Saturday, January 03, 2009

Reponse to comments saying "It's Not Sexism" and "Street Smarts Aren't Learned" (among other things)

Anon 8:02 wrote:

The only thing I disagree completely with is your assumption that men are specifically trained by other men to have "street smarts".

Okay, I apparently wrote this wrong, or you haven't read much of my thoughts on mentoring.

I think most mentoring is passive. Many mentors don't realize they're giving it, unless they're specifically taught to, and mentees don't realize they've gotten mentored until later.

Therefore, I would agree that men don't always specifically train other men. But that's not what I meant (although it might have been what I wrote, it was 3 AM after all!).

What I mean is, men tend to have more sharing interactions, even if they're not deliberately nurturing.

You know how this works. You go out for beers with the guys, and share war stories, don't you?

You might even play tennis with your advisor, or your wife's advisor. Inevitably during the chit-chat you talk about how your papers are coming along, etc. THAT'S MENTORING.

And those little decisions about where to send your paper? That's at least as much street smarts as it is science.

So, think on that a little and write back to tell us if you still disagree.


You're right. Being known is good. In my case, blogging pseudononymously as I do (and controversially!), I don't think I want this being known to cross over to that being known. But you're right, that is good advice to all who are not doing it already.

Like people who have attained First Name Only status. There was a guy where I went to school, let's call him Bob. Everybody knew Bob. They knew where to find him, and they knew when he would be able to solve their problem with a particularly hairy thingamajig. Bob was well known.

However, Bob did not get a job. Bob was known, but he lacked street smarts. So I'm not sure if that's necessarily the same thing.

I think it's easier to be known for scientific skill than it is to convert that currency into political power. Don't you think that's the trick? Not just being known, but knowing how to leverage it?

For example, I have no idea how the YFS brand could help me get a job. But I wonder sometimes if there were a way that it could.

Dr. J&H wrote:

Some departments have a few successful female faculty, which helps promote general equality of treatment; and some departments are good about selecting faculty (both M and F) who will try to mentor trainees effectively (again, both M and F).

These discussions make me wish I could easily insert ye olde symbols in place of M and F, but we'll use it until someone tells me how to do that in HTML without it being too much of a PITA.

I gotta say, where I went to school we had women but they SUCKED at mentoring. SUCKED. They were the pull-the-ladder-up-behind-you types.

Re: departments good at selecting faculty who will mentor both genders... these must be departments with more turnover than the ones I've been working in.

Mine are mostly all dominated by older folks who aren't leaving until they're cold and dead, and they have no intention of factoring that kind of criteria into their faculty candidate decisions.

But it's nice to think there might be departments that do (can I work there??? Got any openings??).

PiT wrote:

I also agree with your notion of street smarts but not so much that there is a gender bias towards males.

Well, that was sort of the point of the post. It's a hypothesis.

I think it's well established that historically, this kind of life skill was taught to boys by their families as they were growing up. And maybe girls who had brothers (did you?) got more of this than girls who didn't (I didn't).

Based on my reading, I'm sure this is partly generational and partly a cultural issue. In my family, none of the women ever worked more than briefly outside the home, so there wasn't any precedent for teaching daughters about the ways of the working world (but it was traditional for sons).

So I've had to figure everything out for myself. I couldn't rely on my parents to advise me after I got out of traditional go-to-class school.

In this analogy, academia has to function like a family to teach the academia-specific street smarts skills (say that five times fast!).

But I think the tradition holds that, because for a long time it was all men, it was traditional to treat men as if it was a foregone conclusion that they would be going on to have full-time jobs (let's call them Careers, shall we?).

But even now, there is still quite a lot of heated discussion about what to do with all these women who want to have children. A scarily high number of PIs still think that hiring women for postdoc positions is inherently risky, "because you never know if they're going to get pregnant." And then they complain about how day care is insufficient, but they aren't going to do anything about it.

Their solution is to hire more men instead.

My point being that many PIs (even women) are more invested in the careers of their male postdocs, because they assume (based on their observations) that it's less risky than mentoring women.

I've had both male and female PIs tell me they're angry with women in their labs for having children, because they think it means they aren't serious about their careers.

I wasted all that time and energy on her
, they say.

So while I might not have evidence that men are mentored more or more effectively, I propose that all the signs are there.

The enthusiasm for mentoring men is perhaps without detraction, whereas the enthusiasm for mentoring women is often shaky. And often for reasons that have nothing to do with reality (Are you seriously telling me you might not mentor me effectively because you're afraid I might decide to have kids someday? Seriously?).

The best analogy I can think of is parents who could afford to get their kids braces, which help prevent future dental problems of all kinds. But they rationalize not doing it, because they say, this kid is never going to be an actress. She doesn't need it.

What? That's not logical. It's a choice rationalized after the fact, and it makes no sense.

In academia, many PIs choose, however passively, not to mentor their women "trainees." And then they rationalize after the fact via the Just-World Fallacy that they didn't do anything wrong because she didn't deserve it anyway.

Anon 12:46,

LOL. There are still secret bathroom meetings in some departments!

a physicist wrote:

As a male PI -- any suggestions for how to improve this with my own lab group? Other than just being aware that this is a general problem?

I'm touched that you'd even ask.

Well, let's start by working with the assumption that street smarts CAN be learned (the rest of you who wrote otherwise- hush up and read your vegetables!).

Here's what I think has helped me get this far:

1. Don't shelter your trainees from the realities of academia.

I know, I know, you have to swear to shelter them when you get your faculty position, but bear with me and consider breaking this rule. Frequently and with aplomb.

A lot of street smarts in academia is just knowing how things work. Departmental structure. Power structure. Points of order - who has to sign off on what, and how to deal with that person. How much things cost. How you make decisions about what to buy and what not to buy. How you choose who to hire.

