You are not stupid. Please stop saying that you are.

A personal tale of stereotype threat

One of our collection managers was showing me how to use the digital camera. We’re not talking a point-and-click here; this was some sort of Nikon, with a herd, maybe even a plethora, of lenses; this was shades and remote flashes set up in the photography room for the purpose of documenting specimens.

I’d been shown how to use the setup a few years previously, but since I hadn’t used it in the intervening time, my memory of the appropriate settings and icons had faded somewhat, and I’d asked Dave to take me through the basics again. He kindly found time to do so.

I felt guilty, since the collection managers are always busy, and I dislike interrupting people, especially very busy people. So I babbled. Like an idiot.

“Sorry about this,” I babbled, “I’m just really stupid with cameras.”

Dave just smiled and shook his head, and after he’d left the room I stared at my tray of specimens and I had a moment. A capitalised Moment. A goddamn epiphany.

What. The. Fuck. Kate. I snapped at myself. What the fuck did you just say?

I did a media production subject in undergrad. I’ve developed black and white film. Silver nitrate and I have hung out like buddies, if one of those buddies can permanently stain the skin of the other. I didn’t pursue media production (although it did play an indirect role in me switching from Creative Arts to Science, but that’s another story). I didn’t reveal a heretofore unknown talent for the captured image like a beautiful photographer butterfly emerging from a wannabe novelist coccoon.

But I know how a camera works. I’m not stupid with cameras. Apertures, exposure time, depth of field – all those concepts make perfect sense to me. It’s just that I don’t remember what the icons on the dial represent relative to the kind of photos I would like to take, and that’s an issue of memory, not an issue of stupidity.

In fact, even if I hadn’t previously been taught about those concepts, that would be a case of ignorance, not stupidity.

This wasn’t the first time I’d had such a moment, but it was the first time I’d really, really noticed myself doing it.

I’ve noticed other women doing it.

I did my PhD in a university lab that, during my time there, was comprised entirely of women. Apart from some teething issues with a bullying R.A., it was a great work environment, and I still consider them close friends and some of the best people I have ever worked with.

Let us be clear. These are all highly intelligent women. They were all doing PhDs in science. They were all capable in a laboratory environment.

There was so much apology, so much self-deprecation in regards to their abilities, that it was no wonder a bully found fertile ground to play with it all in those early days.

I’m finding it a little hard to write about real people without making generalisations and naming names, so understand that the following stories are broad strokes.

I used to think I was dreadfully stupid at chemistry. I managed to scrape an H1 in the last required chemistry subject for my degree, so clearly this wasn’t a logical position. It took four months of work as an analytical chemist at CSL Pharmaceuticals (I was temping between finishing my Honours project and starting my PhD) to realise that the chemistry I was doing was just some basic maths and measurements, and once I realised that, suddenly it got easy. Chemistry is – or can be – an extremely complex discipline, but I wasn’t doing it at that level. My first year undergrad was actually sufficient to get by for the tests I was running.

This meant that by the time I started my PhD, making basic stock solutions held no fear for me. It took the uncertainty in the eyes of a colleague to remind me that, prior to working at CSL, I would have been really nervous even about putting together TE buffer (dead easy to make), let alone the phenol-chloroform-isoamyl mix (even easier to make, technically speaking, but with a significantly higher chance of burning and fuming and generally doing oneself harm).

It was really common for my colleagues to constantly put themselves down and second guess what they were doing – but they knew how to do these things. They never actually screwed it up. It’s one thing to get confused about picomoles vs nanomoles (10,000 pmol is the same as 10 nmol, but given the price of the fluorescently labelled primers and how rarely I use units with “pico” and “nano” in front of them, I do double-check), when tired after a couple of twelve hour work days. It’s another thing to panic and decide that you can’t deal with it, when demonstrably you can.

Since the branch of genetics that I work in is heavier on analysis than it is on lab work, we would spend some time over coffee musing over analytical options and approaches. There was often a chorus of, “I have no idea about some of that stuff,” and for the first year or so I was just as guilty as everyone else. And yet, a few sips into the first cappucino, we’d be tossing alternative approaches and limitations back and forth like pros. Which we were. Pros. And then I got some confidence. I looked around me, and realised that I actually seemed to know what I was talking about a good portion of the time, and I stopped apologising. I was willing to be corrected on analytical questions, but I stopped apologising for not knowing everything, and I stopped acting as though I knew less than I did.

