Thursday, June 04, 2009

For the ones who leave.

I've been thinking about disillusionment of various kinds.

Why some people realize they just don't like science enough. Why girls decide not to major in math even though they got straight A's in the subject up through high school and it always came naturally to them. These kinds of things.

Every time I've quit something by choice, it was because I felt I just couldn't make myself fit in. I was not welcome, and nothing I could do or say would change that. No matter how much I wanted to do what I was doing, I knew I would have to give it up.

Sometimes these things were obvious, like being physically incapable of throwing a basketball. Okay. I figured that out pretty early on, and I was never invested in becoming a basketball star. (Besides, I grew up before the WNBA, so it wasn't like I had any role models until it was way too late.)

But with most other things, I reached a tipping point. Something just broke.

My favorite teacher moved away, and my confidence in the subject disappeared like a cloud on a windy day. Poof!

The other kids were not like me, and I felt isolated and fell behind in class when we had to work in groups. That subject, which was my favorite and best, became my least favorite class and a source of constant stress.

Lately I feel like something in the science part of me just broke and I can't put it back.

What broke is the delicate cocoon that let me pretend it didn't matter that I'm a Female Scientist, revealing a secret that I kind of forgot: I have been a Female Scientist all along.

Cocoon is actually a good metaphor in this case, because I think for a lot of us the dream is that we'll wake up one day and just be Scientist, with no qualifying label attached.

And then something inside me just broke when I realized that's NEVER going to happen.

Intellectually, I've always known this. But I'm not sure I really understood what it entails. There's so much baggage that goes along with this, and much of it on a daily basis.

I've been blogging all this time trying to come to terms with this as a major setback that has, in ways large and small, adversely affected my career and my relationship to science.

I'm one of those people, for better or worse, who just doesn't want to see things go on as they are when they're clearly not working very well. Science is not working well for me because of the way I've been treated. And that has been colored, ever since grad school, by the stain of sexism.

For a long time I've tried to tell myself I didn't really experience much sexism in grad school, and compared to being a postdoc that's basically true. But the truth is, none of my work was judged as fairly in grad school as it would have been otherwise.

Even my thesis adviser, whom I would never say was outright sexist, had some unconscious bias that caused undue distrust of my results, which meant I had to do additional experiments where I wouldn't have otherwise. It meant I had fewer papers, and my one "really good" paper was sent to lower-tier journals than it would have been if I had a supportive mentor who appreciated the importance and quality of what I was doing.

I know this because my one "really good" paper is pretty well-cited, and because very similar work from other labs made it into Big Journal. But mine wasn't even submitted there, so I'll never know if I really had a shot. Maybe it was just too political, but I would have liked to be allowed to try.

And it's hard not to realize, when you really stop to think about it, how much of a difference that one paper being in Big Journal would have made, every step of the way. For fellowships. For the papers that came later. For jobs now.

In my field, we don't publish a lot of little papers, we publish big ones every few years. So if your big paper doesn't go into A Pretty Big Journal, you've just wasted not just some time, but usually several years. Which is, in the life of a grad student or postdoc, pretty much all there is. And biologically speaking, those are usually your best years. Your hot shoe-wearing years.

This week I found out that yet another grad student in my building dropped out. She was there for a long time, and the explanation was that she "just didn't like it enough". But I saw this girl working, and she worked hard enough for me to know that she couldn't have hated it that much. People who hate science just don't show up. Or they show up and surf the web. She was not one of those.

But seeing this happen again and again and again, and always quietly like this, makes me angry and sad. Because I know she was the only girl in her lab. And nobody in that lab was encouraging her.

The thing about being a minority is, even if nobody is actively out to get you, you know you're a minority. You know it all the time.

Instead of being told you suck, you're being shown. Every day. How different you are, and not in a good way.

You don't have to be a genius to see how the guy next to you gets all the favors and pats on the back, while you have to beg for scraps.

You stretch yourself, you literally bend over backwards, but eventually something breaks.

And it really is like a tree falling in the forest, because nobody is ever there to hear it.

This post is for the ones who leave.

You're braver than me.

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At 5:01 AM, Anonymous Leaving Academia said...