This is of benefit to you, too. You'll often find that the younger folks around you have useful information on what to buy and who to hire. Especially if they've rotated in other people's labs before joining yours!

2. Go to meetings with your trainees, introduce everyone to everyone else, and include your trainees in discussions with other PIs.

One of the major problems, especially for women, is being shut out of these casual information-sharing sessions. This often happens purely for safety reasons that men rarely consider.

Put yourself in my sensible shoes. I'm not, as a woman, comfortable going drinking with a bunch of guys I don't know in an unfamiliar city. Or hanging out in some guy's hotel room. Yeesh.

See what I mean? It would just be a stupid thing to do. But I might do it if I were a guy, because it would be a completely different ballgame (so to speak).

As a woman, I feel much safer if I know at least one other person, preferably someone whose judgment I can trust. And as a junior person, I feel much more comfortable if I'm with someone who can bridge the distance and at least partly knows the other people in the group when we all go out for dinner, etc.

ALL of my advisors have been terrible about this.

Advisor #1 was too poor to both attend and send one of us, so we had to go by ourselves to meetings if we went at all. This was scary and useful, but not nearly as useful as it would have been with a knowledgeable chaperone to tell us (instead of making us discover it for ourselves), street-smart things like why you don't attend every single talk at a huge meeting, and where the influential people hang out when they're skipping talks in a giant convention center. Okay, so being poor is pretty common nowadays, but it would have been better for us all as grad students to attend 1 meeting together with the PI than to each attend two meetings alone. See what I mean? More bang for your mentoring bucks.

Advisor #2 was pathologically antisocial and did not attend meetings and/or did not socialize at all even when forced, for example, to chair a session.

For example, one really good way to avoid spending time with your mentees is to bring your kids to meetings and treat it as a family vacation.

And so on. My current advisor is scheduled so high and wide for speaking at meetings that there is no hope of overlap unless it's booked ~2 years in advance. So I'm not going to get any help there unless it's by accident. Fortunately I've reached the point where I'd like to think I don't need it so much as I used to.

3. Coach your students and postdocs on what to expect in both formal and informal (sneak-attack) interviews.

You might, if you're a good mentor, already do practice talks when any of your mentees are going to give a seminar or a paper at a meeting. Right? A lot of labs do this. And it's great practice!

So why don't we do career coaching the same way? Publicly, and with a fair amount of humiliation.

Better to do it in your own lab than out there! Right?

For example, I've been blindsided by what I call trick questions while "casually" socializing at meetings, where I've been invited out for dinner or lunch with faculty I've never met before the meeting started.

Here's the surprise: they don't just ask what you're working on or what you're planning to do. This is usually all we've practiced saying out loud in front of anyone. Right?

They ask where you want to live. This inevitably leads them to ask about your personal life (and often in totally illegal ways). How do you handle that?

If you know what to expect, that's money in the bank. If you don't, you often miss important opportunities (see for example PiT's recent post).

Why not stage these kinds of conversations with your group, and see how they handle it with an audience? It's quite a bit different than if you're talking comfortably with them in the privacy of your office, where they know you and you know them.

Put on your interviewer hat, and see how they handle it.

re: the guy who won't take advice to email the famous scientist. I can kind of understand this. Once upon a time (and maybe still a little bit), I was very shy about calling strangers on the phone. It wasn't rational, it was like a phobia.

I sometimes still put it off until I know what I'm going to say.

My guess is that if you ask this guy why he doesn't want to do it, he'll admit he doesn't know what to say.

If he still says he'll do it and then just doesn't do it, tell him you'd be happy to read whatever he writes before he sends it off, and talk about it with him. Most shy people appreciate that kind of support, even if it's purely psychological (maybe you'll end up saying what he wrote is perfect, and it just ends up being a pep talk- but you have to get him to write something first!).

It's also possible he had a run-in with this person at a meeting once upon a time, or something, and it went badly. Or there's some other reason you couldn't possibly know about (he's heard this person is a something-ist and he happens to be something-or-other so it seems pointless to him to try to bond with this person?).

Anyway good luck, let us know if my advice ends up being helpful at all! And maybe others commenting (and lurking!) here might have more suggestions?


I love what you said. Very endearing. But kind of sad that you have to put up a front that you learned from watching men, don't you think?

Still, it says you're a good mimic!

I've learned a lot by watching, but I think I've sort of hit a plateau with that. And as I've blogged about extensively, I often get female-specific backlash for doing the exact same thing that men do all the time. They say I'm arrogant, or whatever, not confident.

It's crazy because I'm just like you, obviously, dealing with insecurity all the time while trying not to cry!

daedalus2u wrote:

It isn't a scientific problem and it doesn't have a scientific solution.

I think it does have a systematic solution, though. See for example, can you imagine if everyone actually did what I suggested a physicist (above) could do?

Although what we have now isn't really a system, more of a collection of errors that happens to lurch along through time, I think we could systematically develop a system by getting rid of some of the most egregious errors. Don't you?

But I didn't say it was ONLY a feminist problem (did I? Did I mention I wrote that post at 3 AM?).

I do think the problem for feminists is that we haven't made more of an effort to identify this as a MAJOR problem for women and do something about it.

And one could argue that it should be possible to identify other logical thinkers and avoid being exploited that way... but only if one has enough street smarts to figure out where to find them!

Anon 8:31 pm wrote:

My understanding is that street smarts is not something that someone can tell you. All of the street-smart people I know got that way through a combination of hard experience, applied intellect, and basic intuition about how people and organizations work.

and Alienta wrote:

You get "street smarts" from the street. You dont get them "handed to you" by anyone.
You dont get them from reading a book. Those are facts.

Yeah, I disagree. I also don't like reading the writing of people who eschew apostrophes in conjunctions. What's up with that? Too much txting?

