Shattering the Glass Ceiling: Becoming a Woman Undergraduate Researcher

A guide of first steps for women-identifying undergraduate students stepping into research

Two women students in lab coats performing a chemistry experiment.
Every women-identifying undergraduate student has the potential to become an incredible researcher; your journey starts now!

As we step into the new school year, woman-identifying undergraduate students across campus are looking to take their first steps into research. This process can be new, daunting, and sometimes, downright terrifying. It’s scary to step into a room where you are the first, the only, or both. That’s why it’s imperative to support women-identifying students in empowering research communities, advocating for their learning goals, and asserting themselves in new research settings. For allies, there are also important ideas shared by woman-identifying researchers about the best ways to support their success.

1) Empowering networks for women researchers

Princeton University has many organizations for undergraduate students looking to get involved in research and specifically support women. Below is an incredible catalog of student organizations and programs that every student can explore. As we enter into the semester, many of these organizations are hosting their introduction meetings. Now is a great time to attend them and consider which communities discuss topics that resonate with you. The people you meet here will also give you first-hand advice about advocating for yourself and accessing learning opportunities!

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2) Advocating for your goals

Dream big! I want you to reach for the stars and brainstorm the ambitious goals you have for improving your research skills, exploring new fields, and making the most of Princeton’s research opportunities. As you begin to shape your pathway for the year, I would recommend setting some SMART goals with your academic adviser, career counselor at the Center for Career Development, and your PI and mentor of your research lab/group if applicable.

Guiding topics:

  1. Field exploration

Where do you see yourself after college? Which fields are you interested in contributing to? This can be as broad as art history or as narrow as generative AI for streamlined workflow software. 

  1. Research skills

Based on the fields you’re looking into, what types of tangible skills would you like to learn that will help you navigate it? These can include programming, multi-modal data analysis, scientific research communication, qualitative in-field experience, or hands-on medical work.

  1. Research opportunities

Where and who can teach you these skills? Are you looking for a lab research position in academia, software development in industry, or an international internship in a new cultural region?

You can use these questions to guide the creation of your SMART goals. The Center for Career Development has an excellent guide on crafting specific and attainable goals here.

It’s important to start pursuing these goals. You don’t have to wait for your senior thesis to start research. I would suggest voicing your passion for research and your goals to the professors in your courses. Many courses, such as Writing Seminars and ProCES courses, include final projects that will provide additional support for you to take on more ambitious research. Even now, you can set up a meeting with your professor to coordinate early on the ways in which you access the resources and research tools you need to make these projects a successful learning experience!

Additionally, applications for summer research programs and internships are just around the corner. I would highly encourage you to start exploring these opportunities. Make sure you apply to all the positions you’re interested in! Research shows that women are much less likely than men to apply for positions that they don’t believe they are 100% qualified for. However, many employers are looking for strong passion and work ethic, qualities that I’m sure you possess. These are all opportunities for undergraduate students, so program leaders aren’t expecting you to be capable of fulfilling all of the listed responsibilities on day one. Therefore, don’t restrict yourself.

3) Asserting yourself in research and work

Carving out your reputation in new research settings, whether it be a class, a lab, or a research program, can be quite intimidating, especially if you are only one of the few woman-identifying students. It’s incredibly important for you to stand up for yourself and your ideas, as well as own your contributions, to command respect from your peers.

A recent publication from the Harvard Business Review reported that, in the average business meeting, women’s participation is under 75% of that of men. Furthermore, both men and women are more likely to interrupt a woman. Unfortunately, these patterns apply to the research field as well, especially in men-dominated STEM fields.

Here are a few tips for voicing your ideas during class discussions, lab meetings, and conversations with other researchers:

  • Contribute at the beginning and end: This sets a good precedent for you to gain confidence in your voice and you leave the conversation feeling proud of yourself. Also, psychologists have found that people are more likely to remember the start and the end of conversations compared to the middle.
  • Speak without perfection: It can be so easy for us to self-censor ourselves because we want to craft a perfectly-worded, evidence-supported, insightful argument. Unless you’re preparing to give the speech of a lifetime, it’s totally okay for your words to sound like that of a normal student. It is much more important to share the essence of your idea than to sound like Maya Angelou while you’re speaking. The spotlight effect in psychology points out that an individual is much more likely to remember their own mistakes than the people around them. Therefore, don’t let your fear of “messing up” deter you from sharing your ideas.
  • Jump right in: You must create space for you to speak when the discussion is moving quickly. Instead of waiting for a turn, jump in enthusiastically once someone finishes. A good phrase to start your contribution: “I agree — that reminds me of…” and then you share your idea.
  • Be curious: Asking questions about unique viewpoints and research findings not only demonstrates your interest, it also allows you to participate fully. People love sharing more about their research, so keep those questions coming!

In addition to sharing your opinions and voice in discussions, it is equally important to own your contributions and advocate for the respect and acknowledgment you deserve. I would recommend that, during class presentations, you speak to the slides and the research that you conducted to make it clear it is your work. Additionally, during meetings with your PI and research mentor, you should update them on your progress and highlight the specific contributions you made. This asserts your incredible accomplishments and establishes that you are a capable and confident researcher.

4) Allies unite!

Every person can support women in research. In college, undergraduates are at a critical time where we need support for our success and growth so that we feel confident in our career pathway. Here are a few of the ways that each of us can highlight women-identifying undergraduate students and their contributions as both researchers and leaders.

  • Acknowledge women’s accomplishments: Professors and instructors can nominate women-identifying students for awards. Undergraduate journalists can select research done by women-identifying students for publications and news articles. And every lab member and student can congratulate and highlight the progress of their women-identifying peers.
  • Select women for leadership and committee positions: Women are incredible leaders with innovative ideas and research experiences. However, in men-dominated fields, managers and hiring staff are much more likely to select people who look like them, men, for these positions. It is important to check your subconscious bias and actively realize the potential and qualifications of women applicants.
  • Become an upstander: Support the respect and voice of your women peers by calling out people who interrupt, talk over, or demean them. During class discussions or meetings, invite women to share their opinions and make sure they have the opportunity to finish their ideas. It’s also important to intervene if women presenters are confronted with aggressive or dismissive questioning.

Right now is a critical time for women-identifying undergraduates to step into research and begin pursuing their academic and career goals. It’s important to recognize that you are capable and deserving of these learning opportunities. Together, we can all work to support the next generation of women researchers.

— Yubi Mamiya, STEM Correspondent