Professional, scientist, and bait-and-switch.

The discussion about my usage of the term “professional scientist” has raised a lot of objections. Mostly I think these have been emotional, and in fact it’s pretty clear what is happening. People are using equivocation to take advantage of the different narrow vs. broad definitions of “professional” and “scientist”.

The narrow definitions restrict the terms to a relatively small subset of individuals. That is, a “professional” does something as their “profession” and is someone who meets a variety of criteria such as academic qualifications, proficiency, doing something for a living, not being in training anymore, etc. (See Wikipedia, and also the first definitions listed in the Oxford and Webster’s dictionaries). Similarly, the strict version of “scientist” would apply to individuals who carry out scientific research and do related things in their particular disciplines (e.g., review papers, publish peer-reviewed papers, gain grants, patent inventions, write formal reports for government or industry employers, etc.) for a living and intend to do so long-term. This would include PIs, obviously, but also industry scientists, government scientists, permanent lab technicians who do original research, etc.

The broad definitions are much more inclusive. Some people have used definitions so broad that almost anyone could qualify. For example, several have said that “a professional is someone who gets paid for something” and a scientist is “anyone engaged in scientific research at any level”. Part-time undergraduate summer students paid to do a project might be “professional scientists” under this definition.

The narrow definitions carry with them a significant amount of prestige. This is because the terms are applied only to individuals who meet the criteria. The broad definitions, which are more or less open to anyone, would not provide any prestige on their own because their criteria are so easy to meet. The bait and switch comes when people use the broad definition to get themselves covered by the term such that they can enjoy the prestige attached to the narrow definition. If either definition were the only one, there would be no objections because either people would recognize that they have not met the criteria (narrow sense only) or they wouldn’t care because it didn’t mean anything (broad sense only).

Ask yourself this: would the grad students who have objected strongly to being excluded from “professional scientist” really care about this if the term only applied to students and never to individuals who currently fall under the narrow definition?

Or how about this: Graduate students, in Canada at least, are paid by two major components of their stipend, the GRA (graduate research assistantship, paid by the advisor) and the GTA (graduate teaching assistantship, paid by the department). Because they are paid to do research, people have argued that they are “professional scientists”. Would there be equal reaction if instead I had called my post “Graduate students are not professional educators”? Would teachers, professors, and others who educate students for a living have a right to differentiate between their careers and what a TA does? Graduate students are also paid to write papers and a thesis. Are they “professional writers”? Would people who earn their living by writing not rightly see a difference?

Here’s another: Most of us have worked a variety of jobs in our lives. Through most of high school, I worked in a restaurant. This was my only source of income. I did it in the summer as well as weekends during the school year. Would anyone here really suggest that I should have considered myself a “professional dishwasher?”. As an undergrad, I worked in a warehouse where I was in charge of shipping. I worked the same hours and made about the same money as people who did this as their main occupation all year. In fact, I had more responsibility than most because I also did invoicing and other office tasks. Was I a “professional warehouse worker”?

Yet another: Imagine a very talented football player gets a full scholarship to play for a college team. He takes classes, but his main passion is football, and he fully intends to go on to the NFL if he can. Is he a “professional football player”? If not, why not? What would a player in the NFL say about whether this counts as being a “professional”? What if the player does not get drafted and instead takes up a different occupation, would he be an ex-professional athlete?

And finally: Let’s say you are pursuing a masters degree in journalism. You write very good articles for the campus paper, and you are paid for some stories that make it into larger newspapers. You fully intend to seek permanent employment as a reporter once you graduate. Are you a “professional journalist”? What would established reporters say?

It comes down to this. If you are planning to go on in science as a long-term career once you finish your studies, and you appreciate the prestige that comes with it, then just be patient because it’s coming soon enough. If you are only doing science temporarily, or you really aren’t confident that you’ll be able to make a career of it, then the prestige you enjoy by calling yourself a “professional scientist” is borrowed and ephemeral. The third option is that you don’t care one way or the other, but then you’re not the one commenting on my blog…

There is no slight intended here. Being a graduate student in science has its own prestige and students deserve a ton of respect for the science that they do. But getting angry with me for using a term in only one sense when they themselves are switching back and forth to their own advantage is not good.

