Ego as tradecraft

I Swear It Was Bigger...Nine times out of ten, “ego” is a dirty word—one used in the context of the pompous and the self-absorbed. Nonetheless, in the harsh world of science, a healthy ego is as critical as knowing how to integrate or do a titration. The right mindset makes the scientist, and part of that mindset is a sense of self, and a sense of confidence, that says, “I am capable of learning things no human before me has ever known.” To put this in context, walk a ways with me while I compare a graduate student to a secret agent:

The average graduate student can often feel as though their world is as labyrinthine and surreal as a Cold War spy’s. Every field has its integral tools and techniques. In the hard sciences, the most-frequently considered skills tend to be practical: perhaps aligning lasers, synthesizing compounds, or writing code. In the secretive and deceitful world of international espionage, these on-the-job skills are termed “tradecraft.” Unlike the skills of a scientist, a spy’s tradecraft comes down as much to mindset and habits as much as actual techniques.

So perhaps we need to think of a scientist’s mindset, and her psychology, as part of the skillset necessary to be a scientist. Though I’ll discuss other aspects of their mindset in the future, I want to start with the ego necessary to be a scientist. Our ideas are constantly analyzed and criticized; this is a natural part of the scientific method. The thrill of finding something new, of achieving the magnificent, can only sometimes offset the constant downer of everyday research. Even in cases where coworkers and P.I.s are supportive, the feedback loop of self-analysis can prove poisonous.

The “easier said than done” solution is a strong ego. Building self-confidence is never trivial, but that sense of self can negate the nagging doubts and the constant criticisms that come with being a scientist. Scientists are rarely punished for overactive egos. Every R01 faculty member knows their value, and doesn’t hesitate to act on it. Only when young scientists are cognizant of their own value, and develop their own science-sized egos, can they achieve the scientific results that are worthy of that ego. In essence, I’m arguing that (in the context of grad school, anyway), the normal causative relationship must be inverted: ego leads to results, rather than vice versa.

Image courtesy Decaseconds HDR Photography.

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