Sunday, May 31, 2009

It's always personal.

I'm thinking about firing my therapist.

Having said that, I want to talk about one of the things my therapist mentioned recently while talking about deciding when/how to give up on one's career.

She told me to watch You've Got Mail. Because it's about a woman bookstore-owner who loses her store thanks to competition from a giant, male-dominated superstore.

Now, I saw this movie years ago when it came out, and I was disgusted at the time that the main message seemed to be that for women, it's more important to have a charming, rich man love you than to have a fulfilling career.

But it's funny, I really didn't remember that it's not just a love story, it's about a woman who has to close up shop. I guess at the time I couldn't really relate to it. In fact, I've always wondered whether it wouldn't be better to inherit a family business than to have to go look for a job. If it's just going to be a job to pay the bills, does it really matter what it is? At least you'd get to be your own boss, without having to work your way up.

So this movie has been on tv again lately, which I guess is why my therapist thought to mention it. I watched part of it one day, and the rest today when it happened to be on again. It's funny to hear the modem sound when they log on, and see how big their laptops are. I mean, does anyone even use AOL anymore?

Some of the writing is superb. I think my favorite sentence in the whole movie is the line about how she sees a butterfly on the subway, and she thinks it must be going to Bloomingdale's to buy a hat, which will surely be a mistake, as almost all hats are.

But as far as advice goes, this movie is a terrible analogy, because while Meg Ryan's character says she's heartbroken, she doesn't really seem to be very upset.

Somehow, her character never cries in the movie, despite losing her shop. She fights a little, she mopes a little, and when she finally closes the shop there is one scene where she sees the ghost of her mother and says the shop will be something depressing in a week, like a Baby Gap. But it's flippant the way she says it, and apparently she doesn't have to walk by the shop every day or run into people who constantly ask her about it?

Instead, the next time we see her, she is at home with a cold. Sure, getting sick around the time of a major loss is just a way of your body expressing what your mind can't handle, but probably since it's supposed to be a romantic comedy, not once do they show her sobbing with grief.

Okay, she is a little wistful, and it's a little bittersweet, but she's almost relieved. She doesn't seem to need medication or therapy! Maybe because the whole thing seems to take place in the space of a few weeks?

And it certainly doesn't hurt that someone offers her a job she wants, and almost immediately. Someone who sees her talent, and like all things movie-esque, it's a job she doesn't even have to apply for. The movie ends before we find out how things turn out with that.

The motivations are a bit understated, and as a main character she's a little bit spacey. You kind of have to assume that she's a bit sheltered and overly optimistic, otherwise as a character she doesn't really make any sense. They try to develop this theme by this one particular line about how things in life remind her of things she's read in books, but shouldn't it be the other way around? But apparently, she was completely happy with her job and, we have to assume, always had been.

I think one of the things that I'll never really understand about psychology is how sometimes, the harder we work for something, the more we think we want it. And this is definitely the way science works. Sometimes it's that much sweeter when you make an experiment work perfectly after a hundred tries. And knowing that elbow grease can win the day can be infinitely comforting as you're slogging it out, sometimes only inching along, but we always say it's better if things are at least moving at all. There's something gratifying in that, having a sort of noble goal and making progress toward it.

But in the same sense, the more the bad parts of science make us miserable, the more we want to justify that misery by trying to make our own happy endings. We think that if we just persevere long enough, as with our experiments, we can win at the political game, too. But what if we can't? What if we're just making ourselves miserable for longer, and like Meg Ryan's character in this movie, we're ultimately doomed to lose?

Being aware of the possibility that we're locked in this game of misery-begets-more-misery doesn't really help you overcome it. Because it's not so clear-cut as it is in the shop-keeping world, or in the movies.

And that is where I think I am a little fed up with the idea of therapy. Yes, I have learned a few things, but I think as a guide to helping me figuring things out, it hasn't been any better (and less cost-effective) than anything else. And perhaps most importantly, it hasn't made me feel any better about what is happening to me. It hasn't given me the critical tools to improve my situation, as I had hoped I could do if I just knew how.

Anyway the title of this post comes from a line in the movie, where Joe Fox tries to apologize and say it's just business, it's not personal. And the main character responds by saying It's always personal, everything is personal, and what's so wrong with that anyway?

