Tuesday, July 18, 2006

I think I'm an Outlier

Was reading this link over at Thus Spake Zuska today.

Here's the thing: I'm wondering if I'm in a minority of people who actually really love academia and just think it needs some tough love. It may be idealistic, but every once in a while I meet someone else who feels that way and think, geez if we could just get these people together, we might have something good.

Bu it's weird for me being a postdoc now. We're in an age when the movement toward mainstreaming 'alternative' careers is increasing, and people who want to stay in the system- especially women - are viewed as, at best crazy, masochists at worst.

I've found that women tend to view women like me as masochists.

So here I'm one of the ones who want to stay (I think). I don't think I'm brainwashed or just 'following the path', as some older female professors claim to have done. (My favorite was the chancellor-level MD who said she just went from med school to postdoc to professor to dean and never thought twice about any of this progress because it all came so easily to her!). If anything I've been clawing tooth & nail to get to work on what really interests me. And I'm thoroughly convinced that there's no way I could do the work I'm doing in academia anywhere in industry.

So I've run out of people to talk to where I work. The few women who have similar interests are younger than me and naively competitive (and a bit arrogant, which I try to ignore); the older ones are burned out and bitter (not that I can think of any of those- I may be one foot in that category, but we don't have a support group on campus).

The men who should be my 'peers' either view me as threatening, or want to 'collaborate' with me in ways that make it clear that they would steal my stuff if they saw even the slightest opening (needless to say I need collaborators badly enough that I'll take what I can get and just sleep with one eye open).

Anyway I guess I'm just feeling really isolated again- which was why I started this blog. It's been a while and my situation has changed a lot but never really improved. In theory I've been slowly moving in the right direction and things might start to improve soon, but for the time being I've got a lot of stuff to do that has me locked in my office alone. So I'm wishing this stuff was done so I could move on to the part where I get to know new people and continue my hunt for like minds.

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At 2:25 PM, Anonymous Zuska said...

YFS, you have such a passion for research. You seem to be one of the least brainwashed of postdocs, to me. All the questioning you do on this blog is certainly not the work of a brainwashed drone. Personally, I think that MD who said it all came "so easily" to her is in deep, deep, deep, deep denial. Take a look at this post on Absinthe http://radio.weblogs.com/0151290/2006/07/12.html#a38 and read her second quote from me (begins 'by the time we get through grad school...) That MD has incurred an incredible blind spot of everything she must have done and endured for it all to come "so easily" to her. Or, the cost of it all coming so easily to her has been for her to deny other women's realities. (by the way, you don't have to agree with Absinthe that I am a beacon of light...but I do think that what I said has some nuggets of truth). I think the cost of your success stems from your desire to succeed and 1. keep your love of science intact, 2. keep your awareness of the stupid crud that goes on in the forefront, 3. choose your battles carefully, 4. behave strategically (collaborate and sleep with one eye open) and 5. not give up hope on finding mentors and/or kindred souls. All of that takes a great deal of energy. The sucky part is the pampered white boys don't have to devote energy to an agenda like that - but you know that. The good part is that you love science so much. Otherwise none of it would be worth it. That's where my first quote on the Absinthe post comes in - the calculus of leaving science, which no one can work but you. Your calculus seems to say "stay" right now, so do your best to stay. Be proud of your decision and of your work. But likewise, be sympathetic to those who decide differently. Despite how it may appear to you, those who leave for industry or other careers really are looked on by senior scientists in academia as failures, and they struggle with feelings of failure themselves, sometimes for many years. You say that women who want to stay in the system are looked upon as crazy at best, masochistic at worst. No matter what you do, when you do it, where you do it, there will be somebody around to tell you that you are crazy for doing it, precisely because you are a woman doing it. Women can't do science; women shouldn't leave science, they should stay and be role models; women should accept that there are innate biological differences that mean there will always be more men in the top positions in science, but science will always need bottle-washers. Women are castrating bitches; women are whores; women are madonnas. Blah, blah, blah. Just tune it out. There's always someone happy to tell you whatever it is they think will make you feel most crappy about yourself.

I know in the past my comments have come across as patronizing to you; I hope these do not.

At 3:53 PM, Blogger dlamming said...

Wow, what a ridiculous article. I mean, I agree that we shouldn't shun those who choose other careers. Really though, this just another example of someone who can't understand why someone doesn't choose the path of maximum money. Perhaps because of my situation, I haven't seen anyone treat "staying in academia" as a nutty choice... but I have seen fewer people choosing it.

Anyway, sucks to have no one to talk to. One thing though - I think that a lot of the whole collaboration angst is best dealt with up front. Maybe that doesn't work for your situation, of course - but I tend to prefer to know where we stand on a project going in. Ie - what work will I do, what authorship would I get, and who else is involved. I (and most people) would likely stick to an upfront agreement - so you might get more "sleep".

At 5:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe try developing a social network of academics who are not biologists or chemists ?

At 8:24 PM, Blogger SciMom said...

