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.



Discussion:

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.

18 Comments:

At 5:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your central premise is that the system is broken. Your evidence is that you and others who are good scientists are not succeeding. Did you expect scientists to say that's a good enough argument? And not probe further? To not try to figure out what you mean by good?

I understand that you obviously can't reveal information that supports your assertion, but I would be surprised (and disappointed) if a group of scientists never questioned arguments you can't support.

 
At 5:32 PM, Blogger DrL said...

Do they have a lot of friends who are in a similar situation? No. There is many of us in the same situation in the blogosphere. We can become virtual friends and give each other support. It is only up to you if you want to use this option, or if you prefer to just moan here and use our commenter's selectively, only to confirm your already held assertions.

BTW I wanted to email you, do you have a bloggy email?

 
At 7:30 PM, Blogger Phagenista said...

"Do they have a lot of friends who are in a similar situation? No."

This was true for me. I didn't have a lot of close female friends at the same stage or farther along in a biology career. But I have a lot of friends who are successfully climbing the academic ladder in non-biology fields, many of them women. And it has been helpful/jealousy-inducing to see how their gender is not an impediment at all to their futures (two work in a very female-dominated field), and how non-science disciplines allow better work-life balance.

 
At 8:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Long time lurker who just wanted to say that (especially the first part) was B R I DOUBLE L I A N T.

Very cutting insight, on how I used to talk to postdocs as an undergrad and would assume that I am just not them, I was going to be exceptional....

I actually didn't end up doing a postdoc (thankfully) and wound up making some decent money, but still wondering if I am anywhere near the right track.

Sadly I think I'll never be content unless I know I am making as much as a MD specialist...and that day may never come.

Oh while I am unlurking, a good book to read is the the "Biotechnology: The University Industrial Complex". It is quite old but even then (mid 80s) talks about how postdocs and graduate students are indentured servants of PIs...I wish we all read that book before grad school.

 
At 10:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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.
Ugh, so friggin true on all counts listed above.

 
At 4:54 AM, Blogger JaneB said...

There are a lot of things wrong with the system (it was designed by humans, humans are flawed). I am not denying that. But it is worth pointing out two other aspects of this series of experiments:
1) there are fewer PhD places than graduating students meeting the minimum criteria. There are fewer post-doctoral positions than the number of graduating PhD students. There are fewer tenure-track jobs than there are post-docs. Even in IdealLand, this is how it is - not everyone WANTS to stay on to the next stage, for all kinds of reasons. The problem comes when the natural variation in chosen path at the end of a stage (e.g. PhD might choose school teaching, journalism, grant writing, administration, banking, some non-academic science job, instead of post-doccing...) is still leaving more people wanting places at the next stage than are available. (and part of the reason for that might be something to do with some nasty entrenched attitudes about how the only alternatives to the One True Way are Failures of various kinds).
2) There are substantial variations by field, so many of your readers will be reading posts through the filter of their own field. In my field, the gender ratios at undergrad are different to those at post-grad; something happens earlier than your experiment even begins.
3) In my snarky moments, I wonder if some of the leaks are NOT about sexism, but because more women are smart enough to sit back earlier in the process and seriously think about whether the 'prize' (the faculty job... where you add all SORTS of NEW kinds of crap and competition and chasing after scarce resources to most of the crap you get as a post-doc - you do gain a few things, I don't deny that, but on balance? It's not exactly a huge improvement) is actually worth the time, money and work-life balance issues, not to mention the inevitability of geographical relocation - and to decide that it isn't, that there are better things to do with their lives.

I'm not saying that the latter is right - it's a snarky thought, not a serious one - but your thought experiment is highly simplified.

And luck IS a probability/serendipity game, right? So why do you set it up as something different?

 
At 6:46 AM, Blogger Feminist Algorithm said...

I think this is a brilliant post. Thank you for sharing!

 
At 6:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

good for you...

I am in my early years of grad life (but did lot of research in undergrad and then as an RA for a couple years before grad school) and I can never understand why people just don't get that sexism is alive and well in academia. Or that there is no reason why young women are leaving careers in science.

The system has broken my spirits plenty of times...crying in stairwells and all (and I HATE CRYING...never was a cryer).

The idea that this phenomenon can be explained by a CV is crazy b/c my CV is pretty good but like you said "It's sort of a Minority Parable". I am as minority as you can get in academia, as one of my old profs used to refer to me---the ratio and the minority (woman/black). The mere fact that he could say that out loud is an example of the problem.

It's an uphill battle and I applaud you for discussing it! your blog has made my bad days not so bad.

To the younger ones or the guys who never believe this phenomena to be true....JUST WAIT!

 
At 10:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amen sister! I love this particular post and support every word you said. I only survived my top-ranked university due to perseverance and stubbornness in a mostly male department with only 1 woman professor of 60. I admit, I am so worn out by that process, that being a post-doc is breaking the already worn out seams!

 
At 3:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I will stand up to defend the anonymity of YFS and the fact that, based upon her writing skills here, she is probably a product of a very good education and has a great publication record. In spending about as much time in the pipeline as she, and I am also a YFS, I can tell you that the system is broken to the point that those who have even 'made it' aren't necessarily happy with the current job.

