On October 7th the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to Gregg L. Semenza, Sir Peter J. Ratcliffe, and William G. Kaelin, Jr. for their discoveries of how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability. Announcing the prize at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, the Nobel committee stated that their discoveries have paved the way for “promising new strategies to fight anaemia, cancer, and many other diseases.”
Each year, the Nobel Prize celebrates the achievements of great scientists and philosophers and the path they have taken to be called a Nobel laureate. For Sir Peter Ratcliffe however, the road to the Nobel Prize took a path less traveled. Surprizingly, his initial paper on oxygen sensing was rejected by Nature in 1992. Ratcliffe presented evidence of genetic responses to hypoxia that was called “unfit for publication” and “beyond understanding.” I don’t know about Ratcliffe, but if my paper was rejected because the contect was beyond the reviewer’s understanding, I would take that as a complement.
Interestingly enough, this has not been the first time that a Nobel laureate’s research has been initially rejected. Theoretical physicist Peter Higgs, who proposed the Higgs model, had his theories rejected by Physics Letters in 1964. He went on to win the Nobel prize in Physics in 2013. Simillarly, Rosalyn Yalow, who won the Nobel prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1977, had her initial paper on radioimmunoassays rejected.
What can we learn from these storeis? It is a lesson we can all benefit from, NEVER GIVE UP! Science is hard, very hard. Science will always be hard. I cannot stress this enough. Arguably, the most important lesson I have learned in graduate school is that the only thing you can control is how hard you work. Believe in your science and keep pressing, even in the face of rejection! More so than most professions, a career in science and medicine is about constantly learning.
Publishing is our way of sharing our excitement and passion for science with the world. Do not be afraid of rejection and most importantly never give up on your science!
Researchers who incorporate ideas and techniques from multiple mentors while still forging their own paths are the most likely to succeed in academia, according to a study of 18,865 biomedical researchers published in Nature Communications1.
The authors also suggest that mentoring received during postdoctoral training had a bigger impact than mentoring received during graduate school.
The study analysed data from the Academic Family Tree, an online database of academic relationships that launched in January 2005. The authors identified ‘triplets’ — trios comprised of a scientist, their graduate mentor and their postdoctoral mentor — dating back to 1970.
Professional success was gauged in part by the number of trainees a researcher mentored per decade, and an analysis of terms used in abstracts made it possible to track similarity of scientific approaches.
The results give empirical evidence to support some popular career strategies, says study co-author Stephen David, a neuroscientist at the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. For example, the most successful scientists transferred concepts they learnt in graduate school to their postdoctoral work, suggesting that prospective postdocs should try to join labs that lack their particular skill set.
“You want to be able to offer something new,” David says. That requires stepping beyond the shadow of a graduate mentor without becoming a facsimile of a postdoctoral mentor. “You have to stake out some unique territory, which is always a challenge for postdocs,” he says.
The study found that joining the lab of a prolific mentor — one who has trained many researchers over the years — also increases a scientist’s chance of success. This held true for both graduate and postdoctoral mentors, but a closer look at the data revealed that the qualities of a postdoctoral mentor were especially predictive of success. “You can get a graduate education just about anywhere,” David says. “Postdoc labs are where you establish professional relationships and develop collaborations.”
Researchers should be especially discerning when accepting postdoctoral positions, David says. “You can take a data-driven approach to choosing your mentor.”
The ad was for the first public workshop on a technique used in K-12 classroom settings called the Question Formulation Technique, which had been created by the Right Question Institute. He attended the workshop and saw tremendous potential for the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) in college classrooms, but no one was using it in higher education – yet. Perlman soon adopted the method in his undergraduate courses at Brandeis and he became active with the Right Question Institute.
Five years later, the institute was approached by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to apply for a grant to fund a project that the NSF hoped could result in more impactful questions from researchers seeking funding. Working with his colleagues at the Right Question Institute, Perlman is now principal investigator on a project to systematically introduce the QFT to graduate education – “The Question Improvement Model: A Simple and Scalable Model for Improving the Question Formulation Skills of PhD Students.”
BrandeisNOW asked Perlman, founding director of the Center for Teaching and Learning and professor of biology and environmental studies about this approach to teaching and the reaction of his students.
What is the Question Formulation Technique?
In the QFT, instead of the teacher asking a question, the teacher gives the students a prompt and they then brainstorm questions in response to the prompt in small groups. They don’t stop to discuss the questions; they’re just trying to generate questions. The next step is to think about which questions seemed the most interesting, and work with those to improve the questions.
