Advice for Young Aspiring Scientists

"The most useful piece of learning for the uses of life is to unlearn what is untrue." -Antisthenes

As many of you know, in addition to news about cosmology, space, astronomy, and physics, I'm also heavily involved in education. This includes, in various stages, teaching, curriculum design, and mentoring students. But I got the following message from Rita from the UK last week -- who's about to start her A-levels -- and I felt slightly ashamed. (Message edited slightly for clarity.)

I am interested in space, though currently my interest in it is not very specific. I am interested in the engineering bit of things that can go into space, and also the different geography and environments of exo-planets. I have not yet even started my studies but thought it's better to start with some knowledge.

I also found that fewer females take interest in these subjects so I was quite surprised. I am also worried that my learning progress might differ from that of the boys. I know it is a very hard field of study. I also want to know, from your view, what is professional life like in this field?

Why ashamed? Because with all the educational stuff I do, and as hard as I try to make this site accessible and interesting for all levels and ages, I haven't ever given advice to aspiring scientists who are at the pre-college level. (Also, because once-upon-a-time I used to teach High School myself!) So what advice do I have for a young aspiring scientist?

Image credit: Hawaiian Mission Academy.

First off, you can do it! If you walk into any major college or University with a strong motivation or drive to specialize in any science or mathematics, your current plans -- to take the standard A-level (or University-bound) curriculum -- will prepare you extraordinarily well. As general advice for any student, regardless of what country you're in, I can definitively say that learning math up through and including Calculus should provide you with all of the tools you'll need to head down any scientific path. (And even stopping short of calculus -- say, with trigonometry or pre-calculus -- shouldn't pose a difficulty if you're willing to take calculus your freshman year.)

As far as science goes, knowing a good deal (i.e., a solid year-long course) about the three major sciences -- Physics, Chemistry, and Biology -- will give you a solid background to progress forward in practically any scientific discipline. (Including engineering.) I highly recommend taking all three; you will learn valuable ways of thinking and problem solving from each course that are distinct from the other two. If you can take an advanced version of each of these courses (either Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate), that should position you even more strongly. Although I highly recommend doing this, there's nothing that's going to hinder you from being an excellent scientist if you have to take the introductory versions of these courses in college.

If this were 20 years ago, I wouldn't recommend these next two things; as it stands, these are becoming more and more vital to success. But one thing you're definitely going to want to do is learn computer programming.

Image credit: Courtesy of (a now-defunct site), on iterators in C++.

Not just computer science or computer usage (or even computer engineering), mind you. Computer programming. If you're going to become a scientist, you're going to need to know how to make a machine do repetitive tasks that no one has made it do before. If you can learn one object-oriented language (my choice is C++, but any language will really do), you will be in far superior shape than if you need to figure it out in college (or later). Learning how to program is something that, perhaps surprisingly, gets very difficult to do for the first time the older you get. So start learning it before you get to college.

And speaking of language, no matter what scientific field you're planning on going into, you'll definitely want to become as proficient as possible in English.

As far as I know, all of the hard sciences (although math is the exception) currently conduct business primarily in English. If you want to learn modern cosmology? English. Learn about superconductors? English. Molecular biology? Explosives? Chemical engineering? English, every single one. You will never be sorry for it in any of these fields if you spend the time now becoming as close to fluent in English as possible.

So those are the basics, and realistically, you'll be completely prepared to head off to any College or University and become a great scientist with this background.

But what if you want to get ahead?

Many people will advise you to start looking farther down the line, and to start learning more and more specialized things as early as possible. Examples? For math, learning multivariable calculus, linear algebra, and differential equations. For physics, you could start on advanced mechanics, electricity and magnetism, and quantum mechanics. For chemistry, you could start learning organic and/or physical chemistry. And for a biologist, I'd probably go with molecular biology as the first advanced course.

But none of that is my advice. You won't fall behind or create any difficulty at all for yourself by waiting until college to learn about those specific things. But what you can't replace is the time you spend, while you're still young, thinking about the big ideas that are out there.

There are many great books that you can find either at a library, bookstore, or via google on any topic you're interested in. (Including exoplanets and rocketry, by the way.) In my experience, reading and learning about those ideas that fascinate you will be far more valuable to you than delving deep into the advanced undergraduate material while you're still in high school. How so? Let me explain...

