Friday, January 21, 2005

Science dinners, networking, and unwelcome non-advice

I just got back from dinner with some visiting scientists.

Ugh. How awkward.

Not only did I miss their seminars, but I haven't read any of their papers. I know just enough about what they do to know what it is, but not enough to ask any probing questions.

And they don't speak English all that well.

And the restaurant was really loud.

And I was the only female there.

Getting the picture?

Let me also add that we were seated at a high table in very tall chairs, so that my feet were swinging far above the ground.

Really does at lot for one's confidence, you know?

It was pretty pointless. Theoretically, this sort of thing should be 'useful', since it helps with 'networking', but as it turned out, I had just gotten annoyed with somebody about the very issue of networking, so I was in a pretty horrible mood when I got there. Hard to be really outgoing when you're privately seething and bitter.

I'm annoyed enough that I'm just going to reprint it.

Here is what happened (names deleted because I'm classy like that):

my original post:

I'm doing a 2nd postdoc on an interdisciplinary project of my own design. I'm currently in the nasty part of starting of the job search, publishing a paper and feeling overwhelmed by not having enough contacts in my field (my advisor doesn't have enough contacts to make up a whole network for me). Help!


male stranger's reply (please keep in mind that this was in a section with a specific field designated, and this guy does not work in this field. Also keep in mind, that this whole site is *supposed* to be for women to help mentor other women):

There's a quote in your message that troubles me: "my advisor doesn't have enough contacts to make up a whole network for me." That's not your advisor's job, that's YOUR job.

A network is like a weapon: you don't need it until you need it, and then you need it very badly indeed. :-)

There's a post in another forum that speaks about technical and professional society involvement as a way to develop leadership experience and contacts...a position with which I strongly agree.

My advice is to start building your personal network NOW (and there are lots of posts around here about how to do that...just remember to keep your links with network members "warm" with occasional communications...the only times they hear from you should NOT be when you need something. :-) )

I would also suggest that you reflect on contacts you've made during your two postdocs as well as your undergrad/grad studies. Perhaps there is someone there who would be a good member of your network. Anyone who was favorably impressed with your work, your demeanor, enthusiasm...whatever; even if they cannot help you directly they may be able to refer you to someone in their network.

Best of luck...and remember that you have two separate but connected issues here: your short-term needs (job, etc.) and long-term ones (building a network that will serve you for your entire life/career).

Best of luck!

-- male engineer

my reply to his reply:

Wow, that was pretty condescending, and not useful at all. Perhaps I should clarify.

Actually I'm *very* involved in national and local scientific groups. I have begun to meet people through those connections, and I am currently conducting a handful of very productive collaborations.

However, but I haven't met many people who are willing and able to actively help me get a job, even if they say they are impressed with my work. The most willing are usually the least connected, while the most connected ones can't seem to be bothered because they're too busy being rich and famous.

I have the strong impression that nobody wants to do much unless it benefits them, too. Hence the successful collaborations- scientifically, everyone wins. That part is easy. My getting a faculty position, however, doesn't do much to help people who are already faculty. For the most part, they could care less what happens to me, because it won't benefit them directly.

Most of the people in my field are men. As I've mentioned in posts in other forums, most men seem more interested in mentoring other men. That's one of the reasons MentorNet appeals to me. Most women faculty, in my experience, are much busier than their male counterparts. They're expected to serve on many more committees. Furthermore, many women faculty still do an unfair share of child-rearing, so they're often racing out of the lab in the evening and don't attend as many meetings as the men. For these reasons, it's much harder to meet female role models. Most of the male faculty I've met, much like yourself, tend to assume I'm an idiot without bothering to find out who I am or what I'm about.

It's all fine and good to talk about having a network, but it's a very vague concept. I have lots of contacts, I have made many acquaintances. I try to make specific requests when I contact people, and I try to do it in a friendly and respectful manner. However, I'm clearly missing some important aspect of networking and I'm not sure what it is. My impression, and the reason for my post, is that you need to have more 'nodes' to get good coverage, and nonlinear science supports this notion. If you don't have the *right* contacts, it takes a lot *more* contacts to get the same coverage. For the well-connected, and by that I mean the lucky person who chose a famous advisor and got along with them swimmingly, a job may be only one or two contacts away. They essentially had a network handed to them. For those of us who worked - albeit successfully- in relative obscurity in grad school, and in my case, had a sexist schmuck for a first postdoc advisor, we are still six degrees of separation away from a job.