I bought a textbook at a conference a few years ago: Wakeley’s Coalescent Theory. I understand the basics of coalescence, but I wanted to really get my head around the nuances of it. I got through about a chapter and a half and gave up, since one summary integration formula followed by pages of “As you can see from this summary formula” made me feel stupid and miserable.

It wasn’t until last year that an expert in this field mentioned the book, and said that, as an introduction for biologists, it wasn’t one, and really it was something to read through after you’d gone through this other book. I just didn’t have the background skills to get through Wakeley, and since the blurb raved about what a wonderful introduction it was to the subject, I decided I must be stupid.

Why is that the first option? Why isn’t the first option that perhaps you lack the background knowledge – or even that you have the background knowledge, and you actually know what you’re doing, but that society has told you for so long that women don’t do maths and chemistry, and the moment you hit a wall, your determination falters for a moment, because what if you really are trying to fit the round peg in a square hole, what if you really shouldn’t be doing this?

And even if you know better – you know that there’s really no gender in how this is done, and honestly, you get furious at feeling this way, because you know what you know, but the minute there’s someone in the room who might stereotype you, you start to falter and panic – because you’ve heard how some men talk about the women they work with, and you know how easy it is for you to end up in a box for one slip-up, one mistake, one faulty assertion – and you panic, and now you’re more likely to make those mistakes.

It’s called stereotype threat.

I am demonstrably not stupid. I actually have a pile of evidence, on hand, that I can supply to prove my lack of stupidity. I have no idea how intelligent other people will be, and I can’t make any assumptions as to where I fit relatively speaking when I meet someone (and it’s best not to do that sort of thing anyway), but having that evidence there reminds me that I am actually not stupid.

None of the women that I worked with were stupid. Most of them, at some point, said that they were. I ranted about the issue one time over coffee with one friend. She went quiet and thoughtful. The next time I saw her, she said, “I’ve been paying attention. I do that all the time.”

Do what?

Apologise. Tell yourself you’re stupid. Tell yourself you don’t understand those things anyway. Because it’s perhaps easier to lower all expectations – within a conversation, or within yourself – than to try, and have some trouble, and then feel like everyone who told you that you couldn’t do science because you were a girl was right.

And it’s not just the scientists that I’ve worked with in the lab. It’s the older women, family and friends of the family, that I know, who back away and say, “You’re so smart. I could never understand all that stuff.”

Yes. Yes, you could. Stop selling yourself short. You are more than this.

But how do you fight a message that someone’s been getting their whole lives? You can’t. You just have to wait, and watch until they challenge themselves. Watch that delight as they realise, in some shock, that they are actually not stupid. Sure, it would have been nice to realise that forty years ago, but better late than never.




What do you do, Doctor Kate?

When one has donned the floppy hat of the PhD graduation (your local campus regalia may differ, but my university follows the pompous and hilarious Oxford dress, which I enjoyed a great deal), one receives certain conversational responses.

First there are the congratulations – much appreciated, thank you, why yes, it has been a long time, hasn’t it? Stop asking when I started, I don’t want you to do the basic arithmetic… Yes, alright, it was shortly before the Earth cooled…

Then there is the question: “So, what are you going to do now?”

I think that people in many walks of life are a bit taken aback at questions like this. They always smack of what is your PLAN for your LIFE, they feel like a demand for you to have a plan (and let’s be honest: most people’s life plans are vague at best; pushing for clarity just makes people anxious), and they tend to come at pivotal moments of change when people are already unsettled, like:

…finishing high school.

…quitting a job or a university course.

…switching careers.

…ending a relationship.

…getting pregnant.

…getting back from a gap year or a backpacking tour of south-east Asia.

It often seems to come attached to questions like “When are you getting married/buying a house/having children/inventing cold fusion?” (maybe not that last one)

I’m sure there are many more times when this question ambushes people; I just pulled some out of thin air and the various experiences of my nearest and dearest. To be fair, people usually ask these questions out of interest and, depending on other circumstances, concern – I know I do, and it’s often not until I’ve spotted the combination of impatience and hysteria flashing out of someone’s eyes that I realise: I might just be making conversation (particularly if I’m asking this question of someone I barely know), but they are just over this question and everything that follows on from it.

