Master of None


There is a new (or maybe not so new) normal where one struggles with identity. And this is not necessarily just in the context of things like gender, diet or sexuality but rather also in the scientific and professional frame.

Contrary to popular belief, researchers also socialize (in dangerous moderation of course) but having studied in a chemical process engineering program, following it up with a degree in energy technology and eventually working halfway between materials chemistry and physics of solar cells, I tremble to answer the question “So, you are also a physicist?” True, that’s what my name tag usually carries, but I am more than confident in my inability to hold a casual physics conversation, if such a thing actually exists.

The discomfort was glaringly obvious as I had walked into my first tutoring job in an undergrad practical course at the physics department, having had no hands-on experience on the subject before. I ended up largely picking up concepts alongside the students while struggling to maintain a razor-thin lead to be able to guide them (and myself!). I would certainly admit that the DBL-esque (*) structure and support from the teaching staff of the course more than made up for my inexperience but you ought to run out of luck someday.

But as I dive deeper, this fluidity of the scientific occupation starts to become more familiar. Turns out quite a few of us are hopping across thematic boundaries, like the once chemist now neck deep in computational physics or the queen regnant of forensic sciences who first studied botany and sea slugs. Some are even destined to do cross-border research till the end of their careers. It’s like a pentathlon that ran for four years (or longer). And while being a ”hybrid” is becoming the norm and interdisciplinary is the most overused buzzword in academia, remnants of rigid identity are still very much present in the scientific social order and maybe also at the institutional scale.

But I suppose it pays off to belong to a weave of backgrounds, just as it does with social diversity. Being able to experience the many perils of many disciplines, changing the craft with the context, and by the end of it, even in the worst case, being a jack of all trades.

* DBL = Design Based Learning, 'OGO' in Dutch.

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