I am a young scientist. Ridiculously young, according to some of my colleagues.
I’m 23. I’m the most traditional of traditional students, I guess: no gap year, no work break, no time off for family or health reasons. I’m lucky! I went straight from school to university, where I did a 3 year bachelors degree followed by a one year undergraduate MSci. This is pretty standard in the UK, where most bachelors degrees are 3 years, and a Masters, whether taught or research, is usually one year – although tacking it on to the end of a undergrad degree, as I did, is unusual. Most people graduate first, but since the fees are so much higher for a graduate masters I took the cheaper option, since I had it! Compare this to most of the rest of Europe, or the US, where undergrad degrees tend to be 4 years plus 2 years for a masters degree… aaaaaand, yep, I’m 23, I’m a second-year PhD student, and I’m the youngest in the lab. I’m younger than both the first year students! (One took a similar path to me but is still somehow older, and the other has worked for a while.)
Why am I talking about this? Well, for me, my age affects my confidence in the lab. When I hear “Oh wow, I’m a decade older than you” or “You look, like, sixteen. To me!” or “at your age you should/shouldn’t do x” – it doesn’t make me feel like a colleague, like a peer. I feel like looking, and being, younger than the average student, means that I can be taken less seriously. It doesn’t feel like a compliment (even though I suspect most of the comments are meant to be). It’s not okay to say “You’re so old!”, why is it okay to say “you’re so young!”?
I wish I had some advice to give about how I’ve dealt with it, but I don’t, really, other than venting (like this). It’s important to remember that you have exactly the same right to be there as your fellow students – yes, they might have a few more years of experience, yes, they might have more degrees than you, but you were still accepted into the same PhD program. You deserve to be there. Don’t let imposter syndrome get you down.
Having said that, I do think a year or two of break between masters and PhD would have been helpful for me. Not so much for the lab experience as the life experience. Being an adult is difficult, damnit, and I may have forgotten to pay rent for a few days, or given up on cooking dinner and bought takeaway, or procrastinated doing a necessary errand because it couldn’t be done online in my PJs with a cup of tea, a few too many times in my first year. It would have be nice to learn how to deal with the stuff that comes with renting privately, and living with a partner rather than a handful of friends, and having a less flexible schedule, while I wasn’t also having to deal with the stress of starting a PhD. A few standing orders, a whiteboard, and some fiddling of how we share tasks later and we’re coping pretty well with being adults, thankfully 🙂 Given the chance, though, I would take a short break, and I’d definitely recommend others to do so if they have the chance.