Ms. Ph.D., I just came across your blog a few weeks ago. I did my Ph.D. in the social sciences, but in the context of your blog, that's very much beside the point. Your critique of science, your field and practitioners in your field rings true for me, too. It's so great to hear women academic bloggers speaking up about their experiences of sexism in the academy (and you're a great writer, to boot). Thank you so much for doing this brave work.

At 5:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear YFS,

I hope you stay! Please forgive me if I'm repeating what other commenters have said - or maybe it will be helpful to hear it more than once. But I would like to post some encouraging remarks.

I don't know you, but I come and read your blog every day because I see some of myself in you, both in your experiences and in how you feel about those experiences.

I think you have a very strong sense of justice. So admirable! But such a burden as well. I have it too. It makes it hard to exist in an environment with rampant unfairness because that unfairness is so front and center in one's day.

My experience, and my suggestion: My first faculty job turned out to be in a department that was horrible, horrible for women. It became hard to imagine a world that was better elsewhere, and it took some time to get out, but I did, and I'm now much happier. The new place is not perfect - but it turns out it doesn't have to be. I find that I can function and be happy if my immediate work setting is a collegial and non-sexist one. It doesn't matter *as much* that, for example, women are paid less, promoted later, and probably have a harder time getting grants and papers published. These problems are a vital impediment to the overall advancement of women in science and academia, mind you, and they can and must be addressed. Problems at those levels tend to exist everywhere. But they don't impact my day-to-day happiness in anything like the same way a sexist boss or poor interactions with colleagues and staff does.

It sounds like you have a poor immediate work environment. That can be escaped, and it is worth escaping. You are frustrated about the odds of moving directly to a faculty position without the support you need to make that jump. I suggest looking for a new postdoctoral position. Yes, you shouldn't have to. Maybe if you were a man you wouldn't have to. Does that mean that the best decision *for you* would be to leave science? Not necessarily. Your decision should be based only on you and what would make you happy, and you should compare the options that you have against each other, rather than against options that you might have had available to you if you were male. A desperate situation calls for triage, and in this case I'm suggesting you try to focus on what you can do to make daily life better as soon as possible, without closing off choices for future career options, and suspend for the moment frustration about the systemic problems for women in science.

I'd really like to read posts from you flourishing in a non-sexist environment with a nurturing advisor who will work with you and not against you. Find such a place, enjoy your science, heal for a while, and gather your strength for an assault on the system!

You can do it. Remember how you finished your PhD despite the lab losing its funding? (See, I do keep up). You have guts and courage and you can make this happen. You should experience a good working environment before you make a decision about whether the systemic problems are so severe that you'd be happier in another line of work.


At 8:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry YFS. I also "left" in undergraduate, but in a sense of changing paths.

Not to derail your post or anything but I feel that regarding practical solutions and the betterment of women, we need to migrate towards engineering.

Financially, it empowers women faster and more intensely than science, allows for more relationship and family flexibility than academic science. IE, engineering fits a girls hot-shoe wearing years ;)

And takes 4 years instead of 8-10! Boys still dominate in electric/mechanical but those are only two groups. We can take 'em. And yeah we will take crap, but less volume and duration than if we went for a PhD. Colleges crave more girls in all engineering anyway.

Good luck with whatever you decide to do. Apparently you can write too.

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

Sometimes, you come across a crossroads. Whatever decision you make doesnt matter so long as it is what you feel is right.

Yes, there is most definitely sexism in science, and no, I don't think it can ever be removed entirely. That is wishful thinking that will never happen in anyone's lifetime. If you are willing to deal with that and still give it your best shot, perhaps one day you can be a happy FSP.

These people who quit science are not only brave, they have carefully thought out what they felt in their hearts was the best decision for themselves. It may not be the right decision for you, or it may be.

Don't feel bad for them, because they've made a choice they felt was right. It doesn't mean they were forced out. It can also mean, they found something with a better cost:benefit ratio.

At 9:49 AM, Blogger Jay said...

I work in a field where I suspect the sexism is even worse than in science. I think people are surprised at the level of sexism when you tell them, not because they thought the world would be a fair place or because it's so much better everywhere else, but because people ASSUME academia would be MORE fair than other places.