I think one of the weirdest things to me about asking for advice is that nobody knows whether to tell me to fight or to quit. I don't know if I'm giving something up just a moment (or a year) too soon, with the finish line just around the corner? Or if the bottom line is that I just can't win, so I'd be better off getting out as fast as I can?

And my therapist doesn't know, either. She's trying to give me advice on the personal, as if it can be separated from the rest. She's also trying to convince me not to worry about what I'm going to do to make money, which I find not very credible coming from someone who is clearly not hurting financially and apparently never has been.

When things are crappy, I just want to quit. When I'm making even a little progress, I wonder if maybe it will all turn out to be worth it. I think a lot about the tortoise and the hare, and wonder if I'm just being impatient or getting distracted when, if I just keep plodding along, eventually I will get there?

I just don't feel much closer to knowing than I did when I started therapy. And being in therapy has not made me feel better about that.

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Thursday, May 28, 2009

One more excerpt from the same book by Margaret Rossiter.

I'm putting this here because it so eerily reflects things I have blogged about (30+ years since the 1970s when supposedly much progress was made- at least briefly).

My impression from reading this book is that there was a mini-revolution from 1968-1972, but then the momentum was lost: we're essentially moving forward now at a lazy snail's pace, with no major changes from what it was then.

I say this because I found myself writing still true now! still true now! still true now! over and over in the margins of this book, but especially this page. It touches on three major points I've raised on this blog, all of which were really contentious, namely

(a) Deniers, both male and female, who don't believe there is a problem or that anything needs to be actively done about it

(b) SuperWomen who are not actually useful as role models, and who pull up the ladder behind them as they go

(c) That foreign-born women scientists are treated differently from American women scientists, and have had more success not just abroad but also in the US

from page 381 (essentially the last page of the book):

"But if consciousness was running high and the outpouring of outrage was epidemic in some circles, such feelings were far from universal. Many eminent scientists, women as well as men, did not necessarily agree that there was a problem and wondered what all the fuss was about.

Having adjusted to it all years before and believing staunchly in individual virtues such as hard work, they were either oblivious to the problem or, when it was brought to their attention, adamant that it did not exist.

They were so much a part of the "system" that had treated them comparatively well that it was difficult for them, as it had been earlier for Jessie Bernard, to see a pattern and think of employers and colleagues, even sexist ones, as villains.

Often foreign-born, these faculty women clung to an individualistic view that all that mattered was doing very good work and lots of it; one's sex and marital status were irrelevant. By dint of a lifetime of hard work, considerable self-sacrifice, and perhaps a move to the United States, they had "made it", and they did not wish to criticize American institutions that had made their success possible. Their successful work and high rank on the faculty had blinded them to other views; instead they seemed proof that if, just if, a woman was good enough, she too would be promoted to the highest levels.

Their small numbers could be seen as indicators that a few women offered this successful combination rather than evidence that stronger credentials might be required for women than for men.

For example, German immigrant and Nobel laureate Maria Goeppart Mayer of the University of California at San Diego could not understand why the American Physical Society had created a committee on women in April 1971 or why it had put her on it: she had no interest or expertise in the area.

Similarly, Birgit Vennesland, Norwegian-born and long a full professor of physiology and biochemistry at the University of Chicago, ended her autobiographical statement for her fellow physiologists in the early 1970s with some angry remarks about the younger women who now expected to be put on university faculties just because they felt as qualified as men; for women to press to0 hard in this direction would, she felt sure, lower the quality of the faculty and thus in time endanger the strength of the nation. Academia should hold onto its proven ways and not give in to the merely political pressure of diversifying the faculty. "

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

progress = zero

In 1969, sociologist Alice Rossi presented the following data on women in her field, disturbingly similar to the current numbers for biology(and a variety of other fields, actually):

% of women at each stage:

undergraduate seniors planning to work in the field 43%
doctoral candidates in graduate school 30%
full-time assistant professors in the field 14%
full-time full professors in the field 4%

She goes on to say something relevant to all postdocs [although at the time research associate positions were dominated by women with PhDs who were generally not hired as faculty]:

"An excerpt from her report deplored the fact that research associates, even those with doctorates and ten or more years' experience, were still not allowed to apply for grants in their own name, whereas any new assistant professor could"

--from page 372 of Women Scientists in America, volume II by Margaret Rossiter

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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Reasons to be blank

1. Can't think verbally
2. Got nothing good to say
3. Poker face
4. Can't get in trouble this way
5. Endless possibilities for things to say later
6. Room for thought
7. Silent fears
8. Generalized apathy
9. Other people put words in my mouth anyway
10. Who's even listening? Nobody hears

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Worth reading.

