around inside my brain to see if there's anything in there that excites me. Sure, I've found a few things, but I was hoping I'd find something in there to stir up some enthusiasm.

Unfortunately, the only stimulus that provokes any real action--small though it may be--is from the outside, and it's provoking only a very weak internal response. It's like trying to learn how to ride a bike again and again; the parent/sibling/friend holds on to the bike and guides you along, shouting encouragement until they let go and you keep pedaling on your own. But I keep ending up face down on the sidewalk, slightly broken and bewildered, waiting for more encouraging shouts.

And I am wondering, 'Why?' Why can't I stay upright and ride off to the next stage? Why do I feel the need to keep having someone set me up again? Why does it feel like I still haven't quite started out, when by all outside accounts I'm already pretty far down the road?

Somewhere deep inside we all--except maybe for a few of the more pathological types--want to be liked, loved, or praised. That's not a bad thing, up to a point: It's one of the reasons we act decently toward each other. And approval, when it comes, keeps us trying, often with enthusiasm.

And that--praise--is something we--many of us--didn't get much of during graduate school. And that strikes me as a little strange, because a successful scientific career is based entirely on the approval of the scientific community, in the form of publications, citations, invitations, awards, peer-reviewed grants, leadership roles in societies and departments (okay, some of you would call that punishment), tenure, and so on. Just look at the CV of any research scientist; what is it but a collection of gold stars granted by other people?


Why, then, aren't there more opportunities for young researchers--grad students and postdocs--to get gold stars? Why doesn't scientific training help us affirm our connection to our colleagues? Instead--however poorly it has worked in my case--scientific training seems to be mainly about cultivating independence, learning to get by without external rewards. It calls on us to--schizophrenically--throw off the need for approval in the independent quest for new knowledge, as we pursue a career that's all about cultivating approval.

Some of us (me included) try desperately to make our advisers happy until we realize how futile this quest is. They will never be happy, no matter what worked or didn't work, and you're only ever as good as your last set of results. Even after I recognized this, the prize of approval still tugged at me. I still wanted/needed my adviser to appreciate how much time I spent in lab, how much I accomplished, how smartly I managed my job search, how hard I worked to mentor other students.

My desire for approval was unspoken, but it festered and was rarely sated. And most of the time it felt as if he thought he could have done better, or that someone else would have worked harder. My professional life became dependent on this tainted kind of love: approval granted grudgingly, never given graciously, always with a caveat, something else required, something to be done differently next time.

Writing last month about carrots and sticks made me realize how much this is still true. Those carrots and gold stars made me feel good, but they also forced me to recognize that this cancerous desire for approval is still lurking. No doubt there was a time--like when I was 10 years old--when the desire for approval was a good thing. It pushed me to keep my grades up, my delinquent behavior to a minimum, and others around me happy and attentive to my needs and whims. I didn't need to be the kid that acted out to get attention. But when is the right time to detach from some of the outside stimuli and become a more independent person/researcher, and how do you make it happen? Or--considering how researchers also work for gold stars--do you ever?

One of the reasons I feel stuck is that there's nobody out there saying clearly "yes" or "no," or "good" or "bad"--and I am not adequately inspired by my own motivations. Should I be a realist and seek a career that feeds me carrots? Or do I need to learn to rely on my own desires, the rest of the world be damned?

My mother hasn't picked my clothes since, well, ever, so why do I seek parentlike guidance for my career? Is it that I never learned how to trust what I thought was good or right or fair? Did I get too caught up in following the rules and not wanting to stick out? What's funny is that I actually do have plenty of options, and I still can't make a stinking decision, and it's nobody's fault but mine, in failing to see that my judgment is just as good as everyone else's--even better because I know what makes me happy (sort of), what intrigues me (occasionally), and what bores me (that's easy). At least I know now that for better or worse (it feels like for worse), I have learned too well how to be nice and to wait for the approval of others, for this tainted love, hoping for other people to make me whole.

So there are some questions that I need to answer for myself, which, strangely, relate to the plight of the young, upwardly mobile scientist: How much "love" do I need? Is it awards and accolades and prestige that I want? Do I want a leadership role that brings further prestige (and headaches)? Is there a place that allows me to be autonomous while seeking and giving love at the same time?

And which kind of career is scientific research? Is it a career for people who don't crave the approval of others or for people who live for gold stars? Or is it, somehow, both?

Micella Phoenix DeWhyse is a pseudonym, obviously.

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Photos. Top: Photodisc Professional Science. Middle: Westy.

DOI: 10.1126/science.caredit.a0700111

Former science graduate student and postdoc Micella Phoenix DeWhyse wrote a column for Science Careers from 2002 through 2008. Micella Phoenix DeWhyse is still a pseudonym. Discussions on the forum, Facebook, Twitter, or e-mails to the editor at snweditor@aaas.org or to micella.phoenix.dewhyse@gmail.com are welcome, as she is considering turning her columns into a book.

10.1126/science.caredit.a0700111