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Navigating academia is not easy. The top characteristics possessed by academics, which I commonly hear, allude to the demands of this setting: persistence, ambition, and resilience, to name a few. On top of this perhaps daunting baseline, there are some very real obstacles that can make females who are the first in the family with a PhD (or perhaps even the first in the family to attend university) feel isolated, inadequate, or on an unequal playing field. I will touch upon two such obstacles: nepotism and what I will call the female disadvantage, and then provide concrete techniques that have helped me to help move beyond these hurdles.

Academia is not immune to nepotism, that is to say the favouring (even if unintentional) of individuals whose relatives are established professors, research scientists, or clinician researchers. Females who are the first in the family with an advanced degree are particularly subject to feeling set apart or disadvantaged compared to those with family already in academia.

Luckily, there are initiatives at several academic institutions aimed at fostering an atmosphere of inclusivity for students, research staff, and faculty. For instance, at the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan, where I did my postdoctoral fellowship, the school did something that I personally thought was a very effective way to acknowledge and appreciate individuals who are the first in the family with (or working towards) an advanced degree. The department created “1st generation” pins that were worn by those who were the first in the family to attend graduate school, and dedicated a day to recognize and acknowledge this group of people—who ranged from first-year graduate students to tenured professors.

Now, the differential treatment of females compared to their male counterparts in academia is a widely discussed and debated topic. There certainly has been progress, but inequality persists. To touch the surface, there is the male versus female wage gap, and societal biases related to behaviour and responsibilities. There are numerous articles and essays discussing these differential treatments, what I call the female disadvantage. The female disadvantage in academia is especially challenging in male-dominant fields, where senior colleagues in leadership positions are predominantly males. Having seasoned female academics for mentors is essential for the development of trainees and early-career researchers.

I am fortunate to have had and continue to have many incredible female mentors throughout my years as a trainee and now as an early career investigator, but I also have had experiences where I felt that I was treated differentially solely by being female. For instance, when I was a senior trainee, I was explicitly asked if I could speak at a local workshop because all of the other speakers were male and they needed a female to diversify the rollcall. I appreciated the transparency of the request, but it is disheartening and unpleasant when you are chosen to be the diversity selection rather than because of your knowledge and expertise.

Now, given these additional challenges, how can a female navigate academia as the first in her family with a PhD? I am by no means an expert, but I would like to share the following three points that have been personally very useful.

  1. Build your own support group. It is important to surround yourself with supportive people, whether that is virtually or in-person. Reach out and keep in touch with positive role models throughout your career.
  2. Believe in yourself and your abilities. You are capable (attested by your hard work and dedication that resulted in your degree), and you deserve to be where you are. You are the one who defines what success looks like for you, and you choose how to carve out your path to turn that definition into reality.
  3. Do not compare your achievements, experiences, or skillset to those of others. Rather, concentrate on yourself, and compare your current self to your past self. How have you grown? Which skills have you acquired or fine-tuned? How do you envision yourself in a year, in five years, or in ten years, and what concrete steps are you taking to become that person?

Navigating academia is challenging, and there are additional hurdles for females who are the first in the family with an advanced degree. However, this process can also be rewarding and inspiring.

Sarah A Gagliano Taliun is an assistant professor at the Université de Montréal.