Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Graduate Student in Search of Inspiration

About two months ago (jeez how the time flies!), Gioia De Cari’s “Truth Values: One Girl’s Romp through MIT’s Male Math Maze” was playing at the Annenberg Center here on Penn’s Campus. Expecting a witty, yet inspiring, satire on the female experience in the STEM fields, I eagerly purchased my tickets well in advance and also managed to persuade several of my female colleagues to join me for the experience.  When performance day came, I sat down in my seat, prepared to be to have my emotions pulled every which way but ultimately ready to feel empowered as a female pursuing an advanced degree in engineering by the end of it… 

But 75 minutes later, I really had no idea how to feel. And not particularly in a good way either… It threw me for such a whirl around that it took me over two months to finally sort out my thoughts about it!

Just to fill you in – “Truth Values” is a one-woman show by Gioia De Cari about her personal journey through the mathematics PhD program at MIT. In 75 minutes, she details her struggles from both within the department and without by acting out in key moments in her life, playing herself and other colorful characters in each scene. And to be honest, it was an excellent 75 minutes of excellent entertainment – the event was accurately advertised as filled with “wit and gusto.” However, the event was also said to be “reminiscent of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean in,” which I find myself having a more difficult time agreeing with. While Lean In is also detailed with personal accounts, the book also, very clearly, sends an empowering message to women: get out of your own way, believe in yourself, and “lean in” to your careers, however male-dominated they may be.  I contend that “Truth Values”, while well intentioned, struggled to execute this task.

What isn’t explicitly said in the event description is that De Cari ultimately decided to leave MIT earlier than anticipated, taking a Master’s degree instead of the PhD she had initially set out to achieve… and she turns out to be so very much happier in her secondary interests (i.e. acting and playwriting) than she ever appeared to be struggling through MIT’s male math maze. Taking this at first impression, I felt like “Truth Values” was encouraging women to leave or stay out of the female-unfriendly STEM fields.

Suddenly, I started to feel completely overwhelmed by all the setbacks I had encountered recently in my graduate school career. I began to wonder whether I had been right to doubt my decisions to pursue my advanced degree... and if I had been completely wrong to even embark on the journey in the first place! What if I, too, had left early with my MS degree, like I had desperately considered only a few months earlier, in order pursue my secondary, more enjoyable interests (read: dog walking and creating delicious baked goods…… okay so maybe first, I’d have to rethink those into other more lucrative secondary interests, ha)? 

Weeks of self-doubt ensued, and what perfect timing too, as I soon had to give my first talk at a national academic conference. Then, less than a week later, I had to begin prepping my poster talk at a department symposium that I helped to organize and recruit industry representatives for. My research hadn’t gone as smoothly as I would have hoped, and I felt so incredibly foolish to be talking to any audience, let alone one that included future potential employers, about my seemingly lackluster results. 

But then I saw the light.

As I was finishing up one iteration of my poster talk to an industry rep, he stopped me to say, “Wow, this must have been a ton of work. Great job, keep it up, and thanks for a great talk.” At first, I was taken aback, but as I processed his comment, I realized that my research was and continues to be, in fact, a ton of work. And really, it is an incredibly difficult problem that I’m trying to address… and you know what? I have done a great job, especially considering the difficulty and complexity of the problem! Why was I realizing this only now? It is insane how just a little bit of outside perspective can knock a ton of sense into you.
 Graduate school isn’t easy stuff. And it’s not supposed to be. Otherwise, why would having a PhD be impressive at all? But if you’re anything like me, and by that I mean someone who is constantly comparing herself to others to judge appropriate life progress, it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. 

So what is the bigger picture? 

Graduate school is an individual experience. The people you encounter along the way – whether they are labmates, advisors, collaborators, or far off potential employers – they will all influence it in some small or big personalized way. Some grad students will be lucky enough to have all the right resources at all the right times, enabling them to speed through achievements and tangible results. Others will have a slightly harder time getting all their ducks in a row. In either case, however, students will still be acquiring new skills, learning not only about solving real-world problems but also about key insights about themselves that they will use for the rest of their lives.

Really, the bottom line is that it’s up to the individual student what they make of the experience.
Gioia De Cari had one (mostly) awful experience at MIT, and it was her decision to do what she did with it.  But that was her experience. And perhaps most importantly, it was her experience in a very different time. While I’m sure that not all of the problems she encountered as a female in STEM have been solved since, I’m also sure that a lot of forward progress has been made in the nearly 30 years that have gone by. Let’s ask the question - would I have been so easily commended and encouraged at a departmental showcase 30 years ago? Judging by De Cari’s depiction of female prejudices in the late 1980s, it is very possible that the answer is no. 

“Truth Values” may not have been obviously inspiring, but it most definitely sparked necessary dialogue, both inner and outer, about female issues in the scientific world. And maybe it took me over two months to get there, but I do feel empowered. “Truth Values” depicted a world where allies (mentors and friends alike) were hard to find for STEM females, but this is no longer true. And it’s up to us (you, me, and everyone else currently in this female math and science boat) to step up and make the best of it.  

Questions for Melissa?  email her at awe@seas.upenn.edu

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