Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

I have mentored a lot of undergraduates in my few years as a professor. I counted them up. Just students in my lab, who actually did work in the lab – it’s over 50. If you include students I mentored outside of class in any way, the number soars to well-over 100. This is one of the really great parts of my job as a professor. I love interacting with students and mentoring them.

I teach at UniversityofSmallState, and my students are very different than how I was as a student at SmallLiberalArtsSchoolforWomen. USmallState is near two two SLAS4Women, and I sometimes get women students coming to try to do research with me. I am open to students coming, but taking a bus 1 hour 1 way is very trying, and it has not worked out well in most attempts to do research with these students during the semester (summer research has been fantastic). The women who I know from my SLAC4Women and from my local SLAC4Women are very hard working, driven, and talented. But,I notice, that they already, at 19 or 20 years old, are falling into the Trap of the SuperWoman. Just last week, I had to mentor a student on the fact that we all sometimes should say “no” even if we have to say no to ourselves.

This can be hard, because we know intellectually we can do this thing. It is true, you could, and you would be kiss-ass at it, if you had the time to devote to it. But, even as undergraduates, we cannot say yes to everything. We must prioritize. In the case of the female undergraduate science student I was mentoring, this created a great sense of turmoil. She felt as thought she failed. I want to point out that this student is in no way a failure, and frankly has way more going for her in the science, class, and research department than most students I interact with at USmallState. In particular, this student had more research under her belt than most graduate students by year 3 in their programs. So, she really didn’t need me to do research. My research was more of a burden for her. Despite me telling her this over and over, she still left convinced that she could add something more to her schedule (no!) and that it could be work at my lab over 1 hour away (double no!).

The Trap of the SuperWoman affects us all. Even at the professorial level. We have to make choices, but we are often not satisfied with those choices – even if we are doing what is best for us. We need to learn to make the decision and let go the alternative that we had to let go. There can be no what if. Sometimes this can lead to other bad feelings about yourself. Here is another example from an ExtremelySucessfulJustTenuredWoman at AmazingPrivateUniversity:

When you are an Assistant Professor, there are endless demands on your time.  Moreover, you are expected to do many things (e.g. mentor students in research, write grants, lecture) that you have little to no experience in. This combination means that you are bound to do a bad job on some of these things at least some of the time.  The Professors (that get tenure) are not crappy (all the time) at writing grants, conducting research and writing papers.  However, they are often notoriously bad at mentoring and/or lecturing.

I have chosen to be a crappy lecturer and underprepare for the classes I teach.  I thought this habit might change with tenure, but it hasn’t.  My heart is in the right place – i’d like to be able to be a good lecturer, I’ve had great lecturers and they have been the best teachers I’ve had.  But, I’m not naturally good at it and it would take a lot of practice to get better and I just have too many other things going on.  And, in the back of my head, I figure I have *decades* to get better so why rush it?

I usually prepare *just enough* – which means that I can scrape by and am not disorganized. But, if the students are inquisitive and ask questions, they scratch the veneer of my understanding and the whole thing falls apart.   Again, I have a lot of guilt because I should know everything, right?  I sometimes wonder if my male colleagues have anxiety over not being prepared.  I sometimes wonder if they know everything and don’t run into these kind of issues or, at least, not as often as I do.  This then falls down the rabbit hole of me feeling like an Imposter and having a lot of anxiety.

I see this issue as having exactly the same root as that of my student. When thinking about this, I wonder if men feel this way? My WonderfulHusbandOfScience is currently teaching a big service class (>250 students) that is notoriously difficult. He is not doing a good job connecting with the students and barely keeping up with the class. But, does he care? Not much. Teaching is low priority for him, and he is not ashamed and does not feel personally bad about it. It is a decision he made, he lives with it, and he is happy that it no longer affects his tenure case, which is all decided and done. He knows it won’t affect his case for full in several years. So, why are we women so hard on ourselves about our decisions on priority?

Prioritizing your jobs is essential, and we all do it. You know when you are doing it well, because you are productive on the parts of your job that help you advance. These tasks are different at different stages of your career. Sometimes you truly cannot do all the important things you need to do, such as if you have many research projects going on. This is elegantly discussed in a blog post from Tenure She Wrote, another blog I highly recommend! So, what do you think? How do you prioritize and most importantly, how can we stop being disappointed in ourselves if we need to prioritize in a way that is less than ideal for our own high self-standards? Comment or post! Also, don’t forget to +Follow this blog to get email updates when there are new posts.

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