Sunday, December 10, 2006

Staying Positive.

This week I heard from seven female friends who are all in various stages of their careers, and none of them are happy.

One is most of the way through grad school, and already knows she doesn't want to stay in academia. To her credit, she's starting to look into what kinds of careers might make her happy.

One is about to graduate, and in addition to her fears about finishing (the same fears everyone has), she has no first-author papers and no job prospects. She wants to find a postdoc position, preferably locally since she has a family, and continue to work on something related to her thesis work.

One just graduated, and despite her fears about finishing, has no first-author papers and no job prospects. She's not sure she wants to stay in science at all. She's too depressed to function.

One graduated recently, has no first-author papers and although she has been on several interviews, both academic and industry, has no firm job offers yet for postdocs or positions. She knows what she wants to work on and where she wants to live, but she may have to give one or both of those up in order to stay in academia. The denial is starting to wear off, and she's starting to get really worried.

One did two years of postdoc and has now decided to quit. When asked, why quit now? She said I don't think I can... I mean, I don't think I want to... have my own lab.

This phrase, "I don't think I can" is something I hear all the time from women, but not so often from men.

That's not to say the men don't feel the same way. But more often what I hear from men who leave academia is that they think the system sucks, not that they wouldn't be good enough, if they wanted to be a professor.

One has her own lab, but hasn't enjoyed it at all. She misses the bench (sound familiar? I've heard this from young PIs before). And for complicated political reasons, she feels certain that she can't continue to have her own lab. She's already starting to look for an industry position, and is willing to move to a foreign country, if that's what it takes, to find something enjoyable to do in science.

One is a tenured senior professor who is losing funding and talking seriously about shutting her lab down. She has a few more months to publish some papers and apply for more grants, but it's crunch time now and she's struggling to deal with the pressure, and her anger.

I'm trying hard to stay positive, for myself and for them, but it's hard.

I don't have it in me to tell the grad students with no papers that it's all going to be okay. They all have papers in the pipeline, but as we all know, once you've left the lab, or your advisor's grant gets triaged, it just gets harder and harder to publish old stuff. Even if those papers eventually come out, I can't tell them that it's going to get easier.

It doesn't.

I had a miserable time in grad school. Although I've had one good year here and there as a postdoc, and the bad things are different bad things, many of the bad things are the same old story. But I was one of those people who thought getting my degree would change everything.

News flash: a PhD degree by itself doesn't have magical powers.

To the friend who decided to quit now, I can only give respect. If I had known years ago what I know now about my chances of getting the kind of job I want, any sane person would have quit!

She's getting out before she's completely depressed and demoralized. She knows she's more than the sum of her scientific skills, and she knows no one is going to appreciate that if she stays where she is.

But the "I don't think I can" thing makes me sad. I don't know enough about her project or her expertise to make any objective assessments about whether she could, if she wanted to, have her own lab.

But if you don't want it, you're definitely not going to get it. That much I know.

My friend who misses the bench, makes me sad but also angry. I watch these young PIs who squander their big chance, and I know I would do things differently. I also know I would love most of the things they say they hate, and that these things would be easier for me because I've had such an "unconventional" experience.

I'm sad because she's one of my role models, and to see her not only say that it wasn't fun, but that she's quitting, is really hard for me.

And part of me says, Move over sister, soon it will be my turn!

I hate that I feel that way, but some tiny competitive voice deep down says, "I'm fine with these people leaving, because the more people that leave, the more room there will be for me."

It's terrible, but it's true.

So I am trying to stay positive. The silver lining is that everyone will, we hope anyway, find something we're happy doing, eventually. I don't believe in a master plan. I don't think any of the crap I've been through was "meant to be."

But I do think there is something in the saying about how you don't always get what you want, but sometimes you get what you need.

There's some small comfort in admitting that, on a long enough time scale, every crappy thing that has happened to me eventually gave me some insight or skill that actually came in handy.

So to my friends who are suffering right now, I wish I could magically create enough great jobs and funding for everyone. But since I can't, I hope we all find something to do that is fun, that we love.

And I still hope my something is having my own lab, even if your something happens to be something else.

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At 11:19 AM, Blogger carolina wolverine said...

You said in your post: 'I hate that I feel that way, but some tiny competitive voice deep down says, "I'm fine with these people leaving, because the more people that leave, the more room there will be for me."'

Maybe I'm just feeling more 'doom-and-gloom' lately, but when I read what you wrote about the woman quitting, I thought to myself, "Great. Now people might want to hire me even *less* because they're seeing that other women keep quitting, and they don't think I'll be able to cut it either." It's an odd thought, since I have actually been quite optimistic recently...but I'm sure that will change after my committee meeting next week....

At 5:22 PM, Anonymous Talisman said...

News flash: a PhD degree by itself doesn't have magical powers.

Ug, don't tell me that. I'm still living that delusion and it's the only thing keeping me semi-sane.

BTW, saw your blog in the Alpha Chi Sigma quarterly magazine, a few weeks ago, and I've been enjoying your posts ever since.

At 1:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know a male grad student about to finish, who's just got a single conference (!) paper as a second author, and that one isn't even out yet.(Why do they let him finish? Never mind.) But he isn't worried at all, he's looking for post-docs at only the best institutions, radiating self-confidence.