You have a fellow lover of academics in this reader. I have made it to the Associate Professor level, being somewhat of a chameleon. Academics allows you to follow the data and I've researched and discovered things so compelling and interesting, that I never would have found in an industry position. There are real difficulties in surviving in academics these days and that is compounded when it's a female scientist. But I would say, carry on, follow your dreams and be creative in finding a way to succeed. Keep your mind open to opportunities as they come.

At 7:38 AM, Blogger etbnc said...

Swimming upstream can be tiring.

Some people do it because they have a mixed-up sense of direction. Some of us do it because it's the only way to get where we want to go.

Yeah, it's helpful to know like-minded swimmers. Are you deliberately excluding long-distance interaction? It seems to me there are other bloggers out there in similar situations, and that an email social network or an invitation-only message board could be created. Just a thought, as the saying goes...

Meanwhile, if the destination is worth it, then take a breath and keep swimmin'...


At 7:49 AM, Anonymous mk said...

Just want to say I understand your isolation. I too think that academia would provide the best atmosphere for the research I like. Don't know if I'll get a job though - feeling pessimistic as things for us women, and for Latinas like me are not good.
I think I want to bring up dress again because it's important for me to say that I don't have the freedom to look casual like the mostly white and Asian researchers here seem to. If I wear a t-shirt and jeans I get mistaken for the housekeeping staff - not kidding you - I have had people come to me in the hallway to tell me the toilet is blocked. I think there is some writing about this phenomenon in some women's studies texts.
Anyway, thanks for your blog - I'm normally too busy to comment but want to put that out there. I like that you responded to my comment the other day too.

At 4:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

so I take it now you are on your third post-doc, given that you didn't get a faculty position.

It's good to see you persist. Keep trying, and even if it takes four or five post-docs, you'll get there!

Stay strong.

At 10:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey-- I know how you feel. I have been plugging away at this for a while too. I thought that I could trust a good friend. I thought we had a 2 way street. Our trust was broken when the friend kept quiet about using my contacts to get a position. I made information free and available, but when the time came for the exchange, the friend was secretive. It is rough out there-- you never know who is really a friend or who you can trust.

At 1:14 PM, Blogger avocadoinparadise said...

The article that you linked to in this post was especially interesting to me as an ex-grad student. It was very hard to leave. The article author aptly characterizes undergrads who consider grad school as being "reassured by the possibility of continuing life as they know it. They think it's easy to leave graduate school if they don't like it or the job market improves; they do not yet understand how their minds will be changed by the experience, how leaving grad school after two or more years can be at least as hard as leaving a cult."

I found it incredibly hard to make the decision to leave, and am still second guessing it even though I wasn't totally into what I was studying and the working world does have it's pluses.

Good post; I hope things look up for you soon. Don't let anyone steal your work!

At 10:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you are really cute.

At 11:01 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Ok, it's late for me so I'll try to make it brief, ha ha.

Zuska, great comments. I'll have to check out Absinthe and your comments there in detail... if not tomorrow, then over the weekend when things are (hopefully?) less hectic in lab. Ha ha, I already know I have to work on Saturday and that it won't be an easy, laid-back day.

sigh. I will try to cheer myself up since I'm going dancing tomorrow night (with a bunch of sciencey types, of course).

dlamming, re: collaboration, I agree, but this is a weird situation where the project is undefined, and I'm a postdoc who is really a PI on her own project in every way but on paper, so I have to be associated with a lab and everyone in it, even though I'm not sure I trust all the (male, of course) postdocs who are supposed to be my 'peers'. Can't define the terms of collaboration without presenting where I am right now, so I have to stick my neck out a little.

I just keep trying to remind myself that I'm way ahead of them, and I have plenty of ideas anyway so there's not much sense in being paranoid & possessive.

Anonymous, I would love to meet more academics who aren't bio/chem. And I don't think compsci should count, either. But I'm not sure how to do that. There are very few non-science postdocs on campus, and that leaves me with: grad students who are much younger (in dog years) than me, or young faculty who REALLY don't have time to socialize at all. Older faculty are usually married w/kids (so no free time there, either) or they're my parents' age and every conversation turns into a lecture on the generation gap.

Lately i'm just trying (not very successfully, mind you) to build up my non-science network in general, for my sanity (outside perspective=good!) more than anything else.

SciMom and etbnc, thanks for the words of encouragement!

mk, your thing about housekeeping made me laugh! That SUCKS! I can totally see how people can be so clueless. I get hit with the young card to the point where I'm sick of it ('are you a grad student?'). But maybe you just look like you'd be comfortable with a wrench or a plunger? J/K! I have been fortunate to work in very diversified places so I don't think (?) it's all that common where I am. I'd have to ask around...

But where I grew up is a different story... my family initially freaked when my sister married a man whose parents were recent immigrants, but in the long run I think it's been very educational for them and they've all come around. It's so ridiculous since the one side of our family has been in the states for only ~3 generations anyway. That's not that long! My grandfather grew up speaking another language. We're very American that way.

but re: housekeeping, To me everyone counts regardless of what job they're doing, so long as they're doing a good job. I take out my own biohazard bags and wash my own dishes in lab, so my view is that every little bit that makes the research get done faster is a big help!

