Grad school, failure, and having been an asexual woman in science

Although it was 20 years ago now, I still remember the day my parents told me I needed to withdraw from grad school. I had stopped attending most of my classes, was erratic in turning in homework, and had missed one of my exams and had to take a make-up. The university had contacted them (since they were paying most of my way) and advised them I was on a probationary status.

Although I’d struggled with a few of my classes in college, this was the first time I had actually failed at anything academic; I’d been a B+/A- student in both high school and college.

While my parents were disappointed, they accepted the situation as it was. My mom, as a young woman, had started college, withdrawn, entered a convent, then withdrew from that. She worked in her father’s insurance office for a time before eventually restarting her studies at a new college. She understood.

Following her advice, I spent a couple of months staying with my grandmother out of state, then came back and started looking for a job. I went to a therapist a few times but found it completely useless and didn’t go back.

At the time, I didn’t understand what had happened except that in some way grad school “wasn’t for me”. It would take me some further years to find a stable career and establish myself in the world of work, but I never considered going back to academia and I mostly didn’t think about exactly why it hadn’t been for me. The past was in the past.

It’s only been in the last couple of years, actually, that I’ve come to realize my asexuality was a major factor in what happened so long ago. How could I have explained it to anybody, or even understood it for myself, when I wouldn’t know for another eight years that asexuality was a thing that existed? (I withdrew from grad school in 1996 but only learned about asexuality in 2004. I don’t think any of the early asexual websites or proto-asexual communities even existed in 1996. If they did, I certainly never knew about them.)

The story really starts my freshman year in college. That was when, overwhelmed by sexualized situations and expectations I had no idea how to handle, I began to withdraw into what I sometimes refer to as my Fortress of Solitude. My top priority was to create an autonomous, independent place for myself and only allow into it people that understood and accepted me the way that I am. Particularly in college, that meant having few friends at all.

When I first started college, I had no idea what I wanted to major in but late in my freshman year I decided to study physics. I had really enjoyed my physics class in high school and been good at math and science. I don’t seem to have had any clear vision for myself of becoming a researcher or academic (indeed, I don’t seem to have any clear idea about my future at all!) and the course of study I pursued worked well for someone transferring into physics in their sophomore year, but wouldn’t have set me up very well for a doctoral program in physics.

I was one of the few women majoring in physics – I still remember taking a class my junior year where the professor was a woman and one of the other half-dozen students was a woman and that was the highest percentage of women in any of my classes! I don’t remember there being any special programs or support groups for women in physics, either.

I’ve since come to learn that isolation is a common experience for women in science and a major factor when women leave the field. Whether it’s a lack of role models and mentors, or being left out of shared experiences, shared norms, or shared culture, female students often struggle on our own.

This would have been true in any case, in such a male-dominated department, but when I had few friends and little in the way of a support network outside of my studies, and felt alienated from the lives of many of my roommates, neighbors, and other fellow students, I was really left to swim or sink on my own.

Despite these difficulties, I managed to get through college OK and graduated with a 3.25 GPA. The program of study I had completed wasn’t rigorous enough, nor my GPA high enough, for many physics PhD programs, and I also didn’t have much in the way of research experience or other projects that might have made my application stand out (this is where it would have been really helpful to have had a better network of advice and support).

However, I was accepted into a master’s degree program in oceanography, which seemed like an interesting field with good opportunities where I wanted to live.

But it was in grad school that my isolation really did me in. Although there are opportunities outside the classroom that undergraduates can take advantage of, success at the undergraduate level was mostly about classes and exams. And I could handle that.

However, in grad school, I found myself with a research assistantship where I was given little direction or guidance on projects. I seem to have had little idea of what type of research I might want to do, and again there was little in the way of advice from others. I also didn’t fit in with the culture in the department and wasn’t included in or didn’t want to take part in events and activities outside of academics. I also had few friends – at least at college I had still had people I had roomed with and got to know early on.

Grad school, in short, was much less structured than undergraduate had been, and required much more self-initiative. I felt completely lost with no idea what I was supposed to be doing – in some cases I didn’t even know that there was something to know. Nobody seemed to realize it either and I didn’t feel there was anybody I could talk to or turn to for help.

Eventually, I quit trying. It wasn’t that the academic work was so much harder in grad school. It was that the grad school culture expected me to be something I had no idea about. Things I had struggled with in undergrad but managed to get through finally got the better of me.

I’ve learned a lot since then, about taking the initiative, not giving up so easily, and reaching out to others (most of this, I feel like I had to figure out the hard way through a lot of trial and error).

I thought for a long time that it was just my own personal shortcomings that I couldn’t handle grad school, my personality wasn’t developed enough, etc.

However, I’ve come to realize there were structural issues that made it more difficult for me than it needed to be.These days, there’s much more support available for women in science, and more awareness of why women and other historically-underrepresented groups need this extra support.

And these days, there’s increasing awareness of asexuality, and even a growing number of asexual support groups on some campuses.

I can’t really picture what my life might have been like if those kinds of support networks had been available for me 20-25 years ago. My life has taken such a different course since then that imagining an alternative becomes hypothetical piled on hypothetical until it collapses.

