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Emma Tennent

Emma Tennent is doing a PhD in psychology at Victoria University of Wellington.

Emma TennentWhat did you study at high school and after?
At high school, I was interested in both the sciences and the humanities. I took Biology, Chemistry and Calculus, as well as English, History, and Classics. I really enjoyed the different ways of seeing the world, and the different ways of using information.

At university, I majored in Psychology and English Literature. Psychology is the study of human behaviour, and in a lots of ways, literature is too. They’re both about understanding why people do what they do, and what that can tell us about ourselves.

My honours year was in Psychology and it was both challenging and rewarding. I discovered qualitative research and found a way to combine my love of literature with scientific analysis. Now, I’m studying for my PhD in Psychology in a discipline called Conversation Analysis which takes a scientific microscope to how we talk and interact with each other in our everyday lives.

Was your study directly related to what you do now?
I didn’t set out to do a PhD when I went to uni. I was lucky enough to have a family that encouraged me to study what I loved and so I picked all the courses that sounded interesting, including some papers in Classics and Philosophy along the way. I met some amazing people at university who encouraged, challenged, and supported me to get to where I am now. Because I’m pursuing doctoral study in Psychology, the courses I took in undergraduate are the background and foundation for what I’m studying now.

Advice for young women making career choices
You have options. Don’t let anyone tell you there’s only one way of doing things or that you have to go down one particular path

Be certain. Take your time and research different options. Don’t commit to studying at university unless you’re absolutely sure it’s for you. It is a big and expensive commitment that shouldn’t be taken lightly. It’s better to take some time (a gap year, work experience, internship, travel) to figure out what you want before making a commitment to study, or any other road you choose to go down.

Pursue what you love, but don’t be afraid to take chances. We’ve all heard the phrase ‘follow your passion’, but sometimes that’s easier said than done. For example, it wasn't until the end of my degree that I discovered critical psychology, qualitative research, and a way to combine feminism and psychology. I ended up doing a year-long honours project using feminist methodology and now for my PhD I’m working in discursive psychology using conversation analysis. The point is – I didn’t even know these fields existed, let alone that I could study them within STEM. You might not know you have a deep passion for something until you try it – so make sure you try out lots of things! You might stumble across it like me, but don’t worry if takes a while getting there.

Career highlights
I’m only at the start of my PhD study, so there’s still a way to go yet. But some highlights would be: presenting my honours research at the Trans/forming Feminisms conference at Otago University in November 2015; participating in an international workshop to apply conversation analysis to improve business practice; and meeting other likeminded researchers who get excited about the same things I do.

Why STEM is important to New Zealand
I believe it’s important to encourage all forms of enquiry (the arts included) because we need an engaged and critical-thinking society to navigate the challenges ahead. I think STEM is important for NZ because science gives us a way to test our ideas about the world, examine the things we see around us, and answer questions that were once un-knowable. However, it’s also important to understand how STEM intersects with society, the underlying assumptions we have about STEM, and different ways knowledge can be produced.

Why we need more women in STEM
I believe wholeheartedly in the advancement of women and girls. It’s not something we like to talk about, but discrimination is still a reality for women, and not only in STEM. From an early age, the way parents talk to their children about their strengths and skills differs between boys and girls. Schools and teachers treat pupils differently based on their gender. And the types of stories we see in movies, advertisements, and news stories all shape our expectations and assumptions about what men and women should do.

Research has shown that a more equal society is better for everyone. STEM is a male-dominated field. Having women in STEM can help to break down stereotypes about what a scientist looks like, or what girls are good at. This is important to change society at a broader level and challenge the assumption that your gender (or anything else about you) puts limits of what you can do with your life.

But having more women in STEM is important at an individual level too. There’s an incredible diversity of things you can do within STEM. Important decisions about the future of our planet, the choices we make, and the world we want to live in are being made within STEM. Science is incredibly rewarding to work and study in, and an important way to empower girls to make a difference to our world.

Emma Tennent is doing a PhD in psychology at Victoria University of Wellington.

This profile is part of our series of girls and women in STEM. 
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