So I ask you all,

What's hard experience, if not learning?
What's applied intellect, if scientists don't have it in abundance?
What's basic intuition? Isn't that based on INFORMATION GATHERED ABOUT THE WORLD?

Nobody thinks street smarts is psychic ability, and it's not inherent or babies would be able to manipulate free rides on the city buses.

Therefore, I conclude that it's learned.

From that, it follows that it CAN be taught.

That fundamental belief, that what can be learned can be TAUGHT, is why I want to have a career in education.

I submit that people who don't believe that should question deeply whether they should ever be allowed to teach anything to anyone.

I also disagree with Alienta's statement That "luck favors the prepared mind" is a profoundly wrongheaded idea.

I've had a lot of scientific "luck", and it has worked exactly this way. I am not, by all definitions, a lucky person. But when the people around you are telling you that little blip is nothing, but you know it's not and you know why it's actually really important, that's having a prepared mind.

It's only called luck because of the Just-World Fallacy. People assume than when unknown scientists get good results it was dumb luck. Not hard work. It's just totally false and cuts both ways.

Where the street smarts really come in is when you have to convince other people why it's important and why they should help you follow up on it. That's also the essence of grantwriting.

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At 5:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

YFS, being known in a way that can be politically helpful takes a different sort of being known than blogging anonymously, although the mediums can complement. For instance, I do everything I can to learn about the first few years of being a faculty member through a variety of means. I'll talk with senior faculty about their experience, watch junior faculty at work, attend mixers for new folks at conferences, and yes, read blogs of people discussing their situation. Because of the centrality of negotiation in start-ups, I try to attend many different presentations on navigating the academic job market to figure out how to negotiate better. I'll do things like attending open committee meetings of interest at conferences to help build my network and try to contribute to the discussion at hand. But I realize that some of my best mentors may not be at my school, in my state, or even in my discipline.

When I was in college, I would raise my hand in a lecture hall of 500 people when the professor asked for questions. I have always been the type to try to drop by a professor's office hours. I want to go from being a body in a classroom to being known as Academic. Yet I've also learned that being mentored is largely a two-way street, with the onus of seeking stronger professional relationships falls to the junior person.

At 7:58 AM, Anonymous Pain Man said...

I guess I'd have to agree with tnk0001. Follow the mens' lead.

Of course, you sometimes see the same hesitation in some misguided African-Americans. Don't follow the white man's strategy of finishing high school, going to college, deferring childbirth, etc...that's selling out and we need to find our own way (whatever that is).

It's not the white male way, it's just the right way (at least in the sense that it predominates). Most people that have had success have followed the white male way. Of course there's room for descent with modification, but not much.

The successful women scientists I've seen are not afraid to get in there and get dirty with the men. The criticism, as you point out (arrogance vs. confidence), is that you are just taking on male-like characteristics to succeed. But I say to that you can't please everybody, but you should at least try to please yourself.

At 10:14 AM, Blogger Professor in Training said...

I think it's well established that historically, this kind of life skill was taught to boys by their families as they were growing up. And maybe girls who had brothers (did you?) got more of this than girls who didn't (I didn't).

I'm the oldest of two girls from a working class family where my mother was a stay-at-home mom and my father was a very traditional "the woman's place is in the home" type of guy. I was a voracious reader and was sheltered from the big bad world by my parents so I grew up in a fantasy land and had almost no street smarts at all. I only started to pick these up once I finished school and started to figure things out for myself.

At 12:10 PM, Blogger daedalus2u said...

I think there is a slight bit of reality behind the just world fallacy. Not that reality is configured to be just but rather because what it takes to be “successful” in different endeavors is different and skill at one may preclude skill at others.

There is the proverb “Lucky at cards, unlucky in love”. We know that there isn’t such a thing as “luck”, and that excess luck in cards does not mean one will have less luck in love. Neither cards nor love are purely games of chance. Cards are a game of skill, where skill at being deceptive is an advantage because one can bluff and trick your opponents into thinking you have a strong hand, or a weak hand and so convince them to fold or to continue to bet such that they lose more money to you. This is not luck, it is skill at being deceptive. In contrast, love is a “game” of cooperation. Ability to lie and be deceptive does not translate into a good relationship. Few lies can be maintained over a lifetime, a relationship built on lies or deception is not going to be a good relationship. That isn’t “luck” either, it is cause and effect as applied to human psychology and relationships.

A similar expression is “you can’t cheat an honest man”. This is because an honest person is not looking for an unfair advantage, the honest man isn’t looking for something that is too good to be true and wouldn’t accept a deal if it caused the other person to be exploited. As a consequence, the honest person isn’t going to fall for the get rich quick schemes (such as the Nigerian spam) that dishonest people will fall for.

This is related to the ideas of karma, what goes around comes around, as ye sow so shall ye reap, there but for the grace of God go I, treat others as you would have them treat you, and as summed up by Hillel, “what is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.”

The idea of karma has become more important to me in the context of my NO research. Stress is a low NO state. Social interactions are mediated through neural networks that use NO as a neurotransmitter. A high NO state is a more social state, a state with more empathy, more love, more generosity, less pain and suffering. Positive social interactions raise NO levels, negative social interactions lower it. A lifetime of lying (lucky at cards) will produce a low NO state, which impedes social interactions, love and even love making (i.e. smooth muscle is activated by cGMP produced by NO on sGC, necessary for tumescence) making one unlucky at love.

Two well known individuals that epitomize (to me) two extremes of NO physiology are the Dalai Lama, with his mindset of beneficence and non-violence and daily meditation, has a high NO level. The other extreme is Dick Cheney. His belligerence, violence, willingness to torture and brutalize, lack of empathy and greed indicates to me he has a low NO level. His well known heart disease fits with a low NO phenotype too. I see Cheney’s heart disease as a natural consequence of his brutal mindset. By maintaining a mindset that results in a low NO physiology, he has caused his own heart disease.

