Embracing Uncertainty: Parallels Between the Scientific Method and Vocational Discernment

(Austin) I recently hosted a career panel for our science majors at my college. During this panel, students had the opportunity to hear from fantastic individuals who were doing exciting and fulfilling work in careers like healthcare diagnostics, pharmaceutical management, and biotech research and development. The students heard compelling stories about the winding and fortuitous journeys that led the panelists to their current vocations. Since the panelists were alumni of the college and had been in the same position as my students a decade ago, I was excited about how current students might gain confidence in pursuit of their own unique and creative paths.

After the panel, I held a feedback session for my students. I anticipated their excitement about potential careers and where they might be called. However, they seemed more nervously overwhelmed than awestruck. The sentiment in the room was summarized by a student who said,

I could never deal with that much uncertainty and unknowing in my life. None of the panelists had a linear path in their career or any clear vision of what their next steps were in their life. I don’t like that, I’m not ready for that, and I want to choose a career path that seems more concrete.

This made me wonder: do students feel pushed to go with safe, seemingly more straightforward routes regardless of their desires for those callings? Are we equipping students, especially our science majors, to be comfortable with discerning and embracing uncertainty?

(Rachael) Austin’s story about the students’ responses to the panel resonates with my experiences with students. I have sat with many students who are not thriving in their current scientific career paths yet are unwilling to consider other options. They believe that their discernment of vocation is complete because they have identified viable jobs. They have plans with clear steps and perceived promises of known outcomes. They don’t want to stop and account for other variables in their lives that may shape or broaden how they think about their vocations.

The juxtaposition of this fixed mindset with the imagination that they are being trained to embrace as scientists is ironic. Scientists are in the business of making and refining models, which are meant to help us identify and understand patterns that we observe in the world. These models leave scientists with many unanswered questions and, even when useful, these models contain significant degrees of uncertainty. Within classes, labs, and research experiences, science students learn that recognizing, understanding, and embracing uncertainty are crucial to doing science well. There are many rich parallels and similar skill sets between scientific discovery and vocational discernment.

(Austin & Rachael) Our students are faced daily with the difficulty of being completely certain about all aspects of what they study in science. If we are already training students to embrace uncertainty in the sciences, then can we encourage them to transfer those skills and embrace some uncertainty in their career paths and the ways in which they engage with the world? Can we help students widen their vocational lenses to encompass other opportunities and needs and to embrace possible unknowns in their futures? The very essence of scientific inquiry is to be equipped in discerning the unknowns and processes of our natural world.

This essence is wonderfully demonstrated in recent Nobel Laureates like Jennifer Doudna and Carolyn Bertozzi. Whether it is in wondering how bacteria create immunity toward viruses built to destroy them like Doudna or determining how two vastly different molecules can “click” together like Bertozzi, the scientific process leads us to that often uncomfortable place of unknowing and uncertainty. However, the ability to discern and work out uncertainties can lead to life-changing discoveries like CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technologies from Doudna and life-saving drug designs through bio-orthogonal chemistry from Bertozzi.

With this parallel in mind, we are exploring how to frame conversations with students about vocation in terms that they will recognize from their scientific training. By connecting the language of scientific process with vocational discernment, we hope to foster deeper conversations with students about their callings and how their knowledge, strengths, and interests might align in unique ways with the needs of their communities. Important scientific skills for vocational discernment include the following:

  • When we think about vocation, we must first observe our own desires, knowledge, and gifts, while also being attentive to the needs we see in our communities. We should expect this observation to take time before evaluating the reasoning and motivations that accompany our desires, knowledge, and gifts.
  • We can form hypotheses about our possible callings by imagining ways that we could live out our gifts and desires in authentic and meaningful ways. We may be able to form more than one reasonable hypothesis with the information available to us at any given time, but they can be held together as we consider directions for personal development and different careers with various communities. 
  • Part of understanding our callings may include testing our hypotheses and determining which possible directions to accept and which to reject. We can begin this testing by pursuing various job shadowing or internship experiences, informal interviews with trusted professionals, and candid conversations with mentors who know us. Like a good experiment that keeps a scientist from drawing incorrect conclusions, this testing can prevent us from choosing paths that do not allow us to live well into our knowledge, gifts, and callings that support various needs in our communities. Testing should include the consideration of variables that account not only for the place we hope to work but also for the ways that this environment will support or impede our abilities to live whole lives.
  • We can draw conclusions based on what we have learned about ourselves and about various opportunities. Like any good scientist, we must draw the best conclusions possible with the available information and continue to evaluate our conclusions as we learn more about ourselves and the world. Acknowledging the continuing nature of discovery and discernment can allow us to be at peace with our decisions but also remain open to ongoing opportunities in our work and communities.

While a major in science can lead to some clear career paths, genuine flourishing transcends any particular career. We do a disservice to our students when we do not challenge them to think beyond the one job that drew them to our majors. A flourishing and purposeful life requires attention to changes in students’ lives and in their communities’ needs. Even though we are building scientific skills in students to collect, analyze, and respond to changing information, we can be more explicit about how these skills can extend to other areas of their lives. We can help students make these connections during advising or mentoring sessions when they are planning life after college. We can help students connect their scientific skills to the process of discernment in our classrooms or seminars when we discuss scientific careers. We can also continue to host panels featuring diverse career paths and take the time to unpack those stories with our students.

We hope that our students, while learning about science, can also grow in their abilities to imagine multiple avenues through which their work will align with their gifts and strengths and with the needs of their communities.

For further reading on science and vocational discernment, see the series co-written by Rachael Baker, Julie Yonker, and Amy Wilstermann, including Building a Thriving Research Team, Practicing Humility in the Sciences, The Vocation of Science, and Mentoring for the Cultivation of Virtue in the Sciences.

Rachael Baker is an associate professor and co-chair of chemistry and biochemistry at Calvin University. Her research focuses on mitochondrial rare diseases and what they teach us about the genetic basis of hearing as well as practices and virtues that enhance the effectiveness of team science projects. Rachael is a co-founder of the Rare Disease Network, a collaborative organization that seeks to provide support and education to the rare disease community in Michigan.

Austin Young Shull is an associate professor of biology at Presbyterian College, where he teaches courses in molecular biology, cancer biology, and scientific writing. He also runs an undergraduate research lab that studies the epigenetic mechanisms that promote breast cancer metastasis. Austin was a member of the 2019 cohort of NetVUE’s Teaching Vocational Exploration Seminar.

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