Impostor Syndrome and a Sense of Self

I’ve been puzzling over this for years—what does it mean to be me, when me is a scientist and also a woman and also Indian? I cannot conform to all of the stereotypes of each of these identities, or the sub-identities they contain—they are, in totality, mutually exclusive. But I also cannot resist all of these stereotypes—that would leave no room to be a person.

I tried, for years, to resist all the stereotypes—don’t be nurturing, be more passionate, you can be a leader, be more of a nerd, be more sexy, you’ll never be a leader, why bother being sexy, be less of a nerd, be less passionate, be more caring…I kept maneuvering myself into smaller and smaller crevices between huge rocks, and suddenly found myself without room to breathe. But when you recognize the impossibility of fitting you—all of you—into such little space, into negative space even, you have no choice but to break the rocks down.

The impossibility I was living in became apparent when I saw women ahead of me on the academic ladder who managed to be their whole selves. They seemed to have fought off the weight of contradictions that I thought their identities must have imposed on them. There had to be a tunnel out from where I was, because these women seemed to exist in sunshine beyond it.

And so I began carving, claiming for myself the parts of my identity as a woman, as Indian, as a scientist, that felt truly mine, picking up so many shards of other identities along the way, some of which fit into the mosaic that is now mine. With the guidance of two therapists, I broke myself down and put myself back together, and still I arrange and rearrange. My sense of self, which had lived earlier in interstitial spaces, moves closer my center and gains strength.

Somewhere along the way, my academic impostor syndrome mostly disappeared. Its departure came on the heels of success-of-sorts, in the form of a paper rejection from a great journal, with thoughtful, considered reviews. Sure, they didn’t want my work, but being taken seriously felt better than I thought it could.

I found that while I enjoyed my newfound confidence, I didn’t know how to talk about it. I was a senior grad student with a postdoc lined up, about to enter the most uncertain phase of academia but also far along enough that junior scientists had started asking me for advice, mostly on being a woman of colour in academia. People like me are meant to be the definition of impostor syndrome. So in talking about my lack of impostor syndrome, suddenly the weight of identity came tumbling back. We are told that feeling like an impostor is what is holding us back, not that we are actually treated like impostors because of how our identities are perceived. We are told constantly that we need to battle impostor syndrome, but then we’re also told that if you don’t suffer at its hands then surely you are clouded by arrogance. This feels an awful lot like being shoved back into an impossibly small crevice, the sort I am working so hard to escape. Now that I know what that escape can feel like, I refuse to climb back in.

As advice goes, my take isn’t particularly useful—do the work of uncovering yourself from within the pile of stereotypes you’re expected to conform to, and maybe your impostor syndrome will disappear along the way. And it’s presumptuous—who on earth am I to say you haven’t discovered your sense of self already? And it’s definitely premature—what if my impostor syndrome comes raging back in a month or year or three? But for now, it feels like the truest thing I can say about a subject that comes up in my conversations with academics again and again and again. As always, I’m writing about it in the hope that perhaps it’ll resonate with a few of you.


A Conversation about Mental Wellness and an Important Distinction…(3/n)

Some days ago, a friend in academia sent me this question to ponder (mildly edited, and excerpted with permission):

I am heartened to see increasing visibility and discussion around anxiety in academia. I was curious as to your thoughts on why so many graduate students, postdocs, and professors struggle with this. Are those folks who have a higher propensity for it drawn disproportionately to academia? And/or does the academic work environment induce it? And perhaps most importantly: what structural changes might be made to the incentives and social environment of academia to reduce the anxiety-related issues for academics?

It took us several emails to get to what I think is the crux of the issue, or at least for me to understand how I view this question. Of course, I began by saying that it’s doubtless a bit of both:

It’s certainly a question that comes up again and again. I haven’t looked into research on this subject, so what I say is thoughts/experience. As with everything, I suspect it’s a bit of both of the factors you mention. I think in particular the lack of structured time in academia proves to be a challenge for many, many people with anxiety. Also the extremely delayed gratification for all work, and the lack of positive feedback, or growth-enabling, actionable feedback more generally. The latter is definitely something I struggled with a lot.

