Tag: university

Looking to the future: talk 11/8/16

What follows is the slightly edited text from a talk I gave on Thursday the 11th of August, as part of an event between WISE and ExxonMobil.

“It’s such an incredible pleasure to see our members here with brilliant women from ExxonMobil. My talk will be slightly aimed more towards the students, but it will hopefully include ideas everyone can get behind.

For the students among us, we haven’t really entered the real world yet. We’ve completed high school and suffered all the injustices that your teenage years and early 20s provide and certainly we can enter bars (mostly) and gamble and get our democracy sausage  but universities are often a small-l liberal bubble – the large-l liberal youth branch notwithstanding.

What kind of issues exist within this small l liberal bubble? Well it’s things like the informal mentoring and sponsorship that men often benefit from. It’s how men assume they’re smarter than their female classmates. It’s the social pressures that mean the involvement of women in undergraduate computer science degrees peaked in the eighties and has since declined. Women made up 37% of comp sci undergrads in 1985. In 2012, that was 18%. It’s the social pressures that means I first got the Grandchildren Talk at 20. As a queer woman, I’ve had precisely zero role models for the bulk of my scientific journey but if you’re a white man you’ve got a glut of them.

Having said all that, this is a bubble – we are safer and more respected within this space and it’s associated with our ability to choose the spaces and people we interact with. You’ve chosen WISE, which was a great start. That isn’t a luxury that’s necessarily available or encouraged when you get straight out of university. We all know how bad the job market is – who here is confident of getting a job when we graduate?

There’s a feeling that you have to take what you can get and keep your head down. It’s a big jump into the workforce from university and nobody wants to make a splash. Because after all, it’s one thing to be a woman in a STEM degree. It’s another thing to be a young woman in STEM career.

There are ways to bridge that gap. Workplaces will have an HR induction that should clearly detail things like complaints policy – and you’re never so far down the pecking order to invalidate your complaints. It often feels like there’s a pressure to call out sexism or feel like we’ve betrayed the sisterhood. This pressure can fall on young women, with ideas like the “generational shift in thinking” which is meant to incrementally close the pay gap at some point around 2075. Or, if you’re staying in Australia, the gender pay gap increased from 15 to 17.5% between 2005 and 2013, and this year according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, it’s 19.1%. That’s ridiculous.

Young people need to be more politically engaged, young women need to be more outspoken, we need to ask for more, actively seek out mentors, surely we can just lean in – I’m sure so much of this room has heard a variety of one or all of these. But sometimes calling out sexism, or working yourself to the bone, or being an activist is honestly not worth it. The entirety of women’s rights doesn’t rest on our shoulders and sometimes we’re not safe or able to call something out without risk. Never compromise your safety for ideals.

Having said that, I do enjoy calling out sexism. Some of my favourite ways involve being a bit sarcastic, maybe leaning back and going “is that… is that right?”, “huh”, or “That sure is an opinion, and you definitely have it.”

But in all honesty, transitioning to the workforce isn’t just being punched in the face with sexism, homophobia, and racism – things which during my brief foray into the working world I have watched or experienced, and that’s in New ZealandNew Zealand is like a less terrible Australia. But it isn’t just that – it’s things like finally having money, not having homework (unless you do law which, why did you do law), it’s cool older friends, working out what you want from life, and maybe starting to take a multivitamin like a real adult. It’s fun!

It’s just scary, and that applies to an extent to all changes you make from safety to newness. It is confusing the first time a colleague queries borderline aggressively into your personal life, and colleagues of mine now get subtly asked if they’re planning a family soon. I get the added difficulty that it’s likely my partners will be female so talking about personal life is this balancing act of trying to work out if you’re homophobic before letting anything slip.

But what are we likely to face in our future?