As Einstein so eloquently put it, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." And that creativity, that imagination, that ability to find that new approach to the problem everyone else is working on is what's going to make you a great scientist. We don't have courses on it, but that's the most important thing to foster, especially at your age.

So read. Talk to knowledgeable people, including your peers. Search the internet. Find books, both modern and a little older. (Sometimes, the best new ideas were actually old ideas from 50+ years ago.) And don't worry about learning things as deeply as possible; teach yourself how to find the answers to your questions (and to brush up against the limits of our knowledge) instead. You'll be much better prepared.

And as for the last part, Rita, of your question?

Yes, it's true that there are more men than women that wind up with careers as professors or scientists in the physical sciences, particularly in physics, which is what I'm most familiar with. But there is no concrete evidence that this is because boys in any way progress faster than girls. In my experience as well as in all of the studies I've seen, girls are not only extremely capable of being great scientists of all varieties, they often do better than boys at a wide variety of levels given the same education and the same tools.

Unfortunately, it is also my experience that many people -- even in academia -- will treat girls and women differently than they treat boys and men. Some of them will likely belittle you and make light of your abilities for no good reason. Some of them will dismiss your very good ideas for no good reason. And some of them, while talking to you, will stare at your chest and your rear end, paying almost no attention to the legitimate words coming out of your mouth. For no good reason. I am by no means telling you how to deal with this or condoning this behavior, but I am letting you know to expect it. (Men get this too, but this unacceptable behavior is much more prevalent towards women.) There are very well-respected people at the highest levels in the physical sciences who will think less of you simply because you're a woman.

Don't let these people either intimidate or discourage you. As I said at the outset, you can do it! So do what you can to learn, as broadly as possible, about how the natural world works. Work on your math, computer, and English language skills, and try to learn the big ideas that are out there, particularly the ones that excite you. And to anyone who tells you that you can't do it, there's a secret weapon that will prove them wrong every time. Hard work. I've never met a student, male or female, who put all the work in that they were supposed to and didn't succeed.

For that matter, I haven't met anyone, no matter how bright, who succeeded despite not working hard. So, Rita and anyone else, that's my advice to you. Comments? Follow-ups? Any further advice?


More like this

1-- Work hard. I cant stress this enough. You think its obvious, but smart kids dont have to work hard in most classes, so they think things are going to be just as easy in hard courses in high school and college. You have to work hard and study-- and know that when you do well, its because you WORKED HARD, not luck.

2-- Dont close doors before you have to. When I was in high school I wanted to be an engineer. End of story. Math, chemistry, physics, those were My Thing. I refused to take extra biology courses because that was the stupid science. **GRIN** Turns out that while I really liked physics, I LOVED biology, when I took the time to take it and really learn about it.

2b- Dont close doors if you dont have to. We need physicists and chemists and engineers and computer programmers in biology too. Everything overlaps these days.

3-- Be confident in yourself. You know what you are capable of, and you are almost certainly more capable than you think. Treasure good mentors wherever you find them, because they make you even better. As far as sexist people, *shrug* They are irrelevant. Ignore them and be great, and if you must, crush their souls. But there are lots of stupid people on this planet, not just sexist people. Dont waste energy on them unless you have to.

4-- Dont forget to have fun. I think Im like the only person who wishes they would have *made time* to have more fun in college. I crushed every paper. I aced every exam. I murdered the MCAT. Science people are usually Type A people, and we can get too focused on grades. Have fun too.

The bit about learning programming is great advice. I still cant believe its not included in my uni degree as a requirement because it really is everywhere.

By Joel Martens (not verified) on 02 Aug 2010 #permalink

Very good advice here. Personally, I'm constantly annoyed at my lack of background in physics (I'm in biology). However, I will be taking a programming course next year, so I'm moving forward.
Wish I'd had this advice earlier, though.

This goes to both Rita and Ethan.

I think Ethan has presented you with the best possible way to figure out what you want to do. Try everything.

Never ever limit your scope of curiosity. All my life I've been a huge science fan. I took every science and math course any school had to offer expecting to find my calling somewhere down the road. At one point I aspired to be a theoretical particle physicist, I REALLY wanted to completely understand and control gravity; to unify the theories and be a hero. Though to be perfectly honest, junior year in High School, I found my passion in a completely different place. I found it in telling stories with film and video, particularly editing, which I now have as an awesomely fun career. I came to this by doing exactly what Ethan recommended. I tried it all, even subjects I thought would end up just a fun hobby. It simply happened, and I cannot explain it.

