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  • Writer's pictureBecca Dzombak

Finding a voice in grad school

No one advertises grad school as a confidence-booster – in fact, it’s usually the opposite. We hear so much about how grad school wears you down, exhausts you from the inside out, and correlates with depression & anxiety. We hear about how much people hate it; how they can’t wait to graduate; how it seems like the years stretch on, interminable, with no relief in sight.

I’m not here to say that grad school never gets you down, but I would like to provide a different perspective. A more positive view where grad school builds you up.

Like many people, I made some new goals at the start of this year. I want to keep up running a few times per week, I want to cook more real meals (eating hummus and carrots is just so easy), and I want to start doing yoga again. These are great goals, but I also made one more, a little more ambiguous: to find my voice and make it heard.

These days, the constant negative cacophony makes it easy to feel like voices of women and minorities are being shouted down by hate and anger. It can be so exhausting that it becomes tempting to shut off those NYT alerts and stay cocooned in blissful ignorance. But with a little effort, you can make out a different set of voices, the ones denouncing white nationalism and defending women and people of color and LGBTQ+ and the disabled and folks in low socioeconomic status. Turns out, despite the noise, most people are pretty much okay.

Knowing that makes it easier to speak up yourself, to join the positive voices saying, “HEY. This isn’t us. This isn’t what we want.”

This may all seem removed from grad school – let’s circle back to that. Before I started grad school, I’d hear grad students talking with professors about scientific ideas, presenting and defending their original thoughts, and having them supported by colleagues. While logically I knew I would probably get to that point someday, I couldn’t visualize it at all. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to come up with any original research ideas, or that if I did, they’d be shot down.

Thankfully, I’ve had an extremely positive experience so far. I’m in my third year with an open-minded and supportive advisor and a lab full of positive reinforcement and opportunities. I’ve had the chance to work with multiple amazing undergrad women too – I’ll get back to that shortly. A lot has changed since I started, but the most tangible shift I’ve undergone is my self-confidence, and with that, my readiness to speak up. Not that I was particularly self-doubting at the start, but I’ve realized that I’m there. I’m at the point where I saw my older labmates – discussing their ideas and manuscripts and planning new projects, talking with their advisor almost less as a mentor and more as a peer. I hear myself in meetings and step back a little in my own head, take a second to think, “Damn. I am rocking this. This is great.” I’ve noticed that it extends beyond talking about my own research, too; I’m more comfortable asking questions about other people’s work, or even just jumping in more during friendly conversations about quantum physics or philosophy. (My friends are nerds, and I love it.) I’m part of an organization that has put me in touch with so many kickass women in STEM, one that lets us lift each other up and encourages us all to speak up.

Grad school has given me the confidence to always speak my mind.

I’m sure that a decent portion of this is motivated by the rose-colored glasses of a project going well, multiple papers in the works (but before any rejections), and a bustling lab full of confident, intelligent women, but once that next knock-down comes my way, I’m banking on my confidence in myself as a scientist to pick me back up in short order. After all, I’ve got things to do!

Now, I mentioned some undergrads I work with. Mentoring students in lab has been, hands-down, my favorite part of grad school so far. I’m keen to develop a relationship beyond “Please clean these beakers” with anyone I’m working with, so helping them figure out their scientific motivation is a pleasure. Hanging out in lab, talking about what the next steps of their projects might be, is usually the best part of my day. I skip out of lab with the warm-fuzzies of Yay science friends! and inspiration.

Coincidentally, our lab comprises entirely female grad and undergrad students. It’s a unique environment, one that lends itself easily to making us all feel very comfortable being in lab as well as asking questions or for help when we need it. I’ve enjoyed it so far, and one of my researchers really drove the point home for me in lab the other day. She said she’s in a class group with a classic mansplainer who she mostly ignores, but she realized it’s negatively affecting her willingness to ask questions in class because she knows he’ll jump in and respond condescendingly. Which sucks, and is all too common an occurrence, but she followed it with this: Usually, in a class like that, she’d feel totally confident asking a question because of her experience in our lab, surrounded by strong ladies in STEM. We’ve successfully created a supportive space for young women in STEM and hopefully helped more than one student feel more confident in her classes – and life – going forward.

What’s more warm-fuzzies than that?

So: I add a new goal for the year, and will keep it on my list as long as I’m in… well, anywhere, really. That goal is to continue to serve as a mentor and (hopefully) positive role model for women in STEM, to make them feel as welcome and supported as I possibly can. And in doing so, I can help them find their own voices and make them heard.

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