I am a young scientist

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.

— Bob


On navigating politics and the importance of female mentors

One of things I find hardest about being a graduate student is navigating interactions with others of varied statuses around me. My institute now is very different, culturally, from my undergraduate institution, despite being in the same country and only a couple of hours away. I think a lot of that comes from being an institute, rather than a university department – of course we are connected with a university, but there are no undergrads around, and very few Masters students. There are few teaching responsibilities for PIs, and none for postdocs or PhD students. There is no departmental tea room!*

Here, the only people who ask questions in seminars are PIs and senior postdocs and people who don’t know yet. People don’t hang around after seminars and debate or chat; work always takes priority over networking. The culture is less relaxed, but more than that, it’s unclear even what is and is not acceptable. There are few opportunities to observe how others interact with each other – to see who is gregarious and who of few words, to see if and how other students will approach a PI with a question. The politics of how and what and when I am supposed to speak to others about their work, about my work, to ask for help, to collaborate – it escapes me. And of course there are no written rules, no induction course, nothing to go by except what observation you can.

Maybe I’m just slow at this – I certainly wasn’t the most socially skilled as a child – but I wish there was a little more guidance available on navigating departmental and intra-lab politics. The title of this post by Athene Donald – On being Feisty and Unconventional – made me smile because I figure that’s what I’m doomed to be. I’ve always been feisty, even when shy, and eventually a part of me says sod convention, whatever it is around here, and speak my mind.

I’m probably going to grow up to be one of Hope Jahren’s ‘difficult women‘. I’d quite like that, actually 🙂

But what I’d really like is a local female mentor to help me tread the line between ‘difficult’ and ‘impossible’. Between ‘feisty’ and ‘rude’. Between ‘confident’ and crossing boundaries.
I have two assigned academic mentors, both male, along with my two male supervisors… People talk about the importance of mentors, of multiple mentors… but, erm, how do you find one, if you want one, in the first place?

— BoB

*probably what I miss most; I think a department-wide tea break is great for building community.

Not-quite-harrassment and (lack of) professional conduct

I’ve been lucky enough in my career so far to not have experienced any much overt sexism, or had harrassment or assault directed at me, unlike these ladies (and many more). What I have experienced in the last year, though, is the ignorance of young, mostly white, heterosexual men about how people who aren’t them experience the world. My PhD lab is pretty international – I doubled the numbers of British students – and pretty gender balanced. Somehow, even this diverse group of highly educated people manages to contain some complete bigots – racist, sexist, classist. The thing that most affected me (read: pissed me off) was the way some of my fellow students would talk about the women in our department.

For the sake of anonymity, I won’t describe in detail – suffice to say they had a codeword, for whether a girl was “hot enough” or not. New starter? Is she, isn’t she? What’s she wearing today? She looks goood. Don’t you think she’s attractive? Does she have a boyfriend?

It took me a year to get the words together. First, I didn’t know the guys well; then, I knew they didn’t mean any harm; then I realised that it didn’t matter what they meant, the comments could still cause harm – but I couldn’t vocalise my thoughts coherently. Then I still couldn’t vocalise my thoughts as coherently as I’d have liked, but I got fed up and told them off anyway. I’m not sure how effective it was. I’m not sure I convinced them that it’s degrading to judge female colleagues – women who are there to work, to do awesome science! – on their appearance, that even if they are joking, such comments can cause harm to those around them. I’m afraid they agreed not to make such comments at work just to avoid upsetting me. I’m afraid they’ll treat me differently – that we won’t be friends – from now on. (Then again, I don’t want my friends to talk like that either, not just my colleagues). But, there have been no incidents of this behaviour since, at least not within my hearing.

The thing that the recent science-writing-harrassment-deluge has brought home to me is how hard it is to speak up against these sorts of behaviour. Posts like this:

You wonder if, objectively, what happened to you can really be as big a deal as it feels like it is to you — if the fact that it feels like a big deal to you, one that you can’t just shake off, means that something is wrong with you.

And this:

It was all reading between the lines, which made it easy for me to discount my own experience. Instead, I did my best to ignore my discomfort to avoid conflict, or otherwise convinced myself that I was reading too far into it.

… I really recognise those feelings. And the thing is, I’m… well… kinda a belligerent person. I always used to get in trouble at school for being stubborn. I do try to consider my opinions before I form them or if new evidence appears, but I generally have no problems stating them, and backing them up, and arguing about them. I’m not usually worried about not being liked. I’d rather be a good person than a good scientist – maybe that’s something I shouldn’t admit. And if it took me a year to tell these guys they were out of line? These being fellow students, not people in a position of power? What about less short-tempered strong-minded women? What would I do if it was my boss saying this?

I have another data point: another female student in my lab tried, somewhat, to tell them off when she first started. But, she said to me (paraphrased), she realised they were just young guys joking around, and she’d rather be liked than make a fuss. And this woman is the other most outspoken person in the lab, the only other person to call out the blatant classism we overheard one day. It makes me sad that we feel this way.

My opinion is that this kind of inappropriate, disrespectful behaviour can come from a blurring of the lines between professional and personal life. In academia, work takes up so much of your time and has so few rules, so few expectations – e.g. no dress codes! – that it doesn’t always feel like a job. Often, you socialise with the same people you work with. And it becomes really easy to act the same way in the lab as you on a boys’ night, or down the pub with your close friends. Note, I’m not condoning objectifying women or being racist in those situations – but there’s no denying that it happens. I don’t have the energy and I don’t think it’s my business to tell people what they should or shouldn’t say in the pub – but at work, it’s different. None of these racist, sexual, derogatory comments would be acceptable in a normal workplace. As much as it may not always feel like it, as PhD students / postdocs / academic staff, we are in a professional environment and we should act like it.
The question is, how to get this message across? Professional conduct codes for students? (Do some institutions already have this?) Mandatory diversity / privilege awareness training? Suggestions welcomed, as well as anything you know of that is already in place.
Edit: to add a link to this post, How Not to Be That Dude – perhaps this should be required reading for first year PhDs!
 — Bob