Note: STEM is an acronym that stands for ‘science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.’
I dropped out of a Ph.D. program in mechanical engineering this year. While this decision involved a complex mixture of logical and emotional reasons, some of which would be unimportant to Queer Voices, I do want to discuss my experience as a queer male in a STEM field and how this factored into my decision.
Schooling in STEM fields tends to be meritocratic. There is little to no discussion of non-technical topics in class. Politics and power/privilege dynamics are considered irrelevant. So are students’ identities. Students who produce good technical work are valued highly “regardless of’ their race, sexual orientation, gender, etc.…” or at least that’s what the programs’ mission statements would have you believe. But why is it, then, that studies consistently show that white cis heterosexual men outperform people of color and people of other sexual orientations and/or genders in STEM classes? Surely, if race, sexual orientation, and gender identity did not matter, no such correlation would be establishable.
Many privileged people find it difficult to understand how being, say, queer could influence one’s performance or engagement in class in the objective, all-brain-no-heart STEM fields. Well, the truth is, identities do matter; they always do, even in this situation. Even when I didn’t talk about being queer with my classmates—which in my experience, very few students in STEM do—this identity was still important to me because I had to make a conscious effort to hide it. The straight white dude sitting in front of me in class could talk all he wanted about his girlfriend, but I couldn’t even bring up the fact that I was dating other male folks. It would have been irrelevant—this IS engineering, after all.
The meritocratic culture of STEM led to my inability to discuss parts of my identity that were important to me, which in turn meant that I never considered my classmates my friends. Although we spent a lot of time together, both inside the classroom and outside—working on school homework/projects mostly—I never felt like I belonged with them. It’s not that I wasn’t out to them; rather, they weren’t interested in talking about my sexual orientation. I felt as though my life was made up of two parts that had to always remain separated: school, professors and classmates on the one hand, and friends and romantic/sexual partners on the other.
This made me feel like an impostor in school and like a bit of an outsider with my friends. So much of my time was taken up by schoolwork that none of my friends understood that I had to miss out on many opportunities to be with them socially. At the same time, I didn’t feel like I belonged in school. Nobody there understood me in my complexity, and I wasn’t able to express all of myself, so why was I spending so much time there? For a while, I was doing well in classes, but engineering is a predominantly-white-cis-heterosexual-male field, so it didn’t make sense to invest so much of my time into it. At some point, I started noticing that I had lost interest in the academic field—it just wasn’t as rewarding as it had been once when queerness was not a large part of my identity. I dropped out of a Ph.D. program in mechanical engineering this year, and I’m positive that my marginalized identity had a lot to do with it.