I’ve always thought that women are just as capable as men, but I’ve never had faith that other people think the same. I was raised in a liberal town where I read fairy tales about strong, intelligent girls who defeated villains in the face of adversity and bias. As a result, as I grew older I decided to prove I belonged in my male-dominated math and science classes by being the “best” student possible. I didn’t feel I was the most brilliant person in the school, so I made up for it by studying like crazy. Not surprisingly, it worked. Concepts clicked. I aced exams and earned A’s. The underlying stress of trying to stay near the academic top never left, but that stress was regulated by a constant supply of grades. Even when I didn’t score perfectly, I knew I could make up for it on another exam or in another class. I learned how to learn and had fun doing it.
When I started research as an undergraduate, I hoped it would be exciting. To be honest, it wasn’t: reducing data is not exciting to me. I didn’t understand the scientific motivation, and when I read papers I felt stupid and confused. I felt everything I was doing was wrong, and without grades, I lacked a way to moderate those feelings. I constantly felt I was hiding some crucial mistake from my advisor. I was supposed to write up our work, but froze, terrified of revealing my incompetence. I procrastinated for weeks, and only pulled myself together to finish the project at the last second.
Largely because of that experience, I deferred from graduate school. I found a job tutoring astronomy, math, and physics at UC Santa Barbara (incidentally, the exact job held by two astrobites authors before me), and I loved it. The goal of teaching–helping other people–was far more motivating than helping myself to stay ahead in an endless academic competition. Teaching challenged me; I quickly found gaps in my knowledge and communication skills. But I realized that staying honest and adapting my style in response to student feedback and self-criticism were more important than having an encyclopedic answer to every question. That attitude made it possible for me to become a better teacher without feeling like a “bad” teacher during the process. By finding ways to keep the material exciting for my students, I remembered what drew me into astronomy in the first place.
I entered graduate school with revived determination. I knew I wanted to teach when I left, and I wanted to find out if I could enjoy research too. I blamed myself for the negative experience I had as an undergraduate. I resolved to find a project I cared about, to work harder than I had before, and to ask tons of questions, regardless of how stupid they made me feel. Although I attempted to change, my attitudes toward classes and research stayed the same. Actively asking questions did improve my understanding of astronomy, but when it came to my research, I was often wrong. Despite my best efforts to look at my mistakes objectively, I took the criticism personally. I felt I wasn’t smart enough, wasn’t progressing fast enough, and wasn’t good enough to ultimately compete in the astronomy community. The praise I received from my advisors didn’t stay with me because I barely believed it; awards I received didn’t feel worth it because the process that got me there was making me so unhappy.
I might not paint a rosy picture of graduate school, but there have been good parts, too. By pushing myself to read papers and participate in scientific conversations, I stopped feeling intimidated by the literature and became genuinely interested in astronomy research. I learned cool things in my classes and I gained skills from my research. But more than anything, sharing an interest in astronomy with students has been the best part. I’ve been lucky to TA great classes and even co-teach. The more I teach, the more convinced I become that I want to dedicate all my time to education, and I’m grateful to have found that clarity.
Looking back, I can think of plenty of advice to give a younger me. I would say that intelligence is not a gift: the brain is a muscle and grows stronger with practice. I would say that there’s no such thing as a perfect scientist; that the word “best” has no tangible meaning. I would point out that the inability to internalize success is common and even has a name: “imposter syndrome”. But being aware of those ideas doesn’t change my decision. I’ve been doing research because I thought I should, not because I was driven by the quest for knowledge or enjoyed the process. I know now that I am capable, but I don’t think science research will ever be fulfilling for me. I teach other people, but I do it largely for myself. So if there’s one thing I would tell myself above all else, it’s this: find what you love, and go after it.
My decision to leave scientific research might not count as a traditional success for women in science, but it is a success. I figured out how to be honest with myself and I chose to focus on education because I think it will make me happy. As an educator, I will have the opportunity to directly influence many more people–including women–than I would as an astronomical researcher, both by teaching in my own classroom and by working to improve the educational system when I can. I hope I can share the best parts of science with my students and with you all, our readers. I still admire scientific research without reservation and I encourage you to pursue it if you care about it. As for me, I suspect my own story would differ–for better or worse–if I wasn’t trying to prove myself in a biased world. While I can’t claim to have the solutions to inequality, I hope that sharing my experiences in the world today will make a small impact on it tomorrow. If we want to improve ourselves, either as individuals or as a community, acknowledging the challenges we face seems like a good place to start.
Outside of academics, I love travel, hiking, music, and vegan food. :)
Latest posts by Alice Olmstead (see all)
- CUWiP Application Deadline *this Friday*! – October 30, 2013
- Digging up “red nuggets” in local elliptical galaxies – April 14, 2013
- Why I left research for education – March 20, 2013