I’ve now seen a few people ranging from close friends to acquaintances achieve their PhDs, mostly in the sciences, and here’s the list of things that tend to happen after getting a PhD, in no particular order, and the circumstances that tend to lead to it:

1)    a complete change of career

Life in research can be horrific. Often a PhD is finished solely through sheer force of will, teeth gritted to such an extent that your dentist will either weep in sympathy or celebrate, depending on whether the yacht is paid off (apologies to dentists without yachts). Even if you love what you do, it’s easy to feel burnt out after it all, and that’s under the best of circumstances. Under the worst of circumstances – incompetent or downright malicious supervisors, an unsupportive or completely non-functional lab environment, a lack of publications – a recent doctorate can feel entirely justified of washing their hands of the whole disaster. Who wants to spend their life begging for money, just to be allowed to do their job? Who wants to butt heads constantly with the sorts of egos that lurk in the back corridors of academia, where there is often a mentality that being a complete arse is somehow necessary for appropriate scientific critique (note: it isn’t. You can critique sensibly without being a tool. It’s really not difficult)? Who wants to try to compete in an environment where your own hard work can be deemed instantaneously meaningless by someone else’s errors? Who wants the long hours, the low pay, the pressure to publish… the list goes on.

I still love science. I’m still in it, for now; but I’ve heard the arguments for getting out and they are compelling. A not-insignificant number of PhD scientists just turn right around and head straight back to uni to do something else.

2) …frequently, teaching.

I know a truly staggeringnumber of teachers, when the number is taken as a ratio of friends in my age group. Admittedly, only about five or six either pursued or achieved a PhD prior to entering teaching. Either they started a PhD, noticed what it was doing to them psychologically, and decided “Hell, no…”, or they got to the end of a PhD, and have no papers, or one paper only. This places one at something of a disadvantage when applying for postdocs. Funding is scarce. Jobs in one’s field are often like hen’s teeth, and not in the plausible, palaeontological sense of a missing link between birds and reptiles. Furthermore, while the first year out teaching can be exhausting (having seen so many friends go through it, I can confirm that the long hours and limited sleep do take a toll on people. I’m sure they didn’t have those bags under their eyes at the start of the year), you do get the opportunity to be excited about science again, and mostly you’re being excited at teenagers who, while they can be difficult, are much more likely to catch your excitement and run with it.

Being excited and exhausted beats being jaded and exhausted any goddamn day of the week.

3)    a postdoc… somewhere else.

Remember how jobs in one’s field are like hen’s teeth? Job’s in one’s field where you actually live are like diamond-encrusted hen’s teeth. Say people get to the end of a PhD, and they have a reasonable shot at a postdoc. In most cases they have to be ready to pack up their lives and head interstate – if not overseas – just to get a look-in. It’s the nature of the game. PhDs are best off if they don’t have permanent commitments like, oh, say, pets… relationships… mortgages… friends… especially children…

I don’t mean to make this sound like a necessarily terrible thing – it’s not. Often the overseas postdoc, while stressful, is an exciting adventure, a horizon-broadening, challenging experience that most would not trade for anything. For those of us, however, who acquired the inadvisable relationships, pets and mortgages prior to finishing a PhD, it’s just not an option.

4)    a technical job, and what PhD?

If you decide you’re not up for research, but you still want to do lab work and use your technical skills, suddenly a PhD becomes a hindrance. You’re overqualified. You’re going to need more pay. You’re not a good long-term bet because any day you could get offered a more lucrative postdoctoral position and abandon your current job (even if you have no intention of doing this, employers can see it as a risk). People have been known to remove the PhD from their CV and come up with other ways to legitimately explain their work over the past three to six years.

5)    Technical equipment sales rep.

This is actually not a bad option. It pays well, often by commission, and you get to use your technical know-how and familiarity with laboratory situations, but you do also have to schmooze people and convince them to give you money, so in some ways it’s not unlike a career in research. If you’ve got the personality to pull this off, it’s worth giving it a whirl. I think I am probably too blunt.

6) other industrial or policy science applications. I haven’t seen this happen too often among my own people, but it does happen, and it can be beneficial to have the old PhD on hand.

7)    a postdoc, on your home turf.

The bee’s knees, and what I personally aspire to, but it’s not straightforward and I’m not applying at the moment. My story comes in just a moment.

Not a single one of these is mutually exclusive. Often “complete change of career” comes along after one or two postdocs, or a year or so of job-hunting.

So what are you doing now, Doctor Kate?

