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“I am a woman in STEM”: My Mini Existential Crisis

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at McGill chapter.

I guess you could say I am a woman in STEM (and like the TikTok audio goes, “Bunsen burner on!”). Now I can’t say I know what it’s like to be in any other field, but in my experience, the sciences require tenacity – concepts so deep into the nitty gritty that not even the Google search bar can help you anymore. It can get so painstakingly detailed, that you lose sight of the big picture and forget why you chose this path to begin with. I too became so lost and frustrated that I started asking myself these questions: Am I in love with science itself, or rather the idea of being a scientist? Do I yearn to learn more about how the world works, or do I want to stand out in a traditionally male-dominated field? Am I seeking answers to fundamental questions, or am I seeking academic validation? So here I am, looking back at my “STEM girl” path, wondering if I made the right decision and where to go from here. I’m confident that students from all manner of academic backgrounds are no stranger to the mini existential crisis, but this is my story.

As a kid, I was fascinated by the human body. I remember sitting in my doctor’s office and receiving a skeleton puzzle to play with: I loved the idea of a place for everything, and everything in its place. I decided that when I grew up I would be a doctor. I would take science courses throughout high school and pick a science-related undergraduate program. I would get to learn more about the human body, solve problems, and have a career that makes a difference in peoples’ lives. This is great, this is exciting, but this is just one side of the coin.

I was a good student in elementary and high school. I paid attention, asked tons of questions, and got good marks. I was, and still am, a high achiever, but I fell into the trap of letting my grades define me. By nature of the subjects and methods of evaluation, my math and science courses gave me higher marks than arts and humanities. I craved the thrill of getting a perfect mark on tests and assignments. In retrospect, I was infatuated with academic validation, and it became a confounding factor in my decision-making. Did I choose STEM because I actually did prefer math and science, or for the security of goods marks? In math and science, as long as I practiced enough, I knew I could get full points. There was one right answer, and it was predictable. But no matter how much I re-read and re-wrote my English essays to be “perfect”, I did not achieve the result I so desperately wanted.

You can see how this is problematic. Perhaps I made this potentially life-altering choice under my own false pretenses. Yikes.

But after a lot of reflection, I have landed on three pieces of advice to ease my recurring quarter-life crisis, and if you’re facing a similar predicament, these might be of some help to you too.

1. Take a class outside of your major

I try to take as many non-science courses as my program will allow, not only to satisfy my own interests and diversify my degree but also to reaffirm my place in science. You can’t know that vanilla ice cream is your favourite if you’ve never tried chocolate, right? I’m currently enrolled in an American literature class, which is a complete shock to the system of my usual studies. The lectures are interesting, the professor is great, and I enjoy reading, but I know it’s just not my calling.

2. Even if you feel fated into a career you’re going to hate, you’re not actually trapped

Our limited insight into the working world as teenagers (when we’re expected to be making these decisions) does not encompass the huge range of career opportunities that exist. While 14-year-old me may have been set on the pre-med track, 20-year-old me knows there’s something more suitable out there.

3. Don’t let your grades or external pressures define your choices

I know this is asking the impossible – separating your true personal interests from all your exterior influences. Deriving your sense of accomplishment and personal pride from academic achievement or the prospect of success is dangerous. Once things start to get hard, that sense can be taken away very quickly, and all you’re left with is disappointment.

Do I regret choosing STEM? Surprisingly, no. While an introspective look at my path to getting here was necessary and eye-opening, as a kid I wasn’t aware of the ulterior factors associated with certain career choices. I just knew I loved science, and for some reason, I still do. I’m a firm believer that all experiences are formative (#noregrets), but I also believe in understanding the root causes of certain decisions, influences, and self-realization. Maybe that’s what makes me a “STEM girl” at heart.

Julia is a third-year student at McGill majoring in pharmacology and minoring in biotechnology. Her hobbies include playing piano, listening to all kinds of music, and exploring new coffee shops.