Check it out, some cool stuff I found on the internet:

Someone having similar experiences to mine, in a field other than science.

I found that post via Lessons for Girls, all the links of which I am reading now and enjoying immensely.

Also, do our pseudo-quantitative methods of evaluating academic contributions actually relate to anything relevant?

Apparently this is being questioned, with lots of references, even (!) and not just on blogs about science.

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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Back to the Sixties.

Next time you're looking for inspiration, watch the Obamas' graduation day speeches. These two could have been very successful as televangelists for education if we hadn't given them their current jobs.

Michelle Obama spoke at University of California at Merced and you can read the text of her speech online.

I thought it was interesting to note, too, that Michelle's speech was mostly about other people. She mentioned a lot of names of students, those who apparently pushed hard for her to visit there. I thought that was interesting, especially given that our President uses his own experiences as examples, and he talks about his mother quite frequently in his speeches.

The text of the President's speech at Notre Dame is here and I watched it live on, of all places, Fox. I really enjoyed learning about how the civil rights negotiations almost broke down. I never learned the history of the 1960's in school.

Of course as soon as the speech ended, despite the standing ovation, Fox brought out our favorite chump, Michael Steele, who immediately started criticizing the President. If you don't know who Michael Steele is (and I was surprised to learn recently that some of my friends had never heard of him), go to Rachel Maddow's show online and type his name in the search box. I particularly like the way she highlights what a joke he is. So I turned the tv off when he started saying the same old things he always says.

Overall, I was hugely impressed with the Notre Dame speech, with only perhaps a very minor quibble over a point at the end- the last analogy to "fishermen." It's stupid that semantics matters, but I think it would have been better to say "they discovered that they all enjoyed fishing." Why re-emphasize that no women were included on the original civil rights commission? In the same speech where you want to make a claim for women's equal rights? Come on, who edited that?

(And I'm not even going to mention what some of my hippie-ish vegan, animal-rights activist friends say about fishing.)

In the end, we're not all fishermen. The point is supposed to be that we're all human beings.

Speaking of human beings, I guess I was thinking about these "little" slights we all take for granted, because like a lot of geeks I saw the new Star Trek movie.

I liked it well enough, but one thing stood out to me. By keeping basically the same characters as the original show, and the same miniskirts, the people who made this movie are helping (inadvertently or otherwise ) to perpetuate some of the same old stereotypes.

The original show had almost no women, and the new movie was the same in that regard.

Why? Just a total lack of originality? Because of Pepsi throwback, we have to be all nostalgic for the 1960s?

Perhaps the blackest humor of these filmmakers' choices is that the story is set a couple hundred years into the future, and yet childbirth still appears to be the same medical mystery (just like in the Star Wars movies). How depressing is that. Here's hoping that in the future, someone will at least have figured out some better solutions for PMS.

I always liked how the Star Trek franchise promoted technology, the spirit of exploration, and diversity: celebrating the differences and commonalities among races, and (at least among the imaginary space varieties) species.

I can only wonder how much watching these shows as a child must have influenced me to want a career as a scientist. They were some of the only shows I remember watching that promoted women in roles other than the traditional mom, girlfriend, daughter or housekeeper (unlike watching reruns of The Brady Bunch from the same era).

And although it was too late to help me choose a major, I rejoiced when they created a woman character who excelled at engineering.

Yet here we are, more than 40 years later (the original show first aired in 1966), and girls are only recently starting to be allowed to command space missions, both on tv and in real life. While some shows are attempting to put women in other interesting science-related careers, like CSI, what still gets the most attention? Their cleavage.

So I can't help feeling like the uproar over Obama's speech with regard to the abortion debate highlights how in the real-life year 2009, women are still pretty far from "equal".

Even our President doesn't have a solution to bridge that particular divide, but I like that he wants to try.

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Friday, May 15, 2009

Willfully naive.

Lately I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around just how fucked up science is.

Whenever I think I've seen the worst, something else happens and I think:

Holy crap, how is that even possible.

The depths of human folly, that's how.

But I think my problem stems from this idea I had that scientists would be somehow better people, more objective- even to the point of admitting their own biases- than most. That these people were my people.

