Saturday, March 21, 2009

Response to comments on previous post re: Americans as a minority in American Science

Tried to respond previously, but blogger ate my comment and I didn't have time to start over. I figured this way at least I can save incrementally...

Got a lot of comments on this one, many of them valid, equally many reactionary and non-constructive. And some of which addressed points I want to re-emphasize.

Chall said:

I find that there are fewer American female post docs (at least where I am) than male, even compared to the foreign ratio. In that you might be correct to assume that as a female American postdoc you have to compete with the foreign male post docs, as well as the few female foreigners on top of the male Americans.

Which made me feel a little bit justified in writing the original post.

But then Chall said:

I don't think this makes it "another factor working against you" - if nothing else because the key ingredient of getting that faculty job is networking/knowing the field/being known in the US and as a US born,bred and science thaught[sic] with an american [sic] mentor you have a huge advantage against at least the average foreign post docs.

Which raises a point I want to address.

1. Just because I have an American advisor does NOT give me, as an American female postdoc, a default advantage.

All of my peers are foreign postdocs who have the same advisor.

It's more important that our advisor LIKES us, which means that we have to meet certain expectations. So far as I can tell, the expectations for Americans are different than those for foreign postdocs.

In fact, American PIs seem to expect less from foreign postdocs in terms of writing skills and speaking skills, which is generally fair (especially if you haven't been in the country that long).

However, this can also be used indefinitely as a manipulation tool, and an all-purpose backup excuse. Just this week I heard about different instances at two different universities where a superdoc (in one case) and a PI (in the other) who have both been in the US for over 10 years used the "Oh, my English is so bad I must have misunderstood" as their excuse for majorly unethical behavior.

Give me a break. It only works as an excuse for so long, people. You can't have it both ways. If you want to stay in the country and have a job here as a scientist, it seems unfair that we grant you a permanent get-out-of-jail-free card!

Anon at 4:13 pm wrote:

the pale male stale humans think hiring furriners is DIVERSITY.

This is an interesting point. Is it really diversity?

I guess culturally you could say so, but what about the differences in how women are treated? I'm thinking in particular of certain cultures where it's quite common for the man to come to the US as a postdoc, with unemployed (and work visa-less) wife in tow (and stuck at home).

These men often bring with them, into the lab, some really nasty biases against women working at all, much less being peers in the scientific workplace (or, god forbid, authority figures).

And then these guys become PIs, and soon enough they're on search committees. That is the inevitable conclusion of bringing more men in and promoting them into positions of authority (over women).

Perhaps if we wised up about the role of expectations and cultural diversity in science, this would be less a source of future discrimination and more of an advantage for scientific progress?

Seems like right now it's a trade-off where American women are signing up for workplace abuse, not just from their sexist American advisors, but also from co-workers who may or may not realize how offensive they're being.

Here's an example: a while back I had to do some heavy lifting as a normal part of my job. Normally nobody is there to watch me.

This particular time, one of my (male, foreign) co-workers said to me, "Wow, you're pretty strong for a girl." He's one of the ones with a stay-at-home wife.

And I don't need that kind of crap at work. A more appropriate phrasing might have been something like "Wow, good job! Thanks for doing that!"

Am I supposed to grant him a pass because his English isn't so good?

Amusingly enough, one of the foreign female postdocs actually said the same thing to me a while later.

Am I really that strong "for a girl"? I don't think so. But she had been using the excuse that she was female as a way to get out of doing this particular lab chore.

Anon 6:09 pm wrote:

I think many American students avoid PhD sciences precisely in part for this unspoken reason.

Really? Are students aware of this? I wasn't.

In fact, it never occurred to me that it would bother me at all. From the very first lab I worked in, I relished the exposure to other cultures.

It has only been very recently that I've begun to notice an accumulation of some major drawbacks.

Sure, I had some problems in grad school with men of the "women can't do that" variety, but they were avoidable. There was the one postdoc in a rotation (didn't join that lab), and the other postdoc in a potential collaboration (didn't do the collaboration).

But more recently it has been a more general problem, extending beyond the sexism-from-men to sexism from the other foreign women postdocs who seem to think I'm somehow defective because I don't want to have children. Or the kinds of assumptions like the one Chall mentioned, that just because I'm American and my PI is American that gives me some kind of secret handshake to the in-club (it doesn't).

