Women In Academia

Women in Academia: Conversations About the Unexpected

No matter how well prepared someone is for starting graduate school, some surprising obstacles and challenges pop up along the path to that MA or Ph.D. I asked six graduate students what unexpected challenges they face, and their responses, ranging in topic from surprising fees to disillusionment with the grad school culture are illuminating.

When I was just thinking about graduate school, I prepared myself by talking to graduate students and professors and reading lots and lots of blogs. I came in prepared to work hard, to experience some difficulties, and to completely change my mind about what I wanted in the future. That served me well, but I completely overlooked one big issue – the frustration that comes from feeling like graduate school is like being stuck in limbo. You’re not quite a student, you’re not quite starting a career, you’re sort of in the middle ground. On the one hand, there are classes and research and professors to impress. On the other hand, there are teaching jobs to do, publications to publish, and a CV/resume to build.

The point really gets brought home when people start talking about money. In grad school, there’s no 401K in the near future, or any real savings, which for me are big markers of Adulthood and Financial Independence. Whenever I talk to people starting careers and families and going on fabulous vacations, I feel like an annoying kid chasing after the other kids in the playground – wait for me! I want to catch up! I want to play, too! And I’m not alone in this feeling.


I know exactly what you mean about feeling in limbo, and I remember it being exacerbated by the uncertainty of the job market so that I wasn’t sure that I was even working toward a job. The biggest unexpected obstacle for me was the physical toll that comes with that kind of stress, particularly in the final few years. A significant number of the women I know got tremendously (in some cases dangerously) ill the year we went on the job market, and student insurance isn’t always adequate for major medical expenses.

Many people experience the physical toll of stress, especially around qualifying exams, defenses, and job searches, and the lack of mental and physical health service support just exacerbates these problems. Most graduate programs offer health insurance, but the quality of that insurance can vary dramatically. It makes sense, then, that getting in the job market can create some real problems, but sometimes, just getting the thesis/dissertation completed can be a headache.

Cherrispryte got her MA last year while working full-time. Her undergraduate experience taught her to expect disaster/trouble at every turn, and with that in mind, she started her grad school experience:

So I was kind of prepared for/expecting anything. Except for one thing – my thesis. Because I did not research the thesis process to an infinite degree, I was absolutely blown away by the steps and procedures necessary to submit a thesis. My program had three options: 1) Do an internship and write an SRP (substantial research project, about 50 pages) 2) Write two SRPs 3) Write a thesis (about 100 pages.) As I was already working 40+ hours a week and was told that my job could not count as an internship, the first option was out. I initially signed up to write 2 SRPs, but as I had not finished my first one by the end of the semester, I asked if could convert “what I was working on” into a thesis, dodging the bullet of writing 50 pages in a week. So with that amount of forethought, I wound up writing a thesis, supposing that submitting the finished work would involve, you know, handing a final draft to my professors. No.

In addition to having my thesis read and signed by two professors and the dean of my school, there was a huge pile of paperwork necessary for submitting it, including several hundred dollars in money orders, and I collected probably a dozen signatures from various university staff before I could submit the thing. As this is an unusual option at my school, no one in the advising office (nor anyone else) was helpful, and the instructions on the university website were confusing, out of order, and in some places, flat-out out-of-date.

And secondly, and more vaguely, when I graduated, all that happened was I stopped going to classes. I’ve still got the same job, and while I’m applying to other places, it’s sort of half-hearted. So for the past few months, I’ve been dealing with this “I just worked incredibly hard and had this huge accomplishment and absolutely nothing changed” feeling that is totally overwhelming at times. Graduation at other points of life – from high school and college – comes with major lifestyle upheaval. This didn’t, and that has been really weird and hard and more than a little depressing.

But it’s not just finishing up and leaving the hallowed halls of Graduate School U. that can bring unexpected turbulence: starting graduate school may be a more difficult transition than anticipated due to changes in what is expected of you as a student, large moves, and differences in academic culture between institutions.

