Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Archive for May, 2013

Not All Women are Awesome, and That’s OK

I find that the majority of women I meet in Academic Science are awesome. They do good science, they raise children, they get funding, they are fantastic mentors, and they are  very reliable. I think the reason why is because the bar is so much higher for us, as I have said. But, every now and then, you meet a woman who is not awesome in some way. Usually their science is still good. The competency bar is too high for a crappy woman scientist to get through, but they have some other major flaw. I could spend the whole post telling you horror stories of terrible WomenOfScience, but instead I want to say, “IT’S OK THAT THERE ARE SOME CRAPPY WOMEN IN SCIENCE.” In fact, if we are to expect equality with men, there should be the same percentage of crappy women as there are crappy men. And there are a lot of crappy men. Again, I could go on and on…

Now, a lot of academics don’t like this argument, because Academia is a meritocracy, and they want to believe that everyone who has made it to a certain level is great. But, there is always a distribution. That means that, although the average may be very good, there still must be some who are excellent and some who are just so-so. If all the women are above average, than that is not fair. There should be the same percentage of crappy women as men. As a corollary, it should be as OK for a woman to be crappy as it is for a man.  That is true equality.

The Importance of…People

Guest Post from another WomanOfScience – Thank you!!

When I got to grad school I was lucky to already be a part of a research group (I had arranged with a professor to work in her lab the summer before my first year). I was even luckier that another student, one year ahead of me in school, had also recently joined the group. She quickly became a good friend and I honestly don’t know if I’d have a PhD today if she hadn’t. She helped me navigate the large state university 3,000 miles from my home. She helped me find an apartment. She introduced me to her friends (some of whom would be my TAs once school started). Just having her in the lab made it easier for me to show up to work. She was my friend, and she was my role model, guide, and mentor.

She also helped me in the lab, and I helped her too. We enjoyed working together. Our research projects were completely separate but we used similar (large) equipment and often needed a second set of hands. So she and I would help each other out occasionally, but our experiments took place in different rooms (on different floors) and soon we’d need to go our separate ways and return to work. Alone. A senior graduate student once commented to our advisor that he thought my friend and I would be unstoppable if we could do research together, but obviously science needs to be done alone. *Obviously*

So, most of my memories of graduate research are of being alone in a large, grey, chilly lab. It was not all bad. I am an introvert. I like having my own space and my own tools and equipment, organized in my own way. And when you’re getting good data everything is good! But it was common for me to spend days by myself, and I was lonely a lot of the time. I was also the only student in my group working on my project, so I didn’t have colleagues to run ideas off of or troubleshoot or be creative with. I was envious when my advisor hired a postdoc to work with a labmate on part of his project. They always seemed to be having fun!

I realize now, years later, that science does not need to be done alone and it is fun and rewarding to work with others. Ideas evolve when you work with others. You can be an independent scholar and have collaborators. You can be a scientist and be a person. Science should be done with others! I liked my PhD advisor in many ways, but I wish she had recognized how isolating our work conditions were. People are important.

Women Are Awesome

I think women in science are awesome! They are highly competent, smart,  quick, and able to multitask in amazing ways. I don’t mean this to be sexist, but in my opinion, on average, women are typically better than their male colleagues. I think the reason is because the bar is so much higher for women. In order to be taken seriously and be seen as competent, women actually have to be better than men. It’s true! There was a recent paper about it in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA. See the paper here.

So, that means that by the time a woman has gone through all the trial and tribulations of graduate school, postdocing, and finding a position, they are probably pretty excellent. Now, this is not always the case, and that is OK. But 90% of the time, woman are absolutely fantastic.  I will be spending a couple posts on women.

Surprise! I have a husband!

When on the market with a TwoBodyProblem, at some point you must reveal that you have a two body problem. But how and when are still a mystery. Multiple WomenOfScience, I have talked to have said that they faired best when they revealed it late. Yet, I talked to a WomanDepartmentChair, and she said that knowing earlier is better for her, since it would give her more time to negotiate and line up the second position. Now, this was a clearly enlightened chair who herself had a two body problem that was solved in that department.

Personally, I tried several different reveal times. For a couple, they knew or found out that we were together. For these three schools, I had two offers, and they both worked out something (one was tenure track and the other was soft money – I am sure you can guess which we picked). For one, I told them I had a spouse at the first interview. I was second on the hire list, but did not get an offer. For a couple, I didn’t tell them until the offer was made. One said it was impossible; the other offered my spouse a postdoc. From these experiences, I concluded that it is OK if they know already or find out through “natural” means, but if you are a complete stranger, it is best to not tell people too early.

Do others have stories or options that would work? What about telling the chair only, to enable some early probes before negotiating, but not telling the hiring committee?

The Importance of Mentors

I feel very fortunate for having had a mother who worked. She was not a Ph.D. or a scientist, but she has had a career for my entire life. She was also very technical, as a computer programmer for many years. (Interesting side story: She was the only woman chosen to learn programming at BigTechnicalCompany where she and her entire family worked on the assembly line.) Although my mom always said she wished she could have been home with us when we were little and in school, I am very happy about the way things turned out. Her example of a woman with a successful career who was a fun and caring mother, set the example for me with my career and kids.

I had some minor anxiety and guilt about going back to work, when my kids were babies. But then I decided that I was giving my daughter a role model for how to be a mom with a career. Much like men, women do not have to CHOOSE between having a family and having a career. We can HAVE BOTH! We should not feel guilty for having both, but be happy that we are setting an example to the next generation.

Start Early

When thinking about your career, you cannot start too early. HusbandOfScience and I started planning in graduate school. As soon as we realized that we were planning to get married, we began to think about how we could achieve our career goals together. It is extremely important that your spouse is supportive and knows what the plan is. You have to make a plan and StickToThePlan. You and your significant other have to trust each other to StickToThePlan. We would chat 2-3 times per week about the plan, how to implement it, and the myriad of contingencies that could trickle down from not making it. Further, we always talked about “what if we don’t…” Like, what if we don’t get jobs; what if we don’t get two jobs together; what if we don’t get tenure. This is the same type of systematic planning we all need for scientific problem solving, research, and grant writing, so we should be very good at it. We had a whole decisions tree going on. I think it is important to have a back-up plan. I know some people think that having a back-up plan means you aren’t committed to the main plan, but that isn’t true. Having a back-up plan is just swinging on the trapeze with a safety net. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t going to try to stay on the trapeze.

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