Today I came to the sad realization that the reason I’m avoiding the continuation of my physics education is indeed almost entirely based on the toxic academic culture and the constant pressure to achieve more or “make a difference” as a woman in a male-dominated field.
It’s not that I “couldn’t handle the pressure” or that I gave up on being “a woman for other women” in my field. But it just plain sucked the enjoyment out of it. I wanted to stop feeling miserable and bitter. To do work I could feel good about and actually feel appreciated for doing. Work that doesn’t require me to be as vigilant about these issues so I can just… get to work.
Quantum mechanics is fun, interesting, and something I like to think about in my own time. But it’s different once you become the only girl in your class and pursuing the most conceptually and technically difficult work of your peers. My senior capstone research, which was intentionally very challenging in order to push myself, became a point of ridicule if I didn’t have everything down perfectly.
It stopped being, “wow, that’s amazing the progress she’s making on something so confusing and difficult… and with a last-minute change of advisor? all the power to her” to actual insults about how I am “only carrying around 10 books to look smart and hide the fact that I don’t know what I’m doing” (excuse me for being a commuter who didn’t get to my car yet that day).
It’s hard to know sometimes whether certain experiences are subtle but intentional sexism, honest social faux pas, or my own misinterpretation. But the point is that I was tired of having to think about it all the time in addition to the general pressure of being in a field for “geniuses”. For working on the same damn problems that perplexed even Einstein (quantum locality and contextuality)!!!
They always say it’s never too late to go back to graduate school. But even if I were to overcome these issues, I’m not sure it’d be worth it. Especially if I end up enjoying my new career and success by then.
It’s just sad, this feeling of having to say goodbye. I know this isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned leaving physics, but now it is really starting to hit home.