As Women's History Month comes to a close, these next two featured women in STEM describe both the many opportunities, and challenges, that exist for graduate students before, during, and after graduate school. Eva Mutunga, a first-year Bredesen Center student, recalls an experience from her first week of classes last fall where she battled through feelings of uncertainty and gracefully managed an uncomfortable situation of potential bias and prejudice. She highlights how her ability to embrace change and seek out peer mentors has helped her stay resilient, confident, and motivated.
Born and raised in Kenya, Eva's fascination with engineering first began when she would watch the bellies of low-flying planes passing over her home in Nairobi. After moving to the states, Eva obtained her undergraduate degree at the University of the District of Columbia in mechanical engineering where she worked with Dr. Kate Klein at the National Institute of Standards and Technology on studying helium ion material interaction in both thin films and bulk substrates of various materials. She is now pursuing her doctoral degree in Energy Science and Engineering with a focus in materials science at the University of Tennessee. She is currently working on the morphological characterization of directed-assembly metal nanoparticles and substrate interface under the guidance of Dr. Jason Fowlkes at the Center for Nanophase Materials at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Eva is adventurous and likes to try lots of new things but one of her favorite things to do is dance.
This past August, when I moved to Knoxville for grad school, I was so excited and giddy! I could not wait to explore this city that was new to me, and for the opportunity to meet new people. Ooh, and my eagerness to dive deep into the science that I enjoy and love so much! Change for me, no matter how small, comes with a sense of newness and elation that makes me feel like I can take over the world. During the first week into my first semester of graduate school though, my state of euphoria came to a screeching halt, and the oh-so-dreaded imposter syndrome quickly took its place.
On the first day of classes, it sounded like most of the other students already knew the content of the whole course! I certainly did not. It did not matter that I was really enjoying my classes and loving the learning process; I constantly felt inadequate and not qualified to be in grad school. I thought to myself, "Maybe on this level, you don't come to learn; you are instead expected to magically know everything." I feared that someone was going to find me out and expose my incompetency.
"It did not matter that I was really enjoying my classes and loving the learning process; I constantly felt inadequate and not qualified to be in grad school."
The final nail in the coffin was this odd experience I had in one of my classes. It was a class demonstration where we were replicating a very simple experiment that one great scientist did that led to ground-breaking results. All that was required of us was to take two length measurements and then plug them in to an equation. Two guys took the first measurement because it was a long length and required construction measuring tape. I took the second measurement which was a few centimeters, but when I reported what I measured, first the professor asked me if I was sure about the measurement, and then another student followed up by asking me whether I had used the long side or the short side of the ruler! My first reaction was to doubt myself, and so I asked someone else to double-check the result; no surprise there, they came up with the same answer.
Then, my second reaction was pure heartbreak. Why did the professor not ask the guys if they were sure about their measurement? Why did this guy ask me if I used the right side of the ruler? Surely, for a student taking a grad level course, I should be able to tell the difference between centimeters and inches, right?! But then, I was even more vexed by the fact that I allowed them to make me second guess myself. I cannot honestly say that I know the reason for why they doubted my ability to measure a trivial length was because I am a woman and I am black, but this experience really broke my heart. I felt an enormous burden to prove myself to everyone else, which quickly took a toll on me.
"My first reaction was to doubt myself...
Unexpectedly, the more I thought about this odd experience, the further the "imposter syndrome cloud" that was hanging over my head drifted away. I realized that if I could not show confidence in a simple length measurement, then how will I be able to defend my scientific research? I saw two ways that this could go: either spend my time in grad school trying to prove my abilities to everybody else, or learn and do the science that I love and be confident in that. I chose the latter and was determined to change my mindset, because really it is just a waste of time to worry about what others think.
For my first cause of action, I approached a third year Bredesen Center student whose work I really admire and asked her to meet and chat. Without any reservations, she quickly agreed and was more than happy to help. Let me just say, I couldn't have asked to be in a better program! All of the Bredesen Center students are so eager and willing to help. As we talked over dinner, much to my surprise, I realized that she also doesn't have it all figured out, but she is fearless in putting herself out there and that is part of the reason why she has accomplished a good deal within a short time in grad school. I found a renewed sense of purpose for being in grad school. I felt encouraged and learned that I should cut myself some slack and just open myself up to learning, and channel the negative energy of feeling inadequate into allowing myself to just enjoy grad school. It is also okay to not know everything. After all, isn't that why people do research?
Insecurity and feelings of inadequacy are a part of graduate school. If anyone, man or woman, tries to tell you they didn't feel that way at some point or another during grad school, they're lying. That being said, some of you may think that an experience like the one Eva described here with her professor and some classmates of hers is trivial and also just a part of grad school; both female AND male grad students have to deal with that, right? Not really. Women more frequently have their abilities questioned and are expected to prove themselves again and again at every level. At some point, the resiliency and confidence that Eva showed in response here, and that so many other women in STEM show every day, wears thin.
What needs to change? How do you respond in these situations? Would you call out a classmate or professor when it happens?
Welcome to Think Like a Postdoc. If you're a fan of science as much as I am, and/or are curious about getting a degree in a STEM field, or pursuing an interdisciplinary graduate degree (all from the perspective of a graduate student), then you're in the right place. Think Like a Postdoc also includes posts about my current lab and field research, including analytical chemistry, Arctic biogeochemistry, and energy & environmental policy. Comments and questions are always welcomed. And please tell me what you want to hear about next!
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