This is a topic you see often in media, everyone who is studying struggles with at least one from: depression, sense of inferiority, anxiety, impostor syndrome, sense of inadequacy.
I argue that to problem comes all the way from school, to the moment you become a PI or a fellow, and all the systems that leech from science and human endeavor, like publishers.
When I started my CS bachelor, I was one of the lucky few in my country who had a good enough education to sort of tackle the challenge of the program. So when starting a bachelor program, many people are not ready, not in age, not in knowledge, not in discipline, not economically. During that period you need to already fight against the current. No to mention lack of mentorship and, in some places, an unstructured program full of half baked PhDs teaching the subjects sub-optimally and students hacking the grades instead of reading and learning.
In the master studies, no one takes you seriously, lack of mentorship is still there, people higher up are either too busy or too uninterested. You are perhaps not ready to face the program academically, also there are economical difficulties.
Then after a master (or two) finally comes the PhD. People start taking you a bit more seriously but not too much. By now you are supposed to know so many things, but if you accumulated “errors” in the previous years, there is a lot you have to learn. You need to learn what you didn’t before, plus new courses, develop projects, write papers and a thesis. If you are lucky, those papers will be supported by your PI. But if you are unlucky they can even get them stolen by the PI and friends, because you are “only” a PhD student. PhD students spend long days in labs, with samples, or in offices writing code or running all the statistics.
Then if you manage to finish the PhD, people take you finally seriously but you lack the ability of securing funding, so you are still not important and don’t have a say. Probably you are also very tired of something of a decade or more of this struggle. There is always a fight for resources, inefficient processes that you can’t change. The publishers and journals expect you to do all the work for free. You experiment, you do, you write, you pay, you review other scientist’s work and they get to reap the benefit, the publishers I mean. They milk you from all you have. Scientists are treated like “content creators”, who are paid in exposure and glory. But as a popular IG sound says: “exposure doesn’t pay the bills”, and only a well played fame gets you enough grants to keep on going.
When you become a PI or fellow you actually stop doing science. You suffer writing grants, one out of ten is accepted. With that money you need to hire people who are in the situation I just described, so forget about being lucky to get that one genius, they exist but they are black swans (rare events). So you are stuck with a dream, depressed unmotivated workers, a constant fight for funding and predatory publishers and spam who drown you with noise. In some places, you have no help with bureaucracy so you are your own secretary and you have very little time for anything else, even your family suffers.
So all along the way, many people are tired, lacking mentorship, they are not taught in context and it’s just repetition and brute force. The will and the excitement are drilled out from them along the way.
So what do we do?
If you are a young starting student, don’t hack your grades, you don’t know the harm you are doing to yourself. It’s difficult to be passionate about everything, but if you have talents an abilities, develop them by reading, be curious, ask. Nowadays there are many social media places where you can ask, so if you don’t have mentorship available in your university ask, don’t be shy, no one should shame you for wanting to learn and be better.
If you are a master student, choose your topic carefully, if it is going to be a long way to the top you might as well work on something you enjoy. You can’t and shouldn’t work alone, search for labs or groups around the world (don’t be confined to your country). Search that the labs and groups are good, look at their published work (and on ArXives), look at the profiles of the PI’s and people who work there.
If you are a PhD student, don’t fight the fact that you have to level up, you will have to read. If you are not used to reading and writing then probably a PhD is not for you. Having a master is already a good feat for industry which also has higher salaries and you can work on something more rewarding for you. But if you are up to the task, search for knowledge in a sea of information is not easy. Look at indexes and search engines. Like SCOPUS, Web of Science, Google Scholar, go to university libraries and their seminars on research methodologies. If you find good papers, look at the references. There are also good books, find them.
If you are a PI or fellow with people under your charge, maybe learning about leadership doesn’t hurt. If you hired people, don’t discriminate them or make their lives harder, don’t look at gender or race, judge only by their work and offer opportunities for training. Encourage those who have been with you for a longer time in your team to help the juniors and newcomers. You might want to make peace with the fact that there will be less hands-on work for you in the experiments, but if you are not happy at all with this, then even if you work closer to the science you will for sure need help with the management of your group, resources and information.
If you don’t like science, don’t like research, don’t like to read or write, then maybe academia is not for you, no matter what your parents or relatives or friends say putting pressure on you. If you choose this path under pressure it is unlikely you will succeed or be satisfied with it (not impossible, but unlikely).
What do you think? Are you ready to come to the Ivory tower?
Advice for fellow women
Some people don’t care, or even worse, don’t believe there is discrimination against women. So I left this part for the end in case some don’t want to read. But there is discrimination, in many dosages.
In a documentary about women in science, one of the main interviewees, says that she is tired and that she didn’t want to be forced to fight in the first place. Why does it have to be so hard? To work twice as much for the same reward? To have to prove yourself at every corner?
How much discrimination you will face today after 2022, will depend on the place you work, your country of origin, the country of origin of your co-workers, your starting knowledge, your ability to work in a group, your language (if its mother tongue or second one), your domain of knowledge.
My advice is, pay attention to how many women are involved or related in the groups you work, and if there are none, it can be that the filed is still inaccessible to women, the group is not necessarily to blame, but look at how women are treated in that group, be it during an interview or how many are cited in the papers they produce.
Don’t make it harder for other women or think less of them if they don’t seem to know what you do. We are all in an interdisciplinary world, people have different sets of skills. Learn and support each other. It is very satisfactory to grow together, do it, experience it for yourself, chances are that women in your field have also struggled and I, personally, welcome the camaraderie as opposed to the competition.
Do not be afraid to voice your opinion and knowledge if something is incorrect. Show no fear, don’t let anyone smell it. Improve your confidence, if you are smart you have nothing to fear.
Connect and contact with other women, read their experience, nowadays there are so many groups in social media. You can contact them or join and just start the talk.
Men are not the enemy. Even if you have been put down, just don’t do it to others, it will pay off. If you happen to get power don’t get greedy trying to put others down, set an example. There are just a few trolls, that can destroy others with one ugly comment amidst and ocean of nice feedback and constructive criticisms, don’t pay attention to them.