There is a fellow student at my university who is largely in the minority, like me. We have been buddies - we are fellow "tokens" in the department, and we relate to each other well in that respect. But that feeling of tokenism has stopped neither of us from pursuing our ultimate goals because we share a sense of dogged stubbornness.
I am more senior than this student, and I have at times taken him slightly under my wing. He is willing to ask me questions that I think he is not willing to ask others. He is definitely closer to me (research-wise) than anyone else in the department.
The issue is this - as a person who required a bit of "work" when I began graduate school, I can appreciate not writing someone off if they do not come in with ninja coding skillz and the ability to use the Force on all *nix machines to make them do their bidding. Because I couldn't either. However, my approach was to work my ass off trying to catch up to my nerdy boy colleagues who had been playing with computers since they were 3. I kid you not - THREE. And I am proud to say that I largely have caught up, and said colleague has openly told me he respects that I have taken myself from nothing to an ass-kicking name-taker.
While I worked very hard, I also had a great mentor who is the least gender-judgemental guy I have ever met in my field. He is also one of the most self-confident people** I have ever met (for good reason - he's good at everything.) I very, very, very much appreciate the willingness he had to help me, and I owe him a lot. I think, however, that we had a symbiotic relationship. He was willing to help me because I was willing to do my own legwork - I did not gratuitously ask him questions where the most logical answer is RTFM.
So, the way to overcome bad background is the ability to think, work hard, and a good mentor for when you need it.
Getting back to my fellow token, I have sometimes wondered how much work I would want to put into the kid. Because as far as I can tell, he doesn't seem to have progressed very far, even after several years, and it seems to stem from slightly illogical/non-rigorous thought processes. While I am sure I was no picnic, sometimes this guy asks me questions which I find extremely obvious, silly, or just plain pointless. I waver from wanting to help bring him out of his strange thought processes to thinking that it's useless and that I need to finish my own PhD anyway and that I don't have time to help someone who needs that much help.
I am not sure whether I am a bad person or just a practical one, or a combination of both.
My sort of fantasy life involves being a professor somewhere and finding diamonds in the rough on a yearly basis, all non-conventional geniuses, in order to obliterate stupid-ass norms in the field. What this means, however, is that I'll need to find the right students and the right balance between how much they are capable of and how much I can help bring that out. I am not sure I know how to do this.
In fact, I'm not sure how you really teach students anyway. I do NOT want to be a prof (if I ever get there) that selects students solely on their ability to widen my research empire/fame. However, I don't want to constantly pour money down toilets on people who are not going to pan out.
So, to Professors out there:
1) How do you select students?
2) How would you deal with this lad?
3) How do you decide if/when you need to fire someone (obviously I have no power to fire this guy, I'm not saying I do, I am just wondering, for future reference).
4) How do you determine if the work required:academic yield ratio for a non-conventional student who is not ready to hit the ground running is worth it?
**I have discovered that very self-confident and capable people are the least likely to be judgemental and put someone down. Because they are so good they don't need to artificially bring someone down in order to push themselves up. Thus, I am much more likely to respect someone's intelligence if they are blithe about what they know with no intellectual affectations.
1 year ago