I use the QFT at the beginning of the semester to shift the focus from me, the professor, to the students, and in so doing I signal that I want to hear from them. This is very beneficial because while they’re developing their question-asking skills, they feel that they are helping to shape the curriculum, rather than having it coming from a teacher who is dumping it onto them.
How does the QFT work?
The QFT uses four rules for producing questions. The Right Question folks spent years honing them, to get these in exactly the form they’re in.
1. Ask as many questions as you can.
2. Do not stop to discuss, judge or answer the questions.
3. Write down every question exactly as it is stated, and
4. Change any statement into a question.
A key part of the QFT is choosing the prompt, such as a phrase or a book title. For my Animal Behavior class, we used a visit to the Franklin Park Zoo as our prompt. We came back to the classroom and students broke into small groups and started asking questions about things they’d observed.
We took all of their questions and sorted them. In the first round of the QFT, students asked questions like, “How do animals know how to behave?” And then the next week, they used the most interesting of their questions as a prompt to generate further questions. In the second week students generated more targeted questions, “Were the animals making noises, and if so, what do these noises mean and how do they differ from noises made in the wild?” Out of this second round came almost all their term paper projects; they came up with really good ideas for studies. For example, after the second round of going through the QFT, one student’s term paper was about the effects of the zoo environment on lemurs, “Vocalizations of Ringtailed Lemurs: Are they affected by captivity?” So we started with the trip to the zoo, went through two rounds of the QFT, and we got term paper projects.
What’s the impact on students?
Students come to the Question Formulation Technique from a variety of backgrounds, and the QFT helps all of them. Students learn to ask broader ranging and deeper questions. And I think even the sharpest students, who are already asking really good questions, get to take it a step further. Students who are only asking very concrete, straightforward, simple questions, learn how to ask better questions through working with a group of their peers.
The QFT is being used in hundreds of thousands of K-12 classrooms, and with undergrads at other universities. Is Brandeis the only place where this new method is being used with graduate students?
As far as I know, our work with PhD students in the Life Sciences at Brandeis was the first such use. Since then we’ve worked with Engineering and Science PhD students at both UMass Lowell and Northeastern University – and well over 100 students have gone through the NSF-funded program.
Do you think it’s been a success?
As educators, we don’t typically teach the skill of asking questions, but I think you can argue that it’s one of the three or four most important skills that a college student, or any student, can learn. The QFT is one very good way to help students develop their question asking skills. We’re encouraged by the early results from the study and we are developing ways to objectively assess students’ progress in question formulation.
Do students get frustrated because the focus is on asking questions and not getting answers?
This came up when I gave a workshop at UMass Lowell, as many of the professors there asked, “Don’t the students want answers?” I told them that you can use the QFT in different ways, some of which put the onus for finding answers on the students. In the case of my Animal Behavior course, the Franklin Park Zoo trip and two rounds of the QFT helped the students create research questions that they were going to attempt to answer through semester-long research papers. So that was perfect. And the better questions they were asking were not something that they could answer right away. It took months and 25 pages to answer them. For PhD students, this is a great way to jump-start their thinking about research questions. As one noted after a training session, “It was remarkable how very unique and unexpected questions can be generated with this process.” In fact, a senior professor who sat in on a training was surprised that the QFT led to a new research question.
Women have played just as pivotal roles in the emergence and development of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) technologies over the last century as men have. It is a great source of shame for the scientific community, and society as a whole, that these contributions were not recognized sooner. However, a silver lining to this has been that, in recent years, many women have finally received recognition and there has been a huge increase in the public awareness of many of these women.
As a result of this, and other general shifts in attitudes, young girls and women are being encouraged to consider STEM subjects as potential future career paths. So far, this has been a successful endeavor around the world, and obviously a worthwhile one. The number of women studying STEM subjects and working in STEM fields is higher than ever before.
So, What’s the Problem?
In the UK, the benefits of this drive to attract more women into STEM fields is overwhelmingly benefiting relatively wealthy white women. Poor women, women of color, and women who lack academic certification, are all still hugely underrepresented in STEM.
There are also regional disparities. Consider a city like Manchester – home to a world class university that has produced some of the most ground-breaking science in the world since the industrial revolution. And yet, there are a great many STEM industries that are focused almost entirely around London. Women from Manchester who aren’t able to afford the move to London after graduating can end up being kept from jobs that they are perfectly suited for.
It is important to remember that just because the number of women in any organization or group of people has increased, that doesn’t necessarily mean that all women are being afforded the same opportunities. There are lots of STEM jobs that require a university degree, but there are plenty that can be taught to people who have few prior skills. For example, learning to code doesn’t require you to know anything else.
We need to do more than just represent women at university events; we should be striving for a STEM industry that is more diverse than the STEM education sector. This requires us to think more creatively, but there are still some simple things that we can do to help the situation.
