Going through puberty while doing my PhD (Haylo Roberts)

Sharon McCutcheon | Unsplash

From 12-16 April 2021, La Trobe University is celebrating PRIDE Week

PRIDE Week is a fantastic opportunity to show support for our sex, gender, and sexuality diverse community members. 

La Trobe University is fortunate to have researchers undertaking innovative LGBTIQA+ scholarship. This week the RED Alert blog will be sharing posts focused on the experiences of our diverse LGBTIQA+ researchers and profile some of the fantastic LGBTIQA+ research that our scholars are contributing to.

Our next post in this series is written by Haylo Roberts, a La Trobe graduate researcher. 

Follow #LTUPRIDE2021 if you are participating online!


The experience of ‘transitioning’ from a masters or honours student to a fledgling doctoral researcher can be an awkward one. 

As with many students, I find myself sometimes not knowing my place as it exists somewhere between staff and student; I’m somehow simultaneously often the most knowledgeable person on my PhD research topic but also very inexperienced within the world of research. The last time I felt I existed within such a grey area was when I went through puberty – when I lived in the threshold of childhood and adulthood. In a way I think all PhD students are going through a type of adolescence – a short period of tremendous personal growth and change as we work our way to being mature researchers. For lots of us this involves three (or more) years of growing pains.

My PhD student experience has been one of compounding the awkwardness! This is because the transition from PhD student to doctor isn’t the only transition I’ve been going through. 

I am a transgender man and in my first year of my PhD I also started my medical transition from female to male. I was about five months into my PhD when I officially began my medical transition and started hormone replacement therapy. The hormone replacement therapy for people transitioning from female to male can be delivered in a few different ways, I opted for the most hands-off regimen of intramuscular injections every 12 weeks which are administered by a nurse at a clinic. I thought this regimen would minimize the amount my medical transition would disrupt both my life and my PhD, which in hindsight was naïve. 

The clinical side of transitioning was the easiest part. I was so focused on getting my hands on my hormone therapy, I didn’t think much about what would come after it. Obviously, I was prepared for the physical changes that testosterone would cause in my body. I was prepared for, and even waiting in anticipation for my voice to start dropping, my fat composition to start changing, facial hair growing, even my receding hairline (which I’m sure will stop receding any day now…right??). I almost forgot that everyone else would notice these things as well. 

There was a period of about 8 months from the end of 2018 to mid-2019 where my gender was ambiguous to everyone around me. My voice was noticeably deeper, but my face was still quite feminine. This period was a challenging one when it came to interpersonal interactions. Ordinary encounters could become uncomfortable as people would ask unsolicited and inappropriate questions about my body and identity. 

For researchers out there who want more information about gender identities and transition – I suggest you research it! Taking on the responsibility of figuring it out yourself means you won’t need to ask your trans colleagues uncomfortable questions and it may lead to less impatience and frustration experienced by trans folks you know.  

Now, in my third year of my PhD, both my current puberties are coming to an end. My hormone replacement therapy has done most of its work, and my PhD will be completed soon enough. This has been such a strange time in my life – I can’t recognize pre-PhD/transition me from 2018.  I’ve gone through tremendous growth; as I start to wrap up my PhD and the awkwardness is starting to subside I feel at ease within myself.  But I also feel distinctly alone, even though I am surrounded by great friends and supportive coworkers within and outside the office. 

I think that is a common experience of any trans person reaching higher or expert levels in their fields. Being a trans person in a society that isn’t welcoming to transgender people is hard enough but excelling within these conditions is more challenging still. I also believe that academia has further to go to improve the visibility of transgender people in research in order to illuminate the path for trans people like me entering academia.

La Trobe University Pride Week is a great opportunity for LGBTQIA+ people to share their experiences, but also a great opportunity for allies to gain awareness. I believe that the people around us being more educated provides a safer and more welcoming environment for all.

Here are some resources! I encourage you to educate yourself and pass them on to students who may need them, or colleagues who may be interested:

LGBTIQA+ Support at La Trobe: https://www.latrobe.edu.au/students/support/wellbeing/lgbtiqa-services

LGBTIQ+ inclusive language guide: https://www.minus18.org.au/resources/lgbtiq+-inclusive-language-guide

How to be a trans ally: https://www.minus18.org.au/resources/how-to-be-a-trans-ally

Guide to pronouns video: https://www.minus18.org.au/resources/online-activity:-a-guide-to-pronouns   


Haylo Roberts (he/him) is a PhD candidate in the Grant Lab of Functional Nematode Genomics. Haylo is researching the interactions of bacterial endosymbiont Wolbachia and filarial nematodes. Outside of his PhD, Haylo spends time with his birds and plays video games. Twitter & Instagram: @aqueerscientist