It is important to taste the vast expanse of human knowledge, but equally crucial to your success is to listen to yourself and no one else. (Like Ethan said) Holistic introductory foundations regardless of your future choices will no doubt inspire and help you in finding that passion. They may take you down unexpected paths in life you haven't yet imagined. When you find that passion that thing you're obsessed with, it will be unrelentingly, almost subconsciously vocal. For me it was something I happened to totally enjoy and did all the time without even realizing it. Don't forget to notice your own trends through the convolutions of the day to day. They might have information about you, which you never considered.

Once you find that passion, a dam breaks and only pure awesome floods out. I would edit video until the school kicked me out. I'd try to get weekend passes to the rooms and make my teacher come in and ask a zillion questions. I bothered everyone I could find who would tell me anything more. I always loved movies but I took it a step further. I went to plays, took acting class, learned photography, got a camera and shot tons of crappy movies, watched tape after tape of old commercials and did everything I could to expand my breadth in the relating fields. It was all completely unintentional and fun to me. It's also important to have a broad understanding of the disciplines with which yours will intersect. Those connections often lead to unexpected opportunities.

Once you find that slice of the human pie, your drive will never let you down. That's the zen of success, the adventure and experience down the path you most love, on which no one can ever stop you. No matter the conditions, how long or how brutally hard you work, if it is what you truly love and find joy doing, you will have the most fun you've ever had. It really won't feel like 'work' at all.

The universe is HUGE and there's so much to do. I hope you find the thing which you so enjoy doing, you can't stop yourself. Cheers and I wish you the best.

Mr. Siegel,
I've been following your blog for probably a year or so and I must say, you have a great sense of storytelling and disseminating incredibly complex ideas. Your perspective and voice on life and science speaks volumes of an honest, virtuous man who stands as a guiding light for other's realization and ultimate attainment of their wildest dreams. Each post, consistently excellent is an inspiration to read. I enjoy reading your content even though I already know it well. For that, I applaud you.

Additional advice for young scientists:

1. Take a course in library science that will teach you how to use libraries collections properly and how to construct proper word searches. Learn the art of intuitive searching using (1) indexed journal/citation catalogs and (2) Google.

2. Start gaining lab experience early, in high school if possible. Seek out programs that match talented students to university projects -summer, or weekends, year round.

3. Do not be afraid to take on a summer internship in a commercial or government lab, for exposure and experience - and for developing contacts. The more face exposure, the better your odds of winning competitive scholarships, fellowships and later on, the best post-doc positions.

4. Learn the art of patient failure. This is the make-or-break part of science that most aspiring young people are not prepared for, and it costs

Science is at the very least, 50% failure, in some fields much more, depending on the subject matter, the PI's experience and acumen, and the background reading, technique legwork and care in design / preparation before execution. The other item that is taxing is repetition. Be prepared to repeat work several times at the very minimum.

5. Do not be afraid to do a little shotgunning - quick and dirty sorties to see if an idea will pan out. These often occur as little 'side projects', from unexpected findings in a main experimental sequence within a larger project. Sometimes they yield gold, especially if it allows you to leapfrog forward in conceptual and mechanistic understanding of a particular problem.

6. Pay attention. Sit in on departmental seminars as often as you can, in other topical areas - you will be surprised how much it can sharpen your analytical thinking, and perceptive skills. Read broadly across science (religiously read journals like Science, Nature, PNAS or similar journals in math, physics and engineering), and even delve on occasion into applied areas if you work in the basic sciences, because connectivity of facts, ideas, concepts and techniques is how you get from A to B, when others presume that a problem is intractable.

Serendipity and connectedness is your friend.

7. Lastly, be prepared to love your work. Do not even consider it as a 9-to-5 occupation - its a hobby and avocation that you are paid to do, if you are lucky, smart and flexible. In most fields, a 40 hour workweek is a pipedream - it will never happen. In some, you can be sure that you will be in the lab, at your desk, or in the field, for most of your waking hours at times.

Being a scientist or research engineer is probably one of the most rewarding careers one can think of. It you have the knack for it, chances are you are doing what you are best suited to do, and that is your Purpose.

