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This article was one of my MicroSoft Small Business Forum pieces.
Whenever someone asks me what I do for a living, I have to take a deep breath and whisper, almost fearfully, “I’m an epidemiologist.” Then I wait for the inevitable response: “So you study skin?”
“No,” I have to then explain. “Epidemiology is not dermatology. It’s the study of the determinants of health…” Blah blah blah, yadda yadda. It’s such a common occurrence that I have the response pretty much memorized and parsed, much like a favourite speech. In fact, my new non-fiction book about epidemiology is tentatively titled, “Nothing To Do With Skin”, in recognition of this most common public misconception.
Therein lies one of the challenges of being, not just a scientist, but an obscure scientist: most people have a skewed idea of what my profession does, if they’ve heard of it at all. For most epidemiologists, this is not too much of an annoyance. They deal with it in a number of ways, everything from politely explaining the 200 year history of the science –and its root word, “epidemic”– to deftly and rudely avoiding or ignoring the question altogether.
My sister, a political scientist, has a similar problem. Many non-academics assume her profession means that she intends to run for office. The same holds true for friends pursuing doctorates in English literature– the world assumes they all want to be writers. Such is the lot of those who have lingered too long in the halls of academia: to be burdened with both student debt and a public misunderstanding of one’s occupation and purpose. This hardly seems fair, since no one assumes, for example, that a lawyer aspires to a life of crime. But I digress.
As a self-employed epidemiologist, I really don’t have the option of ducking the question or of giving it short shrift, no matter how tiring the perplexed response becomes. See, for a small businessperson, every conversation about one’s profession is a marketing opportunity. This is especially true for a scientist, since –if we can think creatively enough– our skills set can be useful to a range of clients outside of the scientific community. Thus, explaining what we do, even to someone who appears to be completely outside our sectors of interest, can generate dividends.
I am fond of explaining, for example, that an epidemiologist is typically an expert in designing and analyzing surveys and others kinds of data collection instruments. Indeed, we are the masters of population research. And pretty much everyone everywhere in every type of commercial environment will eventually have need of new data. I have since helped such non-scientific clients as mortgage companies and insurance agents with their customer survey designs and evaluation strategies.
What a scientist offers is objective, structured thinking, a specific organizational approach, creativity with respect to procedural problem solving and an unparalleled deftness with data. For those of us who have ventured into this lush land of entrepreneurship, it serves us well to remember these general skills when we interact with the non-scientific world. By communicating who we are and what we do, we not only educate the lay person about our little niche, but can very often serve to pry open a new market.