Monday, October 09, 2006

Questions of Motivation

Today was a crampy, yucky day. But I managed to get some stuff done anyway. And some of it even worked (yay!).

A little poem. Okay?


Lately I've been asked this bizarre question, and I don't really understand it because I've mostly gotten it from people with whom I've been discussing the issue of how best to go about doing faculty applications.

Here it is (drumroll, please):

But what ARE your career goals?

Um, I don't really get it. What do you mean, isn't getting a faculty position my most immediate career goal? And isn't that obvious? And isn't that enough to keep me busy for a while (assuming I want, you know, tenure in a few years)?

Am I supposed to say, "I want to win a Nobel Prize, and I won't stop until I do!" ???

What are they looking for when they ask this? Why does it feel like a trick question?

And because of the way someone asked me this question today (an older, male faculty member), it suddenly occurred to me that it is a trick question.

Do they ask this of the guys?

I've gotten this kind of crap in the past, but I never made this connection before. For example, I was shocked to find that even at my (relatively prestigious and competitive) college, there were accusations that the women were only there to get an MRS degree. I mean, AAAAGGGHHHHH!!!!!

So anyway, I don't quite know how to answer this question when they put it to me. For years when people asked what I wanted to do, it was sufficient to say, "I want my own lab." This seemed to go over pretty well at my grad school interviews, and with my thesis committee, and when I interviewed for postdoc positions.

So why now, that I'm looking for faculty positions, do I suddenly feel like I have to defend my right to, you know, pursue a career outside the home? Why do they even get to ask?

Is this the glass ceiling?

Is this the cheese dip? But I've gotta have... meaning. -Consolidated

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At 2:43 AM, Blogger MissPrism said...

When I got that question I answered in terms of the kind of lab I wanted eventually - the number of people, the balance of theory, informatics and benchwork, whether all the projects would have a narrow common focus or just share broad themes - that kind of thing.

It is a weird question, though, and I suspect the answer is more informative about the candidate's self-confidence than her ability.

At 7:54 AM, Anonymous nerdlette said...

I think what they are really asking is for you to give specific answers about the research in the lab you would like to run. Are you going to study cancer and cancer treatments, are you going to explore the replication of a new virus, are you going to synthesize a class of natural products, are you going to study dark matter. When you're looking for an academic job the main idea is to have a well thought out, creative and fundable (if that's even a real word) research plan. That's what everybody is curious about at this stage, what are you really going to do, the nuts and bolts of the idea. Saying you want to run a lab is fine and dandy when you aren't actually looking for that job, once you are it is your resposibility to sell the idea, show how excited and knowledgeable you are about the subject.

Good Luck

At 7:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been reading your blog for over a year now and have been commenting sporadically. I just wanted to say that I feel like you're in the same place today as you have been for a long time. Maybe if you were at peace with this aspect of your life you would be able to move forward. The hoops that are placed in front of you are there especially for you. Read Kafka's _The Trial_ or if you don't have the time/interest, read the excerpted _Before the Law_. Patience and humility are valuable commodities, as much so as having a strong work ethic and self-confidence.

At 9:23 PM, Anonymous Dr. Shellie said...

Or MAYBE... they are looking for an answer like "I'm looking for a position in a major research university" (vs. a teaching-intensive university, small liberal arts college, etc.)?

Hey, cool, I see I'm on your blog roll. Thanks.

At 10:53 AM, Blogger Blondie said...

This may be a much broader and more important question than you realize. I don't know your field specifically, but I do know what I mean when I ask the question.

Do you want a position where research is expected? (Clearly you do - some people would rather focus on teaching.) Do you want to teach? (Some people take research positions with no teaching load.) What sort of research expectations do you have? Lots of pressure to publish? To write grants? How much service will you enjoy? Do you want to be at an institution which has a graduate program in your field? Would you love to eventually chair a department, or do you hate administrative work? Do you want to run a large research group, or would you rather work alone, or change collaborators regularly?

Well, you get the idea. Your application, and the programs to which you apply, will be different depending on your goals.

Good luck. I hope you find something you love!

At 4:28 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

You guys were right- I gave the person basically a cover-letter type of answer, describing my research project significance and rationale for why I'm a great candidate to explore this topic and how I plan to do it. Evidently it worked, because then I was asked to provide references! Anyway it is a long shot, I think, but who knows what might come of it.

What bugs me is that instead of asking, "How do you picture your lab?"- which is a question I can answer in excruciating detail- and "What sorts of questions do you plan to ask in your research when you have your own lab and a team to help you?" they ask this vague thing instead, and you have to know enough to know what it means.

Potentially a great triumph of Blogger, getting advice here from all of you!

To Anonmyous, I've read The Trial. I love it. I love Kafka. But I think it's really shitty that you said you think I'm in the same place now that I was in a year ago. That's kind of a nasty thing to say to a person you don't know at all. Remember, what you read here is only a tiny excerpt of what's going on in my life. Stop judging!

And don't tell me I need humility. If anything, women always err on the side of not giving themselves enough credit, and not getting it from others. It's a constant struggle to remind myself that I deserve better and shouldn't let people make me feel guilty for wanting more.

At 4:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i don't think anonymous wanted to be offensive. I think she/he was pointing out that you are frustrated because you haven't managed to get the position that you wanted and are still stuck with the postdoc. And then recommended a good book for you.. what was offensive about that? Do you only want to here positive things?

At 6:32 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


Pointing out the obvious... well in general one of my pet peeves is when people talk to me like I'm an idiot. Of course I know I'm still a postdoc and not in a faculty position! Haven't I mentioned how I feel like I'm not really making any progress? I'm very much aware of all of this. Do I know what to do about it? No. Have I considered being patient vs. leaving vs. otherwise changing my attitude-? Yes.

Having others point this out to me... Not necessarily offensive, that's not the word I'd choose. But not helpful. Not constructive.

I would re-read the Trial if I had time, and try to figure out if there is some useful metaphor that I can draw upon that I'm forgetting about or maybe didn't understand as a younger version of myself reading it.

Right now I don't have time to read a book. I wish I did. And I'd still rather read the original Kafka, and enjoy his prose and think for myself, than some version someone else interpreted for me.

At 6:47 AM, Blogger Joolya said...

Wait, you mean you're career ambition isn't to get married so you can have little pink babies and finally out all this silly science stuff behind you?

At 4:50 PM, Blogger ScienceDave said...

I was asked that question, and I'm male, but I'd bet a lot of women who get asked are being quizzed for a different reason.

In my case, they wondered, are you going to sell out to industry. Which I did, but only after a post doc and a lot of looking for industrial jobs that were really, really cool.

About what anonymous said: being able to fake humility is good- having it, well, bullocks. Confidence comes with doing stuff, which you clearly are. Working hard is a given, or you'd be doing something else. I wish there was some way to nudge things so that the intersection of dumb luck and preparation would come your way. I'm betting it will, but never as quickly as you want. Good luck.

At 7:09 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


Thanks for the good wishes. I agree that humility is good in the sense of admitting what we know and don't know... but I don't think that's humility, I think that's honesty. And I have trouble turning that off.

I think I need more dumb luck. =D I'm all the hell prepared out.

At 8:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i browsed then finally read your lines to find out what was really the question. Hope you'll finally find your answers and live well with it. Good luck

From; freelancer


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