Don't overlook the importance of a strong vocabulary, because words are the tools of thought. Many years ago, when I first read this simple fact, it seemed to me to be quite profound and, at the same time, blatantly obvious. I saw it as fundamental wisdom, and it is no less wise today. Try to imagine what it would be like to develop a simple plan of any kind, having no vocabulary at all! Vocabulary testing can be arranged at many academic facilities, and vocabulary books are written that can increase your vocabulary, regardless of the strength of your current vocabulary. Remaining in an academic environment will naturally expand your vocabulary, but don't assume that your vocabulary will take care of itself. Be sure to avoid the easy (lazy) habit of skipping over (ignoring) unfamiliar words you encounter. Take personal responsibility and commit yourself to a lifetime habit of increasing your vocabulary. The greater your vocabulary, the more expansive, diverse, and creative is your thinking. When you have mastery of words that others do not, then you have the ability to think thoughts that are beyond the capability of others. A strong vocabulary is the common thread that links many of the most successful people in this world. After all, words ARE the tools of thought.

Frank Burdge

By Frank Burdge (not verified) on 02 Aug 2010 #permalink

Two things more...

1. If it doesn't seem too hard, then you're not challenging yourself. In each of my engineering classes, I got assigned a "problem set" every week, and every single problem looked impossible. Yet, week after week, for years, I turned in answers on time. It turns out, since graduation, I use none of what I took classes in (really, none), but I solve impossible problems on schedule. I'm still an engineer, and those problem sets were essential.

2. Following the rules is the way to cattle pen. Anything interesting you end up doing will come about because you made it happen, not because anybody else thought it was a good idea. Don't wait until graduation to start pursuing unique interests.

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 02 Aug 2010 #permalink

I suffered a very peculiar form of discrimination when taking traditionally male classes, with almost all male teachers. For some reason (!) if there was practical work to be done, the teacher would demonstrate using one student's equipment and that student would literally always be me. Then I would twiddle my thumbs while the boys worked out what to do. Basically, I didn't have to (couldn't) do as much work as them, and didn't get in as much practice. This is obviously a bad, bad thing. And if those teachers assumed I couldn't really handle the practicals as well as the boys by the end of the year, they were probably right, obviously.

So look out for that one girls, if you really want to get ahead in a traditionally male field. It's very hard to stop them doing this politely. They think they're being chivalrous, and some of them think you're just there for a laugh and that it doesn't really matter if you learn the stuff or not.

If you find yourself in an environment unconducive to learning, such as your school sucks or you can't find help, then you must take it upon yourself to learn.
After school go to the city or university library, check out books, find a safe quite place to read and study, cemeteries are a great place, nobody goes there except to die.
Read, read, read and remember. Once you have that knowledge no one can take it away from you.
If your situation improves you will at least have a great vocabulary that will allow you to catch up and even if you never get the opportunity to go to college, never stop learning...ever, you won't be disappointed. Take your education into your own hands, you be the director.


By Sphere Coupler (not verified) on 03 Aug 2010 #permalink

Thanks a lot, that was great advise. I would like to emphasize the math issue. Math is very relevant. I am doing Biology but math is everywhere. you can't miss it.

thanks again.

"I've never met a student, male or female, who put all the work in that they were supposed to and didn't succeed."

Now you've met one. If success is defined as achieving your dreams, even partially, then I count myself as a failure. Although I appreciate your enthusiasm to inspire students, I can't help but feel that this creates an unachievable, idealized worldview that will inevitably be shattered at some point.

I used to have that worldview. I was the ultimate optimist and truly believed that I could achieve anything. I knew I was smart and I worked my a** off during college to reach my goals (I was in physics and math). Although there were some life circumstances during college that hindered me (money, etc.), I honestly believe after 8 years of painful self-examination that the real reason I "failed" was due to discrimination.

Because I am a woman, I literally had to work twice as hard to prove myself. If I made a tiny mistake (who doesn't? that's what college is for), I was held up as a bad example for the entire class, but when I got an answer right (quite often actually), it was passed off as a fluke. I would say something in class and it was ignored, but then a male would say the EXACT SAME THING and it was the best idea ever. Etc. I had NO mentors in either high school or college to help me through all this. And quite frankly, men quite often just don't have a f-ing clue what women are going through. I had male advisors that told me to "get over" problems or that told me that my home life should not matter.

I ended up not going on to grad school in physics, a goal I had since I was 8 years old. I now work doing computer programming and network security, which is interesting, but it's certainly not my first love. To this day, I still dread the thought of attending grad school, even though I was just admitted to a master's program in a social science field. I know it will be completely different in a different field, but past experience is hard to get over. I'm only doing it because I've been told I can't advance at my job without some sort of advanced degree.