I’ve learnt from therapy that self-reflection can be both a blessing and a curse for mental health, and self-reflection likely correlates with the tendency to reflect carefully in general. Which is exactly the kind of person that would find a life dedicated to thought appealing. Personally, I realised that a lot of my struggles arose because I applied my scientific ways of reflecting onto myself. This can be useful sometimes, but it can also exacerbate poor mental health, and did so for me.

One thing I worried about a lot before going to therapy was if somehow my mood swings, my brain’s ability to focus intensely, obsessively and for long periods on work (a terrible thing for my mental health) was necessary for being a good, creative scientist. That turned out to be completely false. I am a much better scientist with almost no mood swings and with better mental health hygiene practices. I wonder if creative types are less likely to seek out help because of this fear…

In terms of structural improvement, I think the biggest thing would simply be better access to therapists, pretty much everywhere but definitely starting in college. Literally everyone I talk to about mental health (including me) had a bad experience with a therapist in undergrad, which scared them away from getting help later on. Other than that, I’m hopeful that more people talking about this everywhere and all the time would encourage people to find support.

He responded:

I was intrigued that you found that obsessiveness did not correlate with you being a better scientist. I’ve always assumed that those things went together; I think we have a lot of company in that assumption.

As for me, I have always sub-consciously and sometimes consciously self-identified as someone who does not struggle with anxiety or depression i.e. “As an outgoing, confident person, I’m not the sort of person who would ever experience this sort of thing, therefore these feelings that I’m feeling … aren’t actually happening. QED.”

Not very intellectually honest, with cognitive dissonance out the wazoo, I know, but so goes this [the?] human mind.

We then exchanged a couple of articles—I sent along this piece by Alex Riley on mental health and freelance journalism, and received in exchange this piece by Ardon Shorr, titled “Grad School Is Hard on Mental Health. Here’s an Antidote.” The author of this latter article describes how putting effort into science communication helped them through the stress of grad school.  While I certainly concur that science communication is a wonderful thing and can help curb the dissatisfaction of grad school’s delayed gratification problems, my response to this article wasn’t entirely positive, and I wondered why:

I skimmed this article because it started to annoy me, leading me to realise the crux of what you were getting at—there must be those people who struggle emotionally/mentally entirely because of academia (seemingly like the person who wrote this article, if their problems were all solved by engaging in science communication), and others of us who would struggle with mental health no matter what, but whose condition is exacerbated by academia. The improvements to my mental health have had almost nothing to do with changes to science/academia, but there’s clearly much that could be improved within academia that would benefit all of our mental health. Without making this distinction clearly, we’re likely to ignore one of these two facets.

So you can imagine academia as a cafeteria serving unhealthy food. All of us eating here could likely be healthier if we had access to better food, and some of us might be unhealthy only because of the food we’re eating here, but better food wouldn’t solve everyone’s problems–some of us would still need to go to the doctor more often, exercise more, and take medication (and yeah, we need health insurance for most of that). We’re going to have to hold this distinction–academia can and should be better about taking mental health into consideration, but that can’t be the whole answer–if we want anything to change.

I Have Forgotten.

In the last while, there have been blogposts and tweet chains about the disparaging and derogatory comments that women and minorities in academia are frequently at the receiving end of. I’ve thought about commenting, thought about adding to growing lists that sound all too familiar. But then something weird happened–I couldn’t remember enough specifics, and simply could not muster the energy to first remember and then construct that memory into a statement that adequately shared the pain of being made to feel other, less than, unwelcome.

Which absolutely is not to say that I’ve heard nothing. And which is not to say that I don’t still remember the pain.

Which is not to say that sharing these comments in the past hasn’t been profoundly freeing to me, to let me see that my pain is both systemic and personal, that others have experienced worse, that others like and unlike me have felt more and different pain.

Which is not to say that forgetting is the goal, or somehow better. We all reckon with our pain differently. Many of us cannot forget.

It’s just to say that right now, I’ve forgotten how you all have made me feel unwelcome in academia, and that I work hard to remember all of you who have made me feel like I belong here and how you’ve done so in big and little ways. It means that when you all are surprised, again and again, at the magnitude of what all of us remember and have forgotten, I resent you for making me feel like I need to remember to be believed. I hate that you don’t realise how remembering can be a burden.