But most of us are not objective. Not even trying to see our own biases, most of the time.

I'm having trouble finding my people among these people. Yes, blogger-types, I have enjoyed "meeting" many of you online, but I'm not sure how to meet you in real life. Or if we would even get along.

I'm having trouble connecting with my feelings about this because I think one of the things that helped me do science thus far has been learning how to step back, how to not take it personally if something doesn't work, or if I happen to have a wrong hypothesis for a while. I'm really glad whenever I recognize this, that I'm holding onto something too hard. I always feel like when I let go of something, I'm making progress.

So now I'm trying to separate my feelings about science - in principle, a good idea to study the world using evidence-based, hypothesis-driven, observational methods, right?

And my impressions of most successful scientists: deeply insecure human beings with low EQs, who are trying to make up for being socially stigmatized as children by being bullies on the scientist playground as adults.

To some extent, I've known for a long time that truth is relative.

But in another way, I don't think I fully appreciated just how fucked up the process is of deciding what is currently true. Just who gets to decide, and why it's them and not anybody else.

I think I thought that, no matter how insecure the scientist, most people would be forced to admit in the face of evidence, what is objectively real and what is not.

Interpretation is up for debate, okay. But it turns out that even the objective definition of "real" and "fake" depends entirely on people's perceptions and willingness to admit their fear and insecurity.

I guess I've been thinking about this because a friend's paper got rejected recently with reviews that basically accused her of lying. But the evidence is right there in the paper, and this particular kind of result can't be faked.

It's infuriating because it's almost religious, this kind of argument. Which means there is basically no way to win.

And this is kind of how I feel about science in general lately. That there are so many bullies around, we can't get any real science done.

In thinking about this, one of my memories of elementary school came back to me with visceral clarity.

I always hated recess, because as a kid I wasn't very athletic at all. I was always bored at recess. I would probably have been happier to sit outside and read a book, but for some reason I think they wouldn't let us take books outside. I remember watching the other kids chasing each other around, throwing balls, hanging off the monkey bars.

And I was just waiting for it to end, so we could go back inside. Probably backwards from how kids are supposed to be, but I was much happier sitting in class.

I kept watching the other kids, trying to figure out what I could learn from them. I couldn't figure out what I was missing, since I couldn't do what they did. Maybe if I could have run around in circles, I would have gotten the data I was missing.

I guess this is sort of a metaphor for how I feel about the scientist playground. I feel like yeah, maybe it serves some purpose, and maybe most people enjoy all the monkeying around.

I've even come to learn to appreciate some of it that I didn't before- having drinks with friends, shooting the shit. It can even be the fun part when you're at a meeting sharing data all day. Just to do something else for a couple of hours in the evening, use a different part of your brain. That makes sense to me now.

But most days, even in lab I keep feeling like I did in elementary school: like I'm wandering around the playground by myself, looking for someone to talk to, who also wants to go back inside and do the fun part.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Well technically, no.

Lately I've noticed a sad theme among the grad students and young postdocs.

No, they have not yet realized what a pyramid scheme they've bought into.

I mean sad because it's one of the same mistakes I made, so I decided I should blog about it here and hopefully save a few poor souls some pain.

So here it is, Yet Another YFS Rule for Postdocs:

If you are looking for an academic career, do not worry about what techniques you will learn as a postdoc.

Now, I know, some of you are saying But-! But-! But-!

But you are wrong. Now shut up and let me tell you why.

1. Most of the successful people I know did NOT switch fields for their postdoc.
Yeah yeah, I know. Your PIs are telling you to do something different and preferably far away. Ignore them. If you don't want to switch, you don't have to go that far, scientifically or geographically (especially if you're already in Boston or the Bay Area).

2. You will not be recruited to your future faculty position interviews for the techniques that you do, NO MATTER HOW COOL THEY ARE, if you don't have the other important things (famous PI; high-impact papers; topic relevant to the department; ideally also funding; ability to kiss everyone's ass).

In reality, your Future Colleagues actually do care what techniques you use, and if you're going to join their department, they WILL expect you to collaborate with them, which means you better bring something they want and need.

But even though many places still advertise for certain specialties (mass spec; structural biology meaning it has to be crystallography or NMR; etc.), they don't actually want you to show up and plug your techniques per se.

