This post isn’t about the history of PhDs since mediaeval times. I would rather write an 80,000 word thesis than post about that – I’m that sick of them.

There’s a lot of talk these days – as there always has been – on women in science and the ‘fact’ that we are too stupid to ever succeed in it, because we’re women. Well, apart from being female, I am also blessed to be young, and, as we all know, young women are doubly stupid when it comes to science, because, well, we’re young.

I’m fortunate not to have to hear a lot of crap about the ‘inappropriateness’ of my gender for being a science researcher, mainly because my area is psychology rather than the life or physical sciences, which are notoriously male-dominated. In psychology – at least within the bubble of academia – departmental staff are pretty much split even, and among psychology students, there is actually a female majority, often even on modules that might be expected to appeal more to males, like evolutionary or cognitive psychology. I feel comfortably at home as a female psychologist.

And yet, I am still not free of stigmatization: Because of my age.

I began my PhD when I was 20 (“What? Really?” comes the response). The reason for this is that I had finished my degree early, because I had started it early, aged 17, and I had done that because I finished school early, because I started when I was 4. It’s all quite complicated and not worth explaining here, because it doesn’t really matter. As they say, what matters is that we’re here, we’re together, and every day brings us closer to a cure. Or whatever.

Anyway, I was 20 when I started. I had a first class degree and I’d been accepted onto a research programme, so there seemed little point in waiting around, doing a masters degree. Come to think of it, it’s probably for the best that I didn’t, because while researching for my masters dissertation I might have cottoned on to the fact that research is inherently boring, and never have come to grad school, and never have come this close to getting my PhD, and therefore never be able to get a job in academia.

Well. Actually. Maybe I went wrong after all.

Over the last few years I have always worked in an environment in which everyone is always older than me. Even people who have come fresh from degrees have an MSc and are at least 24 when they start. In my case, the youngest fellow PhD student I’ve met was 25 when she started, and she was deregistered in her first year for not being able to meet required standards. As for the rest of my colleagues – they’re well into their 30s, if not their 40s or even 50s, and many of them are married, have children, and even had whole other careers (like a PhD in theoretical physics) before they decided to study psychology.

They mean well, but many of the people I work with – including the many women – have, at some point or other, made insensitive comments about my age, such as about me being ‘too young’ to be doing PhD research, being a ‘little girl’, and telling me they don’t mean to patronise me BUT…[insert patronising comment of choice here].

I’ve come to accept that having assumptions made about me is unavoidable in everyday life outside of academia. For example, I once walked into an O2 shop to buy credit for my mobile phone. While taking the cash and printing out the vouchers, the assistants tend to make small talk with you to distract from the fact that you’re being kept waiting. This happened to be in June, when most schools and universities have exam weeks.

“So, studying for exams then?” Asked the guy behind the counter.

“Yes…kind of,” I said, trying to avoid the tediousness of explaining that annual monitoring reviews are technically a type of exam for PhD students.

“A levels?” Asked the guy.

“What?”

“A level exams…you know, when you’re 16?”

I was too startled to be angry. “No, I’m actually-”

“-GCSEs?” he butted in.

“What?”

“GCSEs…are you in sixth form?”

“I’m actually at university,” I said, starting to feel irritated.

“Oh, sorry,” he apologised, starting to look sheepish. “You must be revising hard.”

“I’m doing a PhD…you know, like research?”

At this point the guy went beetroot red – and must have been relieved to finally tear off the printed vouchers before he made any more embarrassing assumptions. Actually, he was probably glad to see me on my way before I might tell him I’m actually a child-genius-turned-professor-of-rocket-science-from-Yale, or some such thing.

I was just glad to have my vouchers.

This sort of thing I can bear in life – but the fact that others in the same boat as me, in academia, doing research, do the same thing, does make me mad. You may be a forty-something mother of two teenagers with a defunct career in architecture out there in the real world, but when we’re working in this lab together we are colleagues, peers, and equals, and the fact that I am 22 years old bears no relation to that. I am competent in my research and that it what is required of me. As long as I meet this requirement, my age is irrelevant.

Just as there ought not to be such a thing as ‘too old to do a PhD’, nor should there be such a thing as ‘too young’. I am not a ‘little girl’. I don’t appreciate being patronised by people who are my equals in academia just because they were born 25 years before I was.

It’s time to cut the crap on women and younger researchers having no place in academia, being too stupid to understand science, and showing no potential to succeed.

We need to focus on the brains, not the boobs, and definitely not the years.

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