And the real tragedy is, I don’t actually need to remember, because sooner or later, someone will say something again.


I did not like “The Evolution of Beauty”

Richard Prum has written a book in which he claims that female mate choice for arbitrary male traits, “beautiful” traits, is an underappreciated, revolutionary force in evolution. On the face of it, I should love this book. It appears to challenge standard sexual selection narratives, it emphasizes the importance of natural history, it even tries to be feminist! Why, then, do I dislike it? Because it is disingenuous.


How do you write a book on sexual selection and not even consider the idea that ornaments may signal environmentally-determined condition and not just “good genes”? How do you manage to not cite Doug Emlen? How, as I’ve mentioned before, do you claim that Fisherian runaway selection is “ignored” by biologists and then not discuss research on sensory drive in fish or frogs or lizards? How do you write a book on sexual selection in birds and not even mention Hamilton and Zuk’s classic work on ornamentation and parasite load?  Why, across your whole book, would you not distinguish between claims that are supported by the literature (you know, with a numbered footnote or endnote leading to a reference) and provocative statements pulled from thin air, making the reader repeatedly do the work of flipping to the end of the book to figure out which is which? After all this, how do you expect a reader to believe you when you say things like this:

Aesthetic evolution by mate choice is an idea so dangerous that it had to be laundered out of Darwinism itself in order to preserve the omnipotence of the explanatory power of natural selection.

I wanted to take this book seriously, but if it doesn’t engage with the literature it is seeking to critique, it does not deserve serious engagement. If, by failing to engage with others’ work on organisms that may not be birds, Prum ends up repeatedly reinventing all the wheels of our current understanding of sexual selection, it is not worth our time or effort to discern if he has in fact come up with something new. If, by setting out to prove himself an iconoclast, Prum mischaracterizes all of us who study sexual selection, he gains no credibility. Ironically, even as something of an adaptationist, I actually begrudgingly agreed with one of this book’s central claims–that we’d be better off considering runaway selection as a null model for ornament evolution–long before learning about any of Prum’s work. I don’t know what that says about Prum’s decision to be quite so combative in this book, and quite so dismissive of huge contributions from a large number of his colleagues.

Full disclosure: once this book started talking about feminism, I couldn’t bring myself to go on (I stopped after Chapter 5, a very mixed-bag chapter about Patricia Brennan’s wonderful work on duck sex). However, I made the mistake of skipping to the end, to see this paragraph:

On the other hand, feminists themselves have often expressed discomfort with standards of beauty, sexual aesthetics, and discussions of desire. Beauty has been viewed as a punishing male standard that treats women and girls as sexual objects and persuades women to adopt the same self-destructive standard to judge themselves. Desire has been viewed as another route to fining themselves under the power of men. Yet aesthetic evolutionary theory reminds us that women are not only sexual objects but also sexual subjects with their own desires and the evolved agency to pursue them. Sexual desire and attraction are not just tools of subjugation but individual and collective instruments of social empowerment that can contribute to the expansion of sexual autonomy itself. Normative aesthetic agreement about what is desirable in a mate can be a powerful force to effect cultural change.


No. We do not need “aesthetic evolutionary theory” to patronizingly inform us women that we have sexual agency. And women’s sexual agency is not going to save the world–men, get your act together and learn about systemic power imbalances.

I firmly believe that how we study sexual selection needs to be shaken up, but Prum’s approach is most definitely not the way. Maybe there’s something profound in here that I’m completely missing. Maybe it’ll hit me in a few weeks or months or years and I’ll come back and finish this book. Until then, I’ll continue to hold in high esteem the women who have been pushing boundaries and asking difficult questions of the evolutionary biology establishment, women like Marlene Zuk and Sarah Blaffer Hrdy and Patricia Gowaty and Patricia Brennan and Holly Dunsworth and Joan Roughgarden and Erika Milam and Zuleyma Tang-Martinez. I recommend you do the same.

Mixed Emotions about Marching for Science

The day before the event, Science March DC co-chair Mona Hanna-Attisha said, in an interview with PRI,

“So I understand that [diversity in science and the Science March is] an issue, but I think there’s huge other diversity issues that we need to be tackling. I think where we need to be attacking diversity is not in science labs and in medicine but in our legislative offices.”