-- still pissed off


At 1:27 AM, Blogger Laestrygonian said...

When you're a child, people love to tell you that you can be anything you want to be if you want it bad enough. Which, technically, I still believe to be the truth. What they don't tell you, however, is what it is going to take to get there.

"What do you want to be when you grow up? Ah, yes that's nice... Well, you're going to have to go to school for that..."

I grew up thinking that all I needed was a education and that would get me where I wanted to go in life. It wasn't until I encountered the cold, hard world that I finally realized the truth. That it wasn't what you know, but who. What you really need to get what you want in life is to know the right people. Or just be extremely lucky by being in the right place at the right time. It's sad that you can't get what you want based on merit. Rediculous really. The world is full of tight knit groups that pat each other on the backs. If you want your back patted...Well...That's much more difficult than you might think...

At 2:49 PM, Blogger Megan said...

Girl, I hear ya. Sure, I'm not in the same environment as you, but boy did your words hit a nerve with me! I totally experienced this when I was in the interview process for PhDs. A good friend of mine who is currently working on her PhD in English is finding similar issues as you. Luckily, that happens to be a field where there are more women, so it's not as difficult for her.

However, the dynamics of the male/female roles in society bleed into this topic greatly. What you said about female faculty often bearing the weight of childrearing more than their male counterparts is absolutely true; therefore women must work even harder. It blows, but that's the way it is.

I hate to speak ill of my gender, but I think that it is more difficult for women to network in academia, particularly in a scientific field, because the few women who have really been successful don't want anyone else to take their place. That's a horrible thing of me to say, but I do see this sometimes. You've got slim pickings as it is, and this crap to boot.

Apparently I'm not in a very positive mood right now...sorry! Men just suck. :)

At 5:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

>male stranger's reply (please keep in mind that this was in a section with a specific field designated, and this guy does not work in this field. Also keep in mind, that this whole site is *supposed* to be for women to help mentor other women):

yeah, I'm on that forum too. It's shocking to me how many men are posting, often to tell someone that she's wrong, sexism doesn't exist. Or maybe those posts stand out more because they irritate me so much ... I don't think so, though.

Anyway, I appreciated your response to him. Sorry the dinner was so annoying, too.

I often go into meetings and tutorials in my department at school (cs -- undergrad) and cannot successfully make small talk with anyone in the milling about time before the event. It's just odd to me -- and quite uncomfortable.

-- sharon

At 5:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The engineer that replied made several assumptions based on your initial post. After reading your response, it's obvious that his assumptions were wrong. In hindsight, it seems like the whole exchange could have been avoided if your initial post contained more info. I bet if you had added a sentence or two that conveyed the info in the first two paragraphs of your response (e.g. I've been working to build a network by doing x,y,z, it just doesn't seem to be helping me get a job) his tone would have been different. To be clear, I don't agree with the sytle or tone of his response. He should have either asked you to provide more info or simply not replied. Making assumptions about other people is usually a bad idea. Every forum/bb has a different 'vibe', which will likely determine what kind of response you will get. In general, I find that if I'm asking for help, the best thing to do is to make sure it is clear that I've made an honest effort to learn/practice/obtain the skill/technique/information that I'm asking about. It just helps to ensure that you get the best possible advice.

In case anyone reading is interested, this page about smart questions should be linked by every site that runs forums.

At 9:10 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Thank you, Anonymous person, for that link to the 'smart questions' page. I will make a point of reading that.

I admit, I was pretty sloppy the way I posed my original question. I'm usually more careful, I guess I wasn't functioning well on a communication level that day.

I do tend to forget that not everyone is going to ask clarifying questions before responding to a post. I always do that, or try to word my answers in such a way that implies that maybe they've already thought of trying these things, and I'm just encouraging them.

I don't know how well I do with that, but my intentions are good.

As I said in a followup blog, the 'male engineer' guy actually was quite apologetic. More recently, he even gave me a helpful suggestion, which is to try directly emailing people in the field whom I would like to meet, perhaps using their publications as an excuse to make contact. I told him I had also tried this before, with some limited success, but that it might be worth trying again, with different people.

Anyway, my point is, this guy just got hit with my frustration about other people. He is not in my field, he is not one of the bad guys.

However, I leave the blog as is, since I think enough people have run into these kinds of attitudes- and have made similar mistakes in posting to forums- that it remains instructional. These rants really do help me clarify how I feel about things, and dissect out where those feelings- mostly of frustration- really come from.


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