At 11:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 11:04 AM, Blogger Meredtih said...


I wrote a comment the other day and blogger ate it- darn! But your post promped such a good discussion that I wanted to join in and try to re-create my previous thoughts.

I just wanted to say that if you're an outlier, than I am too. And I think there are more of us than you realize.

You need to follow your own inner voice, and to hell with what others think, as far as your career path goes. You will always receive criticism from those inside and outside acedemia, so trust your gut. I remember non-science family and friends telling me I was stupid for not going into industry because "I could make so much money!". I remember my mentors telling me that anyone with any sort of creativity and brains should go into academia, otherwise they were "selling out". I never got an objective opinion from anyone, and it was confusing. Even a male close family member who has spent his life in academia had an opinion- he said, "it's very hard for women faculty memebers, especially scientists, to do what they need to do to be successful and still balance family life. You're better off going into industry".

All of that good-natured advice was confusing, and in the end I really had to just throw it all in the crapper.

So, here I am, still in academia, but not because I was pushed by my mentors- I really felt like this was the place for me. Who knows- maybe I'm just naive- but I would call myself naive before I called myself "crazy" or a "masochist", lol. I realize that academia has many faults, and I'm not ignoring them by being here- I'm just trying to keep my eyes open and deal with them as I'm forced to confront them. Like you, I will do things in an effort to fit in (e.g., the issue of dress), but at the same time, I like to think that choose my battles carefully and stand up for myself when it's really important. I don't want to be extremist, either way, and I think that's important for women scientists.

Anyway, I HOPE I can continue to be true to myself and have it work for me, and to eventually be one of those profs that remembers the struggle along the way, and can give students the objective career advice that nobody gave me. I don't think there is a right path or a wrong path, because science is definitely not a one-size-fits-all kind of job.

Zuska had some great advice, which I will definitely take to heart.

At 1:37 PM, Blogger Joolya said...

In my opinion, anyone who goes to grad school is kind of a masochist because it is a frustrating, alienating, disheartening emotional roller coaster.
That said, I really do love science and academia.
It's just that I also hate it.
But I'm rarely blase about it!

A couple of years ago I joined a martial arts group and that was a great way to make friends with some non-scientists, get in shape, and (very importantly!) do something active and not cerebral to sort of cleanse my mind of the day's work.

I really, really, really would recommend something like that for you! And don't say "I don't have time" because you can make time for things that are important, like your mental and physical health.

At 3:30 PM, Anonymous Zuska said...

I just want to say, regarding mk's comment about dress and being Latina: this is where gender and race issues intersect. The reason she's being "mistaken" for the housekeeping staff is because she's (a) female and (b) not white.

What are Latinas? Latinas are maids, they are housekeepers. They are not scientists - not in our stereotypes, anyway. So, when mk does not dress up, people look at her and they don't see a researcher, they don't even see a person. They see a stereotype. They see Latina Housekeeper.

It's incredibly depressing. mk, I'm sorry you have to deal with that. The next time someone comes up and tells you the toilet is blocked, say "that's gross. Now excuse me, I've got to get back to my work on ___." Or if they complain about no toilet paper or something, say "thanks for letting me know, I'll avoid that bathroom. Now I have to get back to my experiments on ___" and use some highly technical jargon in both cases. Don't just say lab or research, they'll tune it out and think you are going to go clean somewhere else.

Or, just a blank stare, then "what? I'm sorry, I didn't hear you, I was thinking about ___" fill in with technical jargon about your work. The blank stare gives you time to breath a little, gather your courage, and ACT rather than REACT.

Unfortunately, unthinking sexism and racism are just facts of the female scientist's life. Planning ahead can minimize the impact it has on you and even add some fun to your day as you see the bewildering effect it has on your would-be tormentor.

At 5:27 AM, Blogger Dr J. said...

I´ve been away and am playing blog catch-up...

The article resounded with me as I, like ellocin1, had a lot of trouble mentally leaving the academic world. No-one was telling me AT THAT TIME that I was a failure, a let down to all women, a cop-out, but that´s what I felt because I was indoctrined into that mentality.

You are certainly not alone in the academic world, I know many scientists just like you and I wish them all great success (except one, but that´s another story). What I do wish for though, is that the true academics such as yourself arm your students with the knowledge and courage to actually leave the arena if academia is not what´s best for THEM. Every professor I ever worked for insisted that academia was the only true path and their scathing ideas of industry, of consultancy, of patents (regardless of whether they actually profited from all these) inhibited me in leaving for a more appropriate field. That cost me several years and a lot of frustration.

I think it´s great for people to continue in academia when that´s what they love, but there are equally intelligent and worthwhile people out there who don´t love it and we don´t deserve condemnation for that, rather help us as students to discover where we should be.

At 7:33 PM, Anonymous Dominic Ebacher said...

We're on the same page! Keep the faith!

Good luck, your life seems interesting!

Peace and Love!

Dominic Ebacher


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