Yikes. Talk about deflating the enthusiasm of those of us scientists who pour hours of our time doing uncompensated work to try to make academia more inclusive and welcoming of underrepresented groups, or those of us who do research that demonstrates how the lack of diversity in science limits what we can discover about the natural world. Talk about invalidating the feelings of members of underrepresented groups in science who struggle daily with the impact of this absence of diversity on their work, their health, and their well-being.

sign skeptical

After much indecision, and holding onto some skepticism, I ended up going to the March for Science in Boston, and I was glad to be part of an affirmation of the importance of science to society. But I couldn’t help but wonder–if we had used the March for Science as an opportunity to truly strengthen our commitment to making science welcoming of underrepresented groups, if we had seen this as a chance to reckon with the bias and discrimination that plagues not only scientific progress but also how science impacts society, would a young, white man have marched at this event with a sign that said “Science is a pretty girl. Don’t you want to get to know her?”


How do we know what we know? Sexual selection, in humans and in lizards.

Over the last few months, there’s been a slow-boiling battle underway between Holly Dunsworth and Jerry Coyne about the evolution of sexual dimorphism in humans, surrounding the question of why male and female humans, on average, differ in size. The battlefield ranged from blogposts to twitter to magazine articles. In a nutshell, Coyne argued that “sexual dimorphism for body size (difference between men and women) in humans is most likely explained by sexual selection” because “males compete for females, and greater size and strength give males an advantage.” His whole argument was motivated by this notion that certain Leftists ignore facts about the biology of sex differences because of their ideological fears, and are therefore being unscientific.

Dunsworth’s response to Coyne’s position was that “it’s not that Jerry Coyne’s facts aren’t necessarily facts, or whatever. It’s that this point of view is too simple and is obviously biased toward some stories, ignoring others. And this particular one he shares…has been the same old story for a long long time.” Dunsworth went on to propose, seemingly off the cuff, alternative hypotheses for sexual dimorphism in body size in humans that were focussed not on men but on women, as examples of the kind of hypothesis that is relatively rarely considered or tested in this field.

Though on the surface this battle may seem to be about specific biological facts (Coyne certainly tries to win by treating it that way), in reality this disagreement is, as Dunsworth argues, about the process by which hypotheses are tested and about how knowledge comes into existence. About which hypotheses are considered for testing in the first place. As a result, the two ended up arguing past each other quite a bit.

As I followed this whole exchange, I shook my head at the timing–I had a paper in preparation that was SO RELEVANT to the centre of this debate! That paper is now available as a preprint, so I can try to outline why I think that Dunsworth is right, and Coyne is being short-sighted. My argument has *nothing* to do with humans, however–I don’t know the human sexual selection literature well enough to weigh in on that. Instead, my argument is by analogy with our knowledge of mating systems in Anolis lizards.

Until relatively recently, it’s been widely accepted, on the basis of behavioral studies, that anoles are territorial and polygynous. This description is so prevalent, in scientific as well as popular accounts of these lizards’ biology, that anyone who knows anything about anoles wouldn’t stop to think twice about it.

Following a somewhat circuitous path (which you can hear about at or after my thesis defence on March 28th!), the main project of my Ph.D. ended up being an investigation of exactly this “fact”–are anoles really territorial? Genetic evidence, which has shown evidence for females mating with multiple males as well as complex spatial relationships between mating pairs, led me to wonder if territoriality was a useful description of these lizards’ mating system. And while an important part of my work is empirical, my best sampling was restricted to a single population of a single species. So a complementary and equally important endeavour has been reviewing all of the evidence we have in support of the conclusion that anoles are territorial. And an outcome of this endeavour has been realizing that even things that we *think* are well-supported scientific facts–like territoriality in Anolis–may in reality be based on very little evidence.

I’m not going to rehash the whole argument of the review paper (co-written with my advisor Jonathan Losos) over here. The gist is that the earliest studies concluded that anoles are territorial based on strange and limited data, but the idea caught on. Most subsequent studies, therefore, ended up assuming territoriality implicitly or explicitly. This assumption affected choices made in sampling design, analysis, and interpretation, such that it became unlikely that studies would consider important, or even be able to detect, behaviours that were not quite territorial but were still potentially important for reproduction.

