Thursday, March 14, 2013

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I wanted to write a post, because somehow the mood struck me that it was about time.

I was going to write something about how my current boss is one of those closet sexists who probably doesn't even think of himself as sexist and would be offended to have to face that fact about himself. I'm not sure how to gently guide him to understand where his biases are hiding.

And how his boss seems to be terrified of me. Apparently because I'm female. He is friendly, but he never speaks to me directly. I don't think this is because he disrespects me. I think it is because he is shy, and women are especially scary. Also, I couldn't help noticing that he didn't wear his wedding ring when he first started working with us, but now he does. Regardless, this barrier means my colleagues have an easier time bonding with him than I do. I sense his discomfort and it makes me uncomfortable. So I stay away.

And I miss my former boss, who wasn't perfect but at least didn't refer to female peers and colleagues as "that woman" or "the wife of..."

And I miss doing research, and how what I'm doing is not really science at all, but it's a complicated thing to explain what science actually is. But I think some of my non-scientist friends have a better grasp of what science should be than a lot of scientists do.

And that makes me think more than ever, that I should get out of science as a career. I don't see how I'm ever going to get to any kind of leadership position from the traditional routes. I think I'm going to have to write if I want to say anything about how science needs to change, and whether anyone listens or not, at least I can say I tried.

Because in science, critical thinking skills can mean all the difference between success and paranoia. It's the difference between wasting time trying to reproduce results found in a shoddy publication, and doubting why science ever works or understanding how it ever could.

And that's not much different from believing the traditional career paths still exist (in minute quantities) or will lead to any kind of satisfying life (of a debatable kind).

I was thinking about this because I saw a friend recently who seems to have the perfect faculty position (tenured, good school) and life (married, 1 child). But her job is not completely stress-free, and I know that while things look good on the outside, she still has to work hard to stay where she is. And I don't know if I would really have been happy doing that. Maybe I would have gotten claustrophobic, staying at the same university for so long. I probably would have run into the same kinds of problems, just later on.

And I was thinking about how I have maybe two other friends who encounter sexist shit on an almost daily basis like I do, both at work and on the street, getting hit on, etc. (Just today I was walking out of the grocery store and got yelled at "Hey pretty lady, you care about baby tigers, don't you?")

And how it's somewhat mysterious to me that some of us have to constantly be confronted with being judged on our appearance, and other women somehow sail through life never having to really face up to it as a clear disadvantage. And how it baffles me as to whether it's because we're somehow more sexy (seems doubtful?) or just "too sensitive" or just unlucky or what.

Like how did my friend, who is pretty and athletic, manage to choose a field where somehow being in a minority of women was actually good for her career? But in my case it only seems to negate anything intelligent I have to say about anything?

And I'm supposed to accept positions where I'm routinely ignored, and at best I'm supposed to be satisfied when people take my ideas or suggestions but don't give me credit for them?

And I heard something recently about how most people can't tolerate constant failure, but video gamers and research scientists are the exception to that generalization.

I mean, I don't take it personally when my experiments fail. I know that either I will figure it out, or I won't, and either way, it doesn't make me any less of a person.

But I am so tired of the failure of my male colleagues to treat me as an equal. And it makes me so sad when I see the younger women following their lead. Why would they respect me when no one else does?

I know it's not me, because the last place I worked, when some people treated me with respect, everyone else tended to follow their lead. Too bad that job didn't pay enough...

And lately I would love a video game or any activity that was so easy and fun that it involved getting a lot of positive feedback and encouragement. Because I don't get enough of that in my job, and I would like to have more "flow state", which they say is what happy people cultivate. Where you are just absorbed in something so much that you don't notice time passing. Because all I do is notice time passing, and it only seems to pass too quickly evenings/weekends, and too slowly when I am at work.

And how some days I feel old, and some days I get carded when I buy a bottle of wine at the grocery store.

And how I sat at dinner the other night with a bunch of married people talking about their experiences with having kids, and my boyfriend and I looked at each other and held hands and everyone said how cute we are and how it's so obvious we're not married. And how the irony is nobody knows I was upset because I am just about too old to have kids even if I wanted to, and how hard it is to be dealing with that. Or how that happened because I put off deciding about having kids in hopes of having a scientific career. But nobody knows that. I didn't even really know that. But I'll probably have the rest of my life to think about it.


At 9:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're not alone. I'm about your age and have experienced most of what you're talking about here. I'm in a field in which the postdoc/job ratio isn't as bad, so I'm still in science. But I think about quitting every day. Sometimes I don't quit because I get paid well enough and I don't have a better idea (yet). Sometimes I don't quit because I like what I'm doing and I see a future in it. One of the few things that makes it better for me is having other people acknowledge that that this crap really happens and I'm not crazy or making it up. So this blog post did that for me, the least I can do is reciprocate.

At 6:39 AM, Blogger chall said...

your last paragraph resonates so much with me. I hope that you and I can get peace with what the future brings in that regard and not look with bitterness (or sadness) on "what could've been"....

As for the other things, welcome to my place where the boss very clearly refers to women as "ladies" or refer to his wife (who never had a job outside the home). It's also obvious that he is uncomfortable when you're not a cutsie woman just listening to him but actually have science ideas and dress professionally but not cute. One day maybe, right?

At 11:32 AM, Anonymous exFpostdoc said...

Dear YFS,

I still have your blog in my reader although you don't post as often as you used to when you were a postdoc. Your blog was truly like a wake-up call for me when I finally decided to step out of academia and break with the unhappiness that my postdoc was instilling in me. I had so many aha! moments while reading you.

Now I feel very sad by knowing that you feel you've put important things on the side in the hopes of having a career in academia.
I hope your latest job moves have at least brought you a bit more stability than the eternal temporary postdoc gig. We all know that's pretty much impossible to think of babies while on a 2-year contract in a lab that might disappear any day.

I would be thrilled to read the post where you announce that you're going for a baby, since you just wrote you're "about too old". "About too old" is definