Keeping your mouth shut to advance your social standing

The thing in the title?

Yeah, doing that makes me miserable.

As you know, I initially wrote a post that references things some people in my department had said. I had already waited a couple of days to write the post, figuring I should give myself time to think about it instead of reacting emotionally. I later removed it because a colleague said it could be perceived as burning bridges within my department. Maybe I needed more time to think. After talking with more people within my department, within academia, and outside of academia, I decided it should go back up with some edits. I think the topic of how we view evolution acceptance and education is profoundly important. How shitty my NSF fellowship draft was not the main point of that article (though thanks to those of you who gave constructive criticism).

I know not everyone agrees with me on my decision to restore the post, so I want to try to explain.

When I was younger, I was shy. Cripplingly shy. I never spoke up because it seemed every time I did, someone would make fun of me or judge me for what I said. I was that nerdy awkward kid with no friends on the bottom of the social totem pole. When I was switching schools, I knew I’d be meeting new people and had a chance to start anew. I resolved myself to not caring about what other people thought about me. I would speak my mind and share my thoughts, and screw anyone who had a problem with it. If they thought I was abrasive or weird or offensive, did I really want to be friends with them anyway?

Doing this changed my life immensely. I was finally happy with myself. There were certainly times where my plan hurt. Like many girls, I had been socialized to be soft spoken and modest and to want everyone to like me. I still feel twinges of panic when I know someone thinks negatively of me. But overall, I find myself much happier – and surrounded by much better friends – because I embrace honesty.

And frankly, I don’t think the social dynamics of the real world – be it business or academia – are all that different from a high school cafeteria. I know that by speaking my mind, I will probably accidentally burn some bridges. There will be people out there who see me as a rabble-rouser and a trouble maker that they don’t want to be associated with. Most people expect you to Play the Game, or to at least Play the Game long enough that you can subvert it from the inside forty years later.

I refuse to play that game.

Is this going to totally ruin my potential career as a scientist? Honestly, probably not. Because for every person who sees me as a liability, there are people who respect a willingness to speak up when it’s risky. I’ve had numerous biology professors and biologists in industry across the country – almost all of them strangers – say how impressed they were that I was doing what I was doing. I’ve even had some try to recruit me to work in their lab. Being an outspoken blogger is going to be seen as a positive by some people. Do I really want to be working with the people who think otherwise?

But a fairly well-known skeptic told me recently that he hoped I was looking into alternative careers, because he thought I was screwed. No one was going to hire me. You have to wait until you have tenure to be so outspoken!

What if he’s right? What if after four more years of grad school, I find out I’m totally wrong? If I realize I can’t get a job anywhere in academia, because people have blacklisted me?

Then I’d be happy to leave academia.

I don’t want to be somewhere where I’m miserable. And being forced to play that game – the game I realize the vast majority of people have to play – is not what I want in life. I rather live my life to the fullest instead of constantly being fearful that anything I do may ruin my Grand Plan. To steal sage advice from Greta – I rather be hated for what I am than loved for what I’m not. If that leaves me trying to get by on freelance writing and blog earnings, or doing who knows what, then so be it. For all I know, it could also leave me as the next celebrated popular science writer. Who knows.

But what I do know is that I will be surrounded by people who like and respect the real me, not someone who is too fearful to speak out, or too busy kissing ass. I’m sure some of you will think I’m a naive idealist, and that I should just hunker down and play the game like everyone else. But the virtues of being honest and outspoken are more important to me than climbing the social ladder or making a couple more dollars on my paycheck.