To illustrate what we meant, I am going to excerpt a couple of paragraphs below (edited for out-of-context clarity and to remove examples). In this section,we argued that if studies are designed with the assumption, implicit or explicit, that individuals remain in relatively small, exclusive areas (i.e. they are territorial), then these studies end up being designed such that they will not detect, or won’t consider important, evidence suggesting otherwise:

Because by the 1970’s the consensus seemed to be that anoles are territorial, research at this time was not often designed to explicitly test if these lizards behave territorially, i.e. to show that they stay in the same place and maintain exclusive areas. Specifically, territoriality was an almost foregone conclusion in studies with a limited spatial and temporal extent of sampling.

If the sampling period of a study of social behavior is not long enough, then relatively infrequent but reproductively consequential departures from territorial behavior are unlikely to be detected often enough that they are considered signal and not noise. This includes not only occasional forays away from and returns to a fixed territory, but also shifts in territory location that may take place only a few times per breeding season—neither would be detected by studies with short durations.

Moreover, if a study of social behavior does not sample over a large enough area and a sampled individual disappears from the study site, researchers cannot know if the individual has died or simply moved. Thus, studies with limited sampling areas will be most likely to sample only those individuals who stay in the same place, that is, animals whose behavior appears territorial.

You can read the paper for details and examples of limited sampling, as well as other ways in which research choices were shaped by assumptions of territoriality. But in sum, because of this dependence on territoriality throughout research on anole social behavior, the facts we have come to hold about these lizards’ biology look very different than they may have if biologists had started out with different assumptions, or had clarified what their assumptions were. The upshot is that, at this point, we simply don’t know if anoles are territorial or not–they may well be, but we don’t yet have good evidence for it.

If you read the paper, you may glean that I now think that instead of arguing about whether or not anoles are territorial, it’s more fruitful to ask if territoriality is a useful way to describe behavior. In the case of Anolis, I don’t think it is. Others of course may disagree, and our disagreement could be resolved by testing predictions emerging from territoriality against predictions that do not depend on territoriality. But this would be very different from considering the predictions made by two hypotheses that both reside within a territorial framework. And this, I think, is Dunsworth’s point–which hypotheses we consider and how we decide to test them not only shapes what facts we have the capacity to discover but also depends an awful lot on what we think we already know. What we think we know in turn depends an awful lot on the particular trajectory that a body of research has followed. Consequently, the hypotheses that get tested do not emerge from a vacuum. All hypotheses emerge from assumptions, whether we recognize them or not.

While our paper, by design, deals primarily with assumptions about Anolis territoriality originating within science, it hasn’t escaped my attention that the existing description of these lizards’ social behavior are positively Victorian. This struck me most clearly when I explained my empirical research to non-biologist friends and family. “They sound so old-fashioned!”, I was told, which made me realise that this might well be because the science on which the descriptions are based originated in the social milieu where these now-old-fashioned ideas were a given *. It also hasn’t escaped my attention that most of the research that suggested departures from territorial behavior in Anolis remained unpublished in scientific journals, and that three of the four genetic studies showing female multiple mating were conducted by women scientists. These observations wouldn’t sway anyone who believes that science is 100% objective, and it’s certainly possible that animal behavior could conform precisely to Victorian ideals, but I think the coincidences are at least worth pondering.

In this world where the very concepts of knowledge, facts, and scientific expertise are under dispute, I fully recognize the danger of writing about how science can do an incomplete or even incorrect job of discovering truths about the natural world. But it isn’t doing science any good for us to ignore how our processes of discovery can be blinkered by unwarranted assumptions, assumptions that can originate either inside of science or outside it, from myriad sources of bias that afflict every single one of us. The future of science cannot depend on us pretending that we scientists are infallible.



