Growing up I was so painfully shy. If I went through a day saying 10 words to someone that would be me having a “talkative” day. While I still consider myself to be a pretty shy person and am someone who likes to keep to herself for the most part, I certainly do say more than 10 words a day now.
Over the past weekend, I got the chance to attend an undergraduate student conference at McMaster University. While I was excited to go, I was pretty anxious as well and already catastrophizing all of the ways I would embarrass myself in various social situations. Having never been to one of these things before though, this first experience was a good first experience to have. It was a conference dedicated to undergraduates and focused mainly on discussing social issues (in this case, women in physics), and you did not have to present a research poster to attend (as I did not).
There was a lot of experience and insight I gained throughout the course of the weekend over a number of things, both personal and academic. As I reflect on all the things I’ve learned from this experience, I’m realising more and more about how this all fits in with my broader journey of career exploration.
A part of the focus of this conference was to talk about issues of diversity in physics. As such, people talked about mentors and the importance of being able to see someone looking like you being able to succeed in fields where there isn’t a lot of diversity. Talking to the other attendees at the conference it was heartening to realise that some of those mentors can be your peers. It was nice to hear a fourth year from Carleton University say to me, “Oh yeah, I didn’t even know anything about this field before I started doing research on it.” The prospect of undergraduate research has always seemed so daunting to me, but it’s nice to step back and realise that everyone has to start somewhere. Sometimes the role models you’re looking for aren’t the ones that are eons ahead of you, but they’re your peers.
Careers rarely follow a straight line path. That’s something that everyone has probably already heard said to them at some point. Knowing that point intellectually doesn’t necessarily make the job-hunting or networking any less stressful, but getting to know as many other options available to you out there can make it slightly less daunting. Meeting a ton of new people at this conference was a great way to see all of the different paths that are available. Even among fellow attendees, it was nice to see other undergraduates coming from such a diverse background. There were people who had separate careers in marketing and came back to school, people who switched from fashion to physics, people who took time off during the undergraduate degrees, etc. As an “untraditional” or “mature” student, I was always incredibly self-conscious about being a part of the academic communities here at U of T. Everyone I saw around me was on a “traditional” path and I just felt like I didn’t belong, and so being able to talk and connect with others who were also “untraditional students” was incredibly eye-opening.
Funnily enough, I also connected with fellow physics U of T-ers who I probably wouldn’t have connected with if I hadn’t gone to this conference. Taking the GO bus together back to Toronto and talking about course selections and profs and grad school applications was actually a great way to cap of the conference experience.
I’m definitely looking forward to more conference experiences in the future. Who knows, maybe I’ll get to present at one of these one day…
If you’re an undergraduate looking for conference or research experiences, connect with the undergraduate chair at your department! A lot of opportunities are passed around on a department’s listserv or through Facebook groups as well. There are usually a few opportunities that are reserved exclusively for undergraduates.