As far as the "IF my paper had been published..." train of thought, you are going to have to move on from that. As a personal anecdote, a few years back I was trying to transfer into a technical position. The powers that be made me jump through a lot of hoops that before and after no one else had had to jump through. Was it sexism? Possibly, I've never seen another woman try or be in a similar position so I'll never know. I assume being a man would have helped my chances, but I can't say being a woman hurt them. At any rate, this delayed my transfer by more than a year and so reduced the experience I would have had in that position by a year. Is it irritating? Yes. But you've got to move on. So somebody screwed you out of something several years ago, doesn't matter. You still have a chance to make new opportunities now and that's what DOES matter. I suspect grad student mentors are no better or no worse than bosses in the corporate world. Sometimes you get a really great boss who cares about your development, appreciates the hard work you put in, and makes sure you are constantly learning and being challenged. Other times you work for a guy who can't remember your name and doesn't know what you do or how difficult it is and really only cares when you become the scapegoat for somebody else's problem. It's life. You might say, "well in corporate america you can always get a new job..." but that isn't always the case. You don't always live in a city where the economy is that great, or maybe don't yet qualify for the jobs that are available. So I imagine the two are similar. I guess in a very long-winded way I am just trying to say, hang in there, find the things that brought you to this field and excel in them for yourself and not for your reputation or for others, and let time take it's course in moving you to the next step. Stop looking in the past so much, stay present and work on bettering yourself.

At 8:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hang in there. I choked up reading this post. I think about all the women who disappear. I can't imagine leaving everything I enjoy doing, but I can imagine getting away from the shit which would require relocation to a desert island.

My dream job doesn't exist anymore. The old guys are retiring and those positions are being dissolved for hot sexy science field. This wasn't even a remote possibility when I started my Ph.D. Had I known there would be no jobs, I would have done a law degree. My field is hostile to women and even finding a Ph.D. program with a good environment was hard. They are all gone now or younger assholes moved into subfields.

I'm not sure if I'll feel like a failure by leaving or a success by leaving science. My colleagues keep trying to suck me back in to be on grants, but it's wierd. I just don't have that enthusiasm that I used to have, that they have. I have plenty of papers, big whoop for another one. I didn't lose my spunk one day. I'm worn out from the same battles that are everywhere, academia, government, industry. It's not a change of scenery that I need. It's a change of field or a sex change.

You've got mail sucks. Your therapist sounds like she belongs on Oprah's woovision. Pay her in quackers.

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

I do understand a lot about how you feel. I encourage you to go out there and try to earn as much money as possible by finding something apparently mundane but very high return (consider it an optimization problem where you have to find the best parameters). Like take out a loan to open a donut shop franchise or something.

You will be amazed at how good it makes you feel to earn a respectable salary; and how challenging mundane work can be (how do you maximize your costs and returns, what are all the littel tricks of running a business).

Biotech startups are a simple scams that PIs can somehow convince naive investors (who give money to VCs) to give them second salaries before the company runs out of cash before it has done anything useful at all (see DeCode Genetics for a really nice example of how you can make a company that does absolutely nothing for years, and the CEO takes home 600k in cash comp....plenty of other examples out there). Forget the myth of discovering new medicines, donuts all the way!

One thing I wanted to post here is if you would mind taking a poll on how many people out there have had their PI demand them to write a Faculty Of 1000 review. I see it happen a lot and I am beginning to think that it's not just astrotrufing papers, but Fo1k must be providing some sort of monetary remuneration. My PI would regularly ask 3 lab members to send him 3 novel reviews to post (no credit given of course).

BTW I don't know what makes a great writer, but if you see all the comments you get, it's clear that you have the ability to attract an audience with you style (I've been reading your blog for awhile); hopefully you will be able to turn keystrokes into pennies in the future.

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

MsPhD, take heart, often it is only after we have taken the leap (whether it was our choice or we were forced to) and when you are then in the midst of what you had been dreading, that you realize that it is not so bad after all. Or you will find that maybe it does turn out to be every bit as dreadful as you had predicted but hey, you can deal with it and you are dealing it and the world isn't ending. You may not have all the answers ahead of time, but you will figure it out as you go along and you will make it work.

