March 8, 2017

Guest post – A Step-by-Step Guide to Academic Puberty: Transitioning from a Graduate Student to a Young Professional

Posted by Laura Guertin

For the month of March, in honor of Women’s History Month, I am dedicating my weekly blog posts to the outstanding organizations, resources, and inspiring stories about women in STEM. You can view my posts from this year and past years by searching on the tag “Women’s History Month”.

This week’s post comes from Robin McLachlan, Ph.D. student at University of Washington’s School of Oceanography. I first met Robin through the AGU Sharing Science Mentoring Program at the 2016 AGU Fall Meeting. She is a rising star with a passion for everything from mud to science communication to creating pedagogical materials.

Budding scientists dream of elegantly blooming into leaders in their academic field. But let’s face it, coming of age in the scientific world is typically as graceful as going through puberty. We awkwardly stumble from observant, sponge-like students to confident, well-balanced professionals with a plethora of voice cracks and pimples along the way. As a graduate student who has recently trudged through her first steps of academic puberty and can see the light at the end of the tunnel, I want to share a few tips that I have learned with others whose voices may just be beginning to crack.

Me and “Doc” my adviser (bless her wonderful heart) who “tricked” me into a real presentation.

Step 1: Embrace Your Awkward Transition

It’s going to happen, and there is not much you can do about it. The best way to work through academic puberty is to go with the flow, smile, and act like you meant for it to be this way all along. When I was an undergraduate geology student at the College of Charleston, my adviser, Dr. Leslie Sautter, asked me if I wanted to present my independent research at a small local conference, and I naively thought to myself, “Hey… why not? I can handle making and presenting a poster. Sign me up!”. After my name had been added to the official list, my adviser casually mentioned that this little presentation was actually going to be a forty-minute-long talk where I would lead a mini-workshop! First my heart stopped, then I smiled and acted as cool as a cucumber. Looking back, my presentation was full of pimples (I stumbled over my words, I didn’t explain my motivation thoroughly, and the workshop taught me more about what not to do than what to do). But, I came out of it with a brand new support group and a presentation under my belt. With shaky knees and a fake-it-till-you-make-it attitude, this first start directly led to me partnering with local high schools and leading student field trips on the beach!

Step 2: Gather a Support Group

Ever heard of imposter syndrome? It’s a problem where we think that we have somehow managed to trick everyone into thinking that we belong where we are, but we are actually an imposter and it’s only a matter of time until we are found out. Sound too close to home? This “syndrome” is rampant in graduate school and is a serious barrier to personal growth, adding a storm of unwieldy emotions to our already unstable coming of age transition. I’ve tried to deal with this by gathering a support group of fellow budding scientists and accomplished mentors. It’s a lot harder to feel like you are the real imposter in the room when all your friends claim to be just as unsure of themselves. And it is incredibly motivating to hear a mentor who you admire as a scientific god say that they struggled with the same syndrome. And the sooner you can come to the realization that you are not special in your inadequacies, the faster you will be able to wade through academic puberty, being dragged forward by your mentors and pulling your peers along with you.

Step 3: Learn by Trial and Error, Lots of It

Unlike real puberty that takes its course and has a definite end, academic puberty’s timeline is a bit fuzzier. Want out? Then you have to pull yourself out. Scared of giving scientific talks? Then give more of those! Scared of speaking up in class amongst your peers? Then make a comment or ask a question during every class and seminar! Do your sentences turn into word vomit when you try to teach a class? Then teach more classes! After realizing that academic puberty was inevitable and the only way to wade through it was to pull myself through by the bootstraps, I decided to take as many classes and attend as many workshops as I could on scientific communication and to volunteer for every speaking opportunity that came my way, even if I had to drag myself kicking and screaming. I completely understand if you find your heart beating quickly and your palms becoming sweaty as a sense of existential dread falls over you at this point. We’ve all been there. But, I promise it actually works! Go ahead and get those terrifying first steps out of the way and you’ll find yourself finishing up your academic puberty as a graceful blooming flower. In the past two years, I’ve given about ten volunteer talks, taught three courses, and lead three workshops. In the beginning, I admit that I was a pretty poor speaker and teacher. But practice makes perfect, and I’m proud to say that I gave my first talk at a real large scientific conference (AGU) in San Francisco this past December and rocked it (requisite geology pun)!

Step 4: Welcome Your Success

Academic puberty is a long and hard transition, and if you’re like me, you’ll probably get in the groove and start to think that this awkward period is just daily life. Falling off the stage while teaching class, finishing a 45-minute lecture 25 minutes early because I talked like an auctioneer, showing up to the wrong classroom on the first day of class when I was the teacher – no problem, just another day in the life of a young academic. But, one day recently I walked up in front of a class of young undergrads and spilled my heart out on a lecture that I slaved over for days…tempo was perfect… my voice was strong… my stance was confident… the students stayed awake and engaged… and then they even complimented me on my intelligence, self-confidence, and teaching style! I walked out of class dumbfounded, thinking that there is no way that an imposter like me could have pulled that off. But I did, and we all can. So let’s ditch our insecurities and welcome the praise! I will never forget the first time I gave a lecture I was proud of. It may even surpass earning my degrees on my list of proud moments!

Transitioning from a student to a professional can be awkward, frustrating, and sometimes embarrassing. Just remember, academic puberty is inevitable. Embrace it with open arms, a strong support group, brute force, and the willingness to emerge gracefully (with a few proudly-earned pimple scars), and you’ll do just fine.


Do you want to read more by the author? Find more posts by Robin McLachlan on her blog For the Sediment Record.

For more information about the imposter syndrome and how to overcome it, check out these sources: