Saturday, June 16, 2007

Response to a variety of comments on last post- Keeping up with the jonesing

Anonymous 1 writes: It is interesting to note (and I dont mean this as a dig at you) that all the FEMALE scientific blogs do not really cover science at all but are generally full of moaning and bitching about people in the lab colleagues etc. Whereas the majority of male scientific bloggers concentrate on science issues. Strange!

This is a very astute observation, though not strictly correct. Grrrlscientist, over at ScienceBlogs, was one of the first blogs I found when I started reading ~ 2 years ago, and she writes a lot about her scientific love of birds. Not my field, but I admire her passion. So that's one exception. Perhaps we can amend it from "all" to "most"?

Nevertheless, you have noticed something that reflects one of the central problems of discrimination that many people have pointed out here.

Perhaps we spend too much time reflecting on how gender works against us, when we should just be reflecting on our science? I have received many comments that basically said just that.

Or perhaps all the discrimination prevents us from being able to do our science, so in order to clear our minds we feel compelled to at least vent about it before we can move on and pretend like it's not a major problem even though we know it is?

I for one have considered, for a while now, starting a separate blog with my Real Name where I would write about scientific issues that I find interesting, but for a variety of reasons haven't (yet?). Unfortunately I do not feel that I can combine the two without getting majorly burned for it. So, there you go.

I write this blog because I have to. It's as much for me as it is for what I think of as "giving back."

Scientifically, I don't know. I guess I was surprised to find that, when I started this blog, people started writing comments and thanking me for it. I was surprised to learn that people really do care what YFS thinks. Or are at least entertained by (arguing with) it.

Scientifically, under my Real Name, I don't know if anyone would care to know what I think. I certainly get mixed reviews when I speak up in lab meeting. I know some people really wish I would just shut up, even when I'm trying to be helpful the way I wish other people would be helpful to me.

Here, anonymously, I can afford to occasionally piss some people off, whether I mean to or not, and who cares if they don't read my blog anymore?

Scientifically, under my real name, I can't afford to annoy any more people than I already have. =D

So in some ways there's a lot more risk in putting my scientific views out there. As a woman, I already have more strikes against me without getting slammed for that, too.

Brian Haugen, Amen on the catch-22. And there is more to it than that, but yes, I would definitely talk to my SRA if it were sufficient for me to write a grant and send it in. Unfortunately, as the catch-22 points out, it's not.

Anonymous re: the Ben Barres article, YES, THAT IS MY POINT EXACTLY. IT SHOULDN'T MATTER, BUT IT DOES.

Almost-done anon asked: If you had to identify reasons for your current predicament, how far back would you go? I guess what I am trying to ask is 1) are there things you wish you had done differently in grad school, or while looking for a post-doc or during your post-doc and 2) are there things beyond your control that you wish were different.

Oy, this is a good one. Would I go back so far as to whether I should have done science at all? Yes. Though, I said this to a friend the other day over lunch and she said, "But you're pretty good at this science thing." (she's a scientist, too). And I looked at her and said "Apparently not good enough by most objective measures."

Yes, I am bitter that I don't have a faculty position yet. But I do have to admit that scientifically, I am pretty happy with my choices.

If there is one thing I would have done differently, scientifically speaking, it's to never ever doubt myself.

The few times when I thought I was doing something wrong, I wasn't, and I wasted a lot of time that way. Every "weird" result I've gotten had a scientific explanation, and chasing those down has always been worth my time. Even when my advisor(s) told me not to. It's hard because we're taught to second-guess everything, to always be skeptical. But so far I've found that scientifically, my intuition (or whatever you want to call it) is usually right, even if I can't always articulate why until I actually have all the data in hand to prove it.

Number one thing I would have done differently in grad school: I would have tried hard to get and keep political allies, starting from day one.

I think if I had more people (faculty of the right sort) willing to act as a safety net, just because they liked me and not because, ethically they should have seen it as a moral obligation, I would have been better off and had a much easier time. I think you get more and better help from people who genuinely like you than you do from from people who feel it is part of their job (because most people don't).

