Well, this is kind of embarrassing for me and I am judging myself as well.

I have just started my PhD. And there is another woman who has started in the same lab as me. Over the first week, I found out that she does not know how to program well. She does not understand many basic terms and had no publication before while I had several publications. On top of that, she is being paid several thousand dollars more than me.

Now, why I am judging myself? Because of my gender (man). Before starting my PhD, I used to believe that sexism was mostly created by insecure men.

Over the past weeks I have been having difficult feelings:

  • Did I not work hard enough for my PhD admission?

  • Could I be in a better university?

  • Or, is the system biased toward women?

  • Am I becoming sexist?

I do not know how to get over this. Any suggestions?

  • 51
    It seems that, without any particular evidence, you have jumped to the conclusion that your colleague's higher pay is because of her gender. You're apparently a scientist; is that a scientific conclusion? Correlation is not causation. Sep 15, 2018 at 2:06
  • 6
    What "system"? What discipline? Academia is not monolithic and varies across both disciplines and countries.
    – Yemon Choi
    Sep 15, 2018 at 2:26
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    I want to gently point out that a couple of your questions sound very insecure.
    – Dawn
    Sep 15, 2018 at 3:46
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    Make sure the terminology you fault her for not knowing actually is standard. It's not unheard of for textbook authors to make up their own category systems, and these end up being taught without ever admitting to the students that this is a way of talking about the problem, not the way.
    – Ben Voigt
    Sep 15, 2018 at 6:31
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    If you are not both working on the same project, then concentrate on your own and do what you need in your preferred fashion. If you don’t often go to workshops then don’t change your behaviour. Why add stress about something that is outside your priorities, focus on your tasks.
    – Solar Mike
    Sep 15, 2018 at 6:51

5 Answers 5


It seems as if you have two major issues. 1) This person doesn't know how to code 2) This person asks a lot of questions.

First, it would benefit you to remember that there are many skills required to be a good researcher. Examples include the ability to come up with good research problems, to develop theory, to read results in a way that makes connections/insights. This person may have been admitted because they are highly skilled at one of these other areas. The committee may believe that the person can pick up on the skills they lack. I myself started my PhD with horrendous gaps in my knowledge (my friends tell me that they were horrified by the questions I asked first year), but my letter writers were able to assure the committee that I was a quick study (and I was).

Second, you should remember that learning styles vary, and some people learn best by asking questions. It may not be your learning style, but one of the reasons study groups exist is that many people learn well by walking through problems and questions with others. This is the sort of thing that the askees seem to either love or hate. I had faculty tell me that I was their favorite student because I asked great clarifying questions during their courses/departmental seminars. I had other faculty tell me that I would never succeed in academia because "no one likes people who ask questions." If you are in group two, the best thing you can do is put in some headphones so you don't appear to be available for questions.

  • 3
    Yeah this is true. In my undergrad, I used to learn mostly alone would probably go into study group like twice or thrice in the semester [once before the final exam of each subject]. This would usually help to clarify the gaps. I was not from a community that asked lots of question all the time or from day one. Thanks you for clearing that out. I do not think I am in group 2, at least I should not. Because I asked a question a lot of the time. But I usually do an internet search or reference reading before asking questions. Sep 15, 2018 at 4:06
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    Another, reason I asked the question, whether I am being over confident by saying the things I said here. Mentoring a grad student in Programming, who is at the same level as me and applied for the same program as me, was definitely not the thing I was looking for when I hopped on that plane.... Sep 15, 2018 at 4:11
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    @Dawn It might be a good idea to address the pay difference. Sep 15, 2018 at 12:41
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    Even with "coding skills" it can vary. For instance, in my graduate studies a peer and friend of mine could code circles around me in C++ (part of his undergrad) but the research we did required Python or R (part of mine) - which he had no experience in. He was a good programmer and caught up by the end but if I did not know about his background then the Python questions he asked (and his code which even he admitted was horrible and trying to make R be C++) might have made me wonder.
    – LinkBerest
    Sep 16, 2018 at 14:14
  • I can’t really comment on the pay difference because OP didn’t provide very much info on that. Is it an outside fellowship? Is it pay determined by the PI?
    – Dawn
    Sep 16, 2018 at 19:57

I would factorize this into two separate issues.

First, fairness. You seem to think this person is much less qualified than you, and yet she got admitted and is even paid more. A few points to consider:

  • Your are not privy to the reason(s) she was admitted. She may be strong in other areas. You do not have enough evidence to say that admitting her was a mistake / unfair.
  • In many departments (particularly non-top-tier ones), candidates are admitted in the hope that they will show more aptitude for graduate study than they did as an undergraduate. Sometimes this bet works out, sometimes it doesn't. It may simply be that admitting her was a gamble that didn't pay off (or simply a mistake). In this case, the professors are likely also unhappy, but not much can be done at this point.
  • I'd like to think that most departments wouldn't purposefully admit someone who is unqualified. That said, many departments have too many qualified candidates, and choose to give preference to candidates with different backgrounds. For better or for worse, academia in many countries operates this way, and you will have to get used to it at some level.