So, I consider myself a failure at achieving my dreams even though I worked quite hard. I'm not saying it can't be done. But it is certainly much easier as a woman if you: aren't married, don't have kids, have parental support through college, don't own a home, don't have a job, are well-off financially, go to a prestigious school where there are more likely to be women, etc, etc, etc. Then at least you will have fewer distractions, and the discrimination will be slightly easier to deal with.

-Dose of Reality

By DoseOfReality (not verified) on 03 Aug 2010 #permalink

Most important: be passionate.

I don't know if you must be born with it or if you can grow it later in life, but IME, passion/obsession is what's going to fuel the persperation that natural science requires. If you're not, don't bother -- there are easier ways to make a living.

Thank you for the wonderful advice, Dr. Ethan! As a young girl going into the scientific field, I appreciate the time you took to write an article like this. And happy birthday!

By Chelsea Partridge (not verified) on 03 Aug 2010 #permalink

All of the typical motivational stuff has been pretty well covered, so I'll just go ahead an second the 1st comment's call for fun.

Make some poor decisions. I'm in grad school now, and there are still plenty of kids here who won't go out for drinks with their peers because academics dominates their lives so much. They haven't learned to balance their personal life with their career. Not only will this become more of an issue if you'd like to have a family, it also makes for a tedious life. A vibrant personal life will pay dividends when you're trying to work through the toughest parts of your studies. There need not be a trade-off here either. Sometimes the haze of a mild hangover is the best medicine to make you calm down and get your library time in.

Obviously everyone is different, but make sure you're prepared to try doing things that you might think would be counter-productive. Learning what interests you and good ways to pursue those interests requires a lot of experimentation. You never have to be afraid of making missteps, so long as you recognize them as such when they become apparent.

Another bump for math. Like programming, it is something that is easier to learn the younger you are. Also realize that you will probably only have a couple of years in college to work hard at math before your major studies start to take over. So, a lot of times, whatever level of math proficiency someone has at the end of his junior year is what he is stuck with for the rest of his career. It is desirable to have that level as high as possible.

By CherryBomb (not verified) on 03 Aug 2010 #permalink

While I sympathize with #12, I disagree with several points.

'Prestigious' schools are a waste of money in the sciences. Its not like the Harvard kids get the REAL calculus, and those dopes at public schools or liberal arts colleges get the off-brand calculus. And while smaller schools dont always have the same equipment/research levels as 'prestigious' schools, thats why there are summer undergraduate research programs at every major uni in the country (how I got into HIV research).

And I wouldnt trade the personal relationships with my professors in college for all the 'prestige' in the world (my professors not only knew my name, they actually cared about me and wanted me to succeed, even the d00ds).

This also helps with financial stress. I got *in* to Very Prestigious University, but I *went* to Truman State because they offered me a fantastic scholarship that included room/board. If you dont have money (my family doesnt) and you dont want to stress about money or worry about working a lot in college, you need to think about this.

Then you also have a problem if you pick a school based on 'prestige'... and its not prestigious in the field you are actually interested in. Social prestige and scientific prestige are different things. For example, the University of Alabama has been the training ground for many the Big Names in HIV, and University of Oklahoma has a renowned micro/immuno department. But you dont see Average Joes/Janes hopping around about the 'prestige' of Alabama and Oklahoma like Harvard and Yale.

I would not recommend choosing colleges/graduate schools based on social 'prestige'.

Dammit, I wish I'd heard that advice 20 years ago when I decided against learning more about math(s). I eventually became a physics teacher. Talk about back-pedalling!

By Crux Australis (not verified) on 03 Aug 2010 #permalink

The Calculus is extremely important. I'd recommend the volumes by the late Profs. Richard Courant and Fritz John; I have never seen any other Calculus text which is anywhere near as good - in fact I've seen universities using absolutely abysmal texts, which makes me wonder if they hired people who know what they're doing. Some schools I know of are removing the Calculus requirement for chemists - something which always gets me screaming at people. Without calculus one cannot be a chemist because one will not understand the basis of the equations they need to use.

Aside from Calculus, it is also essential to have a basic understanding of probability and statistics; in general, experiments and their results simply cannot be understood without a basic understanding of statistics. For theoretical chemists and physicists who really want the nasty details, quite a bit of statistics is needed (but only if you really want to understand the filthy details of statistical mechanics and the quantum theory).