As for choosing my postdoc lab(s), I don't know. Scientifically things are going pretty well for me lately and it is tempting to look back and pretend this is how it was "supposed to be" because there's no other way I could have ended up getting the nifty results I have now.

Could I, who I am now, have done things differently? Sure.

Could I, as I was then, have done things differently? I think it's safe to assume I couldn't possibly have known then what I know now. So if I had to do it all over again, still not knowing, I would probably do the same stupid things.

I guess for me one of the hardest parts has been realizing how poorly my parents prepared me to function successfully in the world.

I have a student right now, and she is so incredibly mature for her age, she fundamentally understands how much appearances matter, that you have to kiss ass sometimes, and how it's all bullshit but you have to do it. I really admire how she always talks about her mother and I think her family has really taught her a lot about how to be ambitious and make things happen for yourself.

My parents are not like that, they were always very unrealistic and told us that if you're good enough, people will notice, so you just have to work really hard all the time.

Well clearly that's not how it works and there's a lot of other stuff involved. It's that stuff, that likeability factor, that never came naturally to me and I never learned. What some of us cynically call "playing the game."

This same person also asked "what do you think of advice that is given in a certain popular sci-career forum." I'm not sure which one you mean. There are so many, and most of them are remarkably useless, so far as I can tell.

Amazingly Patient Anonymous (and yes, that is a compliment, not sarcasm) asks how I define luck.

I read an article by Jim Watson years ago who said you make your own luck (though I don't think he's the only one to have said that as such, I can't remember who said it first). I think it is true in the lab, that, as he put it, the more times you spin the centrifuge, the better your chances that you will eventually get something useful out of it.

This is also true to some degree in politics, in the sense that if you're nice to the right people and bite your tongue at the right times, eventually you build up enough good will that somebody will pull some strings for you when there's an opening, and that's a "right place, right time" sort of luck.

But there's definitely another component that is made up of having the right things in common with the right people, and that's out of our control and largely influenced by the same cultural norms that create discrimination.

I don't have that. I have the opposite of that.

I have this friend, he's an extremely successful young PI, and he's just one of those people. He's easygoing with everyone at work, he likes all the right hobbies and makes all the right sorts of very academic conversation at cocktail parties (wine, books, etc.). That's just who he is, and it's who the academy has been for a long time and still is right now.

I usually feel like I was born either way too early or way too late, but this is just not my time. I wouldn't want to be a man, but most days I still think being a woman sucks.

Maybe I've been reincarnated a lot and will be a few more times before I get it right, I don't know.

As a kid I always felt displaced, like I'm not supposed to be here, in my life, right now. Like I'm the result of some kind of cartoony time machine accident.

That kind of detachment has never really gone away, despite trying to find people and places where I feel like I fit and occasionally having moments when things do seem to click. They're few and far between.

My point being that I have to work really hard to have things in common with the right people. Because deep down, I don't really care what people think of me so long as I get to do my job and be left alone.

Being that kind of person doesn't get you luck, it gets you in trouble.

I was thinking about this today and how it's probably not normal for little kids to imagine themselves living alone when they grow up, but I did. That was my dream. And I did live alone all through grad school, and I loved it.

I sometimes wonder if, things being different, I should have been a writer. I deal very well with being alone and most of the time I crave it. According to all the career tests, this is a prerequisite for being a novelist or a poet.

So the point of all this rambling is, sometimes I worry academia is too social for me and that people can sense that when I am trying to schmooze at meetings, that it doesn't come naturally at all.

It seems more socially acceptable- warning, generalization here- to be a loner if you're a man.

So I guess I'll sum it up like this: I think a lot of luck has to do with knowing yourself, your abilities and needs, well enough to choose the right career/partner/place to live, etc.