Unbalanced Reaction wrote:

Americans are by far the norm at small liberal arts colleges

Which brings up another interesting point.

Perhaps it's related to the way Americans are totally clueless about what science and research really are. We're too far removed from the rest of society, so they don't really care. We're part of the dreaded intellectual elite, and say what you will about the US, but even with Obama as President, we're still generally against intellectualism in this country (myself not included, thank you very much).

My point being, maybe we think foreigners shouldn't be teaching our kids (this was certainly true where I grew up). So we want Americans as teachers.

Another good example was a recent news piece I heard on the dearth of nurses in this country. There was a proposal to bring in foreign nurses to help fill all the empty jobs and get the work done, but it was massively rejected.

So while there are some areas where we look the other way, other areas are seen as "too important" to outsource. The thinking is that we don't want grandma and grandpa being looked after by foreigners, do we?

The other thing that amused me about that story was the reason why we don't have enough nurses. They said nursing instructors are paid less, and working nurses are paid more. So nobody wants to be a nursing instructor.

Maybe we should take a page from that model as a way to get rid of all these lazy-ass PIs who make tons of money off their postdocs?

I'm just sayin'.

an immigrant said:

I do feel that in general, foreigners are more willing to endure hardship than Americans.

And this is exactly the point I was making.

There is a bias to believe that:

a. Foreigners work harder in general, because Americans are lazy/pampered

b. Foreigners are willing to work for cheap

c. Foreigners have no other options, so they'll do anything to get a job and keep it

If this is what everyone believes, then I think my hypothesis must be correct. Surely any logical person would rather hire the helpless, hardworking, non-demanding employee/colleague than a spoiled, lazy, whiny American?


And they can assume all this from the comfort of... never having even met me. Just because I'm American.

Just like many of you apparently do (based on some of the comments I've received over the years of writing this blog).

Professor in Training wrote:

Native English speakers have a natural advantage when interviewing for faculty positions (of course, this doesn't give you an advantage over native English speaking foreigners).

2. Just because I have spoken English all my life, does NOT give me an advantage in interviews.

First of all, I can't even GET any interviews.

But assuming that I could, here's a good example. I have now had several of these informal sneak-attack "pre-interviews" where PIs casually ask me about my personal life or my PI.

And here's the thing you're perhaps not getting. As a Native English speaker, I am expected to understand and utilize all kinds of innuendo and nuance that maybe foreign postdocs never experience, because it's not expected.

If I make even the slightest faux-pas- intended or otherwise, I'm screwed.

Whether you intend to take advantage of it or not, if English is not your first language, the expectations are slightly relaxed.

I love this example, where a foreign postdoc - whose English was nearly perfect, so far as I could tell - said that the data in his figures had been "manipulated."

And nobody blinked.

But as a Native speaker, to me using that word implies "falsified" or "adjusted to promote a certain outcome."

But he can say things like that. If for some reason I used a word- maybe even without knowing it or meaning to- I would be out of the running for a job.

The expectations are just different.

RFS wrote:

How about the extreme case: would it be a bad thing if science done in the US was done by immigrants that intend to stay here?

Isn't that the case now? That was sort of my point.

Joana wrote:

I'm sure you don't want to have science full of women just for the statistics...

And that's true. I would not want science to be done only by women.

Lately I'm more and more in favor of trying to aim for parity...

But we're not there yet.

Anon @7:33 wrote:

Despite all of your complaints about men, I have to say my blog post would be aptly titled "As an American male I'm a minority in my profession". I'm a postdoc at a high level American institution, biomed sciences. The VAST majority of postdocs in our department are not Americans, and I'd say more than 60% are female. That's why I have so much trouble understanding your rants against men;Don't get me wrong, I can see that there's discrimination against women based on your blog and the responses from other women. I just don't see it as much in my day to day life. Its hard to imagine that the male minority here is actually controlling the female majority.

Anyhow, I think you may see a shift in the demographics of science in the next several years. If the majority of postdocs and grad students are women, then soon the majority of PI's should be as well. Men just aren't into the biomed sciences these days, and its understandable. You can't make a very good living on a postdoc salary, and unless you have some family money or your spouse makes a lot of money, its really not worth the pain and effort.