  • We’re likely to face jobs that aren’t necessarily in STEM. There was a recent news article about how science degrees were not great degrees, which realistically read like someone bitter that their law degree didn’t handhold them right into a partnership. STEM degrees qualify us to research effectively, to problem solve, and to think critically – and that’s applicable far beyond strict STEM careers.
  • Unless something dramatically changes, we’re not likely to see equity in parliament.
  • We’re probably going to continue to be higher-qualified and get better marks than men.
  • Amazing trailblazing women are going to continue to push for pay transparency, because that will be the easiest way to get paid the same as men very quickly.
  • The discussion about feminism will becoming increasingly mainstream. The difference even since 2009 in how easily feminism, the wage gap, gender-based issues will be discussed as a real issue rather than relegated to extremist, bra-burning lesbians.
  • Beyoncé will continue to be a beautiful feminist icon.
  • We’re going to have way more female astronauts – the groundwork is already there to fill space with women.
  • The rates of reporting of sexual violence will likely continue to increase. That means we won’t really know if the actual rates are going up or down – which is beside the point because they’re disgustingly high – but reporting might mean that things change.
  • We aren’t likely to have long-term jobs. The average job length for a millennial is 3-5 years. This means if you have a bad work environment, or boss that’s not good, you can shift jobs and that’s becoming normalised.  We’re also likely to change careers a lot, so you can chill on that immediate post-university choice.
  • We’ll have more control of our fertility and bodies than ever before (unless you go to the USA).
  • Thanks to the connectivity of the world and the democratisation of storytelling (thanks, twitter), we’re going to have more access to inspirations, mentors, and women who accurately reflect us. We’re not going to have to fight the way people even 30 years older than us did.

The women who went before us changed a lot of the world which meant we aren’t going to have to fight for the right to work while married, for the ability to do what we want. The future can seem stressful and bad but the world is changing – for the better. And that’s great.”

The panelists at the event where this talk was given. Names above refer to panelists, right to left. Photo thanks to Jess Vovers.

Higher Degrees are Broken

I’m in the middle of my PhD. About two months ago, I cried inconsolably for two hours because I felt I wasn’t good enough. I would never finish my degree, disappoint everyone around me, and bring shame on my family.

Many of my friends are currently pursuing or have recently completed higher degrees. Some have quit PhDs because of mental illness, taken months or years off, developed insomnia or night terrors, and almost all of us have had a meltdown. Most have depression, anxiety, or some combination of the two. Many are medicated.  We’re one failed experiment or bad meeting away from a total nervous breakdown.

All of this is expected and accepted as part of a higher degree.

It was reassuring to tell people I had my first PhD meltdown and hear that it was due about now. Isolation is terrible. But we need to take a step back and realize that if this is typical, accepted, and part of the process, there is a systemic problem.

There is a lot of discussion about what a higher degree is, what it should be, and how to educate for future jobs. The academic and training discussion is an important one to have. So too is the fact that mental illness shouldn’t be an accepted part of a higher degree.

There was a great interview on The Atlantic with William Deresiewicz, who wrote a book about Ivy League schools, elitism, and depression. A lot of the discussion surrounding high achievers can be seamlessly transferred to higher degree students because unsurprisingly, the kind of people that choose to go back to school for a pittance for three to seven years tend to be high achievers.

Basically there are two types of graduate students: the ones who powered through and the ones who got a real job. Neither is cut out for a higher degree.

Powered Through

If you powered through, you probably got straight As, or a few papers out, or did something else pretty great. You might be doing a PhD because you don’t know what else to do (bad idea, get out!), but more likely you genuinely love your work and your topic. You’ve always pushed yourself – a couple of all nighters each year, at least – but it’s always paid off. And besides, with the regular affirmation that comes in the form of being published, or getting another A, or just coming out of an exam knowing you tried your hardest, you know you’re doing okay.

Enter the higher degree. Suddenly you don’t have regular affirmation you’re on the right track. There’s no metric to measure you against your cohort because you don’t have a cohort. You might have just moved countries. You might not speak the language well. You’re good at sprinting, you’re good at semesters. You have no idea how to run a marathon, but you’re terrified of disappointing people around you, so you push yourself until you crash, recover, rinse, repeat. The end isn’t in sight. There might as well not be an end. This is terrifying.

Got a Real Job

You worked for a few years, maybe in research, maybe in industry. You’re self-directed, you’ve got some savings, and you’re ready to knuckle down and get this done. You’re better set up than people who powered through, you spent some time looking over projects, and you know you want to do this.

And now, money is tight, and things aren’t working, and you second-guess your decision. You haven’t written an essay in a while, much less a thesis, and a lot of other people are a lot younger than you. You might be juggling a family with your work and you can’t tell if you’re working too hard or too little. Your relatives, and some of your friends, are probably being a bit critical about your life choices. Some days you agree with them.

So where does this leave us?