You have your past experience to draw on as proof that you can and will handle whatever comes your way. You survived in a toxic environment for years. You made it work more than many other people would or could have if they faced the sample obstacles. hey, considering that postdocs are expendable cheap labor, the very fact that you survived so long and were able to do the science you wanted to do, and continued to be employed rather than being replaced by the latest newly-minted PhD who comes with a free fellowship, is "making it work" in my book! I've not been so lucky, I've been kicked out of labs because the PIs preferred to replace older postdocs with the latest new (and cheaper) model. bouncing from one lab to another isn't a good for a postdoc's career because people label you as 'unfocused' even though it wasn't your choice to bounce around. That's how my academic career ended. I'm still angry about it, but it wasn't the end of the world. Now I'm just searching for a job or career that will excite me. My non-science friends in engineering, medicine, business, law etc are now approaching mid-career and I'm trying to figure out what I want to do. Sometimes I envy them because I feel like I'm so behind in 'life' because of this, but some of them said they envy me because they are burned out in their careers and feel trapped because they're too afraid to leave. they actually envy me for having been forced to renew my career direction.

At 12:10 PM, Blogger Helen Huntingdon said...

Don't feel bad for them, because they've made a choice they felt was right. It doesn't mean they were forced out.

But more often then not,it does.

At 9:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that the longer you have tried, the harder it is to let go even when you are suffering a lot of anguish. The more years of your life you have invested into it, the more it hurts to leave it behind. That's how I feel, at least. I identify a lot with MsPHD's blog because I experience and feel a lot of the same things. I've been fighting for more fairness for so many years and nothing's changing even when I keep lowering my expectations that now I'm resigned to being forced out pretty soon. there's nothing I can do about it so I'm not even trying anymore, but just because I've now accepted it doesn't make it easy to deal with either... it is impacting my daily outlook on life and has been for at least a year.

At 6:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe you are just looking for external reasons for failure instead of really examining your ambition/talent levels.

At 5:10 PM, Blogger Ginger said...

I've never been on the receiving end of sexism in the workplace (or not so as I've noticed). In fact most places I've worked have had a good proportion of female staff/student. It should be noted, though, that they are mostly at the PhD/junior postdoc career stage, and that the higher posts are more male dominated.

What I would say in support of your experience is that supportive supervision/mentoring is *so* important. Lack of this contributed to me becoming 'one who left' ( I took the opportunity to switch fields and now have a wonderfully supportive boss and am far happier in my research.

It's hard enough to forge a research career without the people who are supposed to guide you making things difficult for you. It's very sad to imagine that these circumstances could arise due to sexism, but I don't doubt it. Good supervisors who actually care about what you're doing are worth their weight in gold.

At 9:42 AM, Blogger Robert said...

I'm an old male scientist myself. I once attended a Women in Computer Science meeting. My presence was noticed and commented on. For me it was like an opportunity to walk a little ways (nowhere near a mile) in a woman's shoes.

This is why role models and support groups are important. Hope you can persist and continue to overcome the obstacles.

At 2:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The reason science is so bad is that people persist in hanging in there long after all signs point to leave. This drives down salaries, creates unending postdocs, removes incentives for the gov't to hire more faculty, etc. The signs are pointing for you to leave.

At 4:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear YFS,

I am in with you all the time,
I feel what you feel and been going through it for the past years, remember: you are not alone!
my PhD advisor hates women, and looks down on them, he is also a racist, and has a pet from his own country, (PS the pet often engages in scientific misconduct and the advisor seems to be encouraging such behavior). Am glad am almost out, although I did intervene to stop in the scientific misconduct which result in the pet hating me.
But, stay strong, never let these people take you down. Women have to be in science and engineering, there must be more of us, and I swear after my PhD, which is 3 months away from my defense, that I will do much better than him and prove that he is wrong of my abilities. I swear I will become a good mentor to men and women when I became an academician one day, and we need more people who think this way. Those bad advisors - they don't deserve their positions. I wonder how they sleep each night, treating others like the way they did. Sometimes I wonder, are they that BAD and COLD HEARTED? Why they developed to be someone with bad personality and crappy at their advising roles. If they were to have this attitude in industry, I wonder what will happen to them? Since no one can fire a full professor in any university anyways - unless he or she did something "obviously" WRONG.


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