Marri Lynn, a Masters student at a university in Canada:

I had suffered from imposter syndrome and perfectionistic tendencies all throughout undergrad. As I moved to a new city and a new university for an MA, I expected more of the same old sinking feelings of inadequacy as esteemed mentors looked to me to deliver excellence that I felt I could not provide – despite my GPA suggesting otherwise. I was braced for this and felt prepared to battle these familiar demons. Instead, surrounded by professors and peers who did not know me well and could not get to know me well in the single year in which it takes to complete my MA program, I was faced with entirely new personal hurdles. A combination of feeling academically and professionally (but not socially) isolated while grappling with big project demands served to crush most of my academic “performance anxiety” by simple weight, but those forces also broke down the very drive to excel that had propelled me through an undergraduate honours degree.

I had expected to be challenged academically, but in a way that would help me perfect my skills and yield increases in self-confidence and a sensation of having improved. Instead, the paradoxical ease and difficulty of this MA (familiar subject matter and approaches to it meets huge reading and writing expectations with no focus on developing the skills needed to tackle them) has left me feeling like I’ve taken one step forward but two back – and it’s left me unsure if I want to cross the next academic bridge.

Monikah recently finished her first year of a two-year master’s program:

One major obstacle for me was the fact of just how much the academic culture of my undergrad university [redacted Ivy League school 1] differed from that of my graduate university [redacted Ivy League school 2]. At [redacted Ivy League school 1], I was used to being around people who were very smart, successful, and interested in school, but not that interested in competition or one-upmanship; grades, rankings, and test scores were rarely discussed or used to put others down, there was no sabotage or ill will toward others’ successes, and I really, honestly felt like people were more interested in learning, growing, and thinking in new ways rather than being better than other or obsessing over grades. Coming to [redacted Ivy League school 2], where I find people to be more competitive, ambitious, and sometimes even ruthless, was a tremendous culture shock ““ having other people be so interested in my grades and academic performance seemed rude and intrusive, and I feel as if my goals and progress are always being judged according to criteria I don’t necessarily accept as important.

Now that I no longer intend to pursue a PhD (as most of the people in my program do and expect me to do), I feel especially rejected and judged, and I very much miss the culture of [redacted Ivy League school 1], where I feel like I would have received more encouragement to do what I loved and what felt right, and less pressure to succeed at a high level and pursue certain “acceptable” goals according to rigid traditional standards. I feel like I should have anticipated this, but I didn’t really, and definitely underestimated how much I would be affected by that difference.

And there are unique challenges to going to graduate school straight from undergrad. While most students in undergrad are in about the same places in their lives (non-traditional students make up an important but small group), the landscape of graduate school looks very different, with students at a variety of points in their lives and with a whole range of experiences under their belts.

Oportspangles recently finished her MA and will be starting her PhD coursework this fall:

It’s hard to talk about just one issue because so many things feed into each other, but one of the things I felt most challenged by was the age issue. I went straight into grad school from undergrad, and while I think this was the right thing for me to do, it’s intimidating as hell. I’m the youngest in my program – and I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m still the youngest for a couple of years – and my classmates range from just a year or two older than me to fifteen years older. So I look at them, people who’ve had years to think about what they want to study and know exactly what they want to do with their degrees, and I feel suddenly doubtful about my half-articulated research interests and the pressure to decide whether I will stay in academia after I finish my PhD. I worry about the dynamic I have with my professors, whether they think of me as an actual grad student or just an overgrown undergrad blundering her way through. I worry about whether, when I start teaching this year, my students will take me seriously. I feel a bit as though I have to make up for my age by producing perfect work, which, aside from being utterly impossible, is not a productive way to actually learn and improve.

I won’t say that these worries are completely unfounded. But these are the type of worries that become counterproductive very quickly. I did best this year when I acknowledged, “OK, I’m intimidated, but I’m just going to try anyway.” Your ideas and your willingness to express them quickly become much more defining than whatever factor triggers the feeling of intimidation.

Finding “your place” in graduate school can be tricky. These issues are compounded by the lack of women and people of color throughout academia, especially at the level of professor or higher, and a general misunderstanding or blindness towards these issues. Grad school can seem like a really “tuned in” place where people will respect and acknowledge the issues you find important, but it can sometimes fall short of that mark.