The effects of low NO over a lifetime are the payback for living a lifestyle that produces low NO. NO physiology is more complicated than this, but there are some NO mediated pathways that could result in correlations that those insufficiently knowledgeable about NO physiology could interpret as being due to the mystical forces of karma rather than NO physiology.

At 12:59 PM, Anonymous Anon 8:02 said...

"So, think on that a little and write back to tell us if you still disagree."

Ouch, how patronizing. Be that as it may, here goes.

"What I mean is, men tend to have more sharing interactions, even if they're not deliberately nurturing."

Oh, really? I'm sure that's backed up by extensive data in the social science sphere. Men are no more social than women, in fact possibly less so. What do men do that is more SHARING than women? Play sports? Drink beer? I don't think so.

"You know how this works. You go out for beers with the guys, and share war stories, don't you?"

Actually, most often if I'm going out for beers with other scientists, they are women. And we do share war stories. And they aren't afraid of me, or think I'm about to make a pass at them, just because I'm a guy. The vast majority of my grad school classmates/fellow postdocs are women, thus they are the ones I go out for beers with.

"You might even play tennis with your advisor, or your wife's advisor. Inevitably during the chit-chat you talk about how your papers are coming along, etc. THAT'S MENTORING"

Uh, no. Never. I have never socialized with my advisors outside of the lab. My grad school advisor was not very social. My postdoc advisor is insufferable. Neither of them are the type of person you play tennis with. My current advisor could care less about my career, as long as he gets something out of it. He certainly doesn't MENTOR me over cocktails, beers, or on the tennis court.

I'm sure your view of male bonding/mentoring happens in some places. I certainly haven't seen it, nor participated in it. If I didn't know any better, from reading your blog I'd think science was just like advertising agencies in the '60s, a la Mad Men. Why don't you think on that a little, and write back to tell us if you still disagree?

At 3:41 PM, Anonymous Soo said...

I agree; street smarts can be learnt. Certainly your innate level of intuition about how people and organisations work can't be learnt, but for those of us with lower levels of intuition in the first place, it is possible to learn skills and knowledge that do help considerably in the street smarts direction. I have a lot of anecdotes about that!

Once an older (female) colleague pointed out a dynamic that was going on that I'd never have spotted on my own, concerning a certain other colleague known for uncollegiality; she helped me observed what was going on. That later helped me to "defeat" the second colleague all on my own, when I encountered the second colleague in a skirmish of uncollegiality.

Now someone more street-smart than me might have used some clever inter-personal way of dealing with the second colleague and producing the required collegiality. I wouldn't have had a clue about that, but I managed to defend myself with some solid statistics instead, and it worked (phew).

There are also books on various sorts of skills that are useful in academia and elsewhere. Books on when and how to negotiate, how to see what games are being played, how to approach difficult conversations, how to be persuasive, oh all kinds of things. I have found several such books that gave me a whole new insight into a lot of aspects of academia, and they were very practically useful too.

At 8:50 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


YES. I do all those things.

Still haven't found The Mentor For Me. Often get conflicting advice or advice from people who are clearly being hypocritical (they tell me to do the opposite of what they do with their own postdocs).

See past posts.

Pain Man,

I'm trying to tell you, IT'S NOT PLEASING TO BE CALLED NAMES. It's very easy for you to sit in your comfy chair (wherever that is) and talk about what works for most people and pleasing yourself, etc.

And don't you mean ascent with modification? Not descent?


That's great. So then I wonder why you sometimes seem to have no sympathy for those of us who might be slower at learning street smarts?


I think it was some comedian who said karma is great, the only problem is it takes so damn long to pay off!

Anon 8:02 again,

I wasn't trying to be patronizing. I think you're being defensive. Or maybe you were being patronizing in your original comment?

I think you're missing the point. In MY field (which is apparently the opposite of yours re: gender ratios), there ARE NO WOMEN TO SHARE WTIH. Especially not at the faculty level.

I'm sorry your advisors sound about as useful as mine. But yeah, there are some areas where it is EXACTLY like Mad Men. It really is.


I thought I mentioned books in one of my previous posts. They are useful for giving you ideas, but in my hands they don't end up being that useful in practice. It's a lot harder to spot the situations where these kinds of advice apply, especially when the books are written largely for other professions.

I have mostly taken the route you mention re: statistics. I tend to try to win over my critics with a mountain of data. This works for some things, not so much for others, and it requires a LOT more homework than knowing how to finesse any situation to one's own advantage.

At 6:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I think you might have a problem if you are looking for "The Mentor for Me" because of the nature of the singular. Sometimes you can receive mentoring from even consistently misguided mentoring (where you can see the hypocrisy) by just doing the negative. Perhaps you could seek out the peer mentoring of working with their post-docs. A mentor doesn't have to be some huge senior professory type to be a mentor. I receive mentoring from all sorts of crazy places. If someone is willing to journey alongside me, does it really matter if they are a lawyer, stay-at-home parent, engineer, top expert in my field or could I learn valuable lessons from all of these sorts of people along the way?

Do women need to be in your field in order to be good mentors for you? Yeah, it can be a bonus. But I think I would rather talk to someone who's just tried to navigate the university's maternity leave policy even if that sends me over to my friend in the English department if that's the issue I had where I needed mentoring. Or perhaps I'm concerned about how to negotiate my start-up contract as a woman so I send an email to that female communication professor who spoke at that one event I happened to go to 9 months so. Or perhaps I need sage wise shoe counsel so I pop over to Dr. Isis's blog....

I don't think that it's either necessary or even reasonable to try to expect to have only one mentor. If you know how various people play their cards, then I think you can still get good mentoring from the (even if it means reverting their counsel to the converse).