It leaves the grad student in a pretty dire position, as they have to be in control of their research, but also the incredible mental toll that research is going to take. They not only need to work hard, but figure out – often for the first time – when ‘too hard’ is. And they need to learn how to ask for help, how to ask for time off, the difference between feeling a bit lazy and being depressed, all of which is a lot to ask of someone who has probably moved countries to do this.

I did the MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) ANU offered this year called “How to Survive your PhD“. I’ve “managed” my depression for almost my entire life, so a lot of the suggestions, tips, and classes covered knowledge I had. But I knew a lot of the thousands-strong cohort were getting significant value from it. Thesis Whisperer (the blog of the organiser, Dr Inger Mewburn) also has many good posts on similar topics.

But is it good enough to expect graduate students to heal themselves? Is it sufficient to simply provide resources when 47% of PhD students and 37% of masters students suffer from depression? By putting the onus onto the individual student, we ignore the unifying feature – that higher degrees have this effect on people.

Unless we recognize that higher degrees are broken, there is very little we can do to help graduate students. It is an incredible waste of talent, time, energy, and money, to allow brilliant researchers to sink into the pits of despair, to have breakdowns and to not to anything preventative about it.

I don’t know what to do. But I know nothing will change if we keep ignoring the fact that these degrees risk destroying the brightest minds out there. Higher degrees are broken. Let’s start talking about how to fix them.

Conference Organisation Cheat Sheet

I am a chronic event organizer. Those convening student events and conferences may not have the background I somehow obtained, so I wrote this to assist. It will hopefully be useful for student-organised conferences and first-time conveners. Good luck!



Ask your team what their strengths are. Use those strengths. Follow up with people when you have delegated, but trust them to do their job (until they show they need more active supervision).

Use people who offer to help. Volunteers are an incredibly precious resource.

Ask previous conveners for advice. Make a timeline, ideally with their help. That stops everything from being overwhelming!

You do not have to know how to do everything. You have strengths and weaknesses, and that’s ok. You don’t have to know how to set up a web page, or make a nice poster, or what all the judges look like. You have to run an event. If you’ve got money, it might even be a good idea to outsource.


Your venue should be big enough. It should be close to public transport. It should not look super empty if half the people who registered don’t show up. Your venue should have wireless internet (sometimes, more than just eduroam!) and a lot of powerpoints.

There needs to be clear signage. You can send as many maps as you like via email – people will forget. Put up balloons, stick up handwritten A4 paper everywhere, but have something.

The room where talks are being given should have recognizable front and back doors, or only back doors, so when people are late you’re not constantly disrupted.

Check out the IT systems and support in your venue before your event. Put the numbers for IT and security into your phone. Be nice to IT and security. You will need them.

Ideally, there won’t be a heap of public thoroughfare. My favourite venues also have readily-available spaces to sneak off and do work in (like if you haven’t quite prepared your talk yet) and good coffee nearby.


One of the first things you should do is secure the support of your affiliated institution. Most conferences will (should) be hosted by a university/institute. Free room hire is key.

Even if you can’t somehow wrangle free room hire, having the support of a larger institution will help your sponsorship attempts. If you can get a nice letter from the Dean or VC saying “these people are doing good things we like them” then you’re more legitimate, particularly if you’re younger or your group isn’t well-known.

Sometimes institutions have in-house catering that they can get on the cheap as well. In most circumstances, you will want to do this.


How early do you think you should get onto sponsorship? Wrong. You need to get onto it earlier. (10 months for medium-sized events, 4-5 months for small events, over a year for everything else.)

Work out what sponsors you will appeal to, why, and what you can offer. Outline this clearly when you email them. There is literally no point in being coy with sponsors. Keep your sponsorship letters short and to the point. I’ve outlined an example below.

Don’t forget to apply for sponsorship from government branches, relevant community societies, and NFPs that might be interested.

Dear Australia Branch of Multinational Conglomerate,

I’m writing to you on behalf of People Who Just Started Watching DS9 and Actually Quite Like It, and we’re hosting a conference in 7 months time. The purpose of this conference is to discuss future ethics and disruptive technologies, and as a major player in this field we’d love you to be involved in these key discussions. We’re supported by Names of People Who Are Probably Important.

We’d appreciate financial sponsorship, and can offer you a trade stall, invitations to representatives of your Multinational Conglomerate, and branding on our promotional material. If you’d like to discuss this further or have questions, please don’t hesitate to be in contact.

