Monday, April 23, 2012

Spot the Scientist

The other day, as my husband acquired coffee in a cafe at a location quite remote from our home, the barista announced that he was going to guess my husband's profession. He guessed Silicon Valley software engineer. Not bad: from a distance, science professor isn't so different from various types of engineers, at least the sort who tend to be in casual attire.

My experience has been that it is a little more challenging for people to guess my profession from my attire/appearance, but that is mostly because many people have different expectations about women (just one small example is here). In many cases, I don't mind (it can be fun to surprise people and overturn their expectations), but in some cases I do (if people are rude/patronizing).

At a large conference, it is quite easy to pick out fellow conference-goers (male and female) on the street, even those individuals who remember to take off their conference badges/name-tags when they emerge from the conference center. This is easy in part owing to the tendency of conference-going scientists to roam in packs on city streets, but even when sighted in small units (1-2), it is easy to spot the science people.

In fact, at a very early age, my daughter learned how to Detect Scientists on the street. When she has attended conferences with her scientist parents, a favorite activity has been to sit in a cafe near but not too near the conference center, and try to pick the scientists out of the crowd of passersby. Perhaps she can use these skills later in life.

Can people guess what you do (approximately) for your job based on your appearance or are you constantly surprising people when you tell them what you do? Somehow I think this might break down somewhat along gender lines, but I imagine that there are also men who don't look like a stereotypical scientist (or engineer or whatever).

My husband is not one of these men, even when not wearing a graph-paper plaid shirt, but that's OK. I think it is important for the non-scientist population to know that nerds walk among us and are generally harmless and pleasant if supplied with sufficient quantities of coffee.

34 comments:

Alex said...

So I'm not the only one who can spot the conference attendees even without the badges? Good to know.

I should note that the capitalization of Detect Scientists in your post makes it sound like a D&D spell. That's another way to Detect Scientists: Make a D&D reference and see if they catch it.

FYI, my current D&D group has 3 IT professionals, a physics professor, an actor who appeared in a popular sci-fi franchise. I'd say our nerd cred is pretty strong.

Roeslein said...

I am a young, blonde woman and a PhD student in the social sciences. I am not originally from the country I currently live in. At a recent family reunion, I had the following conversation with someone in my SO's sister-in-law's family:

Him: So, your SO taught you Local Language?
Me: He didn't need to, I studied in Alma Mater City.
Him (looking surprised): You... studied?
Me (thinking it didn't catch it the first time around): ...in Alma Mater City.
Him: You mean you studied at a university?
Me (starting to wonder what the heck this is about): ...Yes.
Him: So what did you, hum, "study"?
Me: *explains degrees*
Him: ...Hu-ho. So if you don't me asking, do you plan to work here?
(At this point, I was tempted to answer: "No, I came here to get unemployment benefits paid from your taxes and be a kept woman who takes advantage of SO's money. Of course I came here to work, you sexist pig!")

So yeah, I suspect I don't look like a scientist.

Phillip Helbig said...

And people criticize James Bond films because the female nuclear physicists don't look like nuclear physicists!

Nanani said...

I'm still young-looking enough that people are surprised to learn I work at all; most assume I'm still a student.

When an attempt to guess my occupation is made, it's almost always wrong. People think I'm a teacher but I have never been one (though my mother and sister both are, so perhaps I carry the schoolteacher gene?)

EliRabett said...

Ms. Rabett is quite excellent at spot the nerd. A major tip off is the poster tube that doesn't fit into the overhead in the airplane

Elizabeth said...

Darn, I thought picking out scientists was my special power :).

I recently had the day off from my retail job and went to a lab meeting. I thought I dressed down, only to find that I was still way over dressed for campus.

Colleen said...

I am a computational neuroscience Ph.D. student and dress in 1940s-50s inspired vintage clothing on a daily basis. I look more like an art student or maybe antiques dealer than what people picture as a researcher. But I think it gives me some novelty appeal in that for some reason, when I start to explain graph theory or machine learning, people for some reason humor me rather than tune out because I guess it's just more amusing/less dry/less expected coming from someone who looks like I do. Or maybe I'm just fabulously charming. Or maybe they think my hair looks funny. Who knows.

I do tone it down for conferences though. I generally wear the uniform plus slightly weird shoes or some other subtle indicator that I -gasp- care about my appearance occasionally.

Erica Sparkenbaugh said...

One of the ways I can spot a scientist is by their attire. It's "slightly unpolished professional." Suits are slightly ill-fitting, pants are a little short, shoes are a little too practical. This applies to both men and women.

unlikelygrad said...

Of course I've learned to spot scientists/engineers over the years, but lately I've been learning to spot geologists in particular. I wonder what it is about geology that attracts people that: (1) have to wear sandals (usually with socks) and (2) prefer shorts to any other sort of pants? (among other things, of course)

Cardinal said...

