You know how employees get promoted until just past the jobs they’re good at? I feel that way in school. I’m taking upper level classes. As hard as I try, I don’t feel able to thrive here. If I had to do this type of work as a job, I would quit or transfer out of frustration.
But in college, I’m stuck. I have only a few more classes left until I graduate. As long as I pass my classes, I have only one more semester left to go. Even though I hate every second of it.
I wish I could tell something to people who want to be scientists — science isn’t like Bill Nye! It’s not about making observations and coming up with insights. It’s not about thinking about how the world works, and why it works, and trying to find out.
My elementary school teachers, who did so much, and shaped me into the person I’m proud to be today, told me every one of those things. Maybe these become true someday. But in college, the STEM taught today is more about regurgitating what other people have found out than asking questions of your own.
I struggle in classes that require arcane mathematics and esoteric empirical formulas to map patterns to physical phenomena that people have done before. As one of my favorite professors likes to say, a good scientific equation has three criteria. In order of importance, they are:
- Fits the data with the smallest number of adjustable constants
- Is mathematically tractable (easy to work with)
- Has some basis in theory
Ideally, a formula will have all three. A good example is the ideal gas law, PV = nRT, my good friend in gen. chem. It fits the data (Pressure, Volume, number of moles, and Temperature) with only one constant that scientists can adjust for best fit (R, the gas constant). It’s easy to work with — only simple algebra is required to use it. And it’s firmly rooted in theory: gasses are made up of whizzing molecules that move faster when they’re hot, and collide more when under pressure, et cetera.
But like everything in science world, a nice theory is only a first approximation of nature’s rough edges. You can get an approximation as close as you want — but only at a price. The formulas get more and more complicated, and make less and less sense. That third criteria is routinely tossed right out the window. Who cares about why an empirical formula works, so long as it fits the data.
I used to care about how the world worked. I really did. I read books about physics and cosmology. I read books about how an 18th century scientist unraveled the causes behind ice ages and predicted future ones. I read psychology texts (taken with a grain of salt, but addictive for my desire to find out why), history monograms, and Freakonomics,… you get the picture.
Now I struggle. I understand the principle behind why electrons form molecular orbitals, but I see no reason to be particularly interested in the nitty gritty. I’m not good with formulas that contain more greek than english, and math that spirals quickly out of my control. That criteria number 2? “Easy to work with” is more often completely out of my league.
I do care about things like electron orbitals — I was thrilled when I learned that electrons attached to a group of atoms behave basically like waves confined to the space around the nuclei, constructively and deconstructively interfering with each other to form stable patterns (bonds) and unstable patterns (high energy, unstable bonds, whoo!). There’s so much that theory explains, and so much it can do. It’s great that I know about it! But I’m in no position to benefit from knowing how to calculate the exact numbers by hand. And it doesn’t help that I’m not good at it either.
Most of the time, science classes are taught the following way: there is one answer, but you’re too stupid to know what it is yet. Don’t worry though—that’s why we’re teaching you. Someday, even you will know the One true answer. It doesn’t help that I’ve stopped caring about the question.
I can remember exactly one time I was asked to do science in an upper level class — and it was a pilot program, the first year the instructor tried it. We got to come up with a research question, propose a method to investigate it, take our results, and then brainstorm what they meant. I had so much fun, and I learned so much about FTIR and biodiesel. I really wanted to keep going, and find out more!
If I could, I’d keep finding out more. Then I’d move on to the next thing I was curious about — that I thought would help the world, if people only knew more. If I need to learn more to do something, I will! If it proves to be really too difficult, I’ll do the best I can, and move to something I’m better at.
But I can’t. I’ve got too much work struggling and stressing out against these classes that are too hard for me, that I can’t pursue independent research — I can barely function. I’m not doing any science classes. And from what I’ve seen of science careers and graduate programs, I may never investigate anything.
I’ve got one semester left after this one. Provided I don’t fail my classes. Which I probably am. But for the first time, I’m really wondering if this path will ever take me back to something I’m good at.
If anyone reading this has been through it before, I could really use some encouragement right now.