Helping the Minoritized Achieve in Academic Science

Archive for August, 2013

One WomanOfScience’s Story

Although I hope that multiple WomenOfScience will write up about how they decided to have kids, and how they managed after actually having them, I will start off with my own story. I had my first as a postdoc and my second as an Assistant Professor just before submitting my tenure packet. I will discuss the decision to have the first one, which is the big leap of faith in yourself and your career.

Deciding when: For me, and my HusbandOfScience, there were two big pieces to deciding when to have kids. First, was personal: we had both gone through health scares that turned out to be better than we feared, but got us to thinking. If this chronic heath problem or possible reproductive issue was a major problem, than waiting to have kids could be, at best, a huge burden, and at worst, impossible. We became very motivated to have kids at a young age. The second consideration was when, within our career trajectories, could we have kids so that it would be least disruptive to us. We decided that, for us, it would be easiest after we were in our postdocs and had things “working.” For us that meant that we each had new work in publication format. We knew how to get the data and write it up working with our new advisors. For us, that seemed to be a good time. In a sense, the ball was rolling, so it was easier to keep it rolling.

Life with belly: Most of my pregnancy was fine. At some point I felt huge, and was huge as evidenced by the number of people who asked if I was having twins (no). At the very end, within the last 1-2 months of my pregnancy, my belly became an obstruction to my work. I was literally sterically hindered from accessing regions of my experiment, and had to call it quits on a number of specific tasks. I was a frustrated at the time, because I didn’t realize how short a time 1-2 months is in the trajectory of your career path. Yes, I could not bend over that thing to adjust that knob, but I could take data, I could analyze data, I could write papers. Many parts of my job were fine. In fact, I felt pressure to get many loose ends tied up before the big day. I was actually especially productive. Looking back, I realize that this period, which was frustrating at the time because I needed help on certain tasks, was not slow in any way. Another unique thing that happened while I was pregnant was that I went on the job market. If anyone suspected my condition during the interview, they did not mention it. I think that it is more likely that many scientists are too oblivious to notice the way people look. They either saw me as fat or didn’t notice at all. When I had offers, I was pleasantly surprised that several chairs were happy that I was having kids. My field is full of mostly men who are breeders, and they used the same criteria for me as for men with kids, which is having kids would make me more stable, less likely to pick up and take a different job. I realize that this might be atypical, but gives me hope that the world is changing.

Life with baby: When my baby came, everything was healthy and normal. I was in a lot of pain with mild postpartum depression, like many other women. At first, I felt like I didn’t want to be apart from my baby. But, within a month of being tied to the baby and the house, I was ready to get the hell out of there. After 4 weeks, I went back one day. That day was amazing! I could check my email, have adult, science conversations, and felt more normal and myself. After 5 weeks, I went back 2 days. After 6 weeks, I was back 4 days a week. I kept that schedule for several months, working extra on the other days so that I could feel that I was getting enough done while still taking a day to be with baby. After 3 months, I went back 5 days per week. Again, all these times were not, necessarily low productivity. I learned how to be efficient with the short time I had. This schedule was facilitated by having a nearby grandma, but many daycares will let you do this type of easing into care, too. Another specific issue that men never have to deal with is pumping. I breastfed and pumped after returning to work. I was lucky that another WomanGraduateStudent in the lab had her baby about 6 months before I had mine, and had blazed the trail on how we would pump. There was a small, windowless equipment room that we would use. Although it had important equipment for the lab, we would ask to use it for 15-20 minutes when we needed to pump. We would lock the door and put up a sign. Although this was less than ideal, I did not have an office to myself to pump. I also did not want to pump in the bathroom (yuck!) or in my advisor’s office (awkward!). Again, this relatively short time in your life is annoying, but brief. After 6 months, I stopped pumping and got a lot of my life back in the lab.

Pre-tenure with baby: I went to my tenure-track job with an 11-month old baby. I never knew anything different because I always had a child while in my job. We had good infant / pre-school care that was open almost everyday (even many university holidays) and opened from 7:30am until 5:30pm. We had to leave at 5pm everyday to pick-up baby, but that was fine. Maybe a bit early compared to my colleagues, but we also go in several hours earlier than them. I continued to be very efficient, but the new job had about a million more aspects than the old job. I tried to make sure that I was spending the time I needed on certain aspects. I set a timer to write for an hour before taking a break. Another really great aspect about having a kid was that a bunch of other professors had babies around the same age and were at the same daycare. That made an automatic group of academics who I had many things in common with. I used daycare to network for science.

