How to Survive Grad School as a Woman in STEM

There are certain moments from grad school that will always stick with me: the conference in Boston where my usually quiet lab mate opened up to me; the nights I spent drinking cheap beer with my closest friends in the grungy, student-run bar; the time (okay, times) I cried in my advisor’s office. And you can be sure that I won’t ever forget my general exams, whose residual panic-inducing effects I can still feel, months later.

I value these memories because they add texture to my life as a graduate student, providing joy or throwing it into relief.

But I’ve also had experiences that extend beyond the normal ups and downs. I listened, trying not to cry, as a professor told me that I was too slow to do theoretical work. (A year later, I won an NSF grant to do just that.) I gritted my teeth as I, the only woman in the room, was asked to sort exams into piles, while my male colleagues graded them. These experiences didn’t make me stronger, happier, more resilient, or more confident. They just wore away at my well-being.

Learning to survive graduate school as a woman in STEM—or any minority, for that matter—means finding ways to manage the effects of constant, subtle antagonism, because that antagonism won’t make you a better scientist, mathematician, or engineer.

Here are seven things that will.

1. Reevaluate your definition of a mathematician. Before I came to grad school, the word “mathematician” meant someone like my favorite college professor. She was creative, smart, and did good work on fascinating problems. She happened to be female, but that was beside the point—or so I thought. When I arrived at grad school, my perception of who a mathematician was changed. The mathematicians I interacted with were now mostly white men and I didn’t understand how significant this was until I stopped believing that I could be a mathematician. It took some reexamining of unconscious beliefs before I realized that if I wanted to become a mathematician, I’d have to start thinking of myself as one.

2. Stop using the word “genius.” Except to describe an expertly crafted cappuccino, I’ve all but eliminated this word from my vocabulary. It’s usually well-meant, but it reinforces troublesome perceptions of mathematics as a profession. For example: it takes a genius to do good math. Or: math comes naturally to a select few, and the rest of us shouldn’t bother. Or: if I’m not a genius, I shouldn’t do math. The last plagues women in particular, because we don’t usually think of ourselves as geniuses. Let’s start reframing the profession in terms of effort, creativity, perseverance, and intense focus—because that’s really what it’s all about.

3. Start your own alt-boys’ club. By which I mean: foster a supportive, engaged community that stands opposed to discrimination and celebrates one another’s achievements. Tap into your network of friends and family whose values run counter to those of the “boys’ clubs” found in so many university’s math programs: people who champion openness, diversity, celebration of achievements. Kindness. The world needs more of these communities, and in grad school, so will you. It’s difficult to be a minority in your field for a number of reasons, but the one I have struggled with the most is the isolation that comes with long hours of solitary research in a male-dominated environment. Weekly, wine-soaked dinner dates with my cousins, rock-climbing adventures with my chillest, flannel-sporting friends, and phone calls with my big sister have been my saving grace in grad school.   

Woman in STEM starter kit

4. Find an involved advisor… Because being in grad school is hard, and being a woman in grad school is harder. A good advisor will do his or her best to share some of that burden with you, coming up with creative ways to help you succeed. My advisor had me practice my generals presentation in front of a giant, fluffy stuffed panda to shake my nerves. (Humor helps!) A good advisor will also recognize that none of us do our best work in isolation, and will do his or her best to foster a group that’s present, supportive, and actively engaged in one another’s success.

5. … and a good therapist. Even if it isn’t clear why so many graduate students struggle with their mental health, the fact of the matter is that they do. And even if you aren’t one of them, a therapist can help you cope with the pressures of research and exams. My therapist gave me strategies for getting through my generals, like using meditation to dispel the fight-or-flight response that kept kicking in when I practiced my presentation. She also helped me reframe stressful situations with humor and insight. Who couldn’t use more of that?

6. Accomplish something. Something outside of your project and coursework, that is. Research can be a long, slow grind, and a sense of progress, accomplishment, and belonging will keep you motivated. Try music. Teaching. Volunteering. Anything that gives you purpose and confidence. Particularly if you’re a minority, grad school won’t build up your confidence—a prospect even more insidious than it sounds, because it’s necessary to have confidence in order to tackle hard problems. This is, in my view, one of the most baffling paradoxes of academia: by undermining confidence and undervaluing graduate students, the academic hierarchy produces worse academics.

7. Know why you’re in it. When I told my advisor that I was interested in pursuing science writing and editing, it was a game-changer. I felt more comfortable talking about my career goals with my peers, and stopped feeling like an impostor. Plus, my advisor has since found writing and editing opportunities for me to hone those skills. Whatever your career goals are, communicate them—especially if they are unconventional. Mentors and friends will know which opportunities to send your way; in turn, those opportunities will keep you focused, motivated, and enthusiastic. We all come to grad school from different places and for different reasons and that is something worth talking about.

About Susannah Shoemaker

Susannah recently earned her M.A. in applied math from Princeton University. She is interested in the mathematical foundations of structural techniques in biophysical chemistry.
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3 Responses to How to Survive Grad School as a Woman in STEM

  1. Matthew Simonson says:

    Susannah, this is a terrific post and great advice. Thank you for your service to the community!

  2. Behnam says:

    That genius thing, I cannot agree with you more. In fact, nothing has hurt me in school than being encouraged to believe that all I needed to succeed in math was to be “in the mood just to see a solution out of blue.” I never thought of math as labor-demanding, as requiring hours, weeks, months of persistent focus and study on a problem. I avoided harder questions, and dismissed them as uninteresting, because interesting questions must have elegant quick sharp solutions.

    Yes, we have to discover and disabuse ourselves of the prejudices that have been imposed on us.

  3. Lil' A-dawg says:

    I really respect how confidently you are willing to share your insecurities and challenges.

    I’ve personally met a few women who, as students, had professors either tell them they were not cut out for math when this was flatly not true. All three of the women I’m thinking of continued on to do successful things in math, but they still remembered that experience, and at least by my impression, they seemed very hurt by the comments made at that time. I think these experiences are not often discussed openly, so I am very happy that you are willing to share some of your experiences.

    Hearing about your challenges makes you seem more relatable, at least to me, and I think you give a clearer picture of the some of the internal dilemmas that I have in grad school but yet I have trouble explaining.

    Also, I’d like to add that I too had a therapist for a short time to help me deal with the stress. Having a therapist was a very positive experience for me too.

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