Stop Beating Yourself Up
Lately I'm struggling with watching younger women putting a lot of pressure on themselves to be competitive. I'll mention three examples here, although of course these are just a few of the women I interact with at work.
One is a grad student whom everyone admires for her hard work, intelligence, and personality. She's looking for a postdoc position and afraid of making a mistake.
Another is a new postdoc writing fellowships. She keeps saying she has no chance at getting one, but is trying anyway.
A third is a new grad student barely started on her thesis project. She's terrified of getting scooped, or that she might get kicked out of the grad program, and constantly beats herself up when her experiments don't work perfectly.
It's really hard for me to watch this. I really identify with the first two, in the sense that I worried about finding a good postdoc lab, and still fucked it up. So in a way, I think the first one is afraid of ending up like me. And like the second one, I also applied for fellowships, most of which I didn't receive. Nobody told me not to try, but I also didn't get the mentoring I needed. (But despite what I've told her, she refuses to get help from anyone other than her PI.)
I have a particularly hard time watching the third grad student, though. Her project is hard, and she already knows she's in a race with several other labs. Her PI expects her to be like a postdoc already, and since she had some research experience as an undergrad, she does too.
Now, we senior postdoc types all know the difference between experienced grad student and experienced postdoc. Along the way, if you've been paying attention all those years at the bench, you've learned a lot of stuff. You've figured out how to avoid the really big traps, and a lot of the small mistakes, too. You're just faster because you don't waste time worrying about the wrong kinds of details, or taking advice without looking things up (at least, I don't). You figure out who knows about what, and you ask them first because it saves time.
I'm trying to figure out if there's anything more I can do for these women, because I know they don't believe me when I tell them they're doing fine and to stop putting so much pressure on themselves. To some extent, they're still clinging to that hope that if they just work hard enough, the luck part will work out. But we all know that's not quite how things are. Sure, Jim Watson said it, and it's mostly true for experiments that there's no substitute for just trying a lot. But there's a lot to be said for having patience with your experiments and with yourself.
I feel like I've made a lot of progress in the patience-with-self department. Patience with the system, not so much, but these women haven't really caught on yet that the "luck" part is largely politics. Intellectually, they're aware, but they're aware like I was. Where they are right now, it's sort of like a warning light dimly blinking through the fog, not a blaring alarm right next to your ear.
I was watching the Sotomayor hearings and thinking about this concept of "disparate impact", which I had never heard of before. The way I understand it, this is a way of saying that a situation can have discriminating consequences against a subset of people, even if there was no "disparate intent".
It really fits the problem for women in science, that we usually feel the effects of disparate impact before we have any evidence of disparate intent. And sometimes there isn't any intent to discriminate at all, it's just a matter of context- if you're the only woman in your research group, for example, you're going to feel the effects of being a minority sometimes, even if all the guys are super-supportive and really respect you a lot. Even in those situations, every once in a while, something will come up that makes you feel uncomfortable and left out. That's disparate impact. Whether it's a big impact or not. And then we come to the "death by a thousand pinpricks" metaphor for being a woman in science. That's a lot of little disparate prickings.
Anyway I am watching these young women and their sort of nebulous fear, and it's hard because it's not so nebulous to me. I know exactly what they're scared of, because it has happened to me. Even if they can't quite name it yet, they have a vague idea of what is likely to be ahead. And they're scared they won't make it through.
Two of them have told me they're interested in industry, and disgusted with academia. And yet, they feel pressure to stay in academia until some arbitrary point when they might feel competitive enough, or when the economy improves enough, that they can get the kinds of jobs they want. Part of their fear is that the economy will never improve in our sector, and they'll have to find something else to do. And then all the suffering will have been basically pointless in terms of helping them reach their original goals.
The third one, bless her heart, wants to be a professor.
The funny thing to me is, I think all three would make great professors some day if they wanted to do that. So it's a little hard for me to watch them suffering, knowing all the factors that go into making them miserable, and knowing that there's not much I can do to stop them from suffering, not to mention stopping academia from losing these talented young scientists due to their being completely and righteously fed up.
I guess I'm writing this post because I can't figure out how to make them understand when I say, Look, it's hard enough without you also beating yourself up.