Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

GuestPostEvery now and then a friendly WomanOfScience graces me with a guest post. This is one of those times. I think it is interesting and funny. The advice is buried in self-reflection, so please read deeply. Enjoy! (BTW: to get an email overtime I post, push the +Follow button).

Rant and Meta-Rant (a personal diatribe by a woman of STEM currently up for tenure in a research-intensive Engineering department)

PART 1: Rant (in which I say many wrong things)

My immediate reaction to the tenure vote in my department (about two weeks ago) was anger and rage and sadness.

I’d made a concerted five-year effort to network with the right people who would support my tenure case in an alien field; I’d taught classes mere weeks after learning the required content; I’d written grant after grant, which returned rejected with a constellation of insightful, occasionally deprecating, but usually all-too-apt criticisms; I’d spent uncountable hours training the students working in my lab while feeling that progress was painfully, glacially slow; I’d written and rewritten manuscripts to the point at which I’d lost faith in our work; I’d carefully circumnavigated the departmental and college politics as one of the very few women; I’d toiled (albeit not uncomplainingly) in the shadows of my colleagues who received internal accolades and support for their successes in publishing and grant writing, and regularly congratulated them on their successes; I’d organized seminars and the occasional party as the good wife of several organizations; and, most notably, I’d managed a time-consuming internal service duty for two years that was above and beyond what was typically asked of junior faculty. I was tired, I was frustrated, and I was angry. Why had I bothered with any of it?

I suppose that I have should mentioned first that my colleagues voted to give me tenure, right?

Dear readers: as the doyenne of wildly inappropriate emotional reactions, I wasn’t happy or proud or pleased. Instead, I lost my shit completely for two weeks.

I was sad that my department had not noticed that I was doing sound scholarly work; I was angry that said scholarly work wasn’t rewarded; and I was enraged that the non-scholarly demands on my time would only increase in the future. I grumbled (nay, raved) to anybody who would listen — and to the friendliest and most supportive ears (and in particular to one close friend, a junior superstar colleague who had tried to give me helpful advice for navigating my less-starry academic career) I was cruelest and most cutting. I wallowed in misery, loudly.

Then I ranted to two friendly WomenOfScience (the blogmaster and a colleague of similar status and seniority) and got walloped by a clue-by-four.

 

PART 2: Meta-Rant (in which I analyze the wrongness and try to refocus)

Long ago my graduate advisor told me that I was going to have to learn to live with myself; that, like it or not, my outsized over-the-top reactions were apparently hard-wired, and that I was going to have to figure out how to manage them whilst staying productive.

My mien is not that of the logical, dispassionate ur-scientist. I am enthusiastic and elated, then morose and melancholy. Charming, then churlish; articulate, then profane. (A colleague once asked me: “Is it a taxing effort to speak as precisely as you do?” My response: “No, but it’s overwhelming for the audience— that’s what the profanity is for.”) Bluntly, my disposition is not stereotypically “male.” (Neither is that of many men. Conversely, some women are dispassionate. YMMV. This is about my reactions.) To manage this roller-coaster, I relied upon my generation’s snark-and-irony filter: snide comments about rejections and failures generated the needed emotional distance. I made frequent comparisons to bigger / faster / stronger / greater accomplishments by others to openly disparage anything I’d done — and I used those comparisons to justify not seeking the support that would help me to further my career.

When I ranted to my Women of Science friends, I was hoping for validation — I wanted to hear that I’d been poorly handled by my department, that I had a case for complaint. Instead, I heard that (minus the sturm-und-drang) many academic scientists experience similar feelings during and after tenure. My WoS friends also had similar issues, but had gauged what they needed to further their careers and hence were more adept at asking for and receiving support.

This is all to say: I fucked up like whoa, dear readers.

I agreed to write down my rant for the Woman of Science because I think it is useful to identify those features of my larger-than-life emotional reactions that did not help me during the first five years of my career. I write this with some trepidation; my stylistic choices may be an obvious identifier for close friends and colleagues. I note also that many of my issues are more likely to arise in the context of research-intensive tenure-track positions; my colleagues at teaching-focused institutions or in adjunct positions may have very different sources of sadness and anger. Nonetheless, I hope that, by talking about my sea of troubles, I can help others of similarly non-stereotypical dispositions more readily navigate the slings and arrows of an academic scientific career.

(1) I had let the incessant and vocal self-criticism become unhealthy. Unhealthy for my career: I refused to put myself forward because I could always find a reason to not do so. (Similarly, I used my inclination to not self-promote to whine about others doing so.) Unhealthy for my well-being: I have destroyed several long-standing professional friendships in the last year through my litany of constant negative chatter. (This I deeply regret.)

(2) I had let stress dislodge my horse sense. Academic careers can metastasize; and mine had engulfed much of my sanity and physical health. (I get vigorous exercise several times per week, but less regularly than I had five years ago. Similarly, I eat more foods of convenience and cook less than I used to, due to time demands.)

(3) Most deleteriously, by focusing on external markers of success I’d forgotten the joy in doing my science. About five days before the tenure vote, one of my graduate students produced data that strongly supported a tentative physical picture that we had suggested. The data clearly and uncontrovertibly confirmed our speculative picture and suggested a range of follow-up studies. I was thrilled! And yet, five days later I’d completely forgotten how happy and rewarded I’d felt by careful, detailed, dedicated work.

The solutions are easy to state and difficult to implement (for me, least):

(1a) Be passionate about my work. Toot my own horn when appropriate.

(1b) Be relentlessly positive with colleagues.

(1c) Value my supportive friends.

(2a) Exercise.

(2b) Eat well.

(2c) Take personal time.

(3a) Do my science.

(3b) Tired of some annoying aspect of my job? Do my science.

(3c) Frustrated with politics? Do my science.

(3d) Feeling unappreciated? Do more science.

 

PART 3: Going forward: I hope that my tenure case will be successful, but it’s out of my hands. I’m working on repairing the friendships that I’ve damaged in the past years of self-focused misery. I’ve asked for aid with the more onerous service tasks. I’m writing positive emails to my graduate students to reinforce good work and professional development. I am taking joy in a friend’s recent announcement — as a sign that thoughtful scholarship can indeed be valued. And finally I’m focusing on my science when I feel the urge to rant and rave, trying to redirect my passions towards healthier outlets than my native pessimism.

Comments on: "Guest Post: Rant and Meta-Rant" (1)

  1. Thanks for sharing and in absolute agreement, in particular on (3). I suspect this will continue to resonate with me. Excellent rant.

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