So I want to tell a story of the first time I met Dr. Margaret (Meg) Urry, President of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), Physics Chair at Yale, and one of my heroes. I did a Women in Science interview with her, which I’m typing up now (its a 45 minute interview, so it’s taking a while), and it was incredible.
I first met Dr. Urry when I took my tour of Wesleyan University. She was there to give their annual Sturm Lecture, and there was a meet and greet afterwards. At the time, she had just been elected as the next President of the AAS, and I was so excited that I would get to meet her that I think my hands were shaking. When I told her I was going to be an astronomy and physics major, she gave me nothing but encouragement. Then, she told me she was going to vaccinate me against something she thought I’d probably encounter at some point. I told a friend the same thing recently, and I think it’s good for every woman pursuing a career in STEM to hear.
She said when you’re a woman in physics, there are times when you might not do well on a homework, on a test, or in a class. and you’re going to start to think that it’s all your fault and that you can’t do what you love. But that isn’t true. You won’t be the only one struggling, and it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t keep fighting to do what you want to do in life. She told me to look back on our conversation if this ever happened to me, and know that it’s not the end of the world, and that I can do it.
There’s a tendency for women in STEM (and in general) to see things like poor grades on exams or homework as much more than a one-time failure. They can start to believe that this one poor grade, one failed exam, means that they’re just not cut out for this work. And that’s just not true.
In my first semester at Wesleyan, I failed my first physics exam. For someone who (like many students at university) did very well on exams in high school, I was crushed. The curve saved me, but I knew what I had really gotten. And then, when I didn’t do a lot better on the next one, I started to panic. I thought “if I can’t do well in an introductory physics course, then how can I be cut out for astronomy as my major? I want to do astronomy so badly, but what if I just cant?” And despite what Dr. Urry told me, I was still really, really freaked out. And then I mentioned it to one of my professors, and he told me told me he did horribly in his first year physics class, and he was afraid of the same thing. And now he’s got a PhD in astronomy, he’s researching exoplanets, and he’s teaching the subject he loves.
So don’t let hard classes get you down. College is meant to be hard, and its weird when you did well in high school and it was pretty easy, because you feel like you should be able to pick things up just as quickly in college. But it’s a good thing for college to be challenging. If you’re not being challenged at your university, then you’re in the wrong place. No one, not even your professors, expects you to be able to breeze through a class without struggling a bit and working your ass off. So if you’re finding yourself needing to work hard, you’re in the right place, and you’re doing the right thing.
Also, just for the record, I’ve passed all my physics classes and gotten A’s in all my astronomy classes so far. So remember: one bad grade (or more) doesn’t mean shit. If you want to do it, you can, and you shouldn’t let anyone stop you.