You are NOT stupid

– written by Nucleus –

“Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact.” —Carl Sagan

My first semester of my PhD program started off all bright and shiny and new. I was so eager and excited to get skilled at this whole biz of making discoveries. The world was my oyster, science was my muse, and the possibilities were endless.

I sat on the edge of my chair, listening intently to a talk being given by a visiting researcher. At one point, he broached a topic that I didn’t really understand. Desperate to keep up, I raised my hand and asked for clarification of this particular subject.

While the speaker was more than happy to explain, another member of the small audience – a well-respected professor in the department – gave me a disappointed look and said, “You should know that at this level.”

I immediately became aware of everyone in the room looking at me. I shrunk back in my seat and remained quiet for the rest of the talk.  After all, I was lucky to have even gotten into this top Ph.D. program, right? I thought, I should be more careful. I don’t want them to figure out that I’m really not smart enough to be here.

So I spent the following years not asking questions. When I didn’t understand something, I was incredibly embarrassed to say so. When I did speak up, I would usually get the same disappointed looks and responses. Instead of focusing on learning new ways in which I could make discoveries, I spent a great deal of my time worrying about how to avoid looking stupid.


A good teacher knows that when one student has a question, it usually means dozens more do as well. And even if that is not the case, not retaining or remembering bits of information here and there is NOT a sign of stupidity. Needing something explained in more depth or more slowly is NOT a weakness. In a world in which we multi-task more and more, having the courage to ask for clarification is a strength. In science, especially as a young woman in science, it is brave.

Now, after more years and experience in the field, after earning grants and awards, publishing papers, and getting multiple job offers, it finally began to dawn on me that maybe I was somewhat smart and deserving of this title “Scientist”.

I want to go back in time and smack those in positions of power and influence over me/my career after every discouraging word uttered. I want to shake my younger, more vulnerable self and say, “don’t listen to them! You go on and ask that question right now and don’t let up until you understand!”

Now that I am about to be an Assistant Professor with my own lab and teaching my own courses, I will take this lesson with me.

And anyone who dares to make my students feel stupid will immediately be forced to contribute to the lab Douchebag Jar (inspired by clip below…)


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