They want you to come and tell them a scientific story with a few main players, a plot line, and a fabulous conclusion (surprise ending is optional).

3. Last but not least, the techniques you think are hot today? Will be gone tamale.

Bioscience is moving faster than ever, and shows no signs of slowing down in this regard: whatever RNAi is now, will be something else for your first batch of postdocs, and the batch of postdocs who come after them.

Whatever you think you're an expert in now, yes some of that knowledge will transfer if you understand the concepts. But the key thing will not be what techniques you know. It will be how well you pick up new techniques every time you need to, even if you're not the one doing them yourself.

I've had some interesting experiences in this regard. Trying to troubleshoot over email? An acquired skill.

Trying to troubleshoot something you've never actually done yourself? Learnable.

Now try it over email. #$%^! Pretty damn frustrating.

Learning how to ask the right questions to help figure out what's wrong?

Priceless. That, my friends, is what a good PI is all about.

Now go out there and get yourself some useful training, not a bag of soon-to-be-outdated generic tricks that all your fellow postdocs also know.


...Unless you want to go to industry. There, they want you to have certain hot skills, and preferably a big long list of them.

The funny part there is, industry is actually ahead of academia in many respects when it comes to technical stuff. Some of their toys might not even be available to you as an academic postdoc. So you'll have to be careful to pick labs doing the relevant things (maybe collaborating with companies?) or do an industrial postdoc, if that option is available to you (and those are few in number these days, unless you're in Japan).

So choose wisely, little grasshoppers. Don't pick your lab for techniques.

Pick it for the mentor*; for the prestige; because you like the location and/or the other people in the lab.

Whatever, I don't know. I've tried all the obvious things and it didn't work out so well for me!

Just don't pick it because you think you want to learn X, unless you have an amazing cool question you want to use X to answer. Don't expect your Lab of X to hand you an awesome project that you can take with you to start your own lab, because they usually won't. All that time you've spent debating over model organism? Irrelevant if you don't know what kind of QUESTION you want to ask with your science.

Lesson over. Now go out there and sign yourself up for more indentured servitude. And yes, you can debate endlessly over what kind of pen to use.

Okay, go.

*if you believe in such things, like the Tooth Fairy

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

You're exceptional.

One (or maybe two?) commenter(s) keeps asking me for details about my career thus far, and always on posts where I talk about how completely demoralized I am, how I've experienced sexism, etc.

The questions have to do with what kinds of schools I went to, what tier journals I've published in, etc.

I'm not going to answer these kinds of questions. At least, not here. There is no way to do this without self-identifying.

Also, I think the more interesting point is why you're asking.

I think you're asking because you want to know that what's happening to me won't happen to you.

It's like saying that the first people taken to the ghetto, and then the gas chamber, were more jewish than the ones who were taken later. The first japanese to be rounded up were more obviously japanese. Etc.

In other words, you want to believe that I've in some way asked for these things to happen to me. You're trying to claim that if you can see my CV, this will justify all the complaining, because clearly I must have made some horrible mistakes. Right?

That it won't happen to you if you can learn from my errors and avoid them?

I get this; it's a perfectly natural reaction. I did it when I was a student; I see all the people in my lab doing it every day, too.

You think if you're just "good enough" you'll be somehow immune.

Trust me when I tell you, if you're worrying about it, you're probably not good enough to completely avoid all of the things I write about here.

Personally, I'm not really convinced there is a good enough.

I think it has more to do with luck re: timing and finding the right mentors who click with you, who are in the right place in their careers to help you.

I refer to "luck" sarcastically here: it's really a probability game. If you are more similar to the people in charge, statistically you have a better chance of "fitting in" than if you are very different.

A big point of this blog is that it's NOT about your CV.

Let's say you could actually do the experiment. Assuming all other things are equal: grades, test scores, lab skills, writing skills, speaking skills, people skills, creativity.

First, do you actually know even two postdocs you could say were equal in this way?

I sure don't. I know people who are good at most things but have the creativity of a door knob. I know people who are great at the bench but hate writing; or who have a phobia of public speaking.

While many of us are good at all these things, none of us are great at all of them.

But let's put that point aside (since you've obviously missed the implications in all my other posts) and go back to Pretend World where everything is simple, at least at the beginning. Maybe I can spell it out for you another way. It's sort of a Minority Parable.

Let's pretend that you could split all the students in the country into two equal groups, where everyone was equally qualified.