Otherwise you can easily spend your life feeling cursed, like the answer is somehow hidden and no amount of self-reflection, writing, meditative journeys, or hallucinogenic drugs could possibly get you there (though I haven't actually tried that last one, maybe I should?).

ena7800, Tell him exactly what you think might be wrong with his samples and what he should do differently next time, and then tell him that while you're flattered that he obviously thinks you're good at running gels or he wouldn't have asked you, that you simply don't have time to rerun this gel for him, and you wish him the best of luck on his grant. That's all.

If he gives you crap about it, tell him you don't feel you can afford to take time away from your thesis. See what he says. Perhaps he will offer to help you in some way in return. Perhaps not.

If he gets mad, don't worry about it. What he's asking you to do is totally inappropriate, but if you don't tell him that, you're a doormat. Don't be a doormat.

Do be polite about it, and give him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he knows he sucks at running gels and it just didn't occur to him that, you know, you have your own stuff to do. Some people are just like that, living in their own little bubble.

Or perhaps he's just going to push you until you push back. Most people will push you until you push back.

Push back.

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At 2:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I posted this on the preious thread, and I'll post again here.

I think Ben/Barbara Barres is a fantastic scientist.

But, can we all please remember that Ben Barres got a faculty position AND got tenure at Stanford as Barbara Barres?! And, as someone who has been around that field for a while, when Ben was Barbara, I heard many, many people speak extremely highly of her/him. A close friend of mine who is in the field of Barbara’s earlier work said that the Barbara’s work changed the way people saw trophic signaling, and was in fact the inspiration for my friend to go into the field. So I’m wondering how respect and opportunity are measures, if people crediting you for revolutionizing a field and getting tenure at Stanford are on the low end of the spectrum.

If I used the Ben/Barbara name designation incorrectly, I apologize. No disrespect meant, I’m just unfamiliar.

At 2:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am in different field (physics), but if you cannot get a faculty position, you will not be able to get a grant. This is not because of bias of grant agencies - but simply because the grants are more competitive than faculty jobs. If you cannot convince a university that you have a fundable idea and that you are the right person with right skills to do it, why should funding agencies (composed of similar people) think any differently?

As to female vs. male bloggers - there is something to this effect. It's easy to chalk it all up to discrimination, but EVERYONE I know was/is treated like crap during graduate school and postdoc years.
The difference is that some people try to find the logic behind all the CRAP (is it because I am a woman? Is it because I am a foreigner? Is it because I am gay? Is it because I am a minority?), while others shrug it off and carry on. I am one of those four categories but I don't dwell on the questions like these. Or the fact that I never had a mentor who was in the same "category" as me - or even the fact that I never had a mentor at all. So what?

With only about one in 20 or 30 succeeding in a student-to-faculty pyramid scheme, a lot of us fail, discrimination or not.

At 3:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have some questions - you are "almost 30" and yet "bitter that you don't have faculty position". You do realize most people are a few years older on average - maybe early 30ies, when they become assistant faculty?

How many papers have you published so far - and how many first-authored, and how many in Science/Nature/Cell etc.?

The reason I am asking is because I recently talked to someone (female) who has 5 or 6 publications, none of which high impact, complaining about discrimination (she didn't get any job offers this year) - the year when I finally got an offer, with 23 papers, more than half first-author, including first author Science and first author Nature in the previous two years.

I didn't want to tell her it was NOT lack of connections, not the "old boys network" and not all the other crap, but instead her laziness and inability to start or finish projects that lead to this outcome. Of course had I said that, I would be quickly labeled as "one of the enemy", a chauvinist. But when I was slaving at the lab at nights and weekends, she was hanging around with friends, taking plenty of vacations, traveling for family reasons, weddings of friends, hanging out with various boyfriends, etc. I am not against idea of having a life - but at least don't complain of discrimination when someone more hard working, more motivated and more deserving gets the job and you don't (talking to my friend here, not you).

Looking at rumor mills, there was no female candidate over the past couple of years who was even comparable to top 5 male candidates, based on publication record only. But even then, universities are under a lot of pressure to invite female candidates for interviews, at least to show they are pro-women.

