The 'Scientist' Stereotype

The reality is that most scientists are pretty normal people, at least outside the laboratory setting. There are some unique characteristics that may be more prevalent in the scientific community, and most of those characteristics can contribute positively to the organization.

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Is It Working For or Against You?

Take a look around your lab, and then glance at your image in a mirror. How many white guys in white lab coats with unruly hair, a clipboard, horn-rimmed glasses, and evil intentions do you see? That’s the stereotype that most children from kindergarten through college have of a scientist. (Incidentally, several programs are underway to change this stereotype; the most effective seems to involve having working scientists visit schools and chat with kids.)

A more common stereotype held by many adults evokes a smart, hardworking, male, eccentric, isolated workaholic who works “80-hour weeks” slaving away in a lonely laboratory. These images convey social isolation and an “unbalanced” life. These stereotypes may also make adults more suspicious of scientists and less supportive of the policies that scientists represent. They also imply someone who is socially ill at ease, with limited interpersonal skills and a tendency to see things in “black and white based on the data.” Six occupations are perceived to have “very great” prestige by at least half of all adults—firefighters (61%), scientists (54%), teachers (54%), doctors (52%), military officers (52%), and nurses (50%) (www.harrisinteractive.com). At this point you are probably thinking something like “…and so?”

Stereotypes are highly effective in helping our brains react to complex situations; however, they have possible prejudicial effects, including the following:

  • Justification of ill-founded prejudices or ignorance
  • Unwillingness to rethink one’s attitudes and behavior toward a stereotyped group
  • Preventing some people of stereotyped groups from entering or succeeding in activities or fields like science

What’s the reality?

Some of the elements of this stereotype are certainly true. For example: smart and hardworking; but eccentric, socially isolated, living an unbalanced life? I don’t think so.

Here are some other important characteristics that may not have been elevated to the status of “stereotype.” However, they probably do have an impact on the attitude people have about scientists.

  • Curiosity about how things work
  • Dogged determination when focused on solving a problem
  • Unfazed by failures (they are a fact of life in research and create new research opportunities)
  • Creative, independent thinker
  • Comfortable and skilled in working on teams

 

While it may sound like a stereotype of my own emerging (ex-Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers’ experience notwithstanding), pondering a career in science may be particularly daunting for women, since many of the stereotypes about scientists may lessen the appeal of a science career, thereby affecting the scholastic and occupational choices that young women make.

What impact can the stereotype have?

This attitude about scientists has a number of implications that are particularly important during your transition from scientist to manager. Here are some:

Some managers and peers may make the assumption that you are right, that when you come to a conclusion, it is correct, data based and tested. However, when scientists go outside their area of expertise they often make poor judgments and statements that are arrived at with far less rigor than they apply in their own field. (William Shockley and Linus Pauling are two examples.) The reality is that you probably don’t apply the same standards to subjects outside your field as you do “on the job.” So the stereotype that you apply the scientific method to all areas of your life and, in particular, to your management responsibilities may initially work to your benefit. The assumption that you are right can also lead to limited discussion and consideration of alternatives. Over time, however, your credibility may be damaged when the truth emerges, and you come down to earth.

Solution: Acknowledge that your opinions are opinions, not statements of scientific fact.

The assumption that you look at the world from a dispassionate and unemotional point of view may be true in your professional life. However, passion and emotional involvement may be quite pronounced when you leave the safety of the lab. Many scientists we see in the media are more notable for their histrionics than their equanimity, which is a good thing.

Solution: Let yourself be the emotional person you really are.

The assumption that you are eccentric may lead to a “hands-off ” or “approach with caution” attitude by your peers and managers. The good news is that this attitude may exclude you from much of the everyday give-and-take of “running the business.” The bad thing is that you may lose touch with the important undercurrents and political trends that are a part of all organizations. In fact, the objectivity that comes with science can lead to a denial or avoidance of the subjectivity that is so much a part of humanness and organizational life. When he heard about one of my favorite topics—organizational politics—a scientist friend of mine described the way grant proposals are evaluated to ensure objectivity. He was absolutely certain that the process ensured impartiality and selections based solely on merit. However, I’ll bet that the choice of words, the inclusion of examples of previous research and references, the description of the work to be done, and the controls and protocols can and are sometimes used to identify the source of the grant proposal and can influence the decisions that are made. Not to say that that is a bad thing, but it does cloud the objectivity of the selection while preserving the aura of complete impartiality.

Solution: Make a point of being open and approachable; contribute fully to the group and underscore your “normalcy.”