Put all the girls on one side; and all the boys on the other.

Experiment Round 1: Now, send them all out to find a thesis lab after college.

Materials and Methods: There are not nearly as many senior women scientists as there are men. There are also some sexist scientists. Some are openly sexist; some are sexist in more indirect ways. Very few scientists are aware of the sexism. Some scientists deny that there is any sexism.

Incubate: Wait a few years.

Conclusions: What happened?

I'll tell you what happened. Many girls dropped out. Many boys dropped out.

Let's now take this already-biased sample and split it again.

Boys on one side are a bigger group; smaller group of girls on the other.

Experiment Round 2: Now, send them all out to find a postdoc lab.

Materials and Methods: There are not nearly as many senior women scientists as there are men. There are also some sexist scientists. Some are openly sexist; some are sexist in more indirect ways. Very few scientists are aware of the sexism. Some scientists deny that there is any sexism.

Incubate: Wait a few years.

Conclusions: What happened?

Most of the girls dropped out. Many boys dropped out, but not as many as the girls.


Now let's ask: how do you think those leftover girls are feeling?

Have they published as many papers as the boys? No.
Do they feel encouraged by their advisors? No.
Do they have a lot of friends who are in a similar situation? No.

Do you think this affects not just their performance at work, but also how they feel about science as a career?

You bet your ass it does.

So to the person who keeps asking: I know you'd like to think that I'm an exception, or that with enough hard work, you can be exceptional and avoid all these problems.

Write back in a few years. We'll see how you feel.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Revisiting recurring themes.

Had a rather emotional chat with my therapist this week. The suggestion (she doesn't know I have a blog), was that I should write about some of these things that came up. As it turns out, I already have. I had fun re-reading these. I hope you will, too.

One of the themes was Respect. How I feel like I don't get any.
I searched for that among my past posts, and found these:

Women can't argue
Relating to authority figures
Why I hate being a postdoc
Leader of the pack
Rodney Dangerfield disease

So to sum those up, the point is that I thought scientists would value quality, not bullshit, and be capable of respecting quality when they see it. But scientists are just as blinded by bullshit as everyone else.

Another theme was feeling like I have no voice, that I'm not heard. Some of that is tied up with the Respect issue, but mostly it has to do with being female and a postdoc.

Nobody cares about your blog
Because I can?

Dear NIH
Your work is not your own

And finally, the "tree falls in an empty forest" phenomenon, the idea that nobody knows or cares what you do, a post I wrote 2 years ago that nicely summarizes how I've been feeling for the last 2 years:

I still want to quit

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Saturday, May 09, 2009

Big girls don't cry

A couple of weeks ago, my best friend and I got into a disagreement. I won't say it was an argument- we almost never argue about anything. But I think this really caught her off-guard, because my own reaction caught me a little bit off-guard.

You may recall, because I think I blogged about it, that once upon a time I was accused of being a crier. You know, someone who cries a lot at work.

Ironically, at the time I did not cry much at all, and I have never been the sort who cries to try to get her way (or to get an A).

I thought my friend recalled this too, and that she would understand my feelings on the matter, partly because she's one of those people who has always made me feel loved unconditionally. I've always thought of her as a very understanding person.

So today when I ran across this link to the Society of Women Engineers magazine I happened to flip through it and found this article on pages 66-67 under the heading Career Toolbox.

And here is what reminded me of the disagreement with my friend:

Under a paragraph that begins, "is it okay to show emotion?" The authors say that tears are understandable when there has been a death in the family. But tears are not appropriate, they say, when an insult is directed at you, when a performance evaluation doesn't go well, etc (I'm paraphrasing but that's the gist of it).

My conversation with my friend revolved about her boss, who apparently has been bursting into tears a lot at work. My friend, uncharacteristically I thought, had neither patience nor respect for this behavior, and said as much.

I said, well, I think you're being a little unfair. Your company has been doing layoffs, morale is bad in general, but also you never know what else is going on in her life.

And then I told her I've been finding myself unable to not cry at work lately.

A lot.

There was dead silence when I said this.

Eventually, she said, Well, the thing is that I can see how you might get blindsided by something really awful and not be able to control your reaction...