Discrimination my ass.

At 3:34 PM, Blogger Propter Doc said...

AAAAHGGGGHHHHH!!! Do you have any idea what I plan to do to the next person that tells me about female blogs being nothing but bitching and complaining? If I get my hands on them personally it ain't going to be pretty. Just don't bloody read if you don't like the bloody content.

OK, that being said, why don't I write about science that interests me. Main reason, I don't believe I have any authority to judge other people's work. And a great number (not all) of male science bloggers judge the merit of the work. They don't carefully couch their language indicating their opinions, they just go ahead and give posts inappropriate titles, slate the research and offer nothing by way of intelligent commentary. What gives them the right to do so?
If I talked about the research that interests me, it would reveal who I am. As blogging is pretty misuderstood by potential employers I'm not going to do anything that might hurt my career prospects.

At the end of the day my blog is my safety valve. It is the place for frustration and reflection, fury and realization. If I didn't blog, I would be a far more bitter and angry person in real life than I am. Seriously, you just have to let this stuff out somewhere and friends and loved ones can only listen so long. The system sucks, but blogging helps me tolerate it.

At 6:40 PM, Blogger Rosie Redfield said...

I and my postdocs just blog about our science (not anyone else's); see But we're as pissed-off about the women-in-science situation as anyone else, and we much appreciate other women blogging about it.

At 7:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

With regards to your response to ena7800 - there's another potential reason for how this came about, which is that some labs have a lot of this type of thing going on. Case in point, this morning I'm doing several steps of a western for another grad student - it only took me a few minutes, I'm here anyway, and it will save someone else several hours. So why not?

That's likely the rationale behind the scientist asking ena. Now, in my case, I get "paid back" pretty regularly - reagents, and people dealing with my cells on weekends. Everybody wins.

That's not to say ena should be a doormat - obviously not - but cooperation has its benefits.

At 9:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I am in different field (physics), but if you cannot get a faculty position, you will not be able to get a grant."

The grant mechanism at issue is specifically targeted to post-docs. Anyone who already has a faculty position is ineligible.

At 12:13 PM, Blogger Peggy said...

There are actually a good number of female science bloggers that almost exclusively write about science. The thing is, unless you are paying attention to the blogger's name or notice the occasional statement that indicates the writer is female, those science blogs aren't distinguishable from the science blogs written by men. Anonymous1 may assume (consciously or unconsciously) that any science writing that doesn't explicitly talk about being a women was authored by a man.

As propter doc points out, writing about science is more likely to "out" anonymous science bloggers, and I do think that more women who write about their personal experiences are writing under those circumstances.

I list both kinds of science blogs (about personal experiences in science and about science itself) on the sidebar of my Women in Science blog. I know my list isn't comprehensive, and I encourage people to let me know about other blogs that should be included. My email is in my profile.

At 10:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Being good at politics does not have much to do with being a woman. I am a man and since my second year in PhD (which I got couple years ago), I always felt I am not part of the crowd. i am a sociable guy but I am not conventional (e.g. i dont give a shit about wine as long as it has alcohol). People are polite and nice to me, but that's it, and they make sure you feel it. And I have concrete examples of this leading to my exclusion from important academic events. But that's life and you just deal with it. MFCW, I have observed that women are much better at playing this politics game than men, so I think that women are not at a disadvantage in this respect. But then I am at a cutting edge, liberal institution and I dont know how it's in a place like the "Deep South". On the other hand, where I am has a top-rated bio program and given that most top-rated bio programs are at liberal west or east coast institutions, at least it is favorable for women at the top. One thing that upsets me is that saying anything like "women are not discriminated" labels one as a sexist, and in that regard, i definitely dont feel like i have freedom of speech. One has to be very careful with what one says around here, unless one is completely mouthing the party line, i.e. "Women are so discrimininated, they need more special treatment". Such self-censorship is not characteristic of a liberal society and I say this as a former resident of a communist country.


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