By Sheldon Greaves
Amateur scientists take part in the same struggle as nearly everyone else on the planet, which is the quest to be taken seriously. As an amateur, the odds are usually stacked against us, since by definition we work outside the institutions and conventions by which that community recognizes and rewards its own. The problem shrinks considerably once one has published a peer-reviewed paper or written a well-received book, but getting to that point can be difficult. If you’re new to that aspect of amateur science, it could take awhile before someone is likely to give you a chance. In such cases, we can take a page from the playbook of another class of people who tend to work out of love of the subject and likewise have trouble being taken seriously.
I speak, naturally, of artists. For the amateur (and often the professional) artist, the equivalent of a published paper might be works featured in a major show, winning a competition, or perhaps getting a serious contract to produce a piece of art that will appear in a prominent venue. Just as with amateur scientists, artists have to demonstrate their skills by building a body of work, which they document in a portfolio.
A good way to start is to sketch out a resume of your scientific activity. List your projects, written pieces, trips, courses taken or taught, anything that shows your interest and gives you a chance to demonstrate your capabilities. Then, start collecting evidence that will illuminate the items on your resume. If you participated in a project, get a newspaper clipping or quote from a web article that describes the project. If you can arrange it, try to get a letter from the project leader confirming your participation. Make high quality scans and add them to the pile. Add photos, and make a point of taking photos of yourself when you do projects. Do you have a home lab or workshop? A shot of yourself in the shop (assuming it’s presentable) is a good idea.
When you look at getting involved in projects, attend seminars, correspond with other scientists, keep your portfolio in mind. If you’ve worked with a professional, find out if you can get a letter of reference or recommendation. Just sitting down and brainstorming a list of your science skills, i.e., instruments you can use, laboratory techniques you’ve mastered, etc. can say a lot about you. This is yet one more excellent reason to keep a notebook of your work, because that can also form an adjunct to your portfolio.Â
But a portfolio is not just a great tool to help smooth the way if you’re trying to get the attention of a professional scientist or publisher. It’s also a good way to track and evaluate your own progress as a scientist. Amateurs have to take responsibility for their own educational development, which has advantages and disadvantages. It can become a bank account of ideas from which you can draw throughout your scientific career.