At the moment I do two days a week of paid contract taxonomy work at the museum. I have a couple of client institutions over in Western Australia, and when they get a batch of crinoids from local surveying, they send them to me, and I unpack them and do my best to put species names on them (or set them aside, with “sp. nov.?” written on the jar, which happens more often than you might expect) (erm, “sp. nov.” means new species). While I do that, I take tissue from everything I identify (presuming it’s big enough to do this without destroying the specimen), in case I one day have funding to do molecular work. I have permission to do this, and crinoids are an excellent group to take tissue from because they have heaps of repeated anatomical structures and they fall apart as soon as you look at them cross-eyed anyway.

It pays reasonably well (by my standards, and depending on who I talk to my standards are either phenomenally high or phenomenally low…), and at the moment there is plenty of work because there are ongoing surveys. For the greater part of my professional life, I’m not expecting there to be a great deal of taxonomic work available.

The other three days a week are ostensibly for writing papers.

(I say “ostensibly” because “writing papers” can very often become “going to the gym”, “running errands”, “taking the dogs out for training and playing”, “catching up on housework/yardwork” or any other number of necessary pursuits that enrich and enable a smooth life)

I have a bucketload of data in my PhD that, due to various circumstances, could not be published during the process of doing the actual PhD. That’s the problem with a comparative project – you don’t have all the data until you get to the end. Looking back, I see ways it could have been done, but hindsight is always 20:20, and I have to make the best of the situation. I have one first author paper from my Honours year and one fourth-author paper from some data I got for the PhD and didn’t use and ended up giving to my supervisor (I also wrote some methods and so on).

I’ve got one paper at the “Accepted, let’s start proofing” stage (yay!) and another at the “Just submitted major revisions, waiting to hear back from reviewers” stage. Hopefully in the not-too-distant future, I can claim two more first-author papers.

I have another first-author paper from my PhD data at the first-draft stage, and some “probably third or fourth author” analytical work to do on another collaborative project (on bats. The great thing about molecular work is you’re not always restricted to your personal specialisation, in my case marine biology). There are plenty more papers I can write from my PhD. I have an extraordinary wealth of data, which is not something one usually complains about, but there are downsides to wading through it all and pulling out useful, informative narratives for publication. It’s hard to leave any of it aside as too incomplete for publication, but sometimes that is what happens.

I’m lucky that we’ve got enough money for me to be able to do this, and I’m lucky that I’ve got a niche skill and support from the museum to be able to do the contract work and still be the master of my own time.

I’m actually considering swapping one of my paper-writing days for another work-in-the-lab day, since there is also some paid molecular work I can do on two other projects, which just increases the amount of juggling I’m doing, but which could be very satisfying.

The plan – yes, the PLAN for LIFE – is to get enough publications over the next few months that I can reasonably start applying for grants. That’s right: grants. Husband has an excellent, non-mobile job. We have a house and mortgage, two elderly cats, two large dogs and a very settled life. I’m not going to be doing that postdoc in Norway like I originally planned – I just couldn’t leave that many aspects of my life on hold for that much longer.

And the odds of a job coming up that plays to my skill set may vaguely resemble the odds around me discovering the aforementioned diamond-encrusted hen’s teeth. So, rather than a job coming up, I’m going to have to try to make one for myself.

Wish me luck, amigos.

Reflections on Doctor Me

No-one should be pressured into having a child, and no-one should be pressured into doing a PhD.

There are limits to the comparison, of course; I have it on good authority that one never stops being a parent, whereas in the majority of cases, one does stop being a PhD student (or grad student, or candidate, whatever the term is in your particular region). In both cases, however, it’s a huge decision.

When someone says, “You should do a PhD!”, it behooves you to translate the recommendation. This can be done in a couple of ways.

Firstly, and this point can’t be overstated, it means: “You should work really, really hard – 60 hours a week, often go in on weekends, get enormously stressed, experience a vastly increased risk ratio for mental illness – for at least three years (more likely five or six), for almost no money, and with no guarantee of secure employment at the end of it. It may negatively affect your friendships, your relationships and your self-esteem. In fact, there’s a good possibility you will be burnt out on research forever, and end up skipping career paths entirely.”

But secondly, it also means: “You should ask the big questions that you are passionate about, and contribute to human knowledge, further your experience in research and do what you love – and you’ll be paid a (basic) living stipend to be able to do this. At no point during an academic career will you have even close to the freedom you have now regarding your project.”

I feel both ways about my PhD. I would never recommend that someone do a PhD, but I would also never try to talk them out of it – much in the same way I would approach someone wondering whether or not to have a kid.