7 comments to Professional, scientist, and bait-and-switch.

  • Here is my issue with your original definition which seemed to be all or none. I am a government scientist. I do peer-reviewed science, I peer-review, I sit on grant funding panels, I sit on editorial panels, I can (if I wanted) write and receive grants (though some are closed off to government scientists) though our base funding covers what needs to be done. I also write and apply for patents, as well as write white papers and formal reports.

    Does a professional scientist NEED to be funded via grant? This would in many cases exclude industry and government scientists, who as far as I can tell ARE professional scientists. As for the graduate student bit … I’ve gone so far as to say (especially when I want to piss people off) that until they’ve published a manuscript they actually haven’t done science (or at least not at it’s fullest sense), so you’ll find no qualms with me there.


    • Yeah, I backed off from the “grant funding” criterion pretty quickly. I was just trying to distinguish between people who have university positions but don’t pursue funding/train students/publish and those who do. I’m not sure how to combine all forms of support for research into one term that would cover academic/gov’t/industry scientists. I imagine that the same sort of criterion could apply, however. If you work for a gov’t agency but you don’t have any gov’t funding to do research and aren’t trying to get any, that could be relevant.


  • gillt

    If you get paid to write articles for a newspaper that makes you a professional journalist. Whether you’re in nursing school or j-school matters not.

    I imagine most freelance writers who write the things you read in magazines and newspapers would disagree with you.


  • Hi
    Great information in this post and I think this was my only source of income. I did it in the summer as well as weekends during the school year.


  • Daniël Melters

    Before I give any comments, I should disclose that I am a PhD student, so I am (probably) biased.
    Overall, I agree with you that a PI and PhD/graduate student are not equals of each other (and a post-doc being in between the two). A PhD student is a scientist in training, whether or not they decide to stay in science or not. I do not think a person with a PhD in say molecular biology, but works for a publishing company considers themselves a scientist. A PI is a scientist who has been trained and is practicing (and hopefully teaching as well).
    But I cannot agree with your use of the word ‘professional’ scientist as an exclusive badge for PIs. For one, having your own lab is a badge of honour by itself and does not require an additional badge in terms of ‘professional’ to it. Second, what makes a scientist a scientist? Just writing, reviewing, analysing, etc. might make you a scientist, but you could as well be a administrator. I think one of the most important thing a scientist is, is an expert in something. Deep and profound knowledge of a subject for which you are asked to give your opinion on new papers to be peer-reviewed and grant applications because you are an expert. A blogger wouldn’t be ask, neither would a PhD student, because they are not considered experts. A PhD student is someone who is an expert to be in their thesis project. And this is where the big difference lays in my mind. A post-doc I consider as someone obtaining a second (or third or …) subject to be an expert in. A PI is the result of both doctoral and post-doctoral training and is an expert in subjects A-Z.
    The other reason why I think the word ‘professional’ is problematic is that it suggests that there is a antonym, namely ‘amateur’. Although there are amateur scientists, I do not think a single PhD student sees him- or herself as an amateur. That a post-doc or PI are more mature scientists. Absolutely. Because they have more expertise in subjects A-Z.
    Overall, I think that the word ‘professional’ is to be used for those professions where there are clear amateurs participating (like in sports) and these amateurs do not call themselves amateur as it is obvious. In other words, I think obvious things don’t need the addition of a word, such as amateur or professional, because it is obvious.
    PS. Great blog, though.


  • RBH

    This is the kind of conversation that gives me a headache.  After nearly 50 years of working in science and technology in the military, private industry, and academia, after earning a couple of degrees, including a Ph.D., in disciplines that are usually regarded as “science” (anthropology and what is now called cognitive science), after getting NSF grants and publishing in peer-reviewed journals, I no longer know if I’m actually a scientist.  On T. Ryan’s criteria it’s iffy.  My, my.  Nothing like trying to set sharp boundaries on a fuzzy set to make people crazy


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