*Of course, none of this is new to sociologists or historians of science–check out, as just one of many examples, Erika Milam’s Looking for a Few Good Males ^

I Hate the Standard Advice on Word Choice in Recommendation Letters

So if you’re an academic and have written or read recommendation letters for your students and care at all about gender equality in academia, you’ve probably come across this handy poster:


Most of this advice is pretty nuanced and thought-provoking, and will get most of us to write better, more balanced letters for all our students. But I cannot express how angry I get every time I see the section titled “Stay away from stereotypes”, in which it is suggested that letter writers stay away from using adjectives like “caring”, “compassionate”, and “helpful” in letters for women, because these sorts of words “are used more frequently in letters for women and can evoke gender stereotypes which can hurt a candidate.” A more detailed list below expands this list of words to avoid, including “tactful”, “dependable”, and “diligent”. The words that the poster recommends that letter writers retain include “ambitious”, “confident”, and “intellectual.”

You’ll notice right away that the words in the two lists are not at all equivalent. It’s not like the words to avoid are slightly less impactful versions of the words to include. The two lists of adjectives tell us fundamentally different things about a person, and words we’re being told to avoid actually describe traits that I hope we all want in our colleagues. These two sets of adjectives are far from mutually exclusive, but if they were, I know I’d choose to work with someone who is hard-working and compassionate over someone who is ambitious and successful. The colleagues I most enjoy working with, regardless of their gender, embody the best of both lists.

So what this poster is effectively, and not even subtly, telling us is that we should avoid using words that provide useful information simply because they are coded as female. Like so many other purported solutions to gender bias, this advice furthers patriarchal values instead of subverting them. If we follow the advice in this poster, and then turn around to complain that academia is full of tactless, uncaring, and selfish people, we are being hypocrites.

But the poster also points the way forward. Turns out that recommendation letters for men are 16% longer than letters for women. So use that extra space to fully describe your female students who are both hard-working and accomplished as such, and cut out some instances of “excellent” and “intellectual” to do the same for your male students. It’s then up to the search committees to decide what they value in their colleagues. If these search committees would rather hire someone who is “excellent” over someone who is “excellent” AND “hardworking”, the problem lies there, and not in the letters of recommendation.

*New Paper*: “Facilitating discussions about privilege among future conservation practitioners”

Holly Milton Brown, Margaret Rubega, and I have a new paper out in Conservation Biology, in which we write about why and how conservation biologists and practitioners should and can discuss privilege in the conservation biology classroom. It’s based on an exercise that Holly ran when a TA for a graduate level conservation biology course at UConn, and we thought the exercise plan, and the motivation for it, would be useful to share with the community of biologists that teach conservation. Check it out!

As we were looking over the proofs a few weeks ago, we wondered if the release of this paper was timely. And we decided a couple of things. First, generally speaking, a paper about the consequences of disparities in socioeconomic status is not going to be untimely any time soon. But second, more specifically, there’s been a sense in the academic circles I inhabit of not being quite sure what to do to in response to the current political climate. Doesn’t the importance of our research pale in comparison with the societal challenges that undoubtedly lie ahead of us? What are we going to change about how we teach and mentor and conduct research? Where should we focus our efforts? Obviously each of our answers to these questions will vary, each of us reaching a solution that seems correct for us.

But two things are clear, to me at least:

Our paper lies at the intersection of these two things, and gives all of us biologists invested in conservation a concrete step that we can take to broaden the discussion of this intersection. Even if you don’t like the steps we propose, we hope that we can get you thinking about why and how to bring discussions of privilege explicitly into the conservation classroom.

Let us know what you think!

P.S. I loved this essay from Eric Anthony Grollman on being committed to fighting injustice and oppression in academia.


Trigger Warnings: a (non)example from This American Life

This piece mentions female genital mutilation. I wrote it in May, but decided to bring it out of storage because of that UChicago letter

If you work in academia, you’ve probably thought about content/trigger warnings. I certainly have, though mostly as an abstract exercise–I don’t think I’ve been part of a classroom discussion in which I’ve felt especially triggered by what was being discussed. Neither have I been in a class with a professor who’s issued an explicit trigger warning, nor issued one myself as an instructor (though I should have, on at least one occasion that was just brought to my attention in an end-of-term review). I completely see the reasons for content warnings. But until now, I’ve never really felt why they may be essential.

