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.