Engage in Outreach
Ideally, we want to be getting the message out to girls from a young age that they can work towards a career in STEM. As it stands, this advice is often given with the heavy implication that women should be aiming to pursue academic careers in science, maths, or engineering. However, we should also be making them aware that there are STEM careers involving more practical things like coding, or more creative things like design.
This is also important knowledge for older women who already have careers, but would like to transition into STEM. They may be put off from doing so because they think they require a university degree. But let’s take something like cad courses – they offer the opportunity to learn an entirely new and sought-after skill with no degree required. professionals who want to expand their skill set in any field they choose without the need for a degree. This helps reach out to women over the usual barriers and across the divides that have conventionally meant that some women have been able to access better education services than others.
The number of women studying some STEM subjects is now on-par or almost on par with men. However, there is still a significant gender imbalance when it comes to STEM industries. This means that lots of women working in STEM are in male-dominated environments. Women working in these environments sometimes feel apprehensive about asking for help in case they are perceived as less capable.
It is important that women working in STEM have superiors and colleagues who they can approach for support if and when they need it. This will save them the kind of stress and anxiety that many women feel if they have to admit to a gap in their knowledge.
Teaching women how they can help themselves to advance their careers is just as important as helping them to do it. There are lots of steps that women can take on their own initiative in order to improve their career prospects, acquire new skills, and access fresh opportunities. Once women understand that they can do things outside of the classroom to help them access STEM, many people who would otherwise not have considered a STEM career will start taking those steps.
One of the most important things that anyone can do is to take the initiative and enroll on any courses or classes that are available and will teach skills and knowledge relevant to the field they want to go into. Making sure that women are aware of the value of some of these courses can help give them the direction they need to take their first steps towards a new career.
Within the worlds of business and academia, networking is a vital tool for enabling people to connect with others within their chosen field. It’s never too early to start building a professional network. Women who are transitioning into a STEM field from another field should check their current network to see if there’s anyone useful they can bring along for the journey.
Girls and young women who are studying for STEM subjects should try and attend any conferences or other events if they have the opportunity; these are excellent places to meet new people and to get an idea of what the professional landscape is looking like.
The internet is also a great place to network today. There are sites like LinkedIn, which is widely used by professionals operating in a number of different industries. Or there are the myriad online communities dedicated to STEM subjects, and even women in STEM specifically. Anywhere where you can meet people who have relevant experience and advice can help you build your network.
We should be doing all we can to make sure that we focus not just on recruiting women into STEM professions, but on recruiting women from all walks of life. There is such a wide variety of potential career paths available that there should be something that is ideally suited for just about anyone, no matter what their individual ambitions.
It shouldn’t therefore be beyond our capabilities to encourage more women from minority and working-class backgrounds to aim for a career in a STEM field, all they need is the right encouragement. Seeing themselves represented in the profession will certainly mean more women thinking of a STEM subject as a viable choice for their future.
Great strides have been taken in recent times to raise the number of women who are working in STEM professions. While we are definitely moving in the right direction, there is still more that can be done to improve the representation of women in STEM. We need to encourage girls from all backgrounds to consider STEM career paths from the earliest age possible.
The technicalities of good scientific writing are well established1,2 and important, but for your writing to have an impact, you need to resurrect the excitement of research — something that is often lost in day-to-day work. Successfully communicating the impact of your research is crucial for making your work more accessible, and for career progression. Here are the key elements to make your data stand out.
Research tells a story. Your research is a story with an important message — otherwise you would not be writing a manuscript. It is essential that you have clarity in your mind around your overarching storyline; without this, it is impossible to write clearly. Do not simply present the experiments and results in chronological order, instead consider how each piece of information fits with the unfolding story. Ask yourself why the research is important and clearly share that point with your audience. A good technique is to think how your research story could make your results something that people might be excited to share with their neighbours at a dinner party.
Learn when to write and when to use a figure. Consider how people read a paper. After a quick glance over the abstract, they often move to the data and figures. Cryptically presented data do not speak for themselves. Data collected over months or years deserve beautiful figures. Learn to use a vector program, such as Adobe Illustrator or Sketch, and make figures that you are proud to display both in print and on a screen.
Know your audience. Colleagues in your immediate field are the people most likely to be interested in your work, but also think about how to reach a wider audience. Some of the most exciting research is on the borders of multiple fields. Make your writing as clear as possible so it can be easily understood by readers from various fields. Ask colleagues outside your specific area of research to review your work to make sure it is understandable and interesting to your target audience.
