Even scientists at the top of their game can suffer self-doubt, says renowned Physicist Athene Donald.
Indrayani Ghangrekar, contributor
Imperial College has held an annual Athena lecture since 2001 to celebrate the achievements of women in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, maths, or medicine). Last week, Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge and champion of women in science, took to the podium to discuss her career and in particular her experiences a woman in a male-dominated field. Donald drew in the audience with her engaging style, also evident on her blog, and, despite her impressive and highly illustrious career, always shows modesty regarding her achievements.
Her fascinating scientific journey aside, the issues Donald discussed on the night provided insight and advice for scientists regardless of gender or age. As a scientist in the throes of changing career paths right now, I, for one, took heart in her words- not least the thought that not having a clear career plan right now is not the end of the world.
Donald also admitted to the occasional bout of Imposter Syndrome – the feeling of certainty that your current position is a result of a clerical error rather than your ability to do the work. An error that will be discovered any day at which point you’ll swiftly be ejected from your university, job, etc. This is certainly something I suffer from too, for example whilst I write this very article. If, like me, you find yourself wavering in your career convictions, take comfort in these snippets of advice Donald shared:
- Don’t worry if you don’t have a plan – Donald herself, and many senior academics she knows, did not have a plan, indeed had no idea what to do. Having a plan is not essential for career success (although it can help, of course). Rather, the key is to seize opportunities and make them work for you.
- Sometimes critical decisions are made without realising the positive long term impact they will have on you. Be open to taking on challenges rather than seeing them as obstacles.
- Remember that the difficulty for women may not be due to overt discrimination, but unconscious bias from other women as well as men, says Donald, as found in this study.
- Sometimes, tough choices or compromises need to be made. Donald did not travel more than five nights a year when her children were young. This meant that she was not as well known in the US at the time, but she was able to spend more time with her research group, which meant that the team was productive and worked well together.
- Work-life balance should not be seen as a luxury, as Donald said: “One cannot escape one’s personal responsibilities and I think it is very important that universities recognise that people, not just women, but men too, are entitled to have a personal life and make it possible for that to happen.”
- Donald says she suffers from Imposter Syndrome despite a list of achievements as long as hers (she has written about it before here). Men and women suffer from it and it can be cathartic to discuss it but it shouldn’t be the barrier to you achieving your goals.
Athene Donald’s talk was a stark reminder that personal feelings of inadequacy do not equate with the image we can project to others. Not having a plan is not a barrier to success but by making the most of opportunities or challenges that may present themselves, an accomplished career can be realised. However, no matter how well you do, there is a chance you may never shake doubts about whether you deserve to be where you are.
Judging from the deafening applause, I was not the only one who found that Donald’s words struck a chord. Hearing her speak was heartening and inspiring, and it is empowering to see those that inspire us not as superheroes, but as fellow people that have also have pressures and strains to cope with.
Indrayani Ghangrekar has a PhD in neuroscience and developmental biology. With a keen interest in making science more accessible to the public, she is currently pursuing an internship at the charity Sense About Science.