Dr. name plate

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When your work title is a working title

As of last month, I am no longer a Scientist.

Just to clarify, I’m still a scientist—but not a Scientist.

That probably didn’t clarify anything. You may have found yourself rereading the previous sentence, wondering about the difference in capitalization, maybe even concluding that I’m probably referring to being a Christian Scientist. I’m not.

Seven years ago, when I completed my Ph.D. and joined a small biotech company, my assigned title was Scientist. Ever since, if I’ve had to fill out a form that requires my title, I’ve written “Adam Ruben, Scientist.”

As a professional designation, Scientist is incredibly vague. It conjures up the image of a soap opera scientist, someone who gazes alternately into massive telescopes and bubbling Erlenmeyer flasks while wearing a white lab coat with a plastic nametag that reads, “Dr. Steele McBrass, Scientist.”

Yet that’s what I was, and when I received the job offer, I didn’t question the title—probably because I was just so glad that my title would no longer be Smelly Grad Student, and that I had somehow magically skipped the step of Marginally Less Smelly Postdoctoral Fellow.

Then, last month, my company’s Chief Executive Officer (now there’s a title—it says, “I’m in charge, I’m mighty, and there had better be a lot of leather furniture in my office”) offered me a promotion. Even better, he asked if I had a suggestion for my new title.

Maybe the imprecision of scientific titles is a sign that scientists have their priorities straight. ... Still, career-wise, it can be harder to climb the ladder when it’s unclear what the steps are.

I immediately thought of several:

  • Ambassador
  • Secretary of Awesome
  • His Holiness
  • Assistant to the Regional Manager
  • King of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, and Protector of the Realm
  • Hegemon
  • Chief Executive Officer

As forcefully as you might remind yourself not to let a title define you, your title defines you. At least it often feels like it does—and that’s a huge problem when the assigning of titles in science is so arbitrary and weird.

In academia some titles are self-explanatory, like Professor. True, on its surface, the word just means “someone who professes something,” but at least there’s a universally comprehensible view of what a professor does.

Then the titles get a bit squishy and false. Assistant Professor? You’re not really someone’s assistant. You’re not following around some senior professor, fetching coffee and making photocopies. You’re an actual professor—just without job security. Research Scientist? As opposed to what? Cavalier scientist who spouts theories but refuses to perform research? And let’s not think too hard about the strangeness of the term “Principal Investigator.” Tell someone outside academia that you’re a Principal Investigator, and they’ll assume you’re some kind of university film noir detective.

Then there’s Adjunct Professor. Dictionary.com defines “adjunct” as “something added to another thing but not essential to it,” which is such an accurate description of the treatment of adjunct professors that it might make some of you cry. (Luckily, terms like “Adjunct” and “Emeritus” are equally esoteric in the minds of undergraduates, so your students won’t know how highly you rank anyway. Nor will they care, what with the Tinder and all.)

Speaking of adjuncts, how about the term “Lecturer”? This title implies that one’s primary job responsibility is speaking to large groups—but adjunct professors who teach lab classes are also called lecturers. I once spent a year as a Lecturer, but because my class was seminar-style, I never once gave a lecture. This is insane—can you imagine someone called a Baker who doesn’t bake? In fact, at first, my title that year was going to have been Visiting Lecturer, which would have been all the more inappropriate because I was primarily employed at that university and wasn’t visiting at all. I would have been a Visiting Lecturer who neither visits nor lectures.

Outside of academia, titles in science are even harder to understand. Would you hire an Analyst, or a Consultant? Don’t both assess things and deliver their evidence-based conclusion to someone? Why aren’t Coordinator and Manager the same? Do we really need scientists with the title “Officer”? And how do you know whether you’re a Technician or a Technologist?

Some companies take a more scientific approach and simply tack numbers onto the end of words: There can be no doubt that Scientist III is higher ranked than Scientist II, though both end up sounding like summer blockbuster sequels (Scientist III: The Search for Tenure).

Unfortunately, the opacity of the title system prevents us from successfully bragging about our accomplishments to our family members, who still aren’t sure why we spent such a long time in grad school. “I started out as an Associate Supervisor,” you might say, “but soon I became a Project Manager, and now I’m a Deputy Development Specialist.” Your family won’t know whether to congratulate you or ask if you need to move back in.

Perhaps the oddest part is that companies really do use these nebulously similar terms to define strata, and the strata are not necessarily consistent among companies, a fact that makes job boards difficult to navigate. Sometimes a promotion can even give you a new position that, while technically superior, sounds less impressive on your business card.

Maybe the imprecision of scientific titles is a sign that scientists have their priorities straight—a fact of nature elucidated is a fact of nature elucidated, whether it comes from a Senior Associate Scientist or a Principal Laboratory Technician. Still, career-wise, it can be harder to climb the ladder when it’s unclear what the steps are.

So I’m no longer a Scientist. I’m an Associate Director now, which is a mixed blessing. “Director” sounds cool, as though I get to order around underlings and maybe even make a film, neither of which I really do. “Associate,” however, tempers the title with its universally accepted junior status. (Recall David Hyde Pierce’s line in Wet Hot American Summer when a kid asks him what Associate Professor means. Pierce pauses sadly, then says, “It means … less than.”)

But I’m working hard toward my next promotion. I’m hoping to become the Interim Chief Deputy Laboratory Research Analytical Specialist Consultant Coordinator.

Of Awesome.

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