At 11:17 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

daedalus -
NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! I have this mental picture of you hooked and wired up to a NO machine.

For the male PI wanting to know what he can do for women in science -
Invite tenure track women in science to your lab to give talks, to collaborate, to interact with your group. There's is no better example than a living breathing present example. Also, be an ally for women. When you hear a derogatory comment hurled at a woman, directly to her face or behind her face, stand up for her and let the asshole who spoke know that it's way uncool and unacceptable. We need men to stand up for us. We are tired of fighting the same ol shit every day.

One thing I noticed about my faculty interviews is that the old crusty men seemed to treat me like they were hiring an ASSISTANT. not an ASSISTANT PROFESSOR. Almost like they can't see a woman as being anything other than a grad student because they don't have women around that aren't grad students. It's the one-size-treatment-fits-all-women.

At 7:04 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


Well yes and no. I do have plenty of peer co-mentoring things and that has been helpful. But I'm sort of running out of rope. Really the ideal mentors would be people who just got faculty positions in the last year or so, and they've gone into the void of Extreme Busyness. I get tidbits. Lots of tidbits.

It would be great to have other women to journey with. I'm trying to find some.

Do women need to be in my field? Well it turns out when you reach a certain point, the idiosyncracies of some fields become the dominating variable. I just had a really strange conversation with a friend from grad school who has worked in the same two fields as me, but in the opposite order. And he said he really thinks my field is particularly bad. So it was interesting to get that perspective from someone who has really been there, done that.

re; negotiating startup, yeah okay communications people might be helpful if you need help with negotiating. if you want to know how much $$ to ask for, asking a humanities prof would be stupid for me, the amount of money we're talking about is orders of magnitude different. But yeah, of course. Play to the strengths of your network.

re: inverting advice, the trick is knowing when and from whom the mirror advice is best. Some of my mentors give great advice X amount of time, and opposite days occur Y amount of time. Knowing when to add or subtract 180 degrees is the tricky part.

Anon 11:17 wrote:

One thing I noticed about my faculty interviews is that the old crusty men seemed to treat me like they were hiring an ASSISTANT. not an ASSISTANT PROFESSOR. Almost like they can't see a woman as being anything other than a grad student because they don't have women around that aren't grad students. It's the one-size-treatment-fits-all-women.

I re-copied it because this is SO TRUE, it needs to be said again. And again. And again.


And I totally agree about the standing up for women part. But most people don't stand up for anyone, so that's not going to save up anytime soon.

At 9:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the problem is that you have to get powerful people (like those on hiring committees) to like you, and to have a favorable view of you.

The problem is how do you get powerful people to first notice you, and then to have the good impression of you? it doesn't help if all your postdoc peers think you are the best in the field, the powerful people are the ones who must think that.

I think you need to have someone closer to their level of power advocating for you. You know that there are other job candidates out there who ARE being backed by powerful people so you are at a disadvantage if you aren't. Unfortunately this goes back to the need for a sympathetic mentor, someone to bridge the gap between you and them. I hate that it works this way because it relies so much on having a more senior and more established person advocating for you in order to get your foot in the door. You are so dependent on the kindness of your superiors. And in this cut-throat environment kindness from superiors is not something I've seen very much of,even if it would be mutually beneficial. More likely, what I've seen is that your superiors will try to get all they can out of you without having to do anything in return.

I don't have a kind but more senior person advocating for me. I suppose the Just-World theory people would assume that this means I must suck or be incompetent or not have what it takes.

The more senior people I have worked with, they like me alright but they always see me as a student (postdoc), someone to work under them and not as someone ready to go to the next level of being a colleague of theirs. I don't know what else it takes to convince them.

I think the problem is that once they get used to associating you with a certain position (in this case as being "only" a postdoc, or an assistant), they will always associate you as being appropriate just for that position and balk at the idea of you being anything more than that. They don't see the postdoc position as being a transition to independence, they see it as a job position of inferior quality to the ones they have.

it is similar to a family owned business. My dad worked in his father's business since he was a kid. Years later he wanted to take on a bigger role but his father (my grandfather) refused because he only ever saw my dad as a little fumbling kid. This is despite the fact that by now my dad had not only already obtained a business degree but also proven his maturity and leadership ability after a successful stint in the military as a commanding officer. Yet despite that his father never saw him as anything more than a glorified errand-boy, because that was the 'first' impression and thus the most lasting one. (result: my dad left the family business)...So, sometimes familiarity (being well-known) is actually bad because you can get pigeon-holed into whatever it is you are being well-known for.

At 8:26 AM, Blogger daedalus2u said...

Regarding the timing of karma; as Gandhi said, “be the change you want to see in the world”. Humans are some of the agents by which karma happens. How fast or how slow depends on how humans respond to actions that should have negative consequences.

Anon 11:17 has it right. The more people who don’t tolerate misogynistic behavior the faster it will eventually go away. That is karma in action.

I have been hooked up to an NO analyzer. That was how I measured NO production from the bacteria I am studying coincident with a physiological effect known to be mediated by NO. That physiological effect was measured instrumentally too, with a plethysmograph, as I didn’t have an assistant to measure it manually (which would have introduced serious confounding artifacts ;).

At 8:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you have a professional organization where you can establish mentoring networks? Also, if you're looking for junior faculty members to be mentors, part of me feels like you may be a bit out of luck because of the Vortex of Extreme Busyness. First year at any job causes you to cut off anything that's not absolutely necessary. It's draining and it can be hard. Everyone finds their own coping mechanisms but many people who seem willing to step up more to the mentoring plate are people who've gotten through this hellish time. It's important to realize that informal mentoring relationships don't count on someone's tenure considerations at all, so if you think these relationships are critical for your success then I think you have to figure out a way for it to be mutually beneficial. From what you appear to be saying, these sorts of mentors would not be at your present institution although I have introduced myself to all of the new faculty arriving in my department this year to try to get to know them better.

