Sunday, July 20, 2008

Scientiae post: Transitions

Somehow have never managed to do one of these before, so here goes.

The topic was:

What big (or small) transitions have happened in your life? Or are you anticipating a big transition?

• How did it affect you? (Physically, emotionally, psychologically, locationally..)

• What was the outcome?

• Did you handle it well? If so, how did it help? If not, what could you have done differently?

• What fears or hopes did you have? Did they come to be?

I like Scientiae. I really like this topic. I guess doing one of these might be a transition of sorts. I hope to do more in the future.

I think about transitions all the time. I have never felt settled since the first time my family moved when I was in junior high. Nowhere has really ever felt like home since then.

I used to always be the sort of person who envisioned my future life. I was very driven and it kept me going, but I was terrible at living in the now.

These days, I'm less good at picturing my future, and tend to get stuck in regrets about the past. You could say my life has been a long series of bumpy transitions.

So while I should be oyster-ifically expecting a Big Transition in my career to a faculty position, most of me doubts that it will ever happen.

Lately I feel like I've hit the ground so many times, and in the past I always bounced back. But now I'm just covered with bruises. I don't feel very bouncy anymore. I look back at my past self and think, how the hell did I do that?

When I started grad school, I had a physical reaction to the transition of moving. I was physically ill, and never did find out whether it was food poisoning, stress, or something else altogether. The brilliant MDs who ran a bunch of tests on me had no idea what it was. Thanks, US healthcare!

Eventually it went away.

Mostly I think my body was trying to tell me STOP NOW, DON'T DO THIS!! But I was just surprised and terrified and, uncharacteristically just in the moment of being in pain. Pain is very interesting that way, it can really stop time.

And I had no idea how much more emotional and psychological abuse was in store for me. Looking back, it seems obvious that the mystery pain was a bad sign.


Somewhere along the line I transitioned to confidence. For me, that was the best achievement, and almost made the whole grad school debacle worthwhile. I am confident in my science.

But somewhere along the line, where I used to be personally confident, I transitioned to self-doubt. And got stuck there.

Mostly I think at its root, the problem is that I doubt whether I really want to be a Professor. Not that I dislike science. Contrary to what certain journalists have claimed recently, I know plenty of women who love science.

No, I am one of those who consider, quite frequently, quitting because of the culture.

I am tired of working with assholes. And I include in that term both men and women.

I can see all too clearly how this culture is not necessary or sufficient for good science to get done.

So I have never understood why everyone says I should just put up with it.

And that it's perfectly reasonable, even NORMAL, to hate it.

Maybe most of the successful scientists don't mind because they have the sensitivity of a block of wood (?).

So I can't help wanting science to change. I would like to transition to doing something more about changing it, hence the try-for-faculty-position approach.

Alternatively, I would like to be able to transition to letting it go.

I don't think I will ever transition to just accepting the bullshit. In a way, I hope I don't.

But it's too bad, because I feel stuck. Here I have this awesome project that I think is of earth-shaking importance. And I am slowly, slowly convincing others that I'm onto something with this project.

But lately I feel myself slipping toward the belief that, even if I quit, it won't matter because eventually somebody else will work on it. So then everybody wins, right?

On the other hand, which will I regret more? Quitting now?

Or wasting more years of my life being unhappy and frustrated so much of the time?

The other day I had a dream that I drove my car off a cliff in a rainstorm. At first I was scared, but then I realized I was dreaming and thought of Thelma and Louise, closed my eyes, and relaxed.

In dream mythology, your car represents your career.

Was I dreaming about committing career suicide? Predicting a fatal outcome beyond my control? Or just having a moment of fear?


Another transition I've noticed is that when I was younger and kept a diary, I was very black-and-white about everything.

I had strong opinions and did not mind arguing my point.

Somewhere along the line I decided most things are gray. But not everything. A good example of something that seemed gray to me before, but is now black-and-white, was not being aware of sexism before, to being acutely aware of it. All the time.

While not being aware of it hurt my career, in some ways I think being aware of it has hurt my career more, just because it is one of the last remaining things that can really piss me off. And there's still very little I can do about it.

But once you see it, you can't go back.

Another major transition, related to my realization that I was being discriminated against, has both helped and hurt my career. While I once enjoyed verbal sparring, I've learned to hate it. It's not that I don't have strong opinions, but I definitely transitioned to seeing things from more than one side. I get bored with people who don't, and usually these are the most vocal opponents.

I think this transition was partly brought on by being aware of sexism, since I got smacked a few times for defending myself in ways I had learned growing up, when I often found myself arguing with boys in school. This does not fly, apparently, for women in science. My favorite is when I stand up for myself and they tell me I'm "being defensive" (to which I always want to say, "But you attacked me!").

But doesn't help to say nothing, which is in many ways what I've done in recent years.

It's another typical battered woman response, and I am trying to transition to some happy medium where I can speak my mind in a forceful but, god help us all, culturally acceptable way for a woman.