Best wishes,
Sophia Frentz
Director, DS9 Isn’t As Bad As Everyone Told Me It Would Be
Phone Number, Email address.

Finally, if at first you don’t succeed, don’t stop trying! Sponsorship is difficult and can be an uphill battle – take heart from the fact that it’s terrible for everyone.

Room Hire

Do everything within your power to get this for free. Reach out to philanthropic groups who have nice rooms, companies whose values align with your event (or just aren’t literally the worst), and then to companies who want to recruit all of the people that are attending.

Room hire is super expensive, but there are ways to minimize these costs.


If your space has in-house catering that they can get on the cheap, go for that. If your space has in-house catering that you have to use, you don’t have a choice. Otherwise, get recommendations from people who have hosted events in the same area or for the same sorts of people.

This is how I found Tiger Lily Catering and Romano’s Coffee (University of Melbourne), both of whom have been absolute dreams to work with.

Over-order vegetarian and vegan food. Just trust me on this one.

Make sure non-alcoholic drinks are available (if alcoholic drinks are as well), and make sure they’re not just orange juice. Also, always have water available, even if it’s not a designated break time.


Don’t over-email! Keep your contact short, sweet, and to the point. The internet is wonderful but it also overloads people. In a similar vein, keep physical hand-outs minimal, and with important information easily accessible.

Having said that, mirror information on your website, your facebook page, your twitter feed, and in emails. Don’t just tell me the schedule will be on the website, send me an email with that because I am doing other things with my life right up until the point I am in your building.

The one important thing to include in emails that everyone forgets is where the good coffee is.

Finally, if you want feedback on your event you could hand out a paper survey or you could email your feedback form to people with your thank-you note. SurveyMonkey, GoogleForms, etcetera all mean less work for you, less work for people filling out the forms, and more fun all around.

On the Day

Something is going to go wrong, and that’s ok. Every problem has a solution.

Nothing is going to run to time, so leave buffers everywhere.

Do your best not to fret when things are running smoothly – just relax! This is all your hard work.

Delegate pack down. You’ve earned a break.

Good luck!

If you’re organizing a conference for the very first time and have a burning question, feel free to comment. I know how hard it can be to be thrown in the deep end!

Hands-on Science: A Week of Serious Fun

I was demonstrating at Hands-on Science at Otago this week, which makes it 5 years since I did Hands-on Science myself (and 25 years since it started) and a good time for a discussion!

Hands-on Science (HOS) is a week where you get to experience being a scientist in a range of different fields. Students going into year 12 or 13 are eligible to apply to come, and this year twice the number of people attending (240, I believe) applied to come, so it’s pretty competitive. You’ll get entry based on a few things, but it’s not just marks – extra-curricular activities matter as well, as does whether you’re the only one from your school applying. You apply for a list of subjects in preferred order you’d like to take as a project, and cross your fingers.

The projects range from Biochemistry to PE to physics to Computer Science, and on top of your project (done every morning for the week), you get “snacks” or a taste of a range of disciplines. Snacks this year included a tour of the Anatomy Museum, the Gasworks, Music, Genetics, Biochem, etcetera.

HOS lets you pretend to be a Real Scientist for a week, as well as letting you talk to Actual Real Grownups about university. It’s a great chance to try and feel out what the next few years of your life are going to be like, and I remember it fondly – I met my best friend in our Biochem project, and while I was a socially awkward 16 year old surrounded by people (many of whom were much “cooler” than me), managed to have a fairly good time of it.

My experience of HOS is necessarily limited by the fact that I did the Biochemistry project, and am now teaching the Biochemistry project, but from what I can tell everyone comes away from it exhausted and happy. It’s got a great return rate – ex-HOS kids are helpers in every part of the week now, and many more express wishes to help out in some way in the future.

During my time at HOS, I’d felt that the sort of passion a lot of us felt about science was really what people should be feeling let’s be honest. Today, I took a friend’s younger sister through a few departments that lined up with her passions and it was actually the most rewarding thing to see her face light up. She’s intelligent, passionate, and well-spoken, and I am sure much more so than I was at that age.

It’s easy to forget that there are still kids like us out there, that in ten or twenty (or five) years time are going to help us save the world. Today, and this week, I’m reminded that there are.