I have a rotation of podcasts that I listen to, in bits and pieces, every week. In the last few months of the stress-induced sleeplessness, I’ve found listening to them to be something like a bedtime story. It means a lot of rewinding and re-listening through the week to parts I’ve slept through, but I like this routine. The content, of course, varies wildly–some days I fall asleep to inane limericks on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, on other days to curiously intense discussions about Twitter’s more arcane corners on Reply All. For the most part, I know what to expect from these different shows. I know, for example, that Dear Sugar is more consistently likely to be emotionally intense than Start Up. But for the more varied shows, like This American Life, I rely on them telling me to watch out for things that might be tough to listen to. Yes, you skeptics, content warnings do exist in “real life”.

Then this week happened. This week’s episode of TAL features a difficult, important piece about female genital mutilation. I’m glad I heard it, but I really wish I could have known beforehand what it was about. By way of introduction, the subject matter is described as “controversial”, and the usual disclaimer that the piece “acknowledges the existence of sex” is issued. Nothing more. Three minutes in, when you hear talk of an operation to get a young girl’s “bug removed”, you realise with a sinking feeling what is coming. Had I known that the episode was going to be about FGM, I’d have listened the next day, not as I was going to sleep. A more explicit content warning was certainly called for, and I’d never found it easier to empathize with why. In fact, I still can’t imagine an example that’s more likely to convince people that content warnings are necessary. If you’re skeptical, go take a listen yourself, and see if you react similarly, viscerally.

But the kicker really is that I was surprised at the lack of content warning, meaning that I’d come to expect something like them in my day-to-day life, even though I’ve never seen one in a classroom. My friend Emmy Pierce phrased it much better than I could, in a Facebook post from last August (shared with permission):

Making use of a trigger warning is kind of like deciding exactly when you’re going to watch that horror movie. When you’re house-sitting alone in someone’s isolated country home? Or in your own cozy apartment, with friends and a comforting pillow to hug? You know it’s a horror movie, so you know what’s coming; and therefore you know how to make the experience not 100% horrible for yourself.

That’s the thing about trigger warnings: in real life, they actually kind of exist — in the form of context. Movie is set in 1930? I might be about to see some racism. I’m working in a criminal courtroom? I might very well hear details about violent crime at some point. Working in an ER? Better be prepared for some gruesome injuries.

But college is not like real life. College is all about making connections where none may appear to exist — like connections between immigration law and violence against perceived foreigners, for example. If you’re a freshman and you sign up for an intro government class or something, how are you supposed to know that one photocopied packet includes gruesome descriptions of physical injury, unless someone tells you? And college is about exposure to new ideas, yes, but also art and historical figures or incidents you may never have heard of. If you’ve never heard of that one required movie in your history of film class, how do you know there’s a graphic torture scene in it? Is it really too much to ask the professor to add the words “contains graphic violence” next to that item in the syllabus?

In real life we have context — and, often, the experience we gained in college — to let us know when something disturbing or triggering is likely to come up. And also, contrary to what most opponents of trigger warnings would have you believe, in real life we often actually have the option to avoid what we don’t want to see. Like turning off the TV when the newscaster says “warning: some viewers may find this footage disturbing.” Or deciding not to be an EMT, given that I feel faint at the sight of blood. But in college we often don’t have that option — you simply have to do the required reading, or you lose out on what you were meant to learn.

Bottom line: COLLEGE IS NOT LIKE REAL LIFE. COLLEGE IS WHERE WE HELP PREPARE STUDENTS FOR REAL LIFE. College is where you learn to swim before jumping into the ocean. Students aren’t asking for flotation noodles. They just want the sharks to be pointed out — so that when it’s time to head out alone, they know how to tell when a shark is getting close.

So come on, just put the goddamn words “contains sexual violence” in your goddamn syllabus. Pretend you’re a newscaster on TV if it helps. You know. Like in REAL LIFE.



On “Tough Love” in Science

My very first task in the lab as an undergrad was to pull layers of fungus off dozens of cups of tomato juice. My second task was PCR, at which I initially excelled. Cock-sure after a week of smaller samples, I remember confidently attempting an 80-reaction PCR, with no positive control. Every single reaction failed. Which is to say that science doesn’t let you go for long without failure.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this PCR, partly because I’m returning to molecular work after a seven year gap. But mostly, I’ve been thinking about how my bosses responded to that failed reaction. I don’t remember the precise details but I suspect my immediate mentors, other lab members, regaled me with their own “shit happens” stories. I vividly recall a flash of disappointment across the face of one of my PIs, probably mourning all that wasted Taq. That combination—“this happens to all of us, but it really would be best if it didn’t happen again”—was exactly what I needed to keep going and to be more careful.

