STEM doesn’t stand for “Smarter Than Everyone (else), Man”

I just realized that I’ve been working at Vanderbilt for over 100 days now.  Things have finally begun to feel more natural – I know where most of the buildings are, I optimized my bike route to work, and I even joined the BME grad student council e-board.  As each day passes, I feel more and more like I belong.  Granted, some days are harder than others, and I am not always happy here.  Being a grad student is really, really hard.  There are a lot of expectations, and very few rewards.  Research can be slow, my boss can be tough, and my classwork can get pretty challenging.  But overall, Vanderbilt University and Nashville, TN are starting to feel like home.

One of the most annoying about being a grad student – especially in a STEM department, is the reaction I get from other people outside VU when I tell them what I do.  When I meet a new person, whether it’s at the climbing gym, or an arts fair, or a bar, the conversation goes like this…

Blah blah blah my name is Katie I’m new to Nashville the south is so humid bless my heart, and then I ask “So what do you do?”

” I work for an *insert nonacademic 9-5 job here* firm doing *insert cool and fulfilling task here*.”

“Oh, word, that sounds super cool!  I love doing *insert some way to relate my interests to their job here*”

“Yeah it’s cool.  Lots of work, but fulfilling.  So what do you do?”

“I’m a grad student at Vanderbilt.”

And this is where it can get weird for me.  Usually, they’ll ask what I study, and I tell them I’m in the biomedical engineering department studying MRI.  And they’re like, “Oh, so you must be, like, SO much smarter than me!  I could never do that.”

And then I’m just like, dumbfounded, because it’s not about that at all.

Even in undergrad, some of my friends in humanities/social science fields would make it VERY clear what they thought of STEM.  My previous institution, the University of Rochester, had a real bias towards engineering and science departments.  A huge part of donations would go straight into sciences, and departments like History, English, and Anthropology wouldn’t see a single penny.  So a lot of my friends outside of STEM went through college with an inferiority complex unintentionally pushed on them by the administration.  I can’t imagine what that felt like.  I am very privileged to have been in a program with the funds to give me the education I received.  It must have taken so many donations to pay for all of the lab supplies, computer programs, and top-notch facilities that I saw during my time at the U of R.  I’m not complaining about this at all.  I’m lucky, and I know it.

That being said, I CAN complain about the fact that a lot of my nonSTEM friends took out their frustration on the engineering/science students who did receive funding.  I have friends now who seem so bitter about it that they’ll just tune me out when I try to talk about my research. It makes me feel really about myself when I did nothing wrong.  It’s almost as if, just because the university exhibited an unfair bias, people think we, the students, see ourselves as superior.  And this isn’t the case.  I am not smarter than my friends in nonSTEM fields.  They do things I could never see myself doing, like writing a 50 page classics paper on 13th century Anglo-saxan agriculture, or creating an economic model that could crush any GOP health care bill (although, I’m not sure that’s very difficult).

So when people I’ve just met try to compliment me by saying “Wow, you must be way smarter than me,” it just makes me sad.  I don’t want people to treat me like I think I’m superior, because I don’t.  (Actually, I’m very insecure.)  I think that trying to boost others by putting yourself down (or vice versa, making yourself feel better by insulting others), is just a lose-lose situation.  I don’t do what I do because I’m smarter than other people.  Most of the time, I feel a whole lot dumber than everyone else.  I do what I do because I love it, and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.  And I wish people could see that, and I wish everyone could feel this way about their job.  So again, I’m just really lucky, I guess.  I’m sure I’d feel differently if I were a nonSTEM major, but this is my blog and my bias.  Hah.

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