On the negative side, yes, I became phenomenally unhealthy in a few ways while doing a PhD. I did have negative experiences, systematic contamination issues in my lab, bullying, crying, frustration, exhaustion, sense of failure and worthlessness, and an overwhelming realisation towards the end that in terms of earning potential my future was decidedly iffy (particularly after the results of the most recent Australian federal election). I felt that it would never end – that after handing in a draft in a reasonable period the examination and editing process just went on. And on. And on. My thirtieth birthday came and went, and I was still at university (although it’s best to regard a PhD as a job. It pays less and the hours suck, but thinking of it as “school” just does not work).

On the positive side…

I had a wonderful time. I asked big questions. When I dared to ask slightly more enormous questions than expected, I had the backing of my supervisors. When I said to Tim, “If we’re going to work this out, we need to go to western Australia,” he just nodded calmly and signed up for a field trip that took over two weeks and crossed the Nullarbor – the first of five field trips of varying scope around the coastlines of the continent.

I got to see parts of the country I would never have visited otherwise. I’ve been diving in Bremer Bay, Western Australia; in Recherche Bay, at the southernmost point of Tasmania; in Venus Bay on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia. I’ve seen the dramatic environmental shift from the damp scrub of the Yorke Peninsula to the red sand, dry scrub and mangroves of the Eyre. I’ve watched the marine ecosystem turn over as I travelled west, watching the dominant fauna of one region slowly give way to another, and the same phenomenon as I travelled north.

I got to be inspired by the world I had chosen to study, being up close and personal with my study animals.

(I also learned the fine art of washing and drying dive gear at a caravan park.)

Due to some kindly folk handing out travel awards, I got to go to overseas conferences and meet colleagues in my field from all over the world, sharing in some inspiring research and discussions of same.

When it came to lab work, I had the benefit of a supportive bunch of colleagues (except for that bullying one) who became good friends. I had the support of my other supervisor, Belinda, who had no hesitation in calling a spade a spade or, more importantly, calling a steaming pile of bullshit exactly that, which got me through some terribly depressing periods. It helps to have a supervisor that you can cry in front of without getting embarrassed (it was generally understood that Belinda’s office was a safe place to have PhD tears).

When I told Belinda that there was a contamination problem in the lab, she didn’t reject my complaint; she asked me for solutions. I provided the solutions, and the next day she’d ordered a freezer for the new PCR area I had proposed. She had my back, and she trusted me.

I had the advantage that many PhD candidates don’t: I had two very supportive supervisors. They were always communicative, always available (except when overseas), and always willing to back me when I went out on a limb. When doubt was cast upon my ability to complete the project (that eighteen months of lab troubleshooting…), they both went to the wall and stated that they had the utmost faith in me to get the job done. I hope that I have rewarded that faith. They always read drafts in good time and always pulled me away from the ledge of fanciful distraction to keep me focused on my main question (it’s easy to get distracted by side projects).

I had a network of supportive friends, and I had (still have) a stable relationship (transitioned to marriage about halfway through the PhD) with someone who supported me in my efforts, including my total inability to bring in any money, my occasionally very late lab hours, weeks of absence on fieldwork, extraordinary stress-headedness, and my occasional need for high-level technical support (I married a software developer, there are bonuses). Being in a long-term relationship with a PhD student is not easy.

And with all these marvellous people and an excellent project, I still had a rough time. I think perhaps everyone does. I don’t regret it, and I’m still passionate about research, but I have watched colleagues burn out or simply get discouraged by the whole situation.

After six years (some of it part-time, while working), I have this to say:

If you want to do this – be sure. Be very, very sure (also, when approaching a supervisor to work with, ask their students what they are like to work with – they will give you the straight line. Avoid any supervisor who invokes the response, “Well, I never see him/her” or “Oh, sure, we have a meeting every day, just to make sure everything is going okay”. Absence and micro-managing: these are bad things. Also check that their projects actually have a tendency to get completed – lab heads hung up on questions that go nowhere are also to be avoided, because if their past five students hit the wall on this question, there’s likely to be a deeply systematic problem. You do not want that pain).

About my own project, I have this to say:

It’s over.

I had wonderful adventures.

I learned a great deal.

But it’s over.

And you can call me Doctor now.*


*technically I think you’re supposed to wait until after my graduation ceremony, but what are they going to do? Arrest you? Are there Academic Police waiting in the wings, demanding me to wear the Funny Hat of Enforced Humility?**

**Actually, let me know if that happens.