July 1st, 2019

Open advice to new PhD students

Recently, a former high school student researcher I have worked with emailed me for advice on pursuing her Ph.D. and an academic career. In the email, she noted how in attending scientific meetings, she noticed the lack of women investigators and expressed how it bothered her that women are treated “differently.”

“Differently”…as soon as I saw that word, it immediately struck a chord with me. As much as I wanted to shield her, I knew I could not. With the NASEM report on sexual harassment etched in the back of my mind, I had many layers of concerns, especially for women. Fortunately, I had a supportive PhD advisor, Alanna Schepartz, who at the time was the only tenured female faculty in the department. She was my biggest cheerleader and when she once overheard me doubt my ability in the lab, she encouraged me to continue on my path and simply assured me I was more than capable. And while it was wonderful to be supported, there were unfortunately others (faculty/ students) who were not. So I thought hard about my experience and the things I have done in light of being treated “differently.”

As I thought, the words just fell into place. Below is an excerpt of my reply.

“My advice for what you should do in your Ph.D. is to first work for someone who is supportive. This is crucial. No matter how exciting science may be, if your advisor is not supportive, it will be an uphill battle…science is tough enough, so adding an unsupportive advisor is not worth it and can derail many young scientists.

Focus on doing good science and make sure you read a lot, as it will help you understand what excellent science is but also save time in the long run in terms of not reinventing the wheel. It’s not about how hard you work, it’s about how smart you work.

And as you are doing now with me, network and keep making those connections. Gather advice, ask for help but also give back and share that advice/help. This includes mentors and peers. Build a support group — and the more diverse it is, the better, as research ideas and dealing with experimental failures (there will be many) can come from the most unexpected sources. Having allies and supporters helped me quite a bit in my transition to faculty member. In fact, I think this is by far the most important thing that has helped me.

I know it’s hard and you are correct that there are few women/women of color in this role. There will be those who will want to disparage you and diminish your success. They may attribute your success to your gender. Tune those folks down. And build a network that will support you.

It is possible to succeed in academia. Working on my own projects with an awesome group of students/postdocs is incredibly rewarding.”

After submitting this message off to her, I realized that there are others who might be in similar situations or seeking advice in general. And while the individuals who have worked directly with me are able to get my advice and mentorship, it should be available to everyone. So here it is for those of you who need it and for those of you who have questions, like my former high school student about STEM and career paths in STEM. Please express it in a comment below so my group and I can do our best to answer!

-Jin Montclare