Sigh. I'm going to try to take the good parts of this comment as agreeing with me, and correct the rest.

So as an American, you say you also feel you're in the minority.

60% female is barely a majority, but okay.

But when you say, It's hard to imagine that the male minority here is actually controlling the female majority, you're missing a really important point.

That's actually how the ENTIRE WORLD WORKS. There are MORE women than men IN THE WORLD. And yet, men are in charge of almost everything.

So maybe if you look at it that way, it's not that surprising that men dominate science?

Then you wrote, If the majority of postdocs and grad students are women, then soon the majority of PI's should be as well.

WRONG AGAIN. As you might have noticed in one of my recent posts, women have been the majority of undergraduate and grad students for a while now. And yet, they're still not the majority of postdocs or PIs.

So your "majority input leads to majority output" theory has a major hole in it.

And your comment about men not being into the biomed sciences... first of all, I don't really think that's true. But second, I think what you meant to say is that actually the graduate student applications in general were declining (before the economy crashed, that is). That would be both men and women. It's just that men can blame the lack of salary, while women have been blaming the hostile culture for decades. We just put up with the crappy salary because we were happy to be allowed to work outside the home at all!

Thanks to (almost) everyone who commented. This turned out to be a very interesting and enlightening discussion.

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At 5:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your response. I thought I might bring up another related point having to do with the apparent outsourcing in sciences. I'm in physics and in terms of outsourcing we are a bit ahead of the biology world. That is, these days most young to middle-aged faculty are not native born.

There is one thing that I have noticed. There seems to be a definite trend of nepotism in that students of the same origin as their PI do better. For example, Indian PIs tend to push their Indian students extra hard on the job market. I have also seen extreme cases. For instance I have seen a Chinese PI staff his entire lab with Chinese graduate students and postdocs (totaling about 15 members), with a token American undergraduate summer student. I have seen Russian theorists in the US that have strong biases for taking on Russian students with similar backgrounds. It is kind of a mess and difficult to navigate this strange world for the unsuspecting domestic student with a thorough undergraduate training in political correctness and tolerance from Indiana.

But then again, can you blame these PIs? The academic world is ultra-competitive and PIs will do what they need to succeed. This involves hiring hard-working students that you can communicate best with which oftentimes means that they have similar origins. As long as this doesn't break any rules or isn't frowned upon it will continue to happen.

At 6:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hiring foreigners (opposed to US born minorities) is based around the idea that the size of the pie is fixed (number of faculty positions per department). The objective of the game is to keep the menz in power. Remember that when women approach higher %s, the menz start getting queezie about the thought of overthrow at their power-tripping faculty meetings which is much ado about their bullshit. Again, remember that this year, the numbers of US women graduates for the 1st time in history shot past 50% for BS, MS, and PhD degrees. The men in power have switched tactics to keep themselves in power (although the hostile environment, lack of family friendly practices, overall shittiness drives women away just fine, but not all!). I would kill to see the numbers of women postdocs vs women faculty (R1 and SLAC). If anyone's got that table, please cough it up!

Hiring foreigners brings in a new "piece of the pie", another minor division. Foreigners is separate and distinct from the "women" minor division and don't assume they merge to form a voting club. Each division is yet another minority category of the same pie. The more categories there are, the less likely that the majority will lose power.

Bringing in foreigners who bust their asses for less pay and who are just thankful to be in America actually gives the menz in power MORE POWER. The menz come off as sweetsmelling saints catering to the international students in the student body and "diversifying" their faculty, but they are really hiring labor they can exploit under the disguise of diversity (any person who's not whitemale if they are being forced to hire someone other than their club members – ha ha, I said "forced", ha ha, yeah I know, ha). They also probably increased the power of their majority by hiring foreigners who feel obligated to side with the majority who signed the official paperwork to hire them to stay in our country. This isn't about xenophobia, cool accents, "diversity" etc. It's about the pieces of the pie. Now if only the minority categories would stick together and kick some ass.

At 8:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

60% is a huge majority. it's 3:2. c'mon. if Obama had gotten 60% of the votes the republicans would've probably corralled their political advisors and sent them to Alaska for an extended rehabilitation or something.