Welcometothelauracone, one half of the dynamic duo over at sugabutta, and a Masters student in a social science:

I thought that I’d be entering a community of like minds in a lot of ways: we’d have similar interests, or similar approaches. I picked a school that fit me politically and pedagogically, and have met great people and made fantastic friends. But the biggest issue I’ve had, which is also my biggest disappointment, is the lack of awareness around a lot of issues that I hold to be very important, and which are, unfortunately, a massive blind spot in academia: race and gender (what’s interesting is, because I go to a lefty school, class is often in the equation, but even then, it’s never personal – it’ll be about Marxist movements blah blah blah, but not about class in America, for example).

So my biggest problem has been the crushing moment when I realize my male fellow student has no concept of why it’s aggravating that he just called a girl “this bitch,” and then, even worse, that he got defensive and started explaining that he (a white, straight, cis man) grew up in L.A. with gangsters and this was just how they talked and it’s just his background, etc. Of the men I’ve tried to talk to about this, only one or two have ever understood me (and they have been gay, which implies they themselves have a different perspective already). For the rest, I’ve had to explain, alternately: rape culture, privilege, patriarchy as a system that hurts many people and not just women, feminism, third wave feminism, etc.

So my biggest obstacle has been that: the difference between academic thoughts on “academic” problems, and the politics of what I and many others experience regarding race and gender (and class) in everyday life. They can talk about the Zapatistas totally fine, but not about the life of an African American in this country. It’s really fucked up and detached.

How about you? What have been your experiences with academia? Do any of these stories ring true with you?

14 replies on “Women in Academia: Conversations About the Unexpected”

Having just sent in my first draft of my Master’s paper, I can relate to these women’s harrowing experiences. I have developed a ridiculous amount of anxiety about meeting with my supervisor and/or emailing any correspondence and have eroded most of my self-worth through my inability to cope. I have been grinding my teeth since December and generally have had a headache everyday for the past ten months. The worst part was when my period disappeared for three months due to stress (and the new stress about what was going on with my lady parts).

What I would be interested in discussing is how relationships with partners not in academia or unfamiliar with grad school were effected during their schooling. Personally, my partner who completed community college and is in his career of choice had a very difficult time understanding my new set of emotional baggage and the time demands. The question, “Do you have homework to do?” (YES, STOPASKINGMEITSALWAYSYES!) became my most hated phrase and things got worse from there. If it wasn’t for the amazing colleagues/friends in my program, I would have dropped out a long time ago.

I agree with so many of the comments that bring up the physical manifestations of stress. Insomnia, headaches, anxiety symptoms of racing heart and flushing. Check, check, check.

What I’m finding really frustrating right now is that our advisors often had similarly awful grad school experiences but they continue the cycle with us. My advisor held a meeting a couple of days ago and told us that our bare minimum schedules should be 50 hours/wk, but if we really want to succeed, we should work 60-70 hrs/wk in lab the way she did in lab school (and that’s not including classes, teaching, etc). But then I was thinking about a conversation I had with her several months ago, when I divulged that I was dealing with anxiety, and she told me that she was so anxious, burnt out, and overwhelmed when she finished grad school that she needed serious psychiatric help and has been on anti-anxiety medication ever since. Something about this doesn’t add up to me. Is she really saying that we have to make ourselves sick to succeed in science? That she wants us to recreate the horrible experience she had?

I’ve gotten into a pattern of logging 45-55hr/wk in lab, which includes anywhere from an hour to half a day on most weekends. If I have nothing to really do on a weekend, I don’t go in. I get a full night’s sleep every night. I make time to cook real meals and go to the gym. I see my friends and family. I’ll have a 12 or 14 hour day if an experiment calls for it, but I’m not gonna do that every day. And I find that when I let her advice get to me and worry more about hours, I get overtired and make stupid mistakes, I get frustrated more easily, and I don’t have anything extra to show for it. I wish it were acceptable to work hard, work smart, and not work crazy hours as though 60 or 70 or 100 hours/week is magically going to produce rockstar science.

So, yeah, the most surprising thing for me has been the level of stress, the isolating nature of getting my PhD, and the fact that grad school has come dangerously close to killing my love of science. The whole reason I’m here to begin with.

