At a seminar by Dr. Peter S. Fiske, he touched the subject of the public’s perceptions of individuals with Ph.D’s to great hilarity. If you were to ask an average person on the street what someone with a Ph.D looks like, they would probably describe a geek; glasses, pocket protector, pockets stuffed with pens, pencils, rulers and a calculator; possibly a lab coat but more likely eccentric clothes; unruly hair. I could continue but I am sure you have the image. The description would be very superficial and may also include that the Ph.D is a genius.
Now most of us with doctorates realize that this description hardly ever describes any of us. I am doubtful how many of us would truly consider ourselves a genius. The likes of Einstein, Newton or Archimedes are few and far between. We are all very different people. However, the one thing that we all share is that we succeed. We set high standards in high school, and at each new academic level we aimed for bigger and better things. Now, we all have Ph.Ds and are used to being pretty darn good at things! If only people didn’t consider us to be citizens of Nerdistan!
If we want to interact effectively with the public, or move our career into business or entrepreneurship, the people we meet may have these perceptions. We therefore need to remove these stereotypes and replace them with reality. This may involve superficial things like dressing in appropriate business attire or it may need to be demonstrated. For example, that we are leaders, or have leadership potential, rather than being socially passive and hermits. Or that we are team players rather than arrogant and aloof. We may also be perceived to be rebels and difficult, egocentric people rather than being solution solvers with organisational skills. People in business and industry may also believe that academics have no sense of deadlines or budgets. I am sure we will all agree that is somewhat naïve, however until they are shown otherwise the dogma will continue.
The image of a cantankerous, lone scientist, fiddling late into the night at a lab bench is honestly the public’s perception of what we do. Each of us should take some responsibility in correcting this image. Whether it is attending school science competitions, helping out at science museums, or being friendly and approachable in social situations, each opportunity allows us to chip away at the geeky persona we have all been mistakenly given. It would certainly help people who are trying to break out of academia, and may even help garner the nation’s trust. If everyday people could identify with us more easily, they may be willing to accept our “expert” views and advice more readily.
By breaking out of the stereotypical mold of a Ph.D, it could also enhance your career opportunities. We all have an image of quiet, shy and introverted scientists who become anxious at the mention of the term networking. It is a simple fact that the more people you know, the more opportunities you get. Therefore, take some time to build your network and don’t be shy about where you could use assistance or advice. People will generally be flattered to have been asked and may well surprise you with the amount of effort they will give on your behalf. They may be doing it because they are altruistic, or because they can see an angle where you may be of benefit to them. Whatever their reasons, you should be grateful for their knowledge, assistance and contacts.
In some countries, China and Germany for instance, many people in key governmental and industrial positions have Ph.Ds. This sounds like a wonderful idea as they are able to disassociate themselves from problems and use the scientific method to find solutions. Technically trained individuals have enormous potential in improving many things. It would be great if other countries also followed their example. I wonder if the image of individuals with Ph.Ds in these countries are as stereotypical as in ours?
Whether you embrace your inner nerd and proudly display it is a personal choice. I enjoy the fact that most people are incredibly shocked when they finally know I have a Ph.D in Biochemistry. That doesn’t mean that I am not proud to be a bona fide nerd!! However, I do endeavor to project a more realistic image of an individual with a doctorate degree. This may eventually help myself should I transition into a non-academic career, or it may just help all Ph.Ds in general break away from the current unflattering mold we have been given.