Stay clean and clear. Research is international and, although using rich language is important, make sure that the message is clear to readers whose first language is not English. Write as simply as possible. Ask someone to review the language in your manuscript. The Elements of Style (Pearson, 1999) and The Economist Style Guide (Economist Books, 2015) are both English-language style guides that focus on developing a clear message, and I have found them useful for improving my writing.
Ask an English speaker to review your writing. Although peer reviewers forgive minor language errors if English is not your first language, such mistakes are not going to help your chances of a favourable review. The manuscript will eventually need an English-language edit anyway, so have it reviewed by a native English speaker before you submit the manuscript.
Try to highlight a link to a current topic. Editors want their journal to contribute to current issues in academia or the popular press. For example, last year a colleague and I reported finding elevated levels of lead in the blood of a person who ate meat from animals he had shot with lead bullets3. In the cover letter and manuscript, we highlighted the 2017 reversal of a ban of lead ammunition on certain US federal lands. We linked that policy change to the increased risk of lead exposure to hunters and their families through eating wild game shot with lead bullets. The cover letter is a way for you to sell your manuscript to the editor, so take the opportunity to pique their interest in your work.
Review and cut words. Space and time are always at a premium, so the shorter the manuscript, the better your chances of acceptance — and the more likely people are to read the published article.
The abstract is the most important section.Editors will use the abstract to decide whether the topic is of interest to their journal, and reviewers will use it to decide whether they are suitable to review the manuscript. Most people will only ever read this section. Make the abstract captivating.
There is no rule to say that science cannot be entertaining. Editors want their journal to be pleasurable and enlightening reading. Enjoy the writing process — your research effort deserves brilliant writing.
In a presentation to a group of executive job seekers in transition, a recruiter made the point that after years of reviewing C-level résumés, she had noticed a commonality: None of these top professionals had escaped having some setbacks, rejections, or missed opportunities. This information surprised the audience of recent layoff victims, who realized that they were in good company when it came to career misfortune. The recruiter was right: Failures and regrets need not derail your career, and, in fact, can propel it forward if handled wisely.
To find out how successful people dealt with situations when they didn’t get what they wanted, I interviewed a range of accomplished consultants, coaches, and other business professionals, asking them: “What rejection did you experience that turned out for the best?”
When thinking back on jobs they weren’t offered or turned down, graduate schools that didn’t admit them, or promotions that went to someone else, all respondents agreed that they were better off in the long run. Although most were initially disappointed, gaining perspective over time helped them realize that those early frustrations afforded them the chance to try something different and to gain valuable insights.
One of my interviewees, self-reinvention thought leader Dorie Clark, explained that she was turned down by every doctoral program that she applied to. “I ultimately discovered that the minutiae of what a dissertation demands would have killed me,” Clark said.
Gina Warner, CEO of the National AfterSchool Association, told me: “I didn’t pass my bar exam the first time, which meant I couldn’t accept the position I’d been offered at the district attorney’s office. But it did mean I could volunteer on a U.S. Senate campaign, and when that candidate won I got hired to work for her, a much better opportunity for me.”
Executive coach Nihar Chhaya was rejected by all of the top consulting firms he interviewed with when he was an MBA student at Wharton. “I took it pretty hard,” he admitted. “When you’re in the most competitive school, where everyone is asking who got what, you don’t want to graduate without a job after investing all that work and money in a program you thought would make you set for the future.” But in time, Chhaya realized that he had actually “dodged a bullet”: “I hustled and absorbed everything I could in my position at the Corporate Executive Board, realized that coaching and leadership assessment was my passion, and moved to build a career there.”
These individual ”aha” moments contain some universal truths that professionals at any level can benefit from. Here are three strategies for recovering and thriving when a career goal you once coveted slips away.
Acknowledge the Emotional Pain
“Rejection often triggers painful emotional doubts about our own competence and self-worth, so we either try to avoid it or pretend that it doesn’t matter,” writes consultant Ron Ashkenas in his HBR article “Rejection Is Critical for Success.” But it’s important not to dismiss how you are feeling. Being rejected hurts, and the physiological response it creates in our bodies and minds is akin to physical pain. The reason a negative reaction or rejection causes such strong emotions traces back to our primitive history, when having to leave the tribe after a rebuttal might have resulted in physical danger or even death. If rejection didn’t hurt, our ancestors might have put themselves in harm’s way by storming off into the path of a wild animal or an armed enemy. When you recognize that the emotions you feel are both primal and normal, it can help you move past the ache faster.
Ask Yourself, “Was it me, was it them, or was it us?”
When Chhaya was passed over as a consultant, his first response was to seek an explanation. Why did his classmates get hired and he didn’t? Was it something he did wrong or failed to do? Or was it that the interviewer couldn’t see his potential and the value he brought to the table? The reality is that when you aren’t chosen for an opportunity, the reason often is a problem with fit — such as a values mismatch between you and the other party — rather than something that you (or someone else) did wrong.
