I am a PhD candidate in the Wildlife Evolutionary Ecology Lab in the Biology Department at MUN. I’ve been in my program for three years, but it is my first fall actually in St. John’s. Until last February, I was tracking wolves in Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba. You can read a little about my adventures and research here and here. When I am not thinking about wolves, I am fighting the patriarchy, though I am not suggesting they are mutually exclusive.
For my first post, I was trying to find a theme that would allow me to reflect on my time as a grad student, briefly share some aspects of my experience and what I am passionate about, and importantly, write something what would hopefully resonate with others as they settle into their fall semester. During my time in graduate school, I appreciate reassurance that myself and my ideas belong. ‘You belong here’ is a phrase that I welcome hearing and I imagine others feel similarly.
First, writing about this idea is a reminder to myself. I often have to actively remember that I am deserving of occupying various spaces. Imposter syndrome is a very real thing for many, if not most, folks in graduate school. Particularly in science, there is an issue with diversity and inclusion, which can add another layer to the difficulty of participating for certain individuals. Society can add dissenting voices to our internal conversation about whether we belong, and the culture in academia is certainly not immune to those societal structures.
Graduate school presents myriad environments that we need to integrate ourselves into.
- In academia, there is no shortage of criticism. This makes it hard to reflect on the value of our contributions from the outset. Criticism should be constructive, and all parties involved should work to achieve that goal. Whether you have been criticized fairly or harshly, you deserve to be here.
- In meetings, it can be hard to speak up and to view our own ideas as valuable or insightful enough to be shared. However, an idea left unshared will not benefit anyone. While this opens you up to criticism it is in no way tied to your worth as a student and especially as a human.
- At conferences, there are many big names and personalities and it can be easy to default to silence. But adding your voice to the discussion will allow you to make new connections, and that is a valuable currency in many disciplines.
- In the field, myself and many of my peers have experienced subtle to overt bias. Scientists of many genders, identities, and ethnicities experience judgement and can feel unsafe (not because of the wildlife). It can take time to recognize what is happening and sometimes it is only upon reflection that we can frame our experiences in proper context. In finding a supportive and strong group we can create safety and comfort in adverse conditions, both environmental and societal.
- Even in places outside of graduate school, we can struggle with the feeling of belonging. For example, becoming a writer for a blog is a new space that I had convince myself I could fill.
I want to share the sentiment of belonging with you, my fellow graduate students. It is a universal feeling to doubt oneself. I hope that briefly describing a very select few of my experiences demonstrates that. My advice to others is don’t limit yourself to what you feel qualified for. Other people’s words and actions towards me actually tells me a lot about them, it is important to not internalize the comments before critically evaluating them. Sometimes I needed someone else to tell me I belonged, that I should take an opportunity, or that I was deserving of recognition. It is crucial to find your advocates and support network. If you are struggling to find that support, seek some resources that are available through MUN such as Student Wellness and Counselling Centre, Sexual Harassment Office, GSU. For me, these examples have a gendered aspect that I am acutely aware of due to my personal and shared experiences. However, these issues extend to many individuals of different identities. The first step is to acknowledge it is ok to feel unqualified, share this feeling with others, validate others, and then work to change it for future academics coming into the same environments.
You will never feel true belonging by excluding or harming others. It is through well-intentioned and supportive collaboration that ideas and success can be fostered for everyone involved. If you can, be an advocate for someone else and support them as they navigate the challenging environment of academia with you. Indeed, it is a privilege to have the means and opportunity to pursue higher education and have the space and safety to share our experiences. While those of us here sometimes need to remind ourselves that we belong, many others belong here too who have not been given the opportunity.
During my comprehensive exam this spring, my mentor, Eric, asked me to name 10 women who study predator-prey dynamics that were influential to my research. To my chagrin, I could only name 3 women, but my failure highlighted how dominated my field is by white men. In science, including both wildlife and carnivore ecology, representation is not diverse. We need to ask ourselves: Who is not here? Why? How will we do better? Recognize the demographics of your lab, department, institutions and field. Then be an active participant in changing the homogeneity of these circles. Look for the individuals who are not readily seen in your field, cite them in your papers, invite them to give a research talk, suggest them as reviewers, nominate them for awards. These actions will help us retain the perspectives that we need most. This representation matters for those currently in academia and it inspires the students and professionals of tomorrow. Finally, an extremely important aspect of allyship is being an active listener, so while I want to inspire you to feel fully engaged in these efforts, I also want you to provide others with that chance by taking a supportive seat.
If these ideas are new to you, I hope that this has introduced you to the experience of your peers and that you seek more opportunities to learn going forward. If this was something that resonated with you, I hope that with this reassurance you can find support and strength that is needed to complete your degree.
You are here, you belong here, now create space for others.
Post Script: I was inspired to write this by a culmination of moments and individuals. As always, the Symposium for Women Entering Ecology and Evolution Today at CSEE 2018 was energizing and educational. I would like to thank the WEEL and Edge Lab for helpful discussions at our inaugural Feminism in Science discussion (keep your eyes open for future meetings!). Finally, I am grateful to have advocates and friends who provide the support that allows me to not only do research but to devote time to the issues I am most passionate about.