Science magazine published a peculiar opinion piece titled Why I don’t use Instagram for science outreach. It’s peculiar because it starts off well, and then reaches an ugly conclusion, and because it’s coming from a graduate student who is going to be looking for a job, and there’s no effort to give her anonymity while promoting a controversial opinion and, frankly, bad reasoning. Here’s that promising beginning that could have gone off in a far more productive direction.
Science Sam is a big name on campus. She’s a Ph.D. candidate in the sciences who wants to pursue a career outside of academia, like me. But unlike me, she is our school’s science communication, or #scicomm, superstar. Her Instagram page, which aims to show the “fun and trendy” side of science, was recently celebrated in the school’s newsletter for increasing the public’s trust in scientists. At a career workshop, graduate students were urged to follow Science Sam’s example and use #scicomm to build our personal brands as we enter the job market. I already have an Instagram account, but it reflects my interests in photography and baking more than my love of science. The workshop got me thinking: Should my posts focus less on pastries and more on pipettes?
OK, so I took a look at Science Sam’s Instagram account. I’ll be honest, it personally left me cold. I’m not into Instagram, the format lends itself to superficialities, it’s focused a great deal on selfies of a photogenic young woman, and I won’t be subscribing or following it in the future. But that’s just me. There exists a large instagram-centered subculture, Science Sam is good at fitting into it, and I am glad there is someone doing science outreach there, and doing it well.
I think the @scicomm community would also agree that the point isn’t to conform, but to express yourself freely and share your appreciation of science in ways that fit your personality and interests. There should be no message that says you must be a slender woman with a large fashionable wardrobe and artful skill in applying makeup in order to be a good science communicator — I’m kind of the opposite of all that, so I (and many of the science communicators I know) would be right out of the business from the get go. David Attenborough would also be out of work.
At this point, my advice to this grad student would be yes, focus on the pastries and the photography as a hobby. You be you. There is another huge subculture that is interested in the visual arts and food, and you can be science’s ambassador to those people. If the message you got from your university’s career workshop is that you have to imitate Science Sam, they fucked up. The career workshops I’ve participated in emphasize the breadth of possibilities, and should definitely not be telling new scientists that they have to follow the path of performative traditional femininity. That is one path out of many.
But this grad student confesses to “increasing bitterness” over the example of Science Sam. She has somehow come to the conclusion that another person’s approach is directly harming her.
When I next interview for a job, I won’t have an Instagram page to show that my love of science doesn’t make me boring and unfriendly. Publicly documenting the cute outfit I wear and the sweet smile I brandish in the lab isn’t going to help me build a fulfilling career in a field where women hold less senior positions, are paid less, and are continuously underrated. Time spent on Instagram is time away from research, and this affects women in science more than men. That’s unfair. Let’s not celebrate that.
Jeez, someone needs to talk to whoever put together that career workshop, because at least one student has come out of it with a seriously warped perspective. You shouldn’t have to flash a sweet smile and a cute outfit to get a job (I know, often women are expected to, which not right and grossly unfair), but you do have to have an enthusiasm for the work, which even homely grizzled old geezers like me can achieve. If you’re trying to do science outreach, bitterly policing other people’s approach is a negative — find your own strengths and explore and expand them. You’ll be happier doing that than feeling like you have to conform to a role you detest. There also has to be work/life balance — if Science Sam enjoys spending time on Instagram as her avocation, she should! If there’s something outside of work that makes you happy, you should do it without guilt!
Seriously, too, while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Science Sam’s angle, and she’s going to be effective at reaching some people, I’d find an instagram account about photography much more interesting. So would other people. Let a thousand flowers bloom.
I really hope whoever was in charge of that career workshop is feeling rebuked by the fact that the bitterness it invoked was highlighted in Science.