As for computing - I think it's best to take a little time to understand the theoretical basis for computing - unfortunately that's probably something you have to learn on your own because very few teach it properly. To get a bit of theory + practice, you can always start with Don Knuth's The Art of Computer Programming. As for computer languages - if you need one, learn C; there is over 30 years of accumulated scientific code in C and C is well standardized. C++ is something to be learned later if you wish (though some would say, and I don't disagree on all points, that studying C first makes it difficult for one to learn C++). There is over 40 years of FORTRAN code, much of which complies with the F77 specification, but I do NOT recommend studying FORTRAN at all; it's something that can be learned in 2 weeks once you're comfortable with computing. I don't recommend it because everyone does their own thing and unless you stick to the ancient F77 specification you will have non-portable code. However, studying computing is most rewarding for those who do plan to create their own experiments (for example, analyzing terabytes of data from a satellite instrument) and build their own instruments.

Now - don't try to do too much at once; I'd say just the basic Calculus, Statistics, and maybe the first 3 volumes of Don Knuth's TAOCP. If you're really keen, then play with the C programming language as well (sorry I can't recommend any books; I don't know of any excellent ones).

Much later you can decide whether you will specialize in anything in particular or if you want to know a little of everything (HUGE task). Modern instruments tend to be fairly sophisticated and are built by teams of specialists (a small team would be ~10 people). Then there are the old fogies like myself who have a bad habit of doing all the instrument design, assembly, and programming (and only getting other people to do things like manufacture controller boards or mechanical parts). This requires more than a basic understanding of programming, physics, electronics, etc. and in my experience leaves me with no time to do my own research in the field I originally trained in. :(

So, aside from all the recommended bits the other thing to do is to write to people and talk to people about what's happening in a field - get them to explain what they do and talk about the relevance of that work in the future. (People like to hype things though, so don't believe everything you hear.) The WORST thing that can happen to a scientist is that you become isolated - that makes it hard to do any worthwhile work and also hard to get a job. (And that's also why I'm changing jobs ...)

By MadScientist (not verified) on 03 Aug 2010 #permalink

@#12: That's a sad story. Unfortunately there are still many places where you get those fossilized bozos who believe that women belong in the kitchen either making dinner or making babies. I was shocked when I was talking to a colleague 8 years ago and she told me she had never experienced discrimination in school or at work. You do have to get lucky and run into people who can help. And to add to what ERV wrote - I get the impression that there are more fossilized dicks in the 'prestigious' schools; you're really not missing out on much by going to a decent state college instead (the ol' boys network and the name on the diploma are the only things I can think of which would help - but not being a boy you're not getting access to the network anyway).

By MadScientist (not verified) on 03 Aug 2010 #permalink

Excellent post!

I would add that one big key is "trying stuff". You never know what you are good at and suck at unless you try stuff.

I got my undergraduate degree in biology in 1995 without ever having really used a computer. Luckily, it was the tech boom, and I ended up figure out that I am a pretty good programmer, and many years later I am now in my (hopefully) last year in a bioinformatics PhD.

I think a lot of women don't try programming or math and science because it never occurs to them that they might be good at it.

And, to poster 12, I wonder when your bad experience occurred? Things might be better now.

I am married, have a son, paid my own way through college, own a home, and was the first woman in the bioinformatics program at my school. And it's been totally fine.

It is certainly a different experience than doing it as a 23 year old male, but all stages of life have distractions. I worked in industry for a while I think it is a lot better than being a woman in any other field.

There are a lot of hours but the schedule is pretty flexible.

I completely agree with you. A prestigious school has it's own set of problems as well as it's benefits. However, when I mentioned those types of schools, I was really only referencing my belief (I can't back it up with data, so I can't say it's a fact) that you will find more women faculty and students in the predominately male fields of study at the more prestigious universities. I will happily rethink this idea if there is evidence to contradict it.

I did attend a prestigious school well-known for it's science programs for 1 year before deciding it wasn't for me. I ended up at a mid-sized state college some time later to finish my degree. So I feel that I can see both sides.

Surprisingly, I did not feel any gender discrimination at the prestigious school. Instead, the profs discriminated against ANYONE who was a non-traditional student. I couldn't attend the "required" study sessions held at 8pm when I lived an hour away and would have to park in a dark parking lot and walk alone to the building (before cell phones were ubiquitous). So I failed several classes. At the state college, I was completely accepted as a non-trad, except by some of the physics, math, and cs profs who definitely had the good-ole-boys network in full force.