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At 8:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe you're just using sexism as an excuse. Maybe you're just not a very creative scientist, and are profoundly insecure about this.

At 10:00 PM, Anonymous AnonJuly21 said...

Just a few loosely connected thoughts that your post suggested to me:

I'm not sure if it's really true that the most successful scientists don't mind the many possible screw-arounds that academia brings. I had two postdocs, one at a dream place for me, and after that, another at an OK place, but for many reasons depressing.

At the dream place, I was much happier, even though many of the reasons I thought I was undervalued were still true. I'm not among the "most successful", but it sure seemed that if you're living in academic heaven, there's so much to ease your mind from the garbage.

At the OK place, I definitely felt more stiffed and angry, and I began to show it much more, too. (It didn't really help.)

BTW, usually the people I deal with at the good schools are pretty smooth and charismatic. On the other hand, sometimes I'll be impressed by someone's papers and wonder, "why did he/she end up there?". Then I'll meet them and discover they are "quirky/asshole/..." in some way. I've wondered whether it's that the charismatic people get hired higher up and the jerks end up with subpar jobs, or whether it's that if life is good, why be mean spirited; conversely, if life's dealt you a raw deal, you'll start to act out. (Not surprisingly, I think there's truth to both reasons.)

I want to draw a subtle distinction between "not minding X" and "not letting X affect you". To me, the first says, e.g., "I'm so stoned that even though you're knifing me in the stomach, I don't care." The second says "you're knifing me in the stomach, it hurts, but I'm not going to let it affect me while I knife you right back (or say, write stellar papers)."

At 6:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you.

Sometimes I get so depressed about similar things, and I think it's just me being dumb. Thanks for posting this.

At 7:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a woman at the start of my third year of graduate school and wanted to write to you and say that I feel very much as you do about scientists being assholes. I'm horrified at the personal irresponsibility of my PI (he is like a child with too much power, and no empathy. and yet, he is also capable of being very nice and charming. it's like dealing with two different people). It's not only my lab, the heads of all the labs around me also seem quite insane.
I have days where it seems like the best idea is to quit. On the other hand, I also had the recent realization that the interesting thing about graduate school is that no one cares what you study, so long as you care and can justify it. In more ways than one, I think I'm in an extremely privileged position. So I'm caught: I love the science, I love the freedom to pursue whatever comes into my pretty little head, but I hate many of the people who are considered successful, and in many ways, I hate the politics of the system by which we are all judged.
My only solace is that I have met some really amazing scientists that are working at small teaching colleges- they are happy, doing good work, and seem to have let a lot of the bullshit fall away. More importantly, they've retained their humanity.
I can only hope that the path I'm on will find me some peace, whether it means that I finish what I've started or realize that my energies are better spent elsewhere.
Anyway, I'm rambling. For obvious reasons, I'm leaving this anonymous, but I wanted to thank you for making me feel a little less alone.

At 12:21 AM, Blogger Grad007 said...

Hi Ms PhD,

I just wanted to wish you luck, whether you decide to stay in academia or not. I share your experience of sexism.

At 12:10 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 8:51's comment is interesting in that it illustrates a common assumption about women scientists. Not knowing jack shit about my science, this person makes a purely sexist comment and then says we're using it as an excuse. Really fucking hilarious, actually. Nobody has ever accused me of lacking creativity, either before or after I decided to do science.


Gotta agree with you. Unfortunately it's hard to get into the dream places unless you're really well connected and/or had the right grades/test scores early on. As I've blogged about before, I was not an A++ perfect GRE student, but I do well at the bench, I give good talks, and I have lots of ideas. But I'm not as well connected as I should be because it took me a long time to learn how to do that part of the politics.

Anon 6:15 AM,

Glad it helps. Trust me, if these things bother you, you're not dumb. You're very observant.

Anon 7:32 PM,

Amen. Me too. Good luck.


Thanks. Good luck to you, too.

At 5:10 AM, Blogger Scientia Matris said...

Hey, I'm a bit slow with my reading this week, largely due to goings on where I work that led me to think a lot of the thoughts you've outlined here. It's nothing to do with being female, either. I know LOADs of men who dislike the system and elect to leave. It's just not viewed in the same way (weak, failure) when they do it.

At 10:37 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


That's totally true, and an interesting point. When women leave, we're 'quitters', we're weak. When men leave, they're just being smart. Practical, even.

I'm sorry to hear you're having a crappy week.

At 6:38 AM, Blogger alicepawley said...

Ms. PhD - thanks for your post. I think there are a bunch of us out here who agree with your desire to both change a crappy system and those who don't want any part of it.

A note about the gender thing - while I'm all over the asymmetry of gender reactions, I think there are cases when men leaving their positions are also interpreted as failures - like when they give up a faculty position to take a staff position where their partner is. Which also has gender implications (the more women in staff positions thing) but it might be getting more complicated with time.

Good luck as you make some of those upcoming decisions...


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