Good Advice Is Good Advice

Over at Inside Higher Ed, there’s a list of “survival tips” for women entering grad school in the sciences. It’s a pretty good and pretty typical list of advice– you can find more or less the same advice posted somewhere every fall.

What’s striking about it, though, is that if you stripped all the specific gender references out, it would still be a good list of advice, for students of either gender. Here’s the list with gender-specific terms removed:

Be realistic about support from faculty. As a general matter, faculty of either gender want to see their students of either gender succeed. They are, however, busy people, and will not necessarily have time to help you with every little bump along the way.

Connect with other students in STEM. Research in science is necessarily going to be a slog at times, and it’s good to have a support network to turn to when things get rough. Get to know your fellow students, help them when you can, and they’ll help you when they can.

Fight “impostor syndrome.” “Impostor syndrome” is the feeling that you don’t actually belong in your graduate program, and that everybody else is way more qualified than you are. I first heard of the term from a male colleague here, and my reaction was “Oh, they have a name for that?” Essentially everybody gets that at some point– or several different points. I had it bad a couple of times when things weren’t going well in classes or in the lab. Be aware of it, and when you start to get that feeling, work through it.

Let stupid remarks slide I’m actually kind of surprised that this one hasn’t generated a slew of angry comments. It’s probably because not that many scientists read IHE, and not many of the IHE regulars read posts about science. This is probably the most debatable point of advice, as taken too far it can mean turning a blind eye to some really bad behavior.

To a point, though, it’s worth keeping in mind. The notion of scientists as horribly awkward nerds is a stereotype, but not without some element of truth. Many people in the sciences are a little weak on the social skills front, and will occasionally say really dumb things. These should be corrected where possible, but gently. Not every stupid remark is a deliberate act, and it’s better not to assume malice from the beginning.

Actions speak louder than words. The single most important decision you’ll make in grad school is your choice of advisor. When you’re thinking about working for someone, don’t just believe whatever they say, look at what they do. Lots of faculty can talk a great game about how they interact with their research groups, but then turn out to be very different in practice.

Ask around a bit– most departments aren’t that big, and everybody will know who the people are that you should be careful of working with. How do they treat their students? Do their students get opportunities to publish and give talks? Do their students get good jobs? Make sure that you end up working for someone you can work with, not just someone who sounded like someone you could work with.

Find support wherever you can. This is really a recap of the second point: get to know your fellow students and as many faculty as you can, so when you have questions or problems, you have people to turn to for advice.

Seek help. If you find yourself in a situation that seems to be intolerable, it might be that it really is intolerable. Don’t suffer in silence, do something to deal with it. If the advisor you thought was a nice guy turns out to be a psycho, talk to other people in the department about it, and consider changing advisors.

This doesn’t have to be restricted to harassment of whatever type, either. If you’re stuck on a research problem, don’t be afraid to ask other people for help– nobody expects you to be a lone genius capable of solving every problem. And I don’t really need to tell you to find a group of other students to do class work with, do I?

Be a mentor yourself. When you’re in a position to help out some other student, either because they’ve come to you to ask for help, or because they are obviously troubled, do it. Grad school doesn’t have to be a Hobbesian state of nature– if you work together with your fellow students, you can make it a more pleasant experience for everybody involved.

Some of these items are obviously more important for some students than others, but on the whole, they’re good advice for everybody, not just for women. The problematic aspects of grad school– and there are many problematic aspects of grad school– are not, in general, things that anybody particularly enjoys. It’s kind of an unpleasant experience at times, regardless of gender.

This is something I wish was made clear more often: lists like this, or even official calls for more support structures, are not about shielding women from harm because they’re fragile flowers who can’t handle the real world. They’re about making graduate school more bearable for people, full stop.

Comments

  1. #1 J-Dog
    September 2, 2010

    Excellent advice and post – thanks.

  2. #2 Kea
    September 2, 2010

    This is the worst post you have ever written. This advice can have a TOTALLY different meaning to women in science. Take ‘imposter syndrome’ for instance. Women are made to feel this way from the day they are born, if they are of a technical bent. This is not just a simple little bit of sensible advice … it is something to be deeply aware of and to constantly do battle with.

  3. #3 Kea
    September 2, 2010

    Then there’s the ‘let stupid comments slide’ … OMG, you have no fucking clue what THAT means.