Adding a second: Being the breeder type, we knew we wanted more than one, but when to have the second? Again, we waited until the ball was rolling in our new jobs. This was the best time for us. We had new people working well in our new research labs. Shocking – it was so much harder the second time. We didn’t get pregnant right away. It was harder. We were more stressed. We were older. We had less time to try. We were always traveling when the time was right. And then, when I did get pregnant, I had a miscarriage. It wasn’t devastating, just scary at the time. As a logical sort of person, I understand the statistics of miscarriage, and that it meant the fetus was not viable (an attitude my Ob/Gyn was pleasantly surprised at). So, we waited a little longer and tried again with success. Having a second baby was easier. Being a faculty member in academic science is very flexible. I had my own office to bring in baby or to pump. People were supportive and both my HusbandOfScience and I got semester-long leaves.

So, that is my story. Do you have a story of figuring out when and how to fit kids into your academic career? If so, guest post, or write a comment!

You can do it!

I hope to have a number of posts on the topic of having children while in academic science, but before we begin, I just want to take the time to psyche you up and act the part of the cheerleader for a bit. Here is some wisdom about having kids that will hopefully help  you.

Being pregnant or a mother of a small child doesn’t last forever, so it doesn’t define you. You have been working on your career for years, and yes, you will be a mother for many many years, too. But, kids change, they change very fast. Being pregnant is different from having a baby. Having a baby is different from a toddler. A toddler is different from a pre-schooler. Yes, they will need different things from you, so you can’t let these phases define you. You define yourself by your career, the science you do, and the mentoring you impart.

There is no good time, ergo there is no bad time to have kids. Interestingly, this was told to me by a man first, but I have heard it repeated numerous times. It is pretty true. There are probably times that are better or worse for you personally, but there is no specific time you can or cannot have children within your trajectory of academic science. I know “successful” academic WomenOfScience who had children as graduate students, as postdocs, as assistant professors, and after tenure. It is very personal for you, and there is no one trajectory. i hope to have a couple different stories from a variety of women who will say how they decided.

Your career, your lab, your job will still be there. This is scary because your research group is also like a child. You start it, you nurture it, you guide it. But, unlike a child, your research group is made of adults. Even undergraduates are technically adults, and they can make decisions and do work on their own volition. This also harkens back to the first point that these times don’t last forever.

So, my advise is to talk with your self, your family, your partner and decide if it is the right time. This advise is fairly stupid because that is what family planning is all about, right? You may have to plan. You may have to think ahead, but how is that any different from what you do daily in the lab and in your career? You are good at being organized and planning, so apply it to this situation.

I am hoping a number of you will write comments and guest posts to describe your personal experiences? Please do!

Kids Stuff

We have had a lot of good discussions so far about a variety of women’s issues, but there is one subject that we haven’t covered yet: children.

Many WomenOfScience, exactly like many MenOfScience, have a biological desire to reproduce. I am one of such “breeders” myself. Yet, there seems to be a higher potential barrier to WomenOfScience having children when they want to. We are going to spend several posts discussing practical solutions to the age old questions of: (1) Can I have children and be an academic scientist as a woman? (2) If so, when is the best time to have children? (3) How will people see me if I have children? (4) What are the social morés and codes in academia about children?

Do you have something to add? Please consider guest posting or commenting!

Women’s Issues: Qualifying your Scientist-ness

Woman aircraft worker, Vega Aircraft Corporati...

Woman aircraft worker, Vega Aircraft Corporation, Burbank, Calif. Shown checking electrical assemblies (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

The following guest post was a comment from another WomanOfScience, but I thought it was worth bringing up again, in case others didn’t see it. It was a comment on a recent, very popular and stimulating post about WhatNotToWear, and this is a very interesting take on the question of how women scientists should dress. Enjoy!

This post made me realize how often the question of what to wear (and not to wear) comes up with my female friends who are professionals in STEM fields — it’s fraught (because there is no choice that can’t be criticized in some way) and it’s irritating (because it’s something that we spend time and energy on that men just don’t have to think about at all). The question: “can an attractive woman be a scientist/engineer/gamer?” is provocative and my first reaction was to think: we need more examples/role models out there until the answer is “yes”, but something about that doesn’t sit right. I think something is revealed if we gender-switch the question: “can an attractive man be a scientist/engineer/gamer?” It’s not that the answer to this question is “yes”, it’s that this question doesn’t even really make sense. And I think I know why.