Chhaya eventually came to realize that his real interest lay in coaching. “I don’t think I would be where I am today if I had gotten the acceptance back then, because it never would have made me want to push for my own passion versus compete with what I think I ‘should’ have done relative to my classmates,” he said. There’s an added benefit to this shift in thinking: Recent studies confirm that when people attribute setbacks to lack of fit instead of blaming themselves or another person involved, they’re less likely to give up and more motivated to improve.
Embrace Your Strengths
Following Dorie Clark’s rejection from PhD programs, she started writing and consulting, areas of strength and interest for her. Today she is the author of three best-selling books, writes for major publications, and has a thriving consulting business. Recognizing that a PhD wasn’t the only chance for success, Clark let go of her first dream in order to spot the next one, so she could maximize her talents without regret. If you look back for too long, rather than soldiering on in a direction where your talents can shine, you risk the possibility of neglecting fresh opportunities. Consider Gina Warner’s decision to volunteer for a U.S. Senate campaign instead of dwelling on not passing the bar exam. Making a conscious effort to look forward rather than back can lead to personal growth and the discovery of creative options.
Being able to identify the silver lining in a perceived failure or missed opportunity can help you move on to bigger and better things — while maintaining your self-confidence in the process. As Wharton professor Adam Grant puts it: “We are more than the bullet points on our résumés. We are better than the sentences we string together into a word salad under the magnifying glass of an interview. No one is rejecting us. They are rejecting a sample of our work, sometimes only after seeing it through a foggy lens.”
The Selection Committee wants to thank you for taking the time to participate in the Recruitment Day.
We are sorry to inform you that you have not been selected for the PhD position…
While you were not selected for this position, the selection committee did…”
The rest was not important. The only words in my head were “failure,” “not good enough,” “someone was better than you,” “you are not qualified for the job.” I burst into tears.
Following my undergraduate studies in Lebanon, I moved to the Netherlands to pursue a master’s degree in neuroscience. This opened up several opportunities for me, such as an internship at one of the best research institutes in the world — the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. My confidence levels were high after the internship; I could envisage my future, successful academic career so clearly that it felt like it was almost in the palm of my hand.
Then the time came to apply for a PhD position. Perhaps I was too confident at the time, but I was sure that I would nail all my interviews. In June, I received my first rejection letter. I was in shock. I was certain that I had presented myself as a dedicated, passionate student eager to learn and pursue her doctoral studies. Was it not enough? Did I completely misjudge the room? Was I overconfident? Was I even fit to be a PhD candidate? These questions washed over me, and I couldn’t shake the negative thoughts away. My self-esteem was shattered, and I lost all belief in my abilities.
Since that first rejection, what I have come to learn the hard way has changed my whole perception of failure. Instead of looking at rejection as a step backwards in my academic career, I’ve started to consider it as a step forward. I now see my ‘failure’ as a door to success, and not a wall standing in my way.
Rejection itself isn’t a problem; the issue is that we never talk about it. A typical academic CV is composed of all our achievements and successes. We never mention the PhD applications that got rejected, the papers that were turned down several times, the list of courses we did not pass.
From the outside, it seems like rejection never happens in academia. You never walk into someone’s office and see rejection and failures mounted on the wall. But what is success without failure? What would have happened if Albert Einstein had given up after his first rejection?
Rejection in academia doesn’t come once but several times throughout a career, and it occurs in all shapes and forms. It could come in response to journal submissions, or to applications for PhD positions, grants, tenure-track jobs or even senior and management roles.
Unfortunately, we are never handed a manual on how to process rejection and how to secure future opportunities. Instead, the scientific community rarely discusses it. We each have to learn how to grow resilient, often without enough support.
It is inspiring to see that many are starting to do so. Johannes Haushofer, a psychologist at Princeton University, New Jersey, wrote a “CV of failures” — a document that includes a detailed list of his rejections. Veronika Cheplygina, a biomedical engineer at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, started a series on her blog titled “How I Fail,” where she interviews both junior and senior academics about their failures.
Science is also about success, of course, and it’s important to recognize this as well as failure and rejection. A few weeks after I received that letter, I was contacted independently by two principal investigators for an open position in their labs at the same institution that had first rejected me. In October, I started a position in a lab where I am now pursuing my PhD. I know now that this failure was not my first, and it will not be my last.
If you were to ask me what I thought of failure today, what would my answer be? Keep it coming.
This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at email@example.com.