In the time since I was a college freshman, I’ve learnt how widely varied different academic mentoring styles are. And my overwhelming feeling in the face of what I’ve learnt is gratitude at having dodged the “tough love” bullet. “Tough love” is the idea that because doing science requires a tough skin, it is a mentor’s role to provide the stimulus for that skin toughening. I know that I would have wilted under such mentoring, and I know plenty of others who feel similarly.

But “tough love” mentoring in science seems to persist so much as to be mostly unremarked upon. Take, for example, this excerpt from Hope Jahren’s widely acclaimed new memoir, Lab Girl:

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Either you think this is business-as-usual in a science lab, or, like me, you read this and worry that all you are destined to be is an adequate scientist, that you are one of the many who will be weeded out of science because you aren’t tough enough, aren’t dedicated enough, and do consider your time (literally the only thing we’re guaranteed in this world) of some value.

If my first experiences in science had been like this, I doubt I would be doing a Ph.D. I took a quick poll of about 15 of my grad student and postdoc friends, asking them to imagine how they’d react in that situation. Not a single one of them believed that they’d have stayed that extra hour. Of course, your mileage may vary—maybe something like this was your first experience in science, and you thrived because of it. And having mentored a grand total of four undergrads, it obviously isn’t my place to tell anyone else how to mentor their students. But I do know how I’d respond as a mentee, and I do wonder who ends up being excluded from science when tests of this manner are devised for students to “pass”.

As my failed 80-reaction PCR and many subsequent failures have shown me, science is tough enough without the hurdles placed before us, consciously or unconsciously, by our peers and superiors. As a community, we need to figure out which of the tasks we require of scientists-in-training are vital to making us good scientists, and which serve simply as hoops to jump through, excluding anyone who isn’t a very particular type of person. This is especially vital because the track record of who is consistently underrepresented in science is clear.

We’ll likely never all agree on how much tough love is the right amount to prepare someone for a career in science. Our disagreement is a good thing, and will provide a range of mentoring environments in which a range of people will thrive. But students entering science need to know that this range exists, that tough love isn’t the only way that scientists are trained. There are alternatives to being thrown in the deep end, and it’s possible to have the time and space to learn to swim, to gradually grow a tougher skin, before you sink. There is no single story on the basis of which you should decide not to enter the water at all.

And if it’s true that mentoring in science is, at present, overwhelmingly tough love-ish, is that something we want to change? Yes, if we’re at all committed to making science accessible to people from varied backgrounds, and ensuring that they (we) have the space to thrive.

Thanks to the eleven people, spanning a range of career stages, who read this post over and offered comments/suggestions before it went public.

P.S. Letting fungus grow on tomato seeds mixed in tomato juice them is a clever way to get the gelatinous coat off the tomato seeds, which helps the seeds germinate without rotting

P.P.S. Dr. Jahren has a couple of questions for me (and you) in response to this post:

  1. Amongst theoreticians (as opposed to — or perhaps in addition to — laboratory or field experimentalists), it is very common to require a graduate student to take difficult course(s) in higher math, coding, statistics etc., without any guarantee that the techniques taught will be directly useful or even invoked during the dissertation project, under the expectation that what the student learns from struggling with the material is a useful general enrichment.  For some students, these types of courses serve as roadblocks to progressing.  Does this at all relate to the tough-love mentoring phenomenon you name and describe?
  2. The extremely competitive funding situation in science research has a direct effect on the amount of productivity that must be proposed and then delivered in order to “make ends meet” in the laboratory for each 3-year cycle (e.g., the numbers-budget breakdown that I offered in Part 2 is illustrative).  To what extent does this provide a structural constraint on the amount of time and energy available for the trial and error process that is so important during learning?  Would changing the availability and mechanism of funding for students have an effect on tough-love mentoring?

I’ll be pondering these questions; in the meanwhile, chime in with your thoughts in the comments below!