In our society, the top-level of evaluation of any woman (by both women and men, I think) is whether she is attractive. All other evaluations (is she smart? funny? a good skateboarder/guitar player/scientist) fall below this one on the decision tree and that circumscribes the possible results of evaluation. As a woman you can’t be just a scientist, you have to be a hot girl scientist, or a dowdy girl scientist, or a neutered girl scientist; your scientist-ness needs to be qualified by an assessment of your appearance (and by your gender). I think the primacy of the question of whether a woman is attractive or not is the problem. This makes me depressed because I think that’s a much harder problem to solve than just making it ok to be a sexy female scientist.

That said, I think one thing that helps is having there be more ways to be a girl/woman. Growing up, the examples I saw for how to be a woman were so much more varied than my mom saw, and I think that girls growing up now see more ways of being a woman than I did. Ideally, this could keep growing exponentially. I have found that the more space there is for being my unique self, the more I feel like I am being evaluated as a whole person, rather than on a “hot-or-not” scale.

Do you have something to say? Share as a guest post or comment! Remember, you can follow this blog by hitting the “Follow” button. Or, you can lead this blog by writing a post or comment.

Tenure: The End of Mentoring

I have noticed a troubling trend since achieving the status of TenuredProfessor. The trend is that people think you no longer need mentoring because you have tenure. Apparently, I am supposed to go from clueless to expert overnight because a committee voted to give me a job for life. Being a direct sort of person, I asked several mentors if they would still mentor me now that I have tenure, and more than one actually said “No” – to my face! I was shocked. It is one thing it feel their care and guidance slowly slipping, but it is quite another to be directly told that they will not mentor you anymore.

One particular mentor, my assigned mentor in my department, said that there was no point in mentoring because I already have tenure. My response was, “What about getting Full? What do I need for that?” His response was one of surprise that I was asking and to say, “You don’t need to think about it.” What?!? I don’t need to think about the next goal of your career. You are surprised that I would think about it so early? Like it will just happen automatically? Well, let me tell you, for most women and minorities, it doesn’t “just happen.” Full professor is the exact location of the glass ceiling in many science and engineering departments. I wonder why? (she typed sarcastically).

Frankly, I did not get to where I was by not thinking about the next step with plenty of time to spare. Maybe white men just bumble around and land jobs, get tenure, and full professor, but not women. No sir, we have to plan. We have to set goals. We have to start early because we also want houses, children, and lives, and you cannot do both by just bumbling around. It takes some heavy planning. All I am asking for is the expectations to help me shape my path and plan my attack for the next five years. Is that so much to ask?

And this leads to another issue I have, which is that there are no clear rules for getting Full Professor. But, more on that in later posts.

In addition to the ludicrous idea that you no longer need mentoring once you have tenure, I believe that this attitude leads to bigger problems for people post-tenure. In particular, this concept that tenure is the only goal – the ultimate goal – totally leads to the bigger idea that life ends at tenure. It tells people that there is nothing left to achieve, and I believe it is one reason why I think so many high achievers who get tenure have Post-Tenure Depression. This attitude leads to low productivity and difficulty maintaining your edge in research and teaching.

This entry was a little angrier than I usually get, but these specific impediments burn me up! Anyway, I just want to remind you that my goal is for this blog to provide more than advise. I want to provide a roadmap to success. With sensible means to achieve your goals that are not stupid like, “Get a paper in Science” and “Be great and get grants.” I also am so happy to have people engaging with guest posts and comments. Thank you and keep it up! It makes the blog a community of helpful people. Do you have comments about mentoring after tenure? If so, I leave you with the regular request to write a post or comment.

Life After Tenure?


Tenure (Photo credit: Toban B.)

So, you just got tenure. Congratulations! Why are you so blue?

It’s a fact: Post-Tenure Depression is real and it happens to many people. Some let it take them down into low productivity and poor mentoring that lasts for a long time.

Well, I refuse to be one of them. I think the way I will approach it is to set goals to achieve. That’s what tenure was – a goal. A long-term goal that you strived for years, maybe decades to achieve. So, my first idea is to set some specific goals for my research, teaching, and service.

The second idea is to use my true academic freedom to the fullest. That means I am going to take on some higher-risk research ideas. Before tenure, I had to get funding. I had to get published. I had to do it within 4-5 years. Now, I have time to develop a new line of research that might take some time to progress.

My third idea is to mentor, and help other people make it. This blog is one way. I have also been mentoring young scientists at conferences and on campus.

What about you? Did you feel the Post-Tenure Depression? How do or did you deal with it? Write a post or comment.

Women’s Issues: VPL

Warning: This post is meant to be funny, so don’t take it too seriously. We all need a laugh every now and then.