At 6:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, as a guy let me try to comment on this. I don't think there's a chance in hell of me having my own lab, not because I don't have the ability to do it, but because the sheer numbers are so daunting. I can't remember the exact stats, but something like 30% of people who graduated with biomedical science PhDs ten years ago now run their own labs in academia. I (nor many other sane people) do not want to be a postdoc for 10 years, only to have a 30% chance to be a PI. It's just not feasible, economically, socially, or professionally. That being said, maybe when your female friends say "I can't", they don't mean they are incabable of running a lab; just that they don't want to subject themselves to the torture of a ten year postdoc. Perhaps men are less comfortable humanizing things by saying "I can't", whereas women are more apt to do so?

At 6:58 AM, Blogger Am I a woman scientist? said...

It's always frustrating to see women get so completely demoralized by the process, internalizing the problems, while men seem to externalize them (it's the system that sucks, not me). What's most frustrating to me, however, is to see

1) smart women get demoralized by the system and quit, and

2) at the same time see stupid (or at least lacking the type of intelligence required for research) men get angry and learn how to work the system.

I have actually seen a woman take track #2 as well, and she has created just as many problems for everyone involved as the men have. I don't know if that is a step forward or backward for gender equality... :-)

At 10:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm a female grad student, hopefully finishing up my Ph.D. studies soon. I feel hopeless and depressed on some days and reassured and motivated on others. Just wanted to say I like your blog and from what I can gather, you are MY role model, in some aspects. Also, this sample size of women in academic research whom you know may be too small. Thanks!

At 3:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There was an interesting article posted to slashdot from "New York" magazine about burnout. This career path has all the hallmarks of dependence upon burnout (at the postdoc>professor transition) in order to maintain its status-quo. There were some interesting observations there, mainly that some industries are realizing that this dynamic is causing the best and brightest to abandon this career path and find something with a higher fulfillment/expectation ratio. Science (with a capital "S") has to ask if the postdoc mill as it is now is the best mechanic for training our research and teaching professors. IMHO the answer is "No."

P.S. Don't give up.


At 7:03 PM, Blogger sab said...

Regarding the "I don't think I can..." statement, isn't it possible that this is a statement of not having the emotional stamina, or will to continue on with something that in the end isn't what you want? rather than a statement of doubt in skill? I surely don't know your friend, but I know that I've questioned my "ability" to do various aspects of this journey through science at times, and it has only rarely been a case of questioning my ability, and much more often a case of feeling too exausted to juggle everything while wondering if it is all really worth it. And why force yourself to do something that has no joy left in it... I don't think I could either.

At 1:56 PM, Blogger Saoirse said...

This post makes me want to cry. I hope that your friends can all find something that suits them. And I hope women and girls can learn to stop saying "I can't." (I hope I can learn to stop saying, and believing, it too.)

At 2:49 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Dear Carolina Wolverine,

I have the same fear, that some of the better labs will become less woman-friendly places to work if they experience too much of this quitting.


Welcome! And thanks for joining us.

Anonymous guy and sab,

Thanks. I agree that it factors in, but my point is that it's hard to dissect out how much of it is just logic and how much of it is colored by lack of confidence. I'm sure it's not 100% logic because I've seen how they shrink from giving talks on their work, etc. Confident people who do good work usually don't do that, even if they frequently choose to leave because the system is crazy.

Am I a woman scientist,

I have to wonder how smart it is to let yourself get demoralized instead of getting angry, though like I said, I respect the instinct of self-preservation ("if I stay in science, I WILL go crazy").

I have tried to take track #2 and it sucks because women get a lot more resistance for doing the EXACT SAME THINGS men do routinely.

Anonymous female grad student,

Hang in there! We've all been there. And thanks, I do try to be a good role model, though sometimes it's hard to worry about how I look from the outside (or just from the blog).

Re: sample size, this is the thing about not having a critical mass of women to support each other. I'm not saying it's statistically significant or widely representative, but just that it happens at a detectable frequency.

To the Anonymous re: slashdot, thanks, I will check that out. I would love to know what they're going to do about fixing the burnout problem before they lose a lot of good people, especially women, from my generation of postdocs.


Step one is noticing when you're saying it, out loud or otherwise. Step two is finding something else to say that inspires you.

At 5:57 AM, Anonymous blop said...

First of all, don't give up.

Then, most of your post doesn't surprise me. Look at the ratio PIs/PhDs: the system needs a lot of PhD students but can't offer them a job. So there must be a lot of people discouraged and I'm not surprised that women get discouraged more easily: they have been told many times that they're not in their place, every step is harder for them and the biological clock doesn't help them (by this I mean 2 things. 1. they are mature earlier, see the recent news and views in Nature. 2. in academia stable positions (associate prof) arise in the late 30s at best and a lot of people prefer to be in a stable position before having babies (note that nor waiting nor having babies is mandatory, but both are quite common in our society). Men can most easily wait for this).

Last, what surprises me more is the number of students graduating (or about to) with no first-author paper. How badly surpervised have they been?!

At 5:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I'm a third year lady. After classes and quals, this is my first year in lab. This has been such a rude awakening. I joined a lab and naively believed that having a female PI would result in improved mentoring. My PI is just too busy to guide me and wants me to function at what feels like a postdoc level.I get it that this is the crash and burn method, but I'm feeling like a tippy-toeing cat. I don't have a masters and am constantly stalking older students. Yet I feel like I'm barely hanging in there. The lack of confidence is something I wish I could beat out of myself. I have no idea how it got so deeply embedded in my daily thoughts. I almost think it's equivalent to self-destructive behavior, constantly telling myself that if an experiment fails or was poorly designed that somehow this reflects my intelligence. The problem is that I already know what the alternatives are. I worked in industry and took a considerable paycut to come to school. Where I worked prior, the skill level was equivalent to monkey work. So, I know I need this degree to get the freedom to find that job that I care about because I still love science.


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