At 6:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I came over to the US (I'm European) to work as a postdoc I did find that the foreigners worked harder. But that's because most of us had left families, friends, and partners behind so we had nothing else to do with our evenings and weekends! Absent partners are more likely to be forgiving of the fact that you left them behind for 2 years if you are thoroughly miserable and working your ass off.

And in my field certainly it's nigh impossible to get a permanent job back in Europe without having done a stint in the US. In my case it worked out, I had a good (if stressful) time in the US and am now very happily installed as faculty in Europe (although not in my home country, which brings a whole new set of language-related fun). The travel and the experience was great, despite all of the life disruption of moving, which is massive and certainly hits your research progress for a few months after every move. And YFS, if you're fed up with the US, come to Europe for a while! There are great fellowship options to encourage good US scientists to spend time here. But of course we'll expect you to work harder because you're american ;-) Sadly the same stereotypes work in reverse over this side of the Atlantic......

At 10:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Response to your response to Anon @7:33:

Dear MsPhD,

You may choose to post this or not, I don't care. And I doubt this will do a damn bit of good in convincing you that you are a patronizing, closed-minded, rigid individual who is so entrenched in your own train wreck of a life, that you are incabable of seeing other's points of view. But I'm pissed, and this will make me feel better, so here goes:

"Sigh. I'm going to try to take the good parts of this comment as agreeing with me, and correct the rest."

You can't "correct" my opinion. But thanks so much for knowing it all.

"But second, I think what you meant to say is that actually the graduate student applications in general were declining (before the economy crashed, that is). That would be both men and women. It's just that men can blame the lack of salary, while women have been blaming the hostile culture for decades."

Thanks so much for telling me what I meant to say. And for telling me multiple times that I'm wrong. Seriously, NO, I didn't mean to say that grad applications in general were declining. In my grad school program, there were probably 7 women for every guy. Every grad school I visited, had roughly that ratio. Granted I'm probably not in the exact same field of biomed sciences as you, but this was my experience. None of your patronizing remarks will change that.

In closing, dear Ms PhD, you are a prime example to me, of all that's wrong with science. You believe your way is the only way. You don't consider anyone else's opinions if they differ even slightly from your world view. You blame EVERYONE but yourself for your problems. You think you're smarter than everyone else, though clearly you are not. And to top it off, you're a world class martyr, of which there always seems to be at least one in every lab. Perhaps you should ruminate on these things. You might gain some insight into why you aren't succeeding in science.

I hazard to guess, if you post one of your polls on this topic, a large number of your readers will agree at least in part with all I've said here. Maybe that will convince you to change your ways? I doubt it.

At 6:00 PM, Blogger The Grand Inquisitor said...

As an american, I have found that using words you do not know the meaning of in any language is not a good plan, even if it is your mother tongue. Then again I am a non-science type, so we tend to use small,simple words. Try reading some Thomas Khun if you want the 25 dollar word to use where a 2 dollar word will suffice. Oh, and try to "correct my comment," and I will teach you some big non-science words. That being said good luck in your job search. It was a real bugger for me to find a job in my profession, and here I am an american,pale man with no particular outstanding skill. Dashing good looks, and wit sometimes pay off. If you lack those you can always try selling plasma. I did.

At 12:07 PM, Anonymous Citronella said...

As a non-native English speaker, I have never gotten away with misusing a word. I can get away with grammatical mistakes or mispronouncing words (but actually, systematic mispronunciation of keywords actually irritates people and got me in trouble once or twice), but not with saying a thing of the importance of "the data has been manipulated".

You'd be off your rocker if someone suggested "women have it easier than men because they can get away with inaccuracies because people relax their expectations for them"; so I assume you can understand why I am mightily pissed off you make a similar statement about foreigners.

At 7:09 AM, Blogger butterflywings said...

I do agree that 'kulcheral differences innit' is actually not an excuse for sexism.
That said, not all people from non-western cultures are sexist.

And I don't think most foreign-born people use a lack of English skills as an excuse...aure you met 2 people who did, but what were you saying about sampling? ;-)

I can't comment on your experiences, as I don't work in your lab...when I briefly worked in a lab, I found there were more non-UK born women than men, and I don't think those women were advantaged compared to British women at all.