Illustration of string underwear with V inters...

Illustration of string underwear with V intersection at the back and strap sides (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the subject of what not to wear, how do people feel about VPL? What is VPL? Visible Panty Lines. This subject is strictly women-only. I don’t think there is a man alive who thinks about or cares about VPLs. If I look at my husband, he doesn’t even care when half his boxers are hanging out at the top of his pants. Sorry, honey, but it’s true.

So here is my dilemma. What do I wear when I am teaching? I like to wear dress slacks, and those are the worst for VPL. I spend a lot of time standing in front of a class. If I write on the chalk board, my back is facing the audience. So, I think a lot about what my butt looks like. I feel even more pressure when the class is mostly men.

Some might say to wear underwear that do not have panty lines – like a thong. Here is the problem with that. If I had on a thong, I would want to pick it out all during class. And, it would be annoying and worse than having VPL. So a thong is out.

So, I wear regular underwear and have VPL. That might seem bad, but then I feel like, maybe I want people to know I wear underwear. Is that weird? Like, because what kind of scientist doesn’t wear underwear? This kinda relates to the last post. I have this inside feeling that WomenOfScience can’t be pretty or sexy. And thongs are sexy, so I should wear granny panties, because that is what WomenOfScience wear. By Robin Sellinger is right. WomenOfScience can be sexy. And funny, and cute, and wear high heels, and bright colors!

Of course, all this is moot, because I end up wearing jeans to teach, and you can’t see VPLs through stiff materials.

So, what do you think? Have something funny to say or share? Comment or guest post!

Women’s Issues: What Not To Wear

The following guest post addresses a particular woman’s issue that most men probably spend little time thinking about: what to wear. I know I have a couple of close WomenOfScience friends who I discuss my wardrobe choices with for teaching, going to conferences, or going on an interview. More on this in future posts.

As a woman and a scientist, finding the right balance between my masculine side and feminine side is no different from anyone else. However, the balance I choose to display can significantly influence others’ perceptions of both me and my work. As a student, postdoc, and assistant professor, I felt that I had to work hard to fit in with the boys. My uniform was jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers. Make-up was anathema. More importantly, when I had children I took the minimum time off and did not take advantage of extensions of my tenure clock. I was certain that any childbearing-related exemptions I asked for would be viewed as a weakness.

As a professor with tenure, I now feel that I am freer to be myself. Some days that means high heels and makeup. Some days it means announcing that I am leaving early for child-care duties. My perception of freedom does not come from a change I see in society, but rather because I now have power. I do wonder, though, whether societal expectations of what a scientist should look like and act like have broadened. A recent conflict that played out on LinkedIn suggests that women who display stereotypically female outsides get judged as delegitimize scientists.

This article from The Daily Dot summarizes the events well, and I won’t try and repeat them. It is disheartening to see people conclude that an attractive, well-groomed woman is not a “real” engineer. I believe we should take this opportunity to discuss diversity with our trainees and explore our own openness to talent that doesn’t come in the expected package. I think each person needs to make up their own mind about how to respond to prejudice; I’m not sure I would know how to advise a female trainee about how to present herself. It is essential that trainees have the information they need to make self-presentation decisions, however, and if we don’t tell them, who will?

Do you feel that you could not wear or look how you wanted because you are a WomanOfScience? Does it matter what field of science you are in? What subfield? Theory vs. experiment? Comment or guest post.

Guest Post: Changing 20%

A couple weeks ago, I had a post that was related to teaching about how to better your teaching slowly, but making 20% Changes. From that post, I received this inspiring guest post on the topic of changing 20% from a PreTenure WomanOfScience, which I am posting here. She correctly realized that the 20% ChangeModel does not need to be limited to teaching or even to your career. I hope you enjoy it and remind you again that you can follow this blog by pressing the Follow Button, but you can also lead this blog, by guest posting or commenting. Consider doing both as we expand this blog over the next few years and hopefully open up a real dialogue to help women’s success in academic science. Here is the post:

The recent post on changing 20% in teaching inspired a sort of new year’s resolution list for me. The theme of the list is to change 20% in tasks in my work and life. Different from the usual new year’s resolutions that always seem to require drastic, or 100% changes, I am only aiming for small changes.

I am posting this because I feel that this is an entirely novel approach to self-improvement. It’s novel, because small changes are more doable. In some ways I suspect that we add extra pressure to ourselves to be perfect. The process of getting there can be overwhelming and stifling. I am convinced that this 20% change approach is not that different from laying out specific aims for the over-arching goal in a proposal.