  4. #4 CCPhysicist
    September 2, 2010

    GMP is also a regular blogger, at
    http://academic-jungle.blogspot.com/
    where you are likely to find lots of interesting things, although she did not cross-post that particular article in both places.

    Although your observations have a lot of merit, it would be wrong to assume that several of these issues don’t have far greater significance for young women in science.

  5. #5 agm
    September 3, 2010

    Chad, you are quite correct, all of this is good advice for any grad student, whether traditional/returning, male/female, affluent white/minority first to go to college, etc. I wish I’d had the maturity to see these and take advantage before burning out.

    I would qualify that it doesn’t have to be a psycho advisor either. Sometimes people just don’t fit in a lab or turn out to not enjoy their chosen topic. Seeking help ASAP is critical.

  6. #6 Rob Knop
    September 4, 2010

    Kea — relax. I don’t think Chad is denying that women in physics (at least) grad school don’t have special challenges that men don’t have to deal with. What he’s saying, though, is that when a *man* reads the advice, he recognizes a lot of things that *he* struggled with in grad school. Just because, statistically, women struggle *more* than men in grad school doesn’t mean that the men aren’t struggling themselves.

    I know that I’ve had imposter syndrome at various stages most of my life. Starting at Quest and looking at all of the other tutors here, and how creative they are at running block-system classes that are full of great active learning stuff, I’m feeling it again….

  7. #7 GMP
    September 4, 2010

    Chad, thanks for discussing the article (here’s the link to the corresponding blog post). However, I second Kia’s sentiment that in the original article the advice (beyond the paragraph captions you outlined) means significantly different things for women. No one says guys don’t have a hard time in grad schools; but it’s not just hard vs harder, it’s hard vs “you don’t freakin’ belong here/everyone ogles your rack” harder. So a qualitative difference.

    For instance, very few men have any idea of the frequency and severity of dismissive/offensive/stupid remarks women receive — it’s not just an occasional one. It’s really paramount to learn to sift through all the garbage and not react to everything or it can totally bring you down. Same with impostor syndrome — for most men, feeling like they don’t belong is not routinely enforced by the surroundings from a young age. Finally, the Seek Help section was really written for victims of sexual harrasment and it is really not the same as seeking guidance due to being stuck on a research problem (which really happens to everyone and is an inherent part of PhD training).

    Overall, while I liked your post and how it emphasizes the common graduate school trials and tribulations in the sciences, I am afraid that it also appears to downplay the significant obstacles that young women face while being trained in STEM fields.

  8. #8 Chad Orzel
    September 5, 2010

    My intent was not to deny or minimize anyone else’s struggles. Rather, it was more or less what Rob says:

    What he’s saying, though, is that when a *man* reads the advice, he recognizes a lot of things that *he* struggled with in grad school. Just because, statistically, women struggle *more* than men in grad school doesn’t mean that the men aren’t struggling themselves.

    You could also easily replace all the gender references in the article with references to race or culture– more easily than I removed the gender statements, honestly.

    I also think that the recognition that many of these issues are common to all graduate students is a good and useful thing, at least rhetorically. It helps make more clear that what’s really being sought is not special advantages for certain sub-groups, but decent treatment for everyone.

  9. #9 Jocelyn
    September 6, 2010

    As a woman who made it through grad school, I did have the same reaction as Chad to originally reading the list – that is good advice for pretty much anyone making it through grad school. And I also agree that much of the structural things suggested to make grad school woman-friendly are really things that make it human-friendly.

    But I do understand Kia’s reaction (and I bristle immediately at the word ‘relax’ being used in response to it) because I’ve had a couple conversations in the past where comments like “these are good ideas for everyone” turned *very* quickly into “women don’t have any extra difficulty, it’s just as hard for men.” Which I don’t think is true – and I don’t think Chad thinks so either.

    The societal burden on women is difficult, particularly in imposter syndrome – I spent a substantial portion of my third year with a nagging mental undercurrent of doubting if being female was fundamentally compatible with being a world-class physicist. It was partially sparked by idiotic web comments and partially also fought by online responses which were both feminist and scientific. One other thing that *did* help was remembering comments from a professor at an undergrad women-in-mathematics roundtable that women tended to be much less confident than men of the same level within a class. Knowing that there was a perception difference there helped me combat it.

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