Undergraduate Women in Physics


Notes on dinner with Prof. Slatyer

Emmett Krupczak

October 7, 2014

On a brisk autumn evening, Professor Slatyer and the four of us departed the PCR. We talked about the weather and classes and the difference between the American and the Australian university systems while we made our way down crowded Mass Ave to Asmara restaurant. Once seated, Professor Slatyer and the other Asmara restaurant veterans explained to newbies like myself that our food would be served all together on a giant piece of bread set in the middle of the table, from which we would tear off chunks with our fingers. “Would it be awful if I asked for a fork?” one of us inquired of the waitress. “Yes,” she said.

After we had adjusted to the utensil-free dining logistics, we began to pepper Professor Slatyer with questions. She told us about her childhood travels and her sister’s PhD work in alpine grasshoppers and her time at the Institute for Advanced Study. We talked about skiing. She told us a funny story about discovering she needed to take the GRE with only a week to prepare. (I made a mental note to double-check the GRE test dates.)

Then the talk turned to women in physics. “At some point,” she said, “Someone may tell you that you’re not smart enough to do physics. Maybe they already have.” She told us about a conference she attended where at some point, she and the other five or so female attendees ended up at the same table. The conversation wandered along this line, and it turned out that every single female at the table (plus three of the men) reported that somewhere along the line, they had been told that they were not smart enough to do physics. Professor Slatyer told us that for her, the moment had come in one of her university physics classes, when a professor had informed her that she was bright, but didn’t really have what it took to be a physicist. “Ignore that person,” she told us. “You weren’t admitted by accident.”

Confidence in your ability matters in your day-to-day classes too, she told us. “You might think you’re the only one with a question,” she said, “but you’re probably not.” Professor Slatyer then told us a story about her first day of college. Due to her high school preparation, she had placed into some upper-level classes. With all the enthusiasm that only a freshman can muster for a nine-am lecture, Professor-to-be Slatyer and her friend bounded eagerly into their first advanced mathematics class. Their excitement turned to dismay when the professor began lecturing about completely unfamiliar material. Casting aspersions upon themselves and their high school preparation, Professor Slatyer and her friend said nothing and then diligently studied before the next lecture, assuming their lack of understanding was a failing on their part while the rest of the class was sailing along smoothly. They returned to the next class after their “catch up” work, only to hear the professor say that every student in the class but two had approached him to complain about the unfamiliar material. (By process of elimination, it was easy to discover that she and her friend had been the two hold-outs.) They hadn’t been alone in their confusion, only in their fear of admitting it.

Professor Slatyer then told us that this experience was mirrored years later during her first year as a grad student at Harvard. She signed up for string theory without the QFT prerequisite. The string theory psets turned out to be torturously long and challenging, consuming the majority of her time. Not wanting to approach the other students, Professor Slatyer worked on the problem sets alone, assuming the difficulty was due to her lack of prerequisite knowledge.

Then the first day of the next semester arrived, and the professor opened the class by saying that he wanted to apologize for the work load last semester. He told the students that the problem sets had been much more time- consuming than intended. “I can assure you that this semester will not be like that. Every student, but one, came to me to complain about the work load.”

It is very common in physics, she said, for people to suffer from “Impostor Syndrome,” in which you think that you’re not as smart as everyone else; that you’re just tricking people into thinking that you know what you’re doing and eventually they will realize you’re there by mistake. Professor Slatyer told us to remember that most people around you probably feel that way too. The difficulty comes in being confident enough about your knowledge to still speak up when you have a question.

We ate the last of our bread plate and enjoyed dessert while we talked about the merits of the local grocery stores. Then we walked back to campus and returned to our problem sets, hopefully with a newfound resolution.

UWIP Dinner with Professor Slatyer

Casey Lam

October 7, 2014

tl;dr: 1) At some point, someone will probably tell you you’re not good enough at physics and you should do something else, especially if you’re a woman. Don’t listen to them. 2) If you think you’re the only one who doesn’t have a clue what’s going on (at least in an environment like MIT), there’s a good chance you’re wrong.

During dinner, Prof Slatyer told us a few stories about the various experiences she’s had in physics, from her time as an undergrad, to now as a professor. Once, while she was a postdoc at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, she went on a trip with some other physicists. Of the 5 women there, every one of them had, at one time or another, been told by a more senior person that they shouldn’t pursue physics because they weren’t good enough at it, Prof Slatyer included. Now, these 5 women were all at prestigious institutions; they had made it to some degree in physics. Also, to quote an email from the SPS president about last year’s faculty dinner: “Oh man guys, she [Prof Slatyer] is seriously such a boss. She got faculty offers from MIT and Harvard after ONE SINGLE POSTDOC. That is a REALLY HUGE DEAL SHE IS A BALLER. Seriously, go to this dinner if you can. Kthnxbai.” Yeah, these women weren’t good at physics. Riiiiight. (Aside: they polled the men too, and about a third has also been told by someone that they wouldn’t be good enough at physics).

In addition, Prof Slatyer told us how basically everyone in the field has impostor syndrome*. As just mentioned, many people, especially women, are told by others that they are not good enough at physics, and this can exacerbate impostor syndrome. However, the ratio of physics PhDs who don’t know what they’re doing to physics PhDs who think they don’t know what they’re doing is very low, evidenced by another story.

During her freshman year of college, Prof Slatyer took a math course meant for sophomores. The first day of class, the professor began talking, and she didn’t understand what was going on. One of her other high school friends, also a freshman, was equally baffled. They both assumed their high school class has not covered something that the college prerequisite had, and so they worked together until they figured it out. The next lecture though, the professor apologized and mentioned that all but two students had complained to him that nothing he said had made sense. I wonder which two students didn’t complain…

Then in grad school, Prof Slatyer took a class in which she hadn’t completed the official prerequisite class. In addition, the psets for this class were really really really hard. She felt it would be awkward to ask to pset with the other students, as they all already knew each other. She also assumed the class was just really hard for her since she hadn’t taken the official prereq, so she worked on psets alone and spent most of the semester on that class. However, the next semester, the professor apologized, and said he had made the workload for the class much too high. He then mentioned that all but one student had complained. I wonder who this one student was…

(Aside: Prof Slatyer still got an A in the class. See quote about Prof Slatyer being a boss.)

* [*Definition from Wikipedia: a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.]