Moving into a management position from the lab bench

While this is a complex topic, there are several items from the stereotype that you can use to ease the transition: Expect that others in the organization will have certain set ideas about you and your personality. They may see you as potentially difficult to work with, demanding long explanations with little relevant experience. They may be fearful of your intelligence and education and approach you with caution.

Solutions:

  • Do your research. What is the legacy of your predecessor? How is the lab viewed by the rest of the company?
  • Go out of your way to volunteer to be a part of committees and task groups where you can make a contribution using your analytical and research skills.
  • Network and build coalitions. It may be difficult to do, but getting to know the people in the organization will be invaluable in improving your effectiveness and being seen as “different from the other scientists.”
  • Recognize that biases ease over time as familiarity increases.
  • Take some management development classes. If you can take classes offered by the organization, that’s great; doing so will afford an opportunity to meet and get to know a cohort of other managers. Otherwise, find some classes that are taught in local universities or colleges or that are given by trade associations.
  • Get a mentor; someone who can help you navigate the complexities of the organization and whom you can bounce ideas off of.

What’s the reality?

The reality is that most scientists are pretty normal people, at least outside the laboratory setting. There are some unique characteristics that may be more prevalent in the scientific community, and most of those characteristics can contribute positively to the organization—whether your company or the PTA. The experience of working in and managing teams— sometimes recalcitrant, but always challenging and questioning— is very valuable in any setting.

What can you do?

There may be some truth to the rumor that scientists are emotionally detached and distant. If this is an area you want to learn more about, you can take an online test of Emotional Intelligence at www.talentsmart.com. Books and articles by Daniel Goleman can also help in understanding the concepts. Personally, I found the CD version of the book Working with Emotional Intelligence to be helpful, especially if you have a long commute.

Acknowledge, accept, and play with the stereotypes. Observe the people you work with and watch for indications that the negative stereotypes are emerging. Are they avoiding you because they fear your eccentricity? Do they believe you too quickly because they assume you have dedicated your research skills to arriving at a conclusion? Are they fearful that they must spend time educating you about management realities?

Caveats and possibilities

Earlier I mentioned characteristics that may not have become part of the stereotype—curiosity about how things work; dogged determination when focused on solving a problem; unfazed by failures (they create new research opportunities); creative; and comfortable and skilled in working on teams.

 

  •  Curiosity is one of the most valuable assets for managers—curiosity about how people think, about the systems and interactions in the organization, and simply the desire to learn. So, letting your natural curiosity run free can be a major asset to your management style.
  • Interestingly, “dogged determination” and “being unfazed by failures” can have a negative impact on your success as a manager. For example, it may be hard to make a decision to fire someone because of the determination to achieve success in spite of a long series of failures. With staff, failure does not necessarily open up an opportunity for more research.
  • Creativity and independent thinking are major assets to any organization. The ability to see things in an innovative way, through a new set of eyes, can lead to breakthroughs in problem solving. Flaunt your creative approach.
  • Your skills as a team leader and facilitator are in great demand in organizations. You can be very effective in increasing the efficiency of meetings, encouraging reluctant contributors, and providing support for the committee leaders.
  • Writing grants and managing the funding has given you an ability to write clearly, purposefully, and effectively, and to have a strong grounding in finance.
  • Your scientific background may have led to an attitude of “let the numbers tell the story.” This is great in the world of science; however, “blowing your own horn” or self-promotion may be necessary evils in the organizational setting. Many scientists feel uncomfortable and ill at ease in situations that require “playing politics.” The reality of modern organizations is that political skills can be a major factor in the success of managers.

Conclusion

So, what’s the answer to the question in the title? It works both for and against you. In many ways the stereotype is working in your favor, giving people positive expectations about your personality and characteristics. At the same time, some of the elements of the stereotype can be prejudicial, leading to false assumptions and expectations and having a negative impact on you. While the prestige of scientists has decreased in the past 30 years, more openness, interaction with the public, and involvement with local schools can improve the image and decrease the negative elements of the stereotype.

References:

Goleman, D., Working with Emotional Intelligence, Random House, January 2000.

“Annual Survey of Prestige of Professions,” The Harris Poll, www.harrisinteractive.com.

Pickett, R., A Tale of Four Quadrants, Vantage Point, April 2006, vol. 10, no. 4

Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia.

Callaway, Ewen, “Who Says Scientists are Dull?,” New Scientist Newsletter, February 11, 2009.

Published In

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Investment Confidence

Published: April 1, 2009

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Investment Confidence

Highlights of our 2009 Investment Confidence Survey provide a glimpse into the investment decisions being made by laboratory management in staffing, outsourcing, facility improvement and new technologies–taking the pulse of confidence in economic security in these uncertain times.