Regarding $$, look at the public schools near you to get a sense of the breakdowns in your field. All salaries are made public at a lot these institutions.

No one's going to be able to tell you exactly what you should do in every situation. Some people might offer you different advice than what they did in hopes that they have a suggestion that surpasses what they did.

At 2:33 AM, Anonymous Gingerale said...

YFS, thanks for this and your other posts on the theme. I find the discussion helpful.

At 11:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi YFS, I don't have much sage advice. I am just a math PhD student graduating this year and we face a terrible market like everyone else (though yours is even worse...far far worse)

But I do have something to say. Why are you so frustrated that you are under-appreciated, jobless and/or desperate? Do you realize that you are just a strand of DNA, a piece of computer code? All your feelings...those of anxiety..pain... anger are all about certain chemical compounds working in your nerve cells.

What's your problem? People look down on you perhaps? So what? Those people and you are just an improved version of the mice you do experiments on. We are just machines... interacting according to a probabilistically generated program. You are a biologist. Do I have to tell YOU this? Of all people, you should know that there is nothing more to a human being than a bundle of nerve cells, muscle and bone. And why are you getting worked up over chemicals in those nerve cells?

Even if you were to starve to death, so what? You know how it works, don't you? Prolonged starvation shuts down the brain.. (am I right?) ...just nerve cells big deal.

It is this approach I bring into my work. It helps me approach my life with equanimity because I know nothing matters... there is no "real me", "no soul"..."no spirit" anyone can insult. Only religious people believe in such silly things as "real me" or "meaning of life". WE can do better than that. We are just organisms in the natural world. Give my method a chance. You will see it works.

At 5:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon @11:18, that is an interesting philosophy. As an engineer I try to be dispassionate about a lot of things, and I am more unflappable than most of my non-engineering/non-science friends.

However, blocking out emotions and desires is not always the answer either. The pursuit of science requires passion. that is what sustains you through difficult times. Otherwise, the purely logical approach is to cut your losses and change direction when things get difficult. Sometimes changing direction helps, other times it prevents attainment of goals.

Feeling upset or frustrated comes with the territory of being passionate. It is because you care about something, that you are susceptible to feelings of frustration. If you did not care about something, you would not be feeling frustrated but also you would be complacent, and complacency doesn't push people to strive for higher goals.

Maybe I am not understanding what you said....

I do like your approach of distancing yourself from the things that trigger anxiety or negative emotions. I think I do understand what you're saying - does something really matter? This isn't the first time I've heard about this approach to dealing with anxiety. The approach is to mentally picture a time in the future where the present problem no longer matters. For example, if you are stressing over a difficult boss...20 years from now will it have mattered what your boss said to you today? That helps to make today's problems seem a lot less important and thus less anxiety-provoking.

However, some things DO have long-lasting impact on your life, i.e. they DO matter. If I had not been pushed partly by anxiety to study harder for my undergrad exams, I wouldn't have got such good grades which means I wouldn't have made it to grad school or to complete my phd and thus I wouldn't be in my present job today. (maybe I would be in a better job, ha!)

At 8:28 PM, Blogger Eppendork said...

"What's your problem? People look down on you perhaps? So what? Those people and you are just an improved version of the mice you do experiments on. We are just machines... interacting according to a probabilistically generated program. You are a biologist. Do I have to tell YOU this? Of all people, you should know that there is nothing more to a human being than a bundle of nerve cells, muscle and bone. And why are you getting worked up over chemicals in those nerve cells?"

What a load of bollocks. If you didn't care about anything or think nothing matters why on earth would you get out of your comfy bed in the mornings? How patronising was this comment - do I have to tell you? This comment just suggests that you think you have it all sorted out - no one has it all sorted out. And why should you just accept people treating you badly - because that is just the way of the world - what a load of arse. This sort of shite annoys the bejesus out of me. Ms PhD it should annoy you too.


At 11:29 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 11:18, Anon 5:57 and Eppendork,

I agree that the zen approach has its place.

I also think that passion has its purpose.

I think I only get really frustrated when I know it's not just me going through this.

There are other people (many readers of this blog) who are suffering the same setbacks, and it leads to more suffering.

I want to break the cycle of stupidity.

That is my battle: for something larger than my own strands of DNA. My own nerve cells don't matter so much in the long-term.

The only problem with taking on the "we are nothing" mentality is that it assumes everyone else is nothing, too. And I don't really believe that.

Just like I respect other people doing animal research, I avoid it myself (wherever possible) because I think animals have feelings. They may just be nerve endings, but pain is no fun for anyone.

I like to post these somewhat controversial comments if they present a different philosophy. The only ones I delete are downright offensive.

This is the blogosphere, after all. We might all be nothing, but we sure do come in a lot of different shapes and sizes. All different colored specks of sand.

You don't learn as much when you surround yourself with only like-minded folks. Sometimes you gotta ask yourself, why did that comment provoke such a strong reaction from me?

Maybe it's because something they're saying raises an interesting point that is at least partly true.

If it were completely ridiculous, you'd discount it out of hand. Or I'd delete it.

I gotta say though, at the end of the day, the "nothing matters" people are the ones who maintain the status quo, who go along to get along, who perpetuate all kinds of atrocities because it's easier than standing up to fight.

Some things matter to me. I agree that being under-appreciated and/or jobless are maybe not the most noble causes. People looking down on me, you're right, I shouldn't let it get to me. I should get over that.

And if that doesn't work, I can always complain about them on my blog! But only when I have the appropriate pseudonyms handy.

At 7:31 AM, Anonymous a physicist said...