And not one immigrant ever used 'bad English skills' as an excuse. (Yeah, I know, I probably can't extrapoloate from my experience either).

I just don't think there should be a false dichomotomy between equality for women, and equality for people of all races and nationalities.

At 10:06 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Citronella wrote:

You'd be off your rocker if someone suggested "women have it easier than men because they can get away with inaccuracies because people relax their expectations for them"

Isn't that the criticism used when people say women only got their jobs because of affirmative action?

I'm not suggesting it, I'm saying some people assume it happens. Whether it ACTUALLY happens or not is almost irrelevant in that sense.

butterflywings wrote:

And I don't think most foreign-born people use a lack of English skills as an excuse...aure you met 2 people who did, but what were you saying about sampling? ;-)

I only used a recent example. That was two in one week.

Actually more common than people using that as the excuse themselves, are other people ascribing the "mistakes" of foreign speakers to unintentional misuse.

It's an assumption that we make to be charitable, but it can have unintended consequences (like being unfair to native speakers by relaxing expectations on foreigners).

Here's one more example (out of many I have witnessed firsthand in science).

In grad school, I saw completely unintelligible crap get an A on a research proposal, with the explanation:

"He did very well considering that it's not his first language."

Meanwhile, I got a B with a litany of criticisms asking for a variety of advanced experiments they thought I should have proposed (as a second-year grad student).

The point being that,

a) different standards for different student, wtf?

b) they couldn't criticize Mr. Poor Language Skills on the same level, because no one could even tell what he was proposing, much less suggest further experiments.

But guess whose grad school GPA was higher?

Epilogue: He's interviewing for faculty positions now.

I can't help wondering if, given this kind of slackened expectations at every opportunity, doesn't that add up to a major advantage?

I know, I seem extreme and bitter at times, but I swear it all comes from anecdata, if not well-controlled experiments.

If you witnessed things like this repeatedly, you might start to see that my point IS equality, and we don't have anything like that.

At 8:44 PM, Anonymous Kadtheya said...

Slackened expectations! AHAHHHAAAA! I am speechless.

How do you even know the A this student got was "because no one could even tell what he was proposing, much less suggest further experiments" - you just want to believe that so you do.. Noone gets an A on unintelligible crap because of 2nd language... Who says it's unintelligible crap? YOU! Dingdingding...

Noone ever even sees your grad school GPA when you apply for faculty positions, so it has nothing to do with interviews. (Or do you put your GPA in your applications????)

A B in grad school is like the polite convention for an F... Maybe you should have taken the hint way back then..

Yeah I wouldn't publish this comment either if I were you...

Ahh you really are something else "YFS" you really are.. WOW!

At 7:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting topic. I'm a foreign postdoc - but I've been in the US for a very long time (can't get that green card since I've been on the student visa...). I personally enjoy the different nationalities in science...most of the time. My pet peeve is when a foreign language is spoken in the lab when there are others who do not understand that language. That's just downright wrong!

Your reaction to "you are strong for a girl" comment made me smile. I completely understand your reaction. Most likely, they did not mean for this comment to be offensive in any way (you probably knew that). What's helped me in the past (though can be uncomfortable) is to see this type of situation as an opportunity to start a conversation about cultural differences - why these comments make you uncomfortable. I'm planning to take this approach with a foreign male colleague who makes comments such as "when are you getting married/ why aren't you married/ why don't you wear a skirt/why don't you go to church" types of comments (mostly because I am worried that I am going to slap him one of these days).

Why are there so few American postdocs? In my program (biological science - very female dominated field) there were about 60% Americans starting out for MS/PhD. At the end of the masters portion, the majority of American students went off to get a position in industry. Us foreign students could not, so we stayed to do a PhD (of course not the only reason) or found a research position in the university. The visa issue is HUGE, HUGE disadvantage for us (when I was looking for a postdoc, I was not eligible to apply to about half of the positions I found because the funding the PI had was restricted to residents/citizens). There are many PIs that preferentially hire foreigners because we are cheaper - and we have to work hard because if we lose the job, we have to get pack up and leave. I see how this preferential hiring system may feel like an advantage for us. But believe me, when you are on this side of the equation it sure doesn't feel like it. So in the end, I guess we are all screwed!


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