Every year, I have a phone interview with a sociologist from Northwestern University to discuss my experience in graduate school. And since I’m not usually quite prepared for an intense introspective session on the joys and tribulations of academic limbo at 8 AM in the morning, my answers tend to be awkward and disjointed. What does it mean to be a scientist? Cue internal groaning. Have you completed your PhD? Panic ensues.

Since the beginning of graduate school, I’ve been enrolled in a study that tracks the progress and outcomes of PhD candidates across the States. A group of us were randomly chosen to receive formal mentorship from a career coaching program. I wouldn’t know anything about this program, since I’ve only been recruited to the control group. This means the sociologists are primarily interested to see how well (or not well) I am coping with graduate school without the benefit of their coaching program. Occasionally, I wonder whether my “luckier” cohorts are reaping the fruits of supplement support, while the rest of us are left to fend for ourselves. That is, until one day I discovered that my partner, who is also a graduate student, had been recruited in the intervention group of the same study. He is faring no better or worse than I am. What a relief.

One of the questions that the interviewers always ask each year is how my gender identity has impacted my experience in science. When I first heard this question five years ago, I was bewildered. I had received a great education at Berkeley where half of my fellow students in the molecular biology department were women. I had met plenty of women scientists in research labs, albeit fewer women faculty. But it had never occurred to me that gender was of any consequence in the scientific work place. Certainly, I have never witnessed nor experienced any overt sexism.

But I’ve come to appreciate that gender plays a larger role than I had believed. And part of that is understanding that sexism doesn’t need to be overt or external. I spent more than two years fighting the fear that my faults and ineptitude would be exposed every time I had to give a presentation. I worried that expressing any opinion during meetings would demonstrate my low-level thinking. I agonized over the thought that I was not as astute or committed to science as my male counterparts. I acquiesced to others when it came to sharing resources even at the expense of my own experiments, because I feared that I wouldn’t be liked. And I kept my head down when I needed help because I believed I had to solve my own problems in order to prove my place in science.

No one had to make any sexist remarks to shut me down. I shut myself down because I internalized perceptions—that I was not even aware I had—of women’s academic and professional potential. And I would have continued in this way if another women scientist had not invited me for a much-needed, honest discussion about the ways I was doing a disservice to myself and the achievements that say I am qualified to be here. While this story is not new for feminism, it is new for me. And it is still difficult to not capitulate to the cloud of self-doubt that constantly hangs over me even as I am aware of its fallacy. Even more difficult to convince myself that my work and opinions are entitled for consideration. But I have found that simply realizing and being able to speak honestly about my struggles has changed the way I approach science and my career.

This is my fifth year in graduate school. If you listen to my past interviews, I’m pretty sure you can hear the bubble of naivete pop somewhere around year three. To be clear, I am not resentful about anything. I would not have chosen differently if given the chance. But I have come a long way from the bright-eyed first year who was 80% certain of staying in academia after graduate school. I am not disillusioned with science, nor am I desperate to graduate. The work I do is frustrating, gratifying, engaging and illuminating. And in a lot of ways, I have to thank the rougher portions of this process for the deeper understanding I’ve gained about myself.

And while I don’t think, at this point, that I will stay in science after graduation, I am confident that my choice has nothing to do with the fear that I wouldn’t be qualified to be an academic professor. Rather, I am choosing to take all the ways my graduate training has empowered me, personally and professional, to pursue a career in a different field. Even though I have only a faint idea of what that career might look like, I am comfortable with where I am now and where I will be heading.

orange cranberry bread

orange cranberry bread chocolate orange bread

Orange Cranberry Bread from Allrecipes

I have never been a fan of oranges. Mostly because they require more effort than an apple to pry open and extract the meat from the gross, chewy connective fibers. But even I have to admit that the oranges this winter have been phenomenal. So much so that I’ve spent the past few weeks baking all things orange, including this Orange Cranberry Bread. The delicious citrusy scent that perfumes your kitchen is reason enough to make this.

I’ve substituted butter for margarine, omitted the nuts, and halved the amount of sugar. I highly encourage making an orange glaze to pour over the top while the loaf is still warm. It makes a sweet, fragrant crust that is balanced by the tartness of the fresh cranberries. Delicious for breakfast.

 

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