A combination of gender and SES assumptions: when we first moved to this blue-collar city we bought a house in a neighbourhood near the steel mills. Our neighbours of course asked what brought us here. On hearing that I had just started a job at the university (which also includes a hospital), every single person said, "oh, you're a nurse!"

Anonymous said...

We live in a little cluster development where many (most?) of the moms stay at home. It has been funny to see the reactions of the kids who come by to play with my daughter when I tell them that I'm a scientist. The girls so far have been impressed and are interested in exactly what I do. The little boy who found out the other day seemed slightly disgusted and a little incredulous. I tell them that I get to solve mysteries and it's so much fun!

Anonymous said...

I've attended work-related events with my SO (his work, which is engineering). Unfortunately, I frequently get asked "do you work?". Not "what do you do?", but whether I even work at all.

EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy said...

> the tendency of conference-going scientists to roam in packs on city streets

Heh! I'm in Big Science (tm) so we meet with the same people over and over again and the packs can develop into creature with lives of their own albeit intermittent ones.

In any case Erica's "slightly unpolished professional" is a good marker as are backpacks or satchels with otherwise professional garb: I don't know many academic scientist who carry breifcases but there is stuff you have to bring to the conference.

Anonymous said...

I am a young male associate professor of engineering and people are constantly shocked at what I do. The current mental picture of a professor is an old man and hence the surprise at female versions or young versions.

Anonymous said...

I'm in ecology research, and like geologists (a la unlikelygrad's post), we're super easy to pick out. Sandals (often with socks), shorts, earth tones in general, and well, just whatever you'd find at your local REI. Part of this is practical: I need to be crawling around among the plants all afternoon, so why bother putting something different on in the morning. And part of it is -- well, why not? Field clothes tend to be quite comfortable. Why dress up in neck-strangling ties or high-heeled shoes when you don't need to? I for one am glad to wear comfortable clothes on a daily basis.

Anonymous said...

Amateurs. When I lived in Pasadena, CA I could tell the computer geeks from the physicists from the geologists on the streets!

Anonymous said...

As a fashion-conscious, African American woman I am GUARANTEED to go undetected as a scientist. I am young (and look younger than I am), but I suspect I will remain stealth as I get older because I for the above two reasons.

Anonymous said...

I'm late 20's female biomedical grad student and I don't tend to 'look like a scientist'. When non-scientists find out what I do they almost always say "Wow! You must be smart!" or else they don't know how to respond and the conversation ends there. I appreciate that the general public I encounter thinks scientists are smart and is not disbelieving that a cute girl can do science.

Anonymous said...

On campus I am easily mistaken for a Dean or a member of a design or communications about to meet with someone off campus. No one suspects I teach math -- well worn polished shoes, pressed shirts, stylish but not hip ties and a jacket or vest. It is only my Cosco jeans that could give me away. I am 33 ...

At several conferences I have been mistaken for staff.

I see more and more young people like Colleen that have an individual sense of style. There was a time that wearing jeans and a T-shirt was somehow counter cultural. Now, it is just the opposite.

amd said...

Spot the Librarian is a classic conference-going activity in my circles, but it's not a very challenging game because of librarians' tendency to re-use conference tote bags. People are sometimes surprised when they find out what I do - sometimes not. I think that some of the people who are surprised have never really considered that anyone is a librarian in real life.

Anonymous said...

It seems that EVERY person (outside of the campus) I meet is surprised I am a female and engineering professor. In fact, the majority of the people look confused. This entertained me for a year or two, but after becoming a mother, the surprise on people's faces is even more pronounced. It seems very hard for people to reconcile an image of a mother with both "engineer" and "professor".

Anonymous said...

Being an Asian looking guy in a small town research university in the States, there's no way one can miss me being as a scientist or engineer.

Anonymous said...

I'm refining my nerd spotting ability to guess which field my fellow nerds are in - ecology, geology, or physics. Turns out, it's fairly easy to tell the difference.

As far as whether or not I look the part, in context, I am constantly asked "who do you work with" or "whose student are you". Sigh. I'm a mid-career FSP. Worst so far was going through customs when the female customs agent asked what business I was in as part of routine screening and then refused to believe me. Even after I produced my business card, she was incredulous, saying "you can't be a professor".

Liz said...

I honestly don't understand how you would spot the scientists walking down the street in a city during a conference (if there is no poster tube/conference tote bag). It seems that there have been a good many posts on this bog speaking to the fact that a scientist doesn't fit a specific mold (contrary to what many folks in society think)and yet here we have a discussion going on about how we can pick out scientists on the street based on their "nerdy" look or ill-fitting clothes.

Maybe I'm just in a grumpy mood but, as a sceintist who enjoys fashion and takes pride in being well-dressed, for some reason I find this a little off-putting, coming from a group of what I assume to be mostly scientists.