Research published this month found that as women students remain underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses, they are being subjected to an unwelcoming, “chilly” atmosphere in these male‐dominated fields.
In an article titled “Identity, Campus Climate, and Burnout Among Undergraduate Women in STEM Fields,” Purdue University professor Dr. Eric Deemer and Ph.D. student Laura Jensen wrote that respondents often described an unpleasant campus climate “associated with increased emotional exhaustion and cynicism, although not decreased academic efficacy.”
“My goal behind conducting this study was to look at environmental factors that impact women’s retention in STEM,” Jensen wrote in an e-mail to Diverse. Deemer remarked that Jensen “did most of the work. It was really her study.”
Dr. Eric Deemer
Jensen said her goal in developing the study, published in The Career Development Quarterly, was to examine environmental factors affecting female students in STEM. “Often it feels easier to look at internal factors for why women are not pursuing or [are] leaving STEM fields,” she said, “but I think that ignores just how big of an impact our institutions have on students.”
The researchers surveyed 363 female undergraduate STEM students to examine the potential moderating effect of chilly climate on woman–scientist identity interference and academic burnout. Deemer, an associate professor of counseling psychology, told Diverse that the term “woman – scientist identity interference” refers to the extent to which identity as a woman and identity as a scientist are incongruent.
“We found that woman-science identity interference was correlated with emotional exhaustion and cynicism and negatively correlated with academic efficacy,” Deemer said. “In other words, it increased the bad stuff and decreased the good stuff.”
Some highlights of the study:
As women experienced incongruence between their identities as women and as scientists, they felt more emotionally drained, more skeptical of the importance of their work, and less competent as students.
Results highlight the importance of improving the campus climate for female scientists, as well as the need to assist female scientists in identity development.
Future studies can assess perceptions of STEM climate from the perspective of students of different racial identities “because perceptions of predominantly White women do not represent the experiences of all women.”
The authors noted other limitations of the study, including the impact on first-generation college students. “Similarly, data included all students who identified as “female” in one gender category. The experiences of trans women may differ from cisgender women, and students who identify as transgender may experience a more unwelcoming climate in STEM.”
The study stated that educators “can use the results to create academic environments that minimize gender bias and promote attitudes that encourage the entry of women into STEM fields.”
It also noted that results of the research can be used to assist counselors in helping STEM students challenge stereotypes and other challenges as they navigate hostile academic and work environments.
“Awareness is the first step to addressing the chilly climate for women students,” Jensen said. “We won’t be able to retain women until we make a more welcoming environment for them.”
That’s what Sandra (a pseudonym), a transgender woman and professor of chemistry, told researchers when she was asked to describe how she navigates her personal and professional identity. “Many of my colleagues have never even seen me presenting as a woman,” she added.
Sandra is one of 55 STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) workers—including faculty members, students, and staff—who were interviewed for a study about what it’s like to identify as LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) in STEM. Since the study was published last month in the Journal of Homosexuality, the authors have received a slew of responses along the lines of, “Thank you for doing the work, because now I know I’m not alone,” says Allison Mattheis, an associate professor of education at California State University (CSU) in Los Angeles and the lead author of the study.
This Pride Month, Science Careers spoke with Mattheis and her co-authors—Daniel Cruz-Ramírez de Arellano, a senior instructor of chemistry at the University of South Florida in Tampa, and Jeremy Yoder, an assistant professor of biology at CSU in Northridge—about their study and what can be done to better support LGBTQ workers in STEM. This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: What challenges do LGBTQ people in STEM face?
Daniel Cruz-Ramírez de Arellano: In the STEM workplace, there has been this expectation that you should not bring in aspects of your personal life—that it has to be exclusively about the work and about the project you’re working on and nothing else. It’s exhausting for some people to have to separate their work and personal identities in such a way. What we found with our interviews is that if people could bring their whole selves to the workplace, without any sort of reservation, not only were they happier, but they did better work.
Jeremy Yoder: To highlight one example, one gay male astrophysicist said that the reason he was not particularly open about his gay identity at work was because everybody was trying to give the impression that they didn’t have a life outside of work; they thought that talking about their personal life would make them seem less competitive for postdocs and faculty positions. So that sort of work culture effectively put him in the closet, even if he wasn’t explicitly concealing anything.
Cruz-Ramírez de Arellano: We also had participants saying, “If I’m the best in my field, it won’t matter that I’m also gay.” It feels like you have to be the absolute best to counteract the fact that you’re gay. That resonated with me because I went through a stage like that.
Allison Mattheis: Support from departments and advisers is also a major factor. For example, I interviewed two trans students in math who had completely opposite experiences. When one student started to transition, they emailed their adviser and the next week, when they showed up on campus, everyone was using the correct pronouns; there were gender inclusive bathrooms on the same floor. So, the burden wasn’t on the trans person to figure everything out themselves.
