Struggles of a Female Graduate Student in Science


Sarah Kawesa

University of Ottawa

PhD & Clinical Research Associate (CRA) in training


As a woman in science I have experienced many challenges. While working as a graduate student, I felt fortunate that I was surrounded by both female and male colleagues. My boss at the time was a female. However, that excitement fell short when I started feeling as though I was an outsider. My experiences stemmed from being bullied from a male co-worker to having to do more at work to get heard or even acknowledged. Although I feel that being an immigrant of a different background may also have played a role in how I was treated by some of my fellow co-workers.

Furthermore, having a child while doing my PhD made everything more complicated. I remember one day one of my friends in science asked me how are you going to handle a child while doing your PhD. Later, I found out that she decided to quit her PhD when she had a child.

I decided, though, to go back to work after 6 weeks and having a 6-week-old baby has its own trials. I was working long hours doing experiments at work as well as taking care of my little one at home. I was sleep deprived most of the time. And I felt like I was not functioning as well as I desired. I felt exhausted most of the time.

One big challenge I had when I had a baby while doing my PhD was that in between my experiments at work I needed to rush back home to breastfeed my child. A nearby baby care centre would have been ideal in this situation. I have had stories from my friends that their relatives were forced to quit their career in situations such us mine. I was lucky that I was able to finish my degree as my family did come to my rescue to help out with the little one.

Looking back at my experiences as a woman all I have to say is do not give up on your dreams. Anything in life is possible. Of course, I have to admit that there are things I would have done differently back then but again I had no definitive guide on the choices I made while I was a student. Have a plan when you decide to have kids. Make sure you have friends and family around to help you with your little one. Also, give yourself more time before going back to work. I think I rushed to go back to work which had an impact on my functionality. Find out from the school how much time you’re given to stay home.

As I mentioned above I was bullied by a male colleague. One regret I have is that I took too long to confront the situation. I remember this one co-worker that approached me and told me that I needed to do something. I have to admit that she encouraged me to confront the bully. And I am grateful for that. I was amazed that after I confronted him, all the bullying stopped. Do not be afraid. Speak up.