Anonymous said...

FPS, I feel that the fact that your daughter is picking out sceintists based on appearance alone sort of contradictory to the message that you often speak about here about how we shouldn't make judgements about scientists based on their gender/age/other outwards appearance

Anonymous said...

I'm a black female engineering professor- also happen to be petite and young looking. I recently had someone ask me a question at a bus stop; I answered and he looked at me and said, "you sound like a professor." I was _shocked_. No one pegs me as a scientist/engineer and certainly not a professor. I usually get something like pre-school teacher...

Anonymous said...

Grumpy people at the end: quit being grumpy. The point is you shouldn't say "Wow, you're black/female/young -- you couldn't be a scientist!" But what's wrong with saying, "Look at that combo of REI items -- you look like a geologist!"? It's not bad to say someone looks like a scientist. (See last paragraph.)

Lots of people start dressing like the people in their field -- it's something humans do in order indicate affiliation and cement group identity. If you don't do it, that's fine. If you do do it, why not comment on it? It's a situation that can quite fraught if you have multiple group identities that seem contradictory. Liz, you seem in particular to find it offensive that many geologists or computer scientists dress a certain way, and I think that it's because you like to dress a different way but still want to maintain your "scientist" affiliation. While you may wish to ignore the fact, it is simply true that it's easy to spot the majority of the scientists on the street during a conference. Just because you'd be less easily pegged as such does not mean you are less of a scientist!

For anonymous at 5:52 especially, the difference here is between including people and excluding people. Daughter picking out people as scientist and accepting others as well as scientist is inclusive. If daughter said "You are member of *** group and thus are not a scientist" as people seem to do to mother/blonde/black woman/fashionable woman/twenty-something above, that's rather different. Inclusivity is different than exclusivity.

Anonymous said...

I'm impressed by how many can spot conference attendees - just last year when I attended a conference in the States (I'm a tenured faculty member at a European university), another attendee (older, male) asked me when I would be bringing the coffee. Ok, I wasn't wearing a conference badge, but I had just arrived. And I was dressed more-or-less like everyone else.

Seriously - if there is one place in the world where "scientist" should actually be the default assumption, it's a scientific conference. Even if the person in question is a youngish blonde female.

So to answer your original question, no, I don't think anyone can guess what I do just by looking at me.

Anonymous said...

A colleague once told me this story about a conference we attended: he was walking with a colleague near the conference center, and the colleague pointed to a young man sitting on the ground and said it was terrible, the homeless problem in this city. The young man he pointed to was one of my graduate students!

Aravinda said...

Thanks to a homeless person, I got the password to log into the Athena system of computers at MIT libraries, computer rooms etc. This was 20 odd years ago, so don't ask me for the password now. This allowed me to work in the library and access research materials. I even volunteered for the student newspaper at one point. All without paying a dime.

Not related to your original question, but inspired by the previous comment. Thanks for stirring up the memories.

Psycgirl said...

I am a young, curvy female who often wears casual or quirkily attire..... People are usually shocked when I tell them what I do, even though I live mainly in a College Town. However, I prefer not to tell strangers that I am a psychologist, so I usually say I "work at the Uni." Most assume I'm a secretary.

Anonymous said...

I don't get spotted as a scientist...in fact they just assume that I am a useless mute there to dress up the room...sometimes it's fun playing to their ignorance/preconceived ideals then drops the bomb that I'm actually scientist

Anonymous said...

I can spot a scientist... also an ecologist here. The sandals with socks, conference t-shirts and/or REI, Patagonia gear is a dead giveaway.

Sadly, we had a graduating senior some years ago (went on to advanced degrees in environmental science) that was overlooked for the campus scholar award. His interview was tops, but the committee bristled at his wild hair and uncomfortable response to wearing a suit. "He just doesn't look like a professional".

No amount of convincing on my part could get them past his "unprofessional" appearance - the award went to a well-tailored business major.

Karen Iris said...

I'm a PhD PI of a biomedical research lab at a famous academic institution. Apparently, I dont look like that!

When I started my lab 13 years ago, I got mistaken for my dept head's secretary (once), dept head's grad student (twice), dept head's postdoc (too many to count) and even dept head's daughter (once). Only 8 years ago I attended a national scientific meeting where I was an invited speaker for a platform lecture. I brought along my entire lab group of 5 people. During those few days, multiple other scientists assumed my postdoc (male, Indian) was the lab PI, and some others assumed my tech (female, but taller than me) was the PI. At other scientific meetings I have several times been told by other scientists that I should check out so and so's work, because they are doing the same thing...when they are actually talking about my own higher profile papers.

I now dress differently, yes I wear the ill-fitting rumpled black suit uniform, and I always try to wear heels. Typicially now I get mistaken for an MD student or resident, which I suppose is progress.