 
At 4:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

it's natural to want to get tips on which places/people/labs to avoid if someone is blogging about how bad it is...if someone said they got food poisoning at a certain restaurant I would want to know which one so I can avoid it because I dont' want to get food poisoning either.

In grad school we would exchange tips all the time about which advisor is a 'good' one to work for. Mainly the advice came from the postdocs and senior grad students to the incoming students. In my postdoc lab we would actively warn visiting prospective new postdocs away from our lab and give a list of reasons so that others don't repeat our mistakes. I wish I had the benefit of having been warned away from my postdoc lab, but as luck had it the advisor was in between postdocs when I joined so I had no one to ask about him (I'm still making up for those mistakes, years later, as they really set me back)

So it is natural that people reading your blog will be thinking OMG I do NOT want to encounter these awful experiences too, so which school/group is this?? But of course it's obvious that you cannot divulge such information so that does lead me to wonder why then people would ask you to give out such information when you've already made it clear you won't. Perhaps they are asking for the information to be shared privately? Still, I wouldn't share such information with complete strangers...since you never know what they will do with the info or your identity!

 
At 4:45 PM, Anonymous GradStudent said...

So I am the one who asked you those questions. Of course I am nervous about my future, I would be lying if I said I wasn't but I also want to learn from others mistakes. I just want to be a successful scientist and unfortunately competition is part of my life and if I am not in competition with you now I might/will be in the future. Maybe you do deserve a faculty position just as much as everyone else but I guess the world may never know.

PS. You have already said your post-doc ist a top-20 uni. How much more identifying would it be if you said your grad school was a top-20 and you published two papers and had a national fellowship?

 
At 6:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agreed. My university has hired a number of excellent women faculty members in the past 12 months. They all had published in nature-level journals as grad students and post-docs. Is the system broken for all women, or does the system permit the women at the top to still make it through?

 
At 11:47 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

GradStudent- thanks for writing back again.

It would be very identifying, particularly to people who know me, to disclose that kind of information. You never know who is reading- case in point, the recent drama over at DGT's blog (she got outed by someone at her company).

Believe it or not (I guess you don't really get it still, so I'll say it again): the number of American women postdocs is very small. Any additional information, plus a few key clues from this blog, would be TMI.

Anon 6:42 pm,

Is the system broken for all women, she asks.

Well, there have always been a few SuperWomen. This is the myth that drags us all down, because it's bad either way for (almost) everyone.

These women break through, yes, but most of them don't do anything to help other women come up. Many of them want to deny being women at all, and resent the extra attention that goes along with being the First Woman to ___. Historically speaking, but still to this day, these Superwomen are frequently unaware until very late in their careers that they themselves have experienced sexism and that's why I call them Deniers (a good example would be Nancy Hopkins of MIT, who freely admits this). Some, like Nancy, then go out of their way to try to fix things not just for themselves but for other women, too.

What cooks my noodle is that there are still YOUNG women Deniers, who refuse to learn from history and their peers that these things are STILL going on.

And the Superwomen set an extreme example. These examples reinforce the idea that women have to be ten times better than their male counterparts to reach the same level.

So in the long run, it doesn't really help- except maybe as role models when we're young enough that the question is whether we should even START science, not whether we should STAY. At that point, even seeing women doing these things at all (astronaut, etc.) can be really good not just for us but also for our (frequently sexist) parents. The Superwomen fill that important role of setting a visible example that it can, at least in theory, be done.

 
At 9:57 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

DrL- Yes, I am selective about what comments I post. If I deem some of them to be non-constructive or otherwise redundant with others (or easily answered by reading the archive), they are deleted.

I do have a bloggy email, it's yfsblog at gmail. I get very few emails there so I don't check it very often. But yes, I have commiserated with two other bloggers over email. One is a professor; the other is unemployed. I'm not sure our commiseration was helpful per se, although it's always nice to connect with other people just to feel less isolated, I guess.

 
At 10:36 AM, Blogger Samia said...

The attitudes you describe in this post are symptoms exhibited by people who buy into the just world fallacy. Thanks for writing this. I definitely need to keep myself grounded...

 
At 6:44 PM, Blogger Alicia M Prater said...

I was in a small program that was all female students (just my particular dept, there were plenty of mostly male dept's too). We were able to lean on each other about being women who wanted careers, families, and to learn who we are (what most people do when they're in their 20s!). I was lucky. I also had a few female professors of different ilks to look up to (as either positive or negative examples based on my own views of how I want my life).

Having friends of the same gender is definitely important when in a stressful field.

 
At 7:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very insightful. I fell into this same trap. I was once an arrogant YFS in denial about my future. I, too, assumed that the others couldn't "hack it". Now I have a great CV just like the boys, and I will probably not get an academic position.

Also, my PI is still just like all the rest (or maybe worse-he is the charming type that everyone thinks is SO wonderful). The system is horribly flawed.

I only wish that as I live through this I had some friends at the same level, i.e., women in the same boat. However, it seems that we are disappearing.

I am learning from a coach and a therapist to take responsibility and control over my career choices. Sadly, though, I don't think they are 100% able to understand and appreciate the postdoc years.

 

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