Oh, and a few years ago I also asked my previous female college peers if they had ever been discriminated against because of their gender and they said NO. But when I asked if they felt they had ever been treated differently than their male peers, they said YES! I think there might be a problem in that even women don't know what discrimination really is.

This particular college experience occurred in the early 2000s. (As a non-traditional student, I've had several different colleges over many years.) I had earlier experiences where I didn't experience this kind of discrimination. However, I also experienced discrimination during high school in the early 90s.

Thanks for all your comments. Although I sometimes regret the way things turned out, I am not bitter. I know that I am happier now than I would be if I were still fighting discrimination every day. I too hope things have changed over the years and hope things will continue to get better.

By DoseOfReality (not verified) on 05 Aug 2010 #permalink

I heartily agree, Ethan. SarahAskew posted this link today ( to a cartoon that would be a great ammendment, IMHO.

By JuanBobsDad (not verified) on 05 Aug 2010 #permalink

I would add one more thing that you forgot, Ethan. Take a Technical Writing course in college, if available. I've never taken one directly, but scientific writing is very different than English literature writing. Several people had recommended it to me, and I didn't take the time to take it because it wasn't required, and because I thought it sounded boring. Big mistake. I had to learn it through trial and error all by myself. Can be done, but easier if you get a heads up through a course. At least that's my opinion. Good luck, and remember, passion in any field, makes for a more successful mindset and career. Good luck!

I think one other consideration that hasn't been emphasized is to look for good mentors wherever you can find them. This may be a teacher, but it could also be a guidance counselor, a librarian, someone at a local university, or a family friend. Someone with experience in a field you're interested in can give you good advice for what to do next, and can help to foster your interests. As a female Ph.D. student in biology, I find that having some female mentors along the way has been really helpful for dealing with discrimination and female-specific issues that come up.

hi and thank you professor for such a detailed reply. my results were all as i hoped and better still, got As in maths and science, which is what i was aiming for.
now i've started my alevels, already been a week. i took physics, computing(which kind of includes everything), maths which i find i quite like, and business. physics and computing i found them especially difficult, i seemed to not get any of it. i pondered repeatedly, i even thought if this just one of those things that couldn't be achieved no matter how much effort we put in. i even imagined giving up, and i absolutely hated the idea of it, it made me quite sad. but i found that it is because i am taking another step now which is a lot harder than the last one, and i need to put in more effort. and it could also be that when i am learning a something new, i seem to ask why for every single instruction(which i found was the difference between GCSE and A level), and if one of my question is unanswered, i can't seem to do everything that comes after. it's like when you have a certain goal, you can't form a plan when you don't even know the situation and affecting factors. and it is frustrating when you find afterwards that what you weren't understanding was such a simple matter...
if i could juggle any more subjects, i would gladly take the science subjects but for now i can't take them front line, as i feel i've got full on my plate. but i am sure i will be able to keep an open mind.
computing more complicated, it's like trying to learn how our brain works, externally and internally. feels challenging though.
i am also taking astronomy which is on the level between GCSE and A level..also not easy. but i love watching videos about the universe, better graphics preferable, haha
i went to this web called the student room, where any students discuss about academic, relationships...quite a few said that they found physics hard to get at first but at some point something clicks and they start getting on really well. i am wondering what that 'click' moment is?
as for the issues of gender, one of my physics teacher is a female so i don't see any sort of discrimination. but i do feel awfully alone, there is this other girl but she never ever ask any questions and almost doesn't speak at all which is polar opposite of me, if she did, we would be like best friends? none of my friends are interested in physics. though not to say the boys are bad, since all the bad apples got filtered at A levels.
and to say, thank you for all the advice since i felt lost. i will try and work very hard (but also keep my balance in social life as a commenter pointed out as, as much organised i like to be, i'm still lazy and have an untidy room). i also firmly like to believe if i try hard enough, i'll succeed. i hope you won't mind me popping out some questions to you again. thank you!


Firstly I want to appreciate the post & writer.
Really Good Job..!!

Yes, To pursue your dreams , always work hard. The way to success is never too easy. But never leave your dreams just ecuae of little difficulties.

Take New Challenges
Work hard
Don't be scared of failure
Try new things.