What Does a 'Real Scientist' Look Like?



We are so much more than just women who love science. We have our own likes and dislikes. Our hobbies and interests. Our own personalities and ways we like to express ourselves. So really, we are all our own images of what a scientist looks like! Let’s keep this message going and challenge the stereotypes that women in STEM face.



“So, tell us why YOU are the perfect PhD candidate for this project?” “Why do you want a career in science?” “What qualities do you have that you think would make you a good scientist?”. All questions I’ve had directed towards me from panels of established biological researchers in the five PhD interviews I had. And they are all totally justifiable and placid questions that would be expected from people who are deciding who they want to offer a funded studentship to. But what happens when you don’t fit into the normal stereotype of a scientist?


My name is Beth. I’m a PhD student researching HIV and Tuberculosis in the University of Liverpool in the UK. I’ve always known I wanted to make a difference in the medical world, and after not getting into Medical School, I found my path redirected towards a Bachelors degree in Genetics, followed by a Masters degree in Molecular Oncology and now my PhD in Pharmacology. Yet I still get the regular, shocked response when somebody finds out what I do. The raised eyebrows and “NO WAY, really?” never gets old. I even once had somebody respond with ‘You’re a scientist?! I mean…don’t take this in the wrong way, but I thought you would’ve been a beautician or worked in a salon or something’. Yep. And the long and short of that is purely due to the fact I don’t mirror most people’s idea of a scientist. It’s a societal issue that has continued to create this image of a nerdy, bookish, plain Jane, geeky, shy wallflower character. But I guess the fact I’m a tall, outspoken, blonde girl who loves to wear a full face of makeup every day and wear my hair the way I like, with a love for hoop earrings, shellac nails and new clothes and shoes (much to the dismay of my bank account) is the polar opposite to this stereotype and apparently doesn’t scream intelligence. My Dad jokes around and calls me ‘Genetically Blonde’; a play on Reese Witherspoon’s movie character of Elle Woods who defied the stereotypes and got her Law degree from Harvard – ‘What, like it’s hard?’. I was even told by a baffled co-worker in the banking call centre I used to be a part-time manager in when I was studying for my Bachelors, that “I’m sorry, it’s just like ‘Barbie does Science’! I can’t get my head around you being a scientist” – yeah, I wish I was exaggerating that story, but it’s all true. And pretty wrong!


Yet I still get the regular, shocked response when somebody finds out what I do. The raised eyebrows and “NO WAY, really?” never gets old. I even once had somebody respond with ‘You’re a scientist?! I mean…don’t take this in the wrong way, but I thought you would’ve been a beautician or worked in a salon or something’.

So all of this occurred to me in the build-up to my first PhD interview. I ditched the shellac nails. I actually made an appointment to have them taken off and had to explain to my nail tech that I’d been loyal to for years, that I didn’t want to give off the ‘wrong impression’ to prospective PhD supervisors, so I needed to take a break until I’d been offered a position (which took 9 months and 5 separate final-stage interviews). I chose very specific, plain clothing on my interview days. Only put on a little bit of mascara and lip balm. Don’t want to give off the wrong impression do I? I styled my straightened hair into a low ponytail. I need to look serious about this opportunity! My hoops were left in my jewelry box; come to think of it, I don’t even think I wore any jewelry at all. And yet I still sat in the waiting rooms before going into the panels, trying not to bite my bare nails out of nervousness and fear of being judged. I was even wary of asking others for advice about what I should wear and what makeup I should go for. I didn’t want to bring up the topic out of fear of sounding vain or big-headed (because I’m not at all – I’m pretty insecure, just like most of us).


"...I didn’t want to give off the ‘wrong impression’ to prospective PhD supervisors..."

I understand you need to be presentable and come across professional in your interviews, but from having these conversations with other STEM girls like me, it’s clearly a shared consciousness we all experience. Whether that be because they’re girly-girls, have visible tattoos or ‘unorthodox’ hair colors (the list goes on). Women in STEM are still fighting to be recognized for their abilities and contributions without being viewed in a sexist, misogynistic light. So if we want to feel pretty, then guess what? That’s perfectly okay! The way we choose to dress or look shouldn’t be a scale that others use to estimate our academic ability, intelligence or competency in a lab. And I guess when I found the Glam Science Instagram page, I instantly resonated with their message; that science can be glamorous! We are so much more than just women who love science. We have our own likes and dislikes. Our hobbies and interests. Our own personalities and ways we like to express ourselves. So really, we are all our own images of what a scientist looks like! Let’s keep this message going and challenge the stereotypes that women in STEM face. For all the little girls who like to play with their toy Doctors kits…but also love their tiaras and princess dresses!


Beth Thompson is a 24 year old PhD student from Liverpool, UK. She is researching micro-sampling methods for the quantification of HIV and TB drugs in various matrices.

She can be reached at @x_beththompson on instagram and twitter.



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