Science is a broad field. The list of potential careers is extensive and it can be hard to choose the path that suits you best. As a Black woman in science, navigating the professional space can be a little intimidating. Our Black relatives may have spent years impressing on us the idea that we have to be the best of the best, know what we want, and go after it relentlessly. This can come with a lot of pressure and is probably not the most helpful advice when you are looking to explore your options.
After graduating, I, like many others, faced a dilemma; what kind of work did I want to do in the scientific field? Contrary to what I had believed during my undergraduate degree, there was a lot more scope for careers in science beyond clinical science or academic research. Finding out what my options were became my biggest challenge and I tried a few different things to narrow my choices. Although I am yet to have it all figured out, I believe I may be on the right track. What follows is a short collection of (hopefully) useful lessons I learned to help fellow final-year or recently graduated scientists take their first steps onto the professional scene.
One of the biggest lessons that I learned was that finding your path takes time. I would have loved to have my life figured out within my first year post-graduation, but unfortunately, that was not the way it went for me. I graduated during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, just as work culture was shifting from primarily in-person work to more virtual spaces. Until then, everything I knew about a career in science involved either sitting in a lab surrounded by equipment and chanting ‘I am a woman in STEM’ repeatedly under my breath, or sitting in an appropriately shady corner of a university campus obsessively reading research papers. The summer after graduation, I attended (probably way too many) online conferences and events and learned that there were a whole host of jobs in science that I simply did not know existed before.
Choosing my next step took months of deliberating and self-reflection.
I asked myself what my values were and what career path best aligned with them; what I could see myself doing and enjoying the most for the long term; what impact I hoped to have over the course of my career and which path would put me on track to achieve my goals. Luckily for me, with most of the world at a standstill, I had some breathing room to do that, but this, unfortunately, is not the case today. You may feel pressure from your family or seeing what your peers are achieving, which might make it more difficult to give yourself the time to carefully consider and find security in your choices. I believe that being confident in your choices and convictions goes a long way in helping you adapt to any challenges that will inevitably come your way.
Another lesson I learned was the importance of finding spaces where I felt like I belonged. I’m sure by now you have heard many stories about how difficult it is to be the only Black woman in the room, especially in scientific institutions which tend to be predominantly White. I was aware of this going into my first “grown-up” scientist job. Having studied at a largely White university, I often found myself as the only black person in the lab and in the classroom and I had hoped, however naively, that this would magically change when I left university and started working in London. As you’ll probably come to find for yourself, this is not always the case. I found myself surrounded by older White people who, despite their best efforts, did not make for the most welcoming environment. I floundered in a place with relatively few people that I could relate to so I started to look for external groups and spaces where I then came across the Black Women in Science (BWiS) Network. I met so many people that I could commiserate with and discovered a lot more Black collectives within specific areas in science. This really helped me feel as if I belonged in the scientific community which helped me feel more confident as a Black woman and as a scientist. Not seeing a lot of people who look like you working in your preferred area can be intimidating, but it should not limit your dreams.
The final lesson I learned was the value of networking, particularly with other Black women who have been navigating the space before us. Science is a collaborative field that extends beyond research and into interpersonal relationships. A large part of making your mark in the scientific community involves your ability to connect with other scientists and curate a list of useful contacts. I was not aware of how just how useful having an extensive network was as a scientist before I started working. A good network can lead to new opportunities and experiences. Networking can mean that your name gets brought up in rooms that you might not have access to. Other people can help you take steps in your career that you might not have been able to take alone. For example, I got my first writing credit through a referral from a scientist that I had once had a brief conversation with.
“Shooting your shot” and reaching out to other more established scientists in the field can feel nerve-wracking, but it is important to remember that the worst thing that could happen is that they say ‘no’. Networking is something that I am still working on myself, but so far, I have met a lot of very interesting people doing amazing work. Unfortunately, building a network is a fairly long-term endeavor, but it can be very rewarding. If in doubt, start with your fellow graduates and university alumni and work outwards from there. Before you know it, you will be a regular social butterfly. See more on Networking on our blog here.
In summary, the three main lessons I learned as an entry-level scientist are to take your time to find the right career path for you, find a space where you belong, and network. No matter what area you are looking to work in, I sincerely hope that these lessons are useful in helping you find your feet in the scientific community. If you feel like you are struggling, you are not alone. You, like me, are a Black woman in science and you belong, no matter what or whoever tries to tell you otherwise.
Images made by Esther Ansah, using elements from Canva and Undraw.
By Esther Ansah, Blog Writer