I'm sorry it's taken me a while to respond, thanks for the thoughtful post.

Re: not sheltering trainees from reality: I completely agree. My entire lab (including the undergrads) weighs in on decisions of hiring postdocs. I discuss with them why I'm making my final decision. Although "power structure" is a bit harder. I see your point, I'll have to think how to communicate this information without hitting extremes of being too gossipy or too boring.

Re: attending meetings with trainees: Our group definitely does this, again including undergrads. (Physics is lucky that everybody who attends an American Physical Society conference is allowed to give a 10 minute talk, so undergrads and grad students present in the same sessions as the faculty.) I set up meal plans with people I know and invite people from my group who work on related areas. Over the week this occurs with a variety of people in my group. Maybe what I need to do is check that I have included everybody at least once, rather than doing it randomly.

Re: interview coaching: great idea. Given that we all attend the APS conference each year, I'll start discussing sneak-interviewing before we show up.

Re: Not wanting to email. Yes, I do this (offer to preview the email). It helps. (It's not specific to one famous person, it's a pattern of reluctance to network.)

Overall: I agree with how you ended your post, that all of this should be teachable. I also have always thought that us folks in science are supposed to be quite smart, but some people only apply their smarts to the science. People need to apply them to learning to give good talks, learning to write, learning to network, learning all of the many other skills needed to get a job (as this blog always makes clear). And then when they have their job, they need to apply their smarts to making sure their trainees succeed as well.

At 7:39 AM, Anonymous a physicist said...

Anonymous 11:17 am: I agree, inviting a variety of people for seminars is helpful -- and then inviting students from my lab group to meals with them helps further. Your point about speaking up is also very true.

Anonymous 11:18 pm: I think the point is that science is a field which ostensibly presents itself as a meritocracy, full of people who make logical decisions. YFS's blog present many counter-examples. But I think also we could all imagine how it could be better. That's what's frustrating.

At 8:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am here to clarify my point. I am sorry anyone thought I was saying I had it all "figured out". But I will also say it is wrong to assume no one has it all figured out. How do you know? I guess the important question here is "how would I know even if I had it all figured out"?

And I have no idea what the "zen approach" is.

Now, on to MsPhD's point about being a "status quo" person. I think we are all programmed to achieve as much as possible (perhaps those without the trait got sorted out by the evolution process?), it's an instinct, like sexual desire or fear of death. I don't think it's possible to shut it out. Of course, you could say that we are also programmed to feel pain and anxiety, etc. but I am suggesting that we do what we can to alleviate the effects, by repeatedly reminding ourselves that we are just a bunch of cells.

What we feel at any given moment : anger, love, fear, pain, joy, desire, etc. may be visualized as a something picked out of a probability distribution. At any given moment, each possible feeling enjoys a different probability of being picked. For instance, if my friend were to die, sorrow would get 99% probability at that point. So I am suggesting we tweak our internal probability assigning mechanism; to add more weight to the "desire to achieve" function and less weight to the "feel hurt, angry" function.

In a phrase... if we think we understand something about the program (that's what scientists do, right?) we should be able to modify it.

At 6:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems like you want your advisor to hand hold you through things a bit too much. Go to meetings with you, come to the pub with you? It's a bit OTT.

Lots of guys have class or other issues with would make such social situations difficult. Lots of woman would not find these situations awkward.

It's part of your PhD to figure these things out and find away though.

At 7:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not a scientist per se, but am a female in the aerospace engineering profession. I just stumbled across your blog. I'm pretty much in the same boat as you are, and I feel like you're writing about me specifically.

I work with some great guys, but aerospace engineering management is also dominated by a bunch of sexist old farts.

I'm very young compared to other midlevel managers, and people (men) frequently think I'm an intern. In fact someone came up to me yesterday while I was working near the copier and told me to make copies for them.

However, the treatment I get in private industry is WAY WAY better than what I got as an academic. I would rather stab myself than go back to academics.

Anyway, keep up the good work. I hope you find a place that has a more positive atmosphere.

At 8:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Metaphysical bullshit - LOVE IT! dalai-wanna-be, you forgot to take your anti-psychotic drugs today.... here's a reminder. take your pills.

YFS - you need to rearrange your brain cells so you're not pissed about the economy, sexism, academia, etc. Labotomy works for that sexism stuff when being polite, not being angry, and fun fails. I have no cure for the other stuff - yeah, try pretending it doesn't exist. HAHAHAHAHAHA! poof, it's gone.

At 10:55 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

a physicist said:

Physics is lucky that everybody who attends an American Physical Society conference is allowed to give a 10 minute talk, so undergrads and grad students present in the same sessions as the faculty.

TAKE NOTE, BIOMED PEOPLE! This is how we should do our meetings!

Just for comparison, I've blogged about it before, but here it is again in all its hierarchical glory:

At most of the meetings in our field, postdocs are lucky to give a 10-minute talk rather than a poster; grad students might occasionally too. Undergrads are lucky to attend.

Faculty generally get 30-60 minutes to blather on about something their grad students and postdocs did. Sometimes this is the work of many years and postdocs, in which case it makes a lot of sense to do it this way, makes for an interesting story. Other times they're just presenting the work of one postdoc, and I find myself wondering where that postdoc is.

Although we might get to give talks, sometimes the non-faculty talks are relegated to a separate session (and faculty don't always attend these, especially if they're right before a meal or late at night).

Where the real inequalities come in is that SOME faculty, if they're not attending for some reason, will give their talk slot to a postdoc. So then that postdoc gets 3-6 times more exposure than the average postdoc. Which is great for them. I just wish more PIs would do this and that more meeting organizers would realize that a senior postdoc is less than a year away from becoming a potential hire (i.e. junior faculty). At that point, the distinction of who might be a good speaker based on perceived experience (or whatever) is a bit arbitrary.