But getting to know aces who are in grad school today (including many of my fellow writers here at The Asexual Agenda), and who are succeeding and thriving with the help of ace friends and sometimes even partners, gives me hope that fewer aces need to go through what I did.

Grad school wasn’t right for me in 1995 and 1996. But maybe things have changed enough that grad school is right for someone like me who is coming up through it today.

About Laura (ace-muslim)

Laura is an aromantic asexual, queer-identified, and a Muslim. She lives in the U.S., works in online tech support, and volunteers for a Muslim anti-racism organization. She blogs about asexuality, queer Muslim issues, and other topics at http://ace-muslim.tumblr.com and has written on asexuality for a number of Muslim sites.
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9 Responses to Grad school, failure, and having been an asexual woman in science

  1. Sara K. says:

    I’m sorry that you had to experience that, but glad that you found a way to make life work for you.

    I’ve never even seriously considered grad school, but that is for reasons unrelated to my asexuality.

    I have a cousin who is in a science PhD program right now. I have only minimal contact with her and I don’t know what her sexual orientation is, but as far as I know, she’s never had a boyfriend/girlfriend in her life, and I think I would have heard about it if she had (and told anyone in our family about it). Based on the reports I occasionally hear, she at least seems to be doing OK with the self-direction aspect of research.

    • I’m glad she’s doing well! I think there are a lot more support resources today than there were 20 years ago.

      I’ve actually been thinking a bit about postgraduate study in Islamic Studies, though this would be a really long-term goal, and that got me to do a lot of thinking about what happened in the past and why.

  2. queenieofaces says:

    While things are definitely improving in some ways (especially for folks in STEM), it’s eerie how much of this remains true (at least in my experience). There’s no real support for women in my department (aside from networking with other female students and faculty and hoping one of them is willing to mentor you), and nothing for LGBT+ folks. Plus academia can be…really exhausting and alienating in a lot of minor (and not so minor) ways that add up. In a lot of ways I really lucked out–I already had a social support network in the area, so I wasn’t relying on my department for that (which is good, because as it turns out my department culture is A MESS). And I have the opposite issue with the lack of structure in grad school–because there often aren’t clear guidelines, I’ll put in way more work than necessary and need somebody to stand behind me and say, “Okay, Queenie, you need to take a break now.” I also have a really incredible advisor who’s willing to hook me into her massive social network. But even with those advantages, grad school can be a huge uphill battle and really isolating.

    • It’s a bit depressing, but not entirely surprising to hear that things haven’t changed enough in many departments. I suspect that if I were to be a student today in the programs I wrote about, I would do better as much because of what I’ve learned through life experience since then about getting the support I need, as because of changes in the departments themselves.

      I’m glad you have such a great advisor. That can make a huge difference.

  3. Siggy says:

    Not sure about oceanography, but the gender gap in physics gets even worse in grad school. It’s gotten better in the last few decades, but it’s still deplorable.

    There’s actually a support group for queer physicists at my university, but I’m not very much into it, because I’m sick of career-oriented socializing. I prefer to get support in a work setting rather than a social setting, which means getting support from other students in my research group. Of course, this limits the number of people I can get support from, and if I didn’t get along with those people, well, that would be it, wouldn’t it?

    • I think there were more women in oceanography than in physics, but not a lot, though that may have changed in the last 20 years. I remember it as being pretty male-dominated at the time, especially with the faculty.

      I don’t really like to mix socializing with professional life (I *hate* being expected to socialize with work colleagues out of hours, especially since it usually involves alcohol and I’m a lifelong teetotaler; fortunately, since I work remotely, this doesn’t come up very often). Having a social-oriented support group could definitely be helpful, but what would have made the biggest difference in my grad school experience was having support structures in the department.

  4. Tristifere says:

    I didn’t continue with a PhD after obtaining my master’s degree for reasons unrelated to asexuality, but due to the lack of support and the enormous pressure to perform (also: complete lack of structure! so relatable!). I was extremely frustrated when I completed my masters, thinking that research simply wasn’t for me, despite having had the dream of continuing doing research since I started university. So I started looking for a different job in my field.

    I noticed that a lot of people in my field are pursuing their PhD degree at a later age while working a regular job (not really an option in the STEM field, I suppose…). I like the environment so much more. There’s a lot of support amongst collegues. I find myself considering dipping my toes in the big bad research-sea once more, maybe starting with some small articles and work from there. And despite the extra workload of doing your research and performing your regular job at the same time, I would consider doing a PhD in this form in the long run (once I get my career more firmly on the rails, I suppose).

    • Good luck with your plans!

      I’ve spent most of the last 19 years working in IT or tech support, which is a field where advanced degrees are not necessary (most people who got into the field when I did don’t even have a related bachelor’s degree, for that matter).

      I have been thinking a bit about pursuing graduate study, but it would be in Islamic studies, building on some of the posts I’ve written (mostly on Tumblr rather than here at TAA) on asexuality and Islam, and have nothing to do with what I was studying back in the 1990s :p

      If I did do this, it would have to be part-time while working to support myself. I’m therefore glad to hear that this is becoming a more popular option.

  5. Pingback: My Islam is Queer | The Asexual Agenda

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