...and she trailed off. I said yeah, that's the thing. There are things every day... and I'm trying not to but it's just so unbelievably awful. And I can't leave yet... I'm just trying to get through the day without crying most days until I can leave. And I don't think I want to go on medication because I'm fine when I'm home. I'm fine when I'm anywhere else. I just can't leave yet. So I can imagine if your boss feels like that, I said.

And then I said something that I guess must have shocked her, which was that I don't really see the point in having a workplace where crying is forbidden, anyway.

Dead silence. This is not a good sign, when she's saying absolutely nothing at all.

Now I didn't mention this, but my friend is from a military family. I think this is part of why she believes it is, as the SWE women apparently do, inappropriate to display any kind of emotion in public. Unseemly.

But it was actually one of my male "mentors" who said he thought it should be fine to have emotions, even in science, and that you shouldn't have to bottle it up because it's not really healthy for anyone to do that.

Huh, I thought, at the time. In fact, I thought he was nuts.

But after I thought about it a while, I realized what he was getting at.

Because in a way, at the end of the day, it is just a rule that everybody agrees to follow.

I'm not sure it's a rule with a lot of functional purpose, or much data to back it up. Is it really better for productivity in the long run? Or morale? Isn't it just another way of preventing everyone from communicating about the issue of job satisfaction (or complete lack thereof)? Isn't it just another way of making sure that workplace behavior is mostly inauthentic posturing? And is that really the best way to be? Pretending all day that everything is okay?

Meanwhile, I've seen posts from some of my fellow bloggers, e.g. complaining about students who cry.

What do you think? Is crying in professional settings bad for everyone? Or is this just more of that cultural baggage that comes from a long tradition of male-domination in the workplace?

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Things that people actually said to me this week

Why don't you go to med school?

--friend of a friend (who doesn't know me in the slightest)


I really thought that you, MsPhD, would make it [to become faculty].

--friend from grad school


You, MsPhD, would not like teaching as a career.

--friend from grad school


This is awkward for me, but it's even more awkward for you.

--my advisor


Dear MsPhD:

I'm supposed to present at xxx and I can't make it that day. Can you switch with me?

--male postdoc

My reply:

You've written to the wrong MsPhD. I am not presenting at xxx at all.
You want [other female participant].



Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Deep wounds.

Spoiler alert: this post will make reference to several Angel episodes.


A while back, I started seeing a therapist. This was mostly to deal with my feeling of impending career doom.

As far as therapy, I'm not really sure how much progress I'm making, and if in some ways having that weekly appointment isn't creating unhealthy habits (like holding off dealing with emotional things until I'm in her office).

One of the things she wants me to do is work through this feeling of loss. It's weird, though, because I haven't actually lost my job. I still have to show up to work and at least pretend like everything is okay. So I'm sort of leading this dual life: trying to figure out if I want to separate myself from science, while still going through the motions. It's not like I can talk to my advisor about my feelings of doubt and fear and frustration!

Ironically, I think the people in my lab have kind of caught on that things are not so okay, and much to my surprise they're starting to behave more like human beings toward me. So I'm kind of impressed and heartened by that.

They've also been there long enough to have figured out that our PI is not all-powerful and all-knowing. Well, some have figured this out anyway.

And some have suffered setbacks, and some of these were the ones who thought they were invincible. So altogether, I think we're on more even ground now.

With all of that in mind, I'm still feeling like I can't be myself at work. At all. I've developed this persona who keeps her head down and her mouth shut most of the time, because I was always getting backlash when I spoke up too much.

So here's where the Angel character comes in: Fred.

It's not until later in the series that you learn that this scientist chick ended up in a hell dimension not just by accident, but because her thesis advisor sent her there for being too smart.

We find this out because she publishes a paper on her own, after she's no longer a scientist (unlikely, but okay), when her advisor sends a giant monster to try to eat her while she's giving her talk.

It's such a great analogy. So totally apt. It makes me want to cry, but it also makes me laugh.


Back in the hell dimension, when we first meet her, Fred has taken refuge in a cave and gone somewhat crazy (think: grad school). It takes a while for her to recover after she gets back.

Near the very end of the series, like many Joss Whedon characters, Fred gets killed off. And it happens because she's a scientist again, this time in industry, and she's literally killed by her own curiosity, falling into a trap set by a man who finds her overly attractive.

And the way she dies is so poetic: she's literally eaten from the inside out by a powerful demon who takes over her body.


