Five Things Postgrad Students are Tired of Hearing

Postgrad science students have a lot on our plates. Between labwork, presentations, keeping up to date with the latest publications, meeting with our supervisors and the dreaded thesis, we are busy people. We are, after all, trying to uncover how the universe works and find new ways to interpret and use nature. Quite often, we get a few questions from our non-academic friends and family that we’re a little tired of hearing. We have either heard them (and answered them) 5000 times and often come from a place of misunderstanding or, worse, not taking our work as seriously as other fields. These questions can be frustrating for your favourite postgrad student, so here are five things not to say to them:

When are you getting a real job? 

This question is particularly frustrating because most postgrad students don’t really feel like students anymore. The work we do as researchers is very different from answering assignments and studying for exams. It’s a whole different phase of our lives that is already, in many ways, like a job. And if we plan on staying in academia, we won’t get a ‘real job’ (usually understood by most people as lecturing – something we may not even be interested in doing) until after we’ve got our PhDs. Nobody goes around asking medical students or law students when they’ll get a ‘real job’, even though they’re in training for as long as scientists. 

The Earth is Flat/Climate Change isn’t Real/etc

Most of the time, these people are trolling. If that’s the case, we’ll just keep moving and ignoring these questions. We don’t always have the time or the energy to lay out the mountains of evidence a quick google search would reveal. But, if we do, it would be a good chance to practice our science communication skills.

You must be so smart! I failed maths (economics/statistics/physics etc.) in high school!

While we all love being complimented, being ‘good at maths’ doesn’t necessarily equal being smart. Yes, I can do integrals and enjoyed trigonometry, but I can’t manage a business or figure out how to cook anything more complicated than pasta. We all have different talents and different ways of being smart. Additionally – not all scientists are good at maths or even use maths in their work. It’s better for everyone if society stopped viewing scientists as special geniuses and instead as ordinary people whose job it is to do science.

Isn’t it a waste of money to build bigger telescopes/particle accelerators/etc?

I understand the frustration at seeing the immense cost of building and running the Large Hadron Collider and the MeerKAT telescope when there is so much inequality in the world. But to do science, which informs us about our place in the universe and helps us understand what its made of – as well as developing technology and creating thousands of jobs – requires expensive equipment to push the boundaries of the unknown further. A quick look at the salaries of top soccer players and how much Jeff Bezos earns per second will put the cost of science into perspective. 

When are you going to graduate? Or How is it going with your studies?

Simple advice on how to ask this question: Simply don’t ask this question. Postgrad is stressful and this question may result in tears. We’re all trying to graduate as soon as we can, and asking this question isn’t going to make the process any quicker. Also, maybe another piece of advice, ask this question if you have the whole day free in your schedule to listen to the whole story. 

I hope this post clarified some of the misconceptions around postgrad science students and what you should not ask us. If you’d like to strike up an interesting conversation with one of us, ask us what we research and why we love it. We’re more than happy to talk about science (most of the time). 

Mentors Matter

A factor that had the biggest impact on making my journey as a woman in a male-dominated field easier was the luck of having good mentors and role models. I have been fortunate in finding women who I could relate to and who believed in me, which helped me get through tough times and helped my career progress so far.

There is an important difference between a mentor and a role model. A mentor is someone who knows you personally, advocates for you and supports you in a professional capacity. A mentor can be your supervisor, but may even be someone completely outside your narrow field of study. Whereas a role model is someone you may not know personally, but you can relate to in terms of their journey and their values. They often represent something you would like to replicate in your own life or career. Finding mentors and role models can be quite challenging, but the search pays off in many different ways.

Although many postgraduate programmes and universities run mentorship programmes, I have found my mentors informally like most South African students. As an undergrad, I would often ask questions in class and speak to my lecturers and tutors afterwards. This helped me form a relationship with the academics and postgrad students, which made it easier to seek out advice from them when I needed it. If I am struggling with something, I know there are several people who want me to succeed and would be willing to help me – whether it is directing me to resources on writing a good application letter, listening to me vent about a difficult course, or helping me find an internship.

A good mentor will help you progress as a scientist. By sharing their knowledge and experience, they can improve your skills and help you grow as a researcher and as a person. You should also be willing to take their criticism – which should always be constructive – and approach them with respect and eagerness! 

I would like to emphasise that although there are advantages to having a mentor who shares part of your identities, such as your gender, race or religion, for example, a good mentor does not have to be someone who resembles you. As I was working on this post, I attended the UCT Vice Chancellor’s Postgraduate Brunch. During her talk, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng also mentioned the importance of having a mentor. She shared her definition of a good mentor, as someone who is “‘highly achieved and generous with their knowledge”. To me, these are some of the most important characteristics of a good mentor as well – someone who cares about your progress and can help you grow as an academic. 

In rWhatsApp Image 2019-08-22 at 10.07.25ole models, however, it is more important to have people who you can identify with. When I started studying astrophysics, I didn’t know of any other Muslim women in my field. Like many sciences, astronomers also wanted to stay as far away from anything political as they could, which felt isolating as someone who cares about social justice. It was comforting to me when I stumbled across a blog post about Naziyah Mahmood – a Muslim aerospace engineer who advocates for women in STEM, and seeing Professor Chanda Prescond-Weinstein openly discuss politics, share advice on surviving academia as a woman of colour and – most importantly – happily talk about her work on axions on twitter has been incredibly valuable to my experience as a scientist. 

Up until recently, most portrayals of scientists have focused on white men in lab coats, but fortunately, there has been a shift in popular culture to diversify this image. With movies like Hidden Figures and even seeing women as scientists in the cartoons my 3-year-old niece watches, it’s reassuring to know that, in the future, girls will easily be able to see themselves as scientists.

I hope that this post will inspire you to seek out new mentors and look out for role models. Who inspires you to be a better scientist?