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Lessons from the 2022 Advancing Graduate Leadership Conference.
By Liz Boatman | September 9, 2022
Credit: Midhat Farooq/APS
Attendees pose at the 2022 AGL conference in Washington, DC.
By third grade, Erica Snider knew, resolutely, that she wanted to be a physicist.
But that doesn’t mean it was always smooth sailing. Snider, who has worked as a high-energy physicist at Fermilab for more than two decades, says that, early in her career, “I declined some talks…purely because I didn’t have the confidence to get up in front of people.”
That lack of confidence, she says, stemmed from her environment. Confidence is “massively affected by the people around us, the culture that we’re in”—and for women and gender minorities, who make up about one-fifth of physics graduate students, finding a supportive community can be a challenge.
To help students overcome this challenge and build community, APS—with funding from the Heising-Simons Foundation—hosted a multi-day conference for women and gender minorities. The Advancing Graduate Leadership (AGL) Conference, which took place in August in Washington, DC, sponsored nearly 150 attendees from 34 states. Sessions focused on professional development, and topics ranged from coping with mental health challenges to cultivating inclusive leadership skills.
Snider, drawing on lessons from her own career, facilitated a session called “Developing Confidence and Presence.” She opened by asking attendees if they had ever struggled with confidence in their physics careers. “Almost everybody in the room said that they felt as though [their confidence] interfered with their job, or that it affected their decision-making in ways that might affect their career,” she says.
“That was certainly the case with me,” she adds. “There was a point in time where I thought confidence was an immutable personality trait.”
At the AGL conference, she sought to break down that myth. Confidence, she told attendees, is something you can shape “through your attitudes or your approach, the way you react. And presence is a skill—you can just learn it.”
Xuan Chen, a postdoctoral research assistant in high-energy physics at Cornell University who attended the conference, is concerned about the confidence gap she sees in many of her peers. “If you talk to female students or students from minority groups,” she says, “you will realize that they often do not feel confident, regardless of how much they have achieved in their field.”
Chen plans to pursue an academic path after her postdoc. In preparation, she’s focused on finding ways to promote a more inclusive culture in physics and academia as a whole, which is why she attended the AGL Conference.
Sam Kaufman-Martin, a PhD student researching the turbulence of wind energy kites at UC-Santa Barbara, flew from the west coast to participate in the event. Kaufman-Martin originally saw the conference advertised in an APS newsletter and thought it sounded like a great chance to meet other non-binary or transgender scientists with similar career interests.
From Kaufman-Martin’s perspective, limiting attendees to women and gender minorities created a more welcoming environment. “Being in a physics conference where I was not only recognized and included, but people were actually saying ‘we want you here, as a non-binary person,’ was really exciting,” they say.
The conference also made Kaufman-Martin think a lot about the experiences of many women in physics. “Hearing some of the stories was pretty sobering,” they say. “It’s really hard to stay confident if everyone is telling you that you’re not good enough.”
As Snider indicated, some environments are better than others at supporting young physicists through the standard frustrations of earning a graduate degree, like an experiment failing. For Kaufman-Martin, it’s vital to have a community “that can help you maintain confidence in the face of setbacks.”
“These people—friends and family and colleagues—still value you and reflect that to you,” Kaufman-Martin says. “It’s not about your performance.”
That type of strong support, according to Snider, can also help normalize the challenges of graduate students’ and early career scientists’ experience in physics. When people feel that their experiences and struggles are common and shared, they’re likely to feel better—and this, in turn, can give them the confidence boost they need.
Liz Boatman is a staff writer for APS News.
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