Second, concern about your own performance. My guess is that you have been concerned for some time about whether your university is "good enough," and this poorly-qualified person has caused you to revisit this fear. These are separate issues, and you should treat them as such. However, it may be that there is real reason for concern about your school (in which case you should reconsider your options there), or it may be that this is an irrational but persistent fear (in which case the way to "get over it" may involve counseling, etc.).

  • 1
    "My guess is that you have been concerned for some time about whether your university is "good enough," and this poorly-qualified person has caused you to revisit this fear." This is kind of true, I guess. :\ Sep 15, 2018 at 4:47

Focus on the fact that perfect fairness doesn't exist on the job market.

She could be there because of her outstanding talent and abilities which you improperly assess. Or she could be there because of personal connections, or as eye candy, or to balance the gender ratio, or because of a well timed (lucky) application, or because the person hiring her simply failed to see through her flaws, or, or, or. All of these are unfair to those who have to work hard to get the job, but happen to either gender.

The point that matters in your question is this one:

  • Or, is the system biased toward women?

You found a single individual in a position you assume they are under-qualified for. If it was a man, would you assume the system is biased against men? Maybe. But if you train yourself to look around yourself, you'll notice that every profession holds 10-20% incompetent and/or hopelessly under-qualified people (the exact number depends on the optimism/pessimism of the observer), and that the gender ratio is pretty even.

But there's good news: while perfect fairness doesn't exist, good workers do, on average, progress their carreers faster than bad ones.

  • The part about the position sound like the "Peter Principle" where every person rise to their optimum position of competence plus 1, while the real work is done by those who have not yet reached their final level...
    – Solar Mike
    Sep 15, 2018 at 9:20
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    @Solar In my opinion, Peter Principle is way more optimistic than reality, because it strongly assumes people who are inadequate to do their job no longer get promoted, while in reality it merely changes the probability.
    – Peter
    Sep 15, 2018 at 13:12
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    @Peter: Is that your principle? When I read that book, I was in the Navy. I remember thinking we had solved the problem: when a person reaches their level of incompetence, we continue to promote them. Eventually they get high enough they are no longer a threat.
    – WGroleau
    Sep 16, 2018 at 2:53

My impression is that your problem is not about "sexism", it is about that her wage is higher than yours.

Ignore it. Don't compare your success to others, compare it to what you want. It is the decision of your department, what is the value of someone's work for it:

  1. If her work is over-valued, it is their problem and not yours.
  2. If your work is undervalued, yes it is a problem, but it is independent from her wage.

It is very unlikely that you would earn lesser because you are a male. Typically, such organizations have a fixed or roughly fixed wage table.

Yes, she might have some "downwind", but you have probably no way to know, what is it exactly.

Check, how people typically earn with your skills and experience in the region and field. It can help to determine, what is the case about (2). And leave (1) to others.

P.s. I think, the most probable cause of this scenario is that the department needs your work, but they don't have budget for that. As the woman was employed, it wasn't so yet. Now it is already impossible to decrease her wage, and they can't increase yours. It is also quite possible that they overvalued the competence of the woman. Any department/company leader knows the danger of such scenarios very well, their name in my region is "wage tension". Typically they try to avoid them, but it can't always happen.

P.s.2. People tend to undervalue the worth of the knowledge on fields which is not so well known for them, and overvalue the worth of the ones where they are familiar. There is nothing bad in it, it is simply because if you know more about something, you also learned, how complex/hard is it. Check the woman, maybe she is not so bad, only different.

  • 1
    Yes this is good advice. To think "where other people put their money is not my business". Also gives peace of mind. Sep 16, 2018 at 18:22

I've observed several similar cases in academia. Most of them were men, whose fathers were friends of department members or members of other departments who held significant positions in the university.

In my country, it's very often the case, that you're being assigned to do some research for money, while you're working on your Ph.D. topic (Ph.D. funding is very low, so you don't make a living out of it). And it's indeed a very frustrating experience being assigned repeatedly to some boring work with no chance to have good publications, while somebody gets an interesting position and subsequently is evaluated as much more productive, as he has better publications.

On the other hand, I've seen several professors/teachers, who favored women solely because of their gender. I've seen letting them hand their projects late, spending time explaining them the difficult topic or improving their test scores, while male students were treated completely differently.

In my university, there's also one female researcher, who got very close with a very high-positioned faculty member. Subsequently, she got wildly promoted to the point, where she, being just Ph.D. student, was leading the whole laboratory with doctors and associate professors.

That being said, I understand your frustration, but I don't think, that there is anything you can do besides being focused on your work and maybe trying to get better social connections in your institute.

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