If I’d have a penny for every time someone said ‘gosh, that must be/have been really hard’… I heard it when I chose a technical subject cluster, when I chose to study at TU Delft, and during my PhD. Leaving aside the gender bias implicit in this comment and the number of times I heard it compared to my male peers, I want to set the record straight: it was not that hard! And I strongly believe that we should drop this stigma.
Did it sometimes involve hard work? Absolutely. Was it easy for me? Definitely not. Did I sometimes not understand a thing? More often than not. Did I sometimes find it boring, annoying and frustrating? Of course. Did I sometimes get sick of the teachers and supervisors? Yes, that too. Was it sometimes uncomfortable? Always. And were there sometimes tense moments (presentations at conferences, for example)? Of course.
But looking back, I don’t remember thinking ‘pffff, this is so hard’. The idea that I should have found it difficult – supported by that so very well-intentioned comment – did fuel my imposter syndrome. After all, if I did not find it hard, I probably wasn’t doing it properly.
What if this stigma is a reason that fewer people opt for a technical study?
Does it mean that I don’t find anything difficult? Absolutely not! I find spelling difficult (this column is thoroughly checked by others). I find it difficult to drive a car. Being a consultant was very hard for me, as was studying IDE (which is why I stopped). There are plenty of things I find difficult, but completing a technical study and obtaining my doctorate are not any of those things. And that is not because I’m exceptionally clever. I believe it is because I did something I enjoy and that suited me. And I believe that a technical degree programme suits a lot more people than we think.
On the one hand, our society badly needs technically trained people for the transitions that our country faces. On the other hand, we keep reinforcing the stigma that technical studies are hard. And that could be one of the reasons that fewer and fewer pupils choose (in Dutch) a technical path in secondary school. If we really want to train more technicians and engineers for the Netherlands, we will have to drop that misleading stigma as soon as possible. Last year the Parool newspaper (in Dutch) asserted that industry could play a role here by showing why technology is so enjoyable. I agree entirely. But apart from emphasising the positive side, we also need to undo the negative image. And herein lies a role for all non-technically educated people in the Netherlands: stop claiming that technical degree programmes are hard. When they suit you they are not hard. In fact, in that case they are fun!
Birgit van Driel started working as a Policy Officer at Strategic Development in 2021. She returned to TU Delft where she started her studies back in 2006. She’s been affiliated to the Faculties of IDE (first year), AS (bachelor’s) and 3mE (PhD). After earning her PhD, she worked as a Strategy Consultant at Kearney and a Program Officer at NWO-AES.