I think for me the two most unexpected things in grad school were/are a) the physical manifestations of stress and b) how easily you can start attaching your self worth to academic accomplishments.
A) Has occasionally been awful (such as being unable to sleep while finishing up my masters thesis, all while recovering from dysentery which I had contracted while in the field doing my thesis research) but has generally manifested itself in headaches, digestive issues, weight gain, and sleeplessness. I now try to curb that with martial arts, going to the gym a lot, and eating healthy but when I started as a bright-eyed gal just out of undergrad I had no idea it was going to be like this in terms of the sheer physical impact on my body.
B) Is definitely a continued struggle for me- and I guess I have always been that way to a degree even as a little kid I loved my A’s, but graduate school brings it out even more. This year I had not so great luck in the grant winning dept and I just found out I did not get into a conference for the coming year which I presented at last year. … It’s super easy for me to get rather demoralized, if I have a period of things not going as well. I constantly try and remind myself that my worth comes from the people I love and who love me, the students I help better understand their schoolwork, the social justice activism I do, and my accomplishments everywhere (in school, in the outdoors, in sports) not just the ones that are basically just at my job (if my job is currently being a grad student). I dunno, if your self worth is based on the whim of a few readers for a conference or journal program committee then academia will drive you insane.

That ‘limbo’ feeling was one of the major reasons I didn’t go on to a PhD after my MA.
I can see myself doing more further education (in a slightly different field) but I don’t think I’d go back to to full-time study. I really enjoy feeling like I have agency in my life.

Signed into my Super Sexret Alter Ego account because I would like to get a PhD after I finish my MA.

When I was admitted to my 2-year MA I was super psyched. It was supposed to be a prestiguous program that was highly selective and challenging. It turned out to be a swamp of bureaucracy and (in many cases) mediocrity. I?e been trying to make the best of it, but I?e definitely grown ever more disenchanted. If you work hard at it, you can learn a lot of valuable stuff and get to meet some great people, but you have to work hard between the lines. If you just go to classes (and even office hours) and write your papers, you?l learn very little (and often redundant things). Though a lot is possible, you have to go after it yourself. And some things are promised to be possible, only to be snatched away from under you. One classmate had a spectacular internship in [foreign redacted city] all line up, research proposal drafter and all, only to have it all deemed not academic enough. This was decided before anyone had even bothered to read her proposal.

I?e also been disenchanted with the behavior of some of the professors. One week, we were discussing Paris is Burning, and the professor made a comment about one of the intervioewed people being “transsexual or transgender or something.” My friend asked her to clarify, because these are different things, and the professor and nearly all our classmates scoffed at her. In the end, my friend and I just had to roll our eyes at one another, because there was no way our class was ready for any sort of reasonable and honest discussion on this topic.

That said, I still want to do a PhD. It? really all I can see myself doing. I want to do research and I want to teach. I want to make a contribution both to academia and to higher education. So I?l keep on trucking and just use this as a learning experience.

Oh man, awesome post as always.

I think for me the hardest parts of grad school have been the beginning at the end, though for very different reasons. I came from Awesome Ladies’ Liberal Arts College where I had been, to be honest, a big fish in a small pond. I was the queen of my small department, winning prizes all over the place and generally basking in glory. So grad school was a real shock. Not that the work was so challenging – for my Masters especially, it wasn’t – but it was a new field with new people and I felt very adrift (also like Oport said, having gone straight in from undergrad I was somewhat intimidated by my new colleagues). Worse still, I felt like I had no academic direction. I like my supervisor a lot, but I missed the more constant feedback cycle I’d had while writing my undergrad thesis. I think I still miss it. I thought it was just me, but a friend from undergrad who went to Fancy Pants Law School had very similar experiences. It’s like fumbling around in the dark, hoping you’ll hit something good and not smack yourself in the eye. I’ve honestly only started feeling like an ‘expert’ now, in the last year of my PhD, while for ages I’ve watched colleagues in my department (ALWAYS the men) proclaim their awesomeness from the rooftops. And I’m no wallflower.

Now, at the end, the problem is less existential and more just a matter of physical survival. Got a first full draft due tomorrow (obviously why I’m on Persephone so much) and I am tired in my very bones. I grind my teeth all night in my sleep and wake up with foul headaches. My back creaks and cracks when I stretch. I work from 8am to midnight with occasional Internet Breaks. I have almost no appetite (a VERY rare thing for me) and no amount of caffeine is enough to keep me alert. My brain is like a CPU operating at 100% capacity – slow, grinding, unable to accomplish more than basic tasks. And I know I’m not the only one, because many of my friends are in the same boat – especially the scientists, who have got so used to lab work and interaction with others and are now having to grind out, to quote my friend, ‘stupid bollocks words that don’t mean anything – I did the experiments, this is what happened, why do I need to write a load of bullshit post hoc justifications when the actual truth is “I did it because my supervisor told me to”?’