But, for the other person it was a struggle. They had to go around and explain their identity to every single person as they started to transition. They didn’t have any senior faculty stand up for them. They once told an adviser that, when teaching in a lecture hall with 500 students, they were laughed at after someone misgendered them. Their adviser gave them a response along the lines of, “I’m here to talk about math. And maybe you’re just not cut out for this because you’re not able to focus on math”—just really cruel things.
That to me was a real example of how someone can be encouraged if they’re provided with some basic support and advocacy—and how hopeless people can feel if they don’t get that because it’s so exhausting trying to get a Ph.D. while also defending your identity for years.
Q: You’re all faculty members who identify as LGBTQ. Is it important for you to be “out” at work and with your students?
Cruz-Ramírez de Arellano: Yes. I’ve decided that being visible is really important to me, particularly after analyzing all of the interview data. So many people said that they’d never seen an out person in their field who was in a more senior position than them.
When I teach, I come out in the first 15 minutes of my first class. I have this slide where I speak about things that I like, for example video games or TV shows. And then I also have a picture of my boyfriend and me, and I say, “This is my boyfriend. His name’s Aaron. We’ve been together for 2 years. And now let’s talk about the syllabus.” I don’t linger on it; I don’t spend 20 minutes talking about how gay I am and how many drag queens I know. But I make it a point to come out explicitly because I might very well be the first gay scientist a lot of my students get to know.
Yoder: I don’t explicitly come out in class. But I have tried to be really deliberate about making sure I introduce myself with my pronouns, which is something that I should be doing regardless of my sexual orientation and gender identity. It signals that I’m someone who is thinking about diversity in the classroom.
I also sometimes wear things that signal my identity. Today, for example, I’m wearing a shirt I got at yesterday’s Pride run. And for years, I wore one of those little silicone rainbow wristbands everywhere, which is not the same as coming out exactly, but it is a signal that registers to people who are looking for it, which is almost as good.
Mattheis: I generally do come out to all my students at the beginning of class, but I have a really different context than Daniel and Jeremy. I teach graduate students who are already working in education or who want to work in education, so they generally are already aware of diversity issues. But because I work at a campus that’s 90% students of color, I always feel like my racial identity is one that I need to address first. If I don’t make it clear that I’m aware of the fact that I’m a white woman and that that really impacts my experience, I’m not going to be able to be a mentor to my queer students—who are mostly people of color—because their race is such a salient part of their identity and something that impacts them every day walking down the street.
Q: How can faculty members become effective allies, even if they’re not LGBTQ themselves?
Yoder: A really straightforward option that’s available on many, many campuses is “Safe Zone” training. That’s something that faculty can take themselves. If they want to go the extra mile, they might also consider making sure that it’s available and encouraged for all members of the lab. For instance, they could tell postdocs and graduate students that they can do the training on the clock—that it’s important for the work in the lab.
Cruz-Ramírez de Arellano: Afterward, you get a little Safe Zone sticker that you can put on your office door, which communicates to the campus community that you have gone through the training and that you are an ally. You can also put diversity statements on your website and in your syllabi, and list your pronouns in your email signature. That makes people feel like they are being included and addressed.
Mattheis: I think it’s also important for professors to model that they are humans. There’s this extreme perfectionism that’s prevalent in STEM, and it’s really hard for young folks. Sharing things that you’ve struggled with or messed up with—those are the things that make students think professors are accessible. And once you’re accessible about some aspect of your identity, students will come with questions about a lot of other things.
The other thing I would say is, don’t just say, “Oh, I found a queer student; let me point them to the one queer person I know across campus.” That’s really awkward. The student needs to have an advocate who also is aligned with their other interests. It’s important to demonstrate that you can be an ally to students who don’t share the same identities as you and that you’re willing to learn from them.
A recent Harvard study concluded that graduate students are over three times more likely than the average American to experience mental health disorders and depression. The study, which surveyed over 500 economics students from eight elite universities, also concluded that one in 10 students experienced suicidal thoughts over a two-week period, a result consistent with other recent reports. While these findings are alarming to some, as a current graduate student myself, I regard them as hardly surprising. But to understand the struggles graduate students face, you have to understand the structure of graduate school itself.
Most people probably lump doctoral students into the same category as undergrads or students in professional schools such as law or medicine. The reality is their lifestyle and the nature of their work are fundamentally different. In the STEM fields where I have personal experience, as well as many other fields, graduate students are really hardly students at all. For most of their programs, which last over six years on average, they aren’t preparing for written exams, taking courses or doing any of the tasks usually associated with student life. Instead they are dedicating often over 60 hours a week towards performing cutting edge research and writing journal articles that will be used to garner millions of dollars in university research funding.