My point in telling you all this is that after she dies, there is this montage sequence that always makes me cry. They flash back to Fred packing up and driving off to grad school, all full of hopes and dreams of doing nothing but science.

I'm finding this story is really helpful for me to acknowledge, as my therapist puts it, my own real and valid pain.

I like it because in a way, just by putting this out there, the people who made this show seem to be saying they know these things are happening. And that kind of public acknowledgment, however buried in this fantasy show about a vampire, is really comforting.

I also like how they use fantasy as analogy for these emotional, otherwise subtle things like having a sexist advisor who literally does everything in his power to try to drive you crazy and get rid of you once and for all.

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Sunday, May 03, 2009

Little throwaway.

Reminded by this post, I wanted to write about a talk I saw this week.

My department, as I've mentioned before, has very few women faculty. However, of late we have one seminar series that includes, in little bursts, several women speakers in a row from other places. This was one of those weeks when we got to see an unusually successful FSP.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed her talk. Her science was cool, and she's gotten a lot of rewards and awards for it along the way (and is tenured faculty at VeryGoodU).

Having said that, she did a lot of things wrong in her talk. Things I've been told not to do.

Her opening slide was white with small black text, no images, nothing catchy. UGH.

She apologized a lot, and laughed nervously a couple of times in this very particular way that I've only ever seen women do (which I was particularly taught to stop doing for that reason).

Perhaps most distractingly for me, she was wearing a t-shirt, and kept standing in such a way that I felt like I had no choice but to get an eye-full of the outline of her not particularly attractive boob. I kept wondering if she was doing this on purpose or was not aware of it. And thinking, BOOB, BOOB, please put away your boob!

So to sum up, she was not professionally dressed or using her body language to convey expertise or confidence, and her slides sucked.

But I couldn't help thinking that while her stuff was cool, and she seemed smart, I think I'm those things too (plus I'd like to think I give better talks-?).

So I couldn't help feeling just sick with the unfairness of it. I found myself wondering why she gets to do her science at such a high level, and receive all these awards, and I don't get anything but discouragement.

Granted, she came up at a different time, in a different sub-field, and who knows what other factors are involved in who her mentors were, funding, etc.

So here's the thing. I'm glad she's doing good science, setting a great example and all. Yay, role models.


But coincidentally this week, the flip side. If it's timing, it was a small window of timing.

This week I also had a conversation with a retired professor who had just a miserable, sexist experience in her time coming up (before the woman speaker I mentioned above). Ultimately, she moved into more adminstrative and teaching work, a slightly different career than her research, just because it was the best way available to her to get away from all the harassment and discrimination.

Perhaps the saddest thing to me was that here I found someone who understands what I'm going through because she's been there too. And I was surprised because my story literally made her cry.

She said it just breaks her heart to hear that things are not really that much better (maybe these things happen less frequently, but they still happen).

And yet, most people don't believe me when I say in my experience, things have not improved much for women at all, as long as these things are still going on.


So I found myself watching during this talk, and trying to figure something out. One of the things I've been doing lately is trying to develop the equivalent of gaydar for women-who-get-it.

I had the impression that this woman was one of those Deniers, because I noticed something very subtle in her talk.

When she presented work done by a male postdoc, she used his name and said a little about him (in a couple of cases she actually told an anecdote that involved alcohol). She apparently didn't present any work done by women, because she didn't mention any women's names, and sort of implied it was all done by (a couple or three) guys.

So I thought, great, her lab is exclusively male (unlikely, but possible).

At the end of her talk, she mentioned on the acknowledgment slide "Oh yeah, and this one part I showed you was done by (girl's name)." Like a little throwaway, an aside.

That part was actually not a minor part, and generated probably the most questions out of anything in the talk. It was an interesting, unusual result that she plans to work on in her Future Directions, much more so than anything the guys had done.

I strongly suspect she's not aware that she's doing this. And probably neither was anyone else in the room. But I swear, if I could have recorded the talk, I could freeze-frame the parts of it and point them out to you.


So I do kind of wish we could have some kind of pin so we could identify each other as women-who-get-it. It could be something very small. But it would be helpful to know who is sympathetic and who is just completely oblivious to it all.

At one point we talked about making t-shirts that say "This is what a female scientist looks like", and I see now they are actually available online, good on the person who did that.

Maybe I'll buy one when I quit science and come out of the closet. Except it will have to say "Former Female Scientist".

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