Ailanthus-Altissima I love your posts! I wish they existed when I was in grad school.

There is so much here I can relate to.
1. The physical manifestations of the stress of grad school and the job market. As I have mention before dealing with my dissertation adviser was so stressful that I managed to get (mis) diagnosed with a thyroid condition. I was lucky enough (because I was young enough… more about that in a second) to be covered still on my parents insurance and get treated by some great doctors. What the best doctors in the world could not erase was the stress I didn’t even know I was feeling. My suggestion: do not let it get to this point. Have an outlet. I thought I did with working out, but I needed more. If you are getting ready for the job market, make an appointment with a professional. Just getting out your stresses and fears can be helpful. I am not a talker or an emotional person, but I bet I would have felt physically better by releasing my emotional stress with a professional.

Re: Being too Young in Grad School: I am an expert here. I began my PhD program at 21 and finished at 26. Most people in my cohort were beginning at 26. For a long time I felt like I was treated as the (stupid, helpless, etc) younger sister. I allowed myself to be the one many of the others felt superior to. Of course being female only exacerbated this. What I wished I knew: stand up to others: you are in the same program, you are equals, do NOT let them treat you any different. The more you act like you are not the youngest, the more others will treat you that way. Even now as a professor (I am 27) people ask me if I am an undergrad (and, not kidding, a high school senior), but if you carry yourself with poise and respect, people will not care how old you are or how old you look.

I will stop now, because I am rambling. For what its worth, I am in a social science. Since I am through the grad school stuff I would be happy to address any questions those of you still in grad school might have.

Seminar-style classes mean dealing with a lot of people who segue badly into talking about whatever they already felt like talking about. It’s irrelevant crap and I grew very bitter over feeling like I was paying an insane tuition to listen to other people’s therapy sessions.

In my experience in a PhD program …

What I expected: Intellectual challenges.
What I got: Personal emotional and psychological challenges.

What I expected: Not feeling poor or strapped for cash.
What I got: Feeling really poor.

What I expected: Being a student forever would be awesome.
What I got: Being a student forever sucks when no one else is a student anymore … except your grad school buddies.

What I expected: The life of the mind.
What I got: The arbitrariness and politics of any profession.

What I expected: Scholarly innovation and openness.
What I got: Scholarly fiefdoms.

What I expected: Brilliance is rewarded.
What I got: Following trends, playing the game, and half-assing it in the right direction is rewarded.

What I expected: Cooperation.
What I got: Underhanded competitiveness.

What I expected: Engagement with the real world (especially given my place in the social sciences).
What I got: Not walking the walk at best, utter disinterest usually, and outright disdain for caring at worst.

In short, I had a lot of misguided ideas about graduate school and academia. I think many came from an ideal of academia that got planted in my naive mind that centered on the uniqueness of and virtue in being a professional scholar. I bought wholesale into the ideal. I think if you harbor no illusions of academia, it can be a fine path. If you do, it can be painful process, learning to make your way in that world.

Hi! Good post! I really feel like I can relate to the feeling-too-young part. I graduated my undergrad in May, and am already working on my Master’s. Also, last year I was working on my honor’s project, which turned out to be bigger and more work than I or my advisor thought it would be (she told me it was basically a Master’s project at the end), and I was taking a grad-level course, and was pretty much considered a grad student in that lab. It’s very interesting to be talking about “undergrads” as though they are so different from grads. I was an undergrad 2 months ago! Weird feeling.

I don’t feel as though I’ve run into the other problems yet, but I’m just starting. I have plenty of time to run into them. :) The only one I might have run into is the physical/mental well-being. I’ve worked so hard that I’ve gotten sick before (as in, shut down my immune system and gotten a bad cold), but overall I’ve been fine.

I have a question, though. From reading these posts so far, it seems like many people are in humanities or social science graduate programs, and I was wondering if those programs lent themselves to some issues more so than the physical sciences. It could just be my school, but we have about 50/50 split on male and female professors, so I don’t see a lot of discrimination against women in science. I have heard stories from my professor, who had to deal with a lot of sexism, but it seems like that time has ended. Also, because we are science people, I don’t hear much talk of feminism or other cultures (well, except bacteria and yeast cultures). I’m not sure if this is program-specific or school specific. Can anyone tell me?

