Thursday, October 6, 2016

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: Surviving and thriving in academia as a young female academic

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better - and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!


As a young female academic in a male-dominated field, I sometimes stick out like a sore thumb. My goal for today is not to convince you that there is such a things as gender bias in academia. Sufficient research has proven this. An overview of all studies is here, with some recent publications here, and here , and let's not forget that, once a female academic is hired, students will give her lower ratings as well.

With that said, I don't want to discourage any young aspiring female academic. Please no, academia needs all talent on board. But you'll need to brace yourself and learn to let them haters be haters. Story of my life - and the fact that combined studies with music confused people around me even more. Like a "typical" female academic, I've had my doubts and imposter trouble. But growing into an independent scholar, in my little niche of research, has helped me put things in the right perspective. And even though I don't have a storybook resume(who goes to potter around somewhere in the Andean mountains, isolated from the rest of the research community in concrete bridges anyway?), I am content with my progress, and I'd like to believe my research is adding value to society.

So how did I come this far? How did I do my own Dr. Strangelove and learned to stop worrying about rejected papers, missed opportunities, and collaborations in which I am not involved, and love the bomb (whatever it is)? Even though I am still an early career researcher, I think there are a few pieces of advice I can give you.

1. Don't feed the trolls

At every stage of our career, there will be trolls and haters and naysayers. You'll be watched more closely than your male colleagues, and for random things like your clothing and hair and whatnot. And while I'm the last person to say I've never been offended or shocked or outraged by certain comments, I have also learned that worrying and getting angry is not going to get you anywhere. Acknowledge that it is a hater's comment, accept how you feel about it, and then move on and prove them wrong.

2. Build a community and network


Women are bad at networking, "they" say. While I generally think that dividing humans in "women do this" and "men do that" is overrated anyway, I think there are simply different networking styles. As an introvert, I'm not the type of person to barge into people and wave my business card in front of their nose. But I do genuinely care about the work of other people, and I enjoy a good research discussion like any other good ole nerd. I frankly don't think you need to suit up and shake hands all the time to build a community. You can have one-on-one conversations with other researchers at conferences (just ask someone who looks a bit lost what brought him/her to the conference and what he/she is working on). You can use online tools to reach out to other researchers and share information. There are plenty of ways to get in touch with fellow scholars.

3. Find ways to reach out

In line with my previous recommendation, find ways that work for you to reach out to fellow scholars, the industry and/or the broader public. How about starting a blog about your research? Or contact the organizer of podcasts to talk about your work? Or write a guest post for an existing blog, if the idea of maintaining a blog by yourself seems to be a bit too time-consuming (I love hosting guest writers)? In which medium does your voice resonate? Find your voice, and don't be afraid of letting it sound.

4. Volunteer

Along with different styles of building community come different styles of contributing. I tend to be quiet in meetings, and speak few sentences if I have an opinion that needs to be voiced. But I contribute in my way, by volunteering when work needs to be done. Yes, your research and papers are important, and need a lot of your time, but showing up and doing work in different communities (university committees, technical committees, organizing events for your research group) will help you develop skills you will need in your future career. Don't be shy and raise your hand.

5. Don't drop the ball

Disclaimer: I don't want to worsen anybody's perfectionism here. But: don't drop the ball on work you take on. If you raise your hand, make sure you can deliver on time. Because then the haters will come and double hate. So while this advice might sound as if you have to work double as hard to show that you are a legit researcher, I think a lot comes down to managing your time and making smart choices and generally kicking arse.

6. Critique your own biases


When you think a female researcher comes along as uncertain, immature, poorly dressed or whatever thought might pop into your head, acknowledge your cultural conditioning. And then send it to Pluto. The times won't change if women themselves get stuck in thinking less about other women.

7. Pay it forward

And until the times will have changed, you can pay it forward and help the careers of fellow female researchers. If you're asked to suggest reviewers, see if you can bring some diversity in your nominations. If you see a female student doubting her abilities, talk to her. If you see a female graduate student doubting about whether or not she is PhD material, address her concerns. In the end, our research communities will function better if we can get all talent aboard, and if nobody falls off the wagon for not being the right gender (or race for that matter).

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