[Disclaimer: there are so many amazing people in science who have been fantastic, but sadly its often the negative comments that affect you most]
For a while I have been struggling with feelings of wanting to delete everything, remove my blog, take down my YouTube channel, and resign myself to a non-sciencey job that I am not passionate about. Now this isn’t some huge existential crisis, where I am crumpling under the pressures of wanting to achieve, but the reason I feel like throwing in the towel on science communication and equality in STEM is honestly due to science itself. I feel exhausted by elitist attitudes.
This may be breaking news to you, but I don’t have a PhD and I don’t have a Masters in science. I did an undergraduate degree in neuroscience and loved it, and when I graduated I was walking into a competitive world where if I wanted to do a PhD, I would probably need a Masters degree. And a Masters costs £9,000. For some people, £9,000 is nothing, and they could find that in their back pocket. For me, someone from a working-class background, that is a lot of money, and therefore postgraduate education seemed inaccessible to me, and despite my passion for science I decided that academia would not be achievable. So, I now work in writing, PR and communications – some in science and some outside of science (because I need to pay my bills).
Because the letters after my name stop at BSc, I find (or at least I feel) that other people look down on me or judge me. I feel pressure to say, ‘my background used to be in neuroscience’, because despite adoring this area of research and writing about it, I feel like by not working in research that I am not entitled to say that my area of science is neuroscience.
A stand-out moment for me that summarises all of these feelings, was after a talk I did at a university about how we can help encourage young girls into science and keep women in STEM. At the end, students and staff from the university came up to me to discuss the lecture and ask me questions. One of the university staff asked me what area of science I worked in, and I responded with my typical ‘my background used to be in neuroscience’ response, feeling compromised and embarrassed about my lack of doctorate. And she responded with ‘used to be?!’ and a facial expression that was a potent cocktail of quizzical and disgust.
This interaction has stood out to me for several reasons:
- It made me feel like I wasn’t good enough to be part of the scientific community.
- It hit a nerve, as I feel insecure about my role in science.
- I feel passionate about science, and about sharing science through communications as well increasing the number of women in science – but this left me feeling like I didn’t deserve to do that.
This hasn’t been the only interaction that has left me perplexed about my role and my relevance in science.
I love communicating science and I love talking about science. After resigning the idea of academic research as a potential career, I decided to follow my passion of talking about science and began working towards a career in science journalism. I will be as bold as to say that I want to be ‘the Brian Cox of brains’.
In pursuit of this, I have created a YouTube channel and have written for science magazines, but my ultimate goal is to present or produce science documentaries. In stage two of my plan to infiltrate this industry, I contacted a production company with an idea of a science documentary – and I was so pleased when they liked my idea and invited me to talk about it further. During the exciting conversation, where it was mentioned how I was a brilliant and natural presenter, and the discussion about the documentary idea was full of compliments and enthusiasm from all sides, a comment was said to me that crushed me.
“The thing is, you don’t have a PhD so no one will take you seriously as a woman.”
And as ridiculous as that statement sounds, I get what they meant. As women, we need to work harder to be believed and we are often less likely to be taken seriously as an expert. But as someone who was just about to start this career, which was an alternative to a PhD, this shattered all of my hopes.
Is science only reserved for people with PhDs? Because, from what I have experienced, a lot of scientists feel like it is.
I am (at least for now) a stubborn enough person that I won’t be giving up on sharing science, trying to increase the number of girls in science, or helping to shape policy to support women in STEM. But is it incredibly disheartening to see elitist attitudes in science, when I am trying to open science up to more people.
Have you experienced something similar? If you have and would like to share your experience with me, please get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org.