Sorry if it is a long and confusing reply.

Thanks for your comment! I am actually in the biological sciences, so my experiences come completely from that. I do talk about feminism, other cultures, and social justice issues because these issues matter to me. Some of my fellow graduate students agree with me. I know quite a few scientists who are really keen on these issues.

For the purposes of these posts (and my own sanity, social life, etc) I also talk to people in a wide range of disciplines and I’ve quoted and talked to people in programs ranging from cell biology to English. The specific, personal experiences that I cite in these posts do include people from the sciences. My experiences are the experiences of a woman scientist.

As to your general point about the days of sexism being behind us, there are lots of studies and reports that suggest this is not the case. It sounds like you’re in a really great program, which is awesome, but it might not be fully representative of academia as a whole. Also, I noticed that the longer I was in academia, the more I picked up on various issues – for instance, the issue with lack of maternity leave and any sort of support for child-care didn’t come to mind until I saw a student struggle with that problem.

Today, someone alerted me to this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education. It was published a few years ago, but it is still relevant now, and especially this part:

These young women look around their universities and grow discouraged. They have few role models and fewer mentors. In most universities, far less than half of the tenure-track faculty members are women, and in some physical-science departments, the number is in the single digits. Fewer still are mothers: In the small ranks of tenured female professors, only 44 percent are married with children compared with 70 percent of the tenured men.

Of the 62 members of the Association of American Universities (the most prominent research institutions in the country), only 68 percent offer paid parental leave to faculty members (usually six weeks), and 24 percent offer such benefits to graduate students. Young female scholars also see that the majority of their classes are taught by part-time or adjunct lecturers, many of whom are mothers with children and receive no health benefits at all. These are not universities that welcome families.

Even if you do not have a family or want a family, the numbers that speak about the lack of women in academic positions suggest that sexism still lingers in the Ivory Tower. I am glad to hear that you yourself have not had to deal with these issues, I hope that that continues as you work in academia.

I’m working on a PhD in physical science (and have an MSc as well), and a LOT of this post rang really true to me. I’m amazed you are in a department that’s evenly split gender wise — there are whopping two women faculty in my department (out of about 20?) and one of them was just hired a few months ago. Feminism doesn’t come up in daily conversations much, but I feel conspicuous in my field, because there just aren’t a lot of women. I feel like I’m a living iteration of that great xkcd comic ( ) and that constant awareness of your isolation is tiring.

As for sexism being over…. I wish, but no. There’s a long way to go until women reach parity in terms of hiring, salaries, and things like child care and maternity leave. I’m glad you’ve not run up against it, and I hope that continues, but unfortunately not everyone’s so lucky.

Great perspectives! Good job rounding up the advice, AA, and I was glad to read these various opinions.

Some reassurance, if I may, for Oport! In my program I feel young, even though I took two years off between undergrad and grad school, but there were 4-ish people who came straight in. One of them graduated undergrad at age 20 and turned 21 during the first year of our program! And we all started teaching our second fall, so sorry freshmen, lots of your instructors are only 3-4 years older than you are! But they can deal with it–you have specialized knowledge that they need to learn from, and your age isn’t the point.

My suggestion to other graduate students is to make use of the resources available to you (that especially includes expert people–I’m close enough to our graduate secretary that I can ask REALLY stupid questions and he is happy to help, which is SUPER VITAL) and to talk to other people who seem nice about your challenges. Probably the people a couple of years into the program dealt with the same issues. We ended up having a department-sponsored lunch where several of us shared ideas about maintaining a work-life balance in our program because several of us had those conversations enough that the woman in charge of our department “workshop” series thought we’d all benefit from a larger-scale conversation.

And I’d also suggest, if it’s possible, that you should identify the couple of things in your non-school life that you really can’t sacrifice for the years you’re in school without being miserable and making a serious effort to keep them prominent in your life. I think my mental and physical health are absolutely dependent on the run/walks I do a few days a week and the recreation classes I take with my friend. If I didn’t have that “time off” of English stuff, I think I’d hate my life all the time.

/long boring personal post

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