While graduate students are compensated for their work by a supervising professor, their salaries substantially lag what the open job market would offer to people with their qualifications, which often include both master’s and bachelor’s degrees. For example, graduate student salaries are typically around $30,000 a year for those in STEM—and can besubstantially lower for those in other fields.
Further, unlike many professional school students, doctoral students do not leave their program with job security or even optimistic financial prospects. In fact, according to a study in 2016, nearly 40 percent of doctoral students do not have a job lined up at the time of graduation. Even for those who do snag a job, mid-career salaries can be significantly less than those for individuals who graduated from other professional programs.
So if doctoral students are underpaid and overworked, why do over100,000 students—more than the number for dentistry, medical and law schools combined—complete these programs every year?
There are many answers to this question, and they vary from department to department, individual to individual. For some, graduate school is a convenient next step, a way to inch towards adulthood while keeping your career options open and remaining in a familiar university environment. For others, graduate school offers something they simply cannot get elsewhere. These students enter graduate school because they are extremely passionate about their field—passionate enough that they are willing to dedicate over six years to studying off-the-wall research ideas in excruciating detail.
Universities, with a commitment to intellectual freedom, are one of the few environments capable of providing the funding and resources necessary for this type of work. So, we put up with the hours, put up with the pay, and put up with the dwindling career prospects in the hope that we can pursue research we are passionate about—and then we cross our fingers and hope the rest will work out.
Unfortunately, as the study pointed out, it often does not work out. Mistaking casual interest for passion, many students realize halfway through their degree that they aren’t as enthusiastic as they thought about their research. Still several years away from graduating, they have to deliberate between grinding through the remainder of their program or exiting early and entering the job market in an awkward position: underqualified compared to other doctoral graduates and inexperienced compared to others who joined the workforce directly after college.
Even those who are interested in their work have to grapple with seemingly infinitely postponed graduation dates. Unlike other programs, there is no “units threshold” you have to meet in order to graduate—instead your graduation date is overwhelmingly determined by the amount of novel research you perform. No matter how hard you may work, no results will likely mean no degree. Even the best researchers can see years slip by without any significant results as a result of factors completely out of their hands such as faulty equipment, dwindling research budgets or pursuing research ideas that simply just don’t work.
Even for students who are lucky enough to produce results, frustratingly, individual professors have their own standards for what constitutes “enough research” to graduate. Is it four first-author research articles? What about one review paper and a few conference presentations? The answers you hear will vary widely, and ultimately, a student’s supervising professor usually has sole power in determining when a student graduates. At best, this creates a confusing system where students perform substantially different amounts of work for the same degree. At worst, it fosters a perverse power dynamic where students feel powerless to speak out against professors who create toxic working conditions, even resulting in cases of sexual exploitation.
Then there’s always the existential, “what even is my purpose?” mental black hole that many graduate students fall into. Yes, research has historically produced innovations that have revolutionized society. But for every breakthrough there are many other results without any clear social application, and given the slow, painstaking process of research, you may not be able to tell which is which for decades. As a student, it’s can be easy to doubt whether you’re pursuing work that will ever be useful, producing a sense of meaninglessness for some that can facilitate depression.
Clearly, if nearly 10 percent of the graduate population is experiencing suicidal thoughts, something is not working right in the system. Still, progress on these issues has been slow, largely because the people who are most affected—graduate students– are often the ones with the least agency to spur change. As a student, by the time you’ve seen the cracks in the academic infrastructure, you’ll likely only have a few more years until graduation. Do you really want to dedicate time towards fixing a system you’re leaving soon when you could be performing career-vaulting research instead? Are you willing to risk upsetting professors whose recommendation letters will dictate your employment prospects? For many, the answer is no.
Granted, the issues surrounding graduate student mental health are much easier to describe than to solve. But if academia is good at anything, it’s tackling complex, multifaceted problems exactly like these, and there are number of starting points for both students and administrators to push forward. For example, universities could require multiple advisors within a student’s field to evaluate degree timelines, preventing labor exploitation by a single professor with vested interests in prolonging graduation dates.
Departments could also streamline their graduation criteria to reduce disparities in student workload amongst different research groups and to increase transparency of degree requirements. Further, administrators could increase funding for popular student mental health services and subsidized housing that help graduate students offset cost-of-living expenses. Some universities have already adopted these policies in earnest and others only in name, but the point is academic institutions need to be making a concerted effort to improve the graduate student experience. For all the research they have done, graduate students deserve to start seeing some results.