@Anon 8:21 AM,

That's an interesting way of describing your philosophy. I think I understand better now.

We can try to control our reactions to things, yes. It is interesting to think about it in terms of shifting a probability distribution, somehow that seems easier for me to picture than throwing a switch.

Some psychologists would also suggest that the better approach is to actually get out of the habit of only reacting.

In reality I think we all still have to do both- approach the world, and react to it when circumstances require.

Anon 6:58 wrote:

It seems like you want your advisor to hand hold you through things a bit too much.

I would like my advisors to demonstrate that they give a shit. Sometimes they do. And sometimes I wonder if they don't really believe we're just a dime a dozen of disposable minions. A little action speaks a LOT louder than a ton of empty words.

And you're right, lots of guys are capable of being non-awkward; lots of women are oblivious.

It's the exceptions (whom, you have to admit, still exist) who make it necessary to always err on the side of caution.

I know FAR too many women who have been accosted by a professor to believe that this is such a rare event that I don't need to be aware of putting myself into potentially risky situations. And if you've read this blog, you've seen other people have written comments here saying the same thing.

I'm just saying, it's an issue most men don't have to worry about when they're at meetings with a bunch of colleagues (who are actually strangers). They can hang out with whomever they please, with none of the same concerns for potential bodily harm or career catastrophe.

Anon 7:15,

Wow. I take it as a sign that I'm right in thinking it's not just me, if this blog resonated with your experience so well.

However, I do think it's a little bit sad that it's so common and yet still somewhat of a dirty secret in the Real World.

I think it's interesting that you feel you're treated better in industry in your field. Are there more women? Or is it just that the whole culture is different?

@Anon 8:48 AM,

I'm taking this comment as at least slightly sarcastic, which I appreciate.

Maybe we'll add the Home Sexism Lobotomy Kit to the list of future YFS schwag (is a Labotomy a surgery that removes lab from your brain? I should get one of those if I quit science). Just cut that crap right outta there!

At 10:52 AM, Blogger Unbalanced Reaction said...

I was completely taken aback that there were women at LargeU that refused to serve as mentors to female grad students. While I could somewhat see that they wanted their science to be separate from their gender, I was surprised at how much they resented being asked to be an example for others coming behind them. Some flat-out refused. Of course, I have had wonderful male mentors as well, but hearing the experiences of the scientists who happened to be female resonated the most with me.

At 10:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's the latest news on your job situation. I did see you mentioned that you and MrPhD have jobs.

At 1:22 AM, Anonymous Peanut said...


I meant to include the word "NOT"
in the following sentence.

"Now that I'm applying to programs, I'm realizing that the entrenched attitudes are NOT going away."

At 11:17 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Anon 10:46,

Did I? That's not what I meant. I meant we are currently employed (as postdocs).

There's nothing new to report on the job front. And even if there were, some of it would be unbloggable.

At 12:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

LOL. I can totally relate to your lack-of-women-in-field quandary! I am a female grad student and I only JUST met my first TENURED woman faculty member last year. I don’t even look for women mentors anymore. I have a list of top 5-10 women researchers across the country in my sub-field and I just try to learn what I can from their career trajectory.

Re: Gender Differences and "Street Smarts"

My career began with one foot in computation and one in biology. Strangely, I never really ran into the gender differences in the male-dominated computational fields (where a skilled brain got you a heck of a lot) -- but they are rampant in biomedical research.

I can only speak from experience. I don’t know about these chats over beer. I don’t know about this boy-club. I have not witnessed that exactly.

But I have seen that women from my institution seem FAR less skilled at negotiating contracts than their male counterparts (a very learned skill, and one that can definitely be classed as "street smarts").

Women seem far less likely to claim their work in talks. While this might originate from how society trains girls to speak, I have rarely heard mentors correct students on this point. Thank Goodness I had a mentor point this out to me early in my career! Now when I listen to the passive verbiage from the bright and talented women in my lab, I'm astounded.

Women also seem far less likely to be offered talks around the department -- and thats taking the smaller number of women students in to consideration. Perhaps women are less likely to aggressively gun for talks -- but that would also indicate a lack of mentorship not an inherent flaw.

Of course, this is just anecdotal. I am one person (and I'm not a sociologist, lol!). I cannot speak for the entire country or offer you hard data.

Re: Advice

If I've learned one thing, it’s that you NEVER call attention to obvious disparities (or even to blatant sexism) -- not to male mentors, not to female mentors, not to anyone. Its a career killer. Seriously, DONT DO IT. Just because your mentor is a woman does not make her sympathetic. If you run into a real issue, find another mentor who will back you. Work around the issue. Play politics. But say nothing.

Knowing which skills other people (women) in your department are systemically crappy at just gives you an idea of what you skills you will need to seek out. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is. Be as pro-active as you can.

Best advice I ever got regarding mentors: Get two.

First, find a male mentor who is 40-ish, in the peak of his career, preferably has daughters (thats a direct quote from the advice-giver, I don’t really count that a necessity) or has a demonstrated positive track record with female students.

Second, get a female mentor ... if possible ... who takes an honest interest in you. Any age or level is fine. This is more for the personal advice anyway. Take what you can get.

When I was looking for a mentor I specifically looked for someone who was output focused. I have never needed much day-to-day mentorship (though it would be nice, lol!) so this is ok. With my current mentor, I could be a 14-legged, purple beast that roots for the Yankees -- but if I produced fancy papers he wouldn’t care. AND I can tell you from my new perspective, having a fancy-pants mentor who is actually ADVOCATING for you and actively mentoring you (versus just being passively neutral/positive) makes a HUGE difference. It is a game changer.

And I leave you with this last, most hilarious piece of advice that I got from a fancy prof: "The most important thing for a woman in academic medical research to have is an enlightened spouse."


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