Changing 20% in teaching:

  1. Use the half hour before each lecture as office hour.
  2. Use the last five minutes of each lecture as an open floor Q&A.

I teach a small class this semester, the students who take it are extremely motivated, because the class (new but super awesome) is not yet part of their graduation requirement. Even so, the first time I taught it, no one came to my office hour. Rather, I find them hanging out in the classroom for the half hour before class. So this year I will split my office hour into two half hour sections, held in the same classroom as the lecture. There is minimal effort required for either the students or me. We all have to go to class, and I have to hold office hours. I also find that not all students have the guts to ask questions after class. I speculate that designating 5 minutes of lecture time for open floor Q&A will force the students to verbalize questions that they might have. Both of my 20% changes probably only works for a small class, but that is okay.
Changing 20% in networking:

  1. Talk to 20% more people at a conference.
  2. Practice listening skills when talking to colleagues on campus.

This is a change that I have started to implement. Taking is incredibly difficult to me. It’s worse than squeezing that last dollop of toothpaste. (Awkward pause.) But, like most scientists, I’m obsessed about my project. So my change will focus on the science aspect. Instead of waiting passively for people to come to my poster at this conference, I identified and specifically invited those who will have important feedback to my work (not yet published). Everyone I reached out to came and I got a lot out of it. There was only one person who did not come by, but the invitation may have been better registered had it been a few beers earlier. The invitation process was pretty rocky for the most part: it’s odd to demand people’s time without giving a good reason. What seemed to work well, in particular for those who don’t know me, is to identify strange observations that they might care about in a quick sentence. Tying into project interest, my next goal is to practice listening skills when talking to colleagues on campus. Scientists are very specific and meticulous, if there is something they want to tell me, I want to stop being anxious and actually hear it.

Other: There are other tasks that no one will care about other than myself, such as folding 20% of my socks.

This post is obviously different, it’s more of a planned test run, rather than learned wisdom. The message that I want to send is not only that this blog impacts the reader (at least me), but also to verbalize that the pressure of being perfect or else is very annoying. Changing 20% at a time is much better!

Thanks so much for this post. I found it super inspirational. Hopefully, you will write again in a couple months to update your progress on this change model.

Do you have a story or anecdote you would like to share to help others? If so, please do guest post or comment.

Message from the Nicest WomanOfScience

The following guest post is from the Nicest WomanOfScience I know.  I am not kidding. She is actually sweet. She sympathizes with friends while explaining the other side to help you understand. She is a fantastic mentor and friend. When I asked her about the Likeability ≈ 1/Success, here is what she had to say:

After my experiences over the past few years, I feel like there is not much you can do to counteract this effect. You can be as sweet as pie and act completely non-aggressively, and there are still those who will begrudge you your success and dislike you for it. (I have to say, some senior women tried to tell me this when I was younger, and I did not believe them – I thought maybe that was just their experience, and I did not believe it until it happened to me). I think I am a relatively nice and mild-mannered person, and I really tried very hard over the last few years to preserve relationships with people I worked with and not get bitchy in meetings and interactions with others. But there are just some people that do not like me for no good reason, other than the fact that I refuse to crawl into a hole and die. Why do these people dislike me? I do not scream and yell in meetings, and I’m pretty nice to them when I pass them in the hallways. I just come in every day and do my work, and I am pretty good at it, and that seems to infuriate them. And I’m not going to stop doing that. I love my work, and why should I let these people take that away from me? And why should I let them change the kind of person that I am?

So it IS difficult to be “liked” if you are successful. Until the culture changes (and I believe it is changing, but slowly), I think the most we can hope for is that those around us and working for us respect our work and respect the way we conduct ourselves. I have found this kind of respect engenders a sort of loyalty, even when someone does not “like” you. Maybe they don’t like you, but what can they really say against you? What substantive criticisms can they really put forward?

This sounds depressing, but in a way, if you accept this, it makes things much easier. Why do we want to be “liked” anyway? We have our friends and family who like us, and that may make work a little lonely, but not unbearable. If some subset of your colleagues or students are never going to like you anyway, then you do not have to put effort into be likeable. All you can do is (1) keep on doing work that you are proud of, and (2) conduct yourself in a manner that you can be proud of, whatever that is. If it comes naturally to you to be nice, be nice. If it comes naturally to you to be more aggressive, be more aggressive. Just keep on doing your thing.

See? Isn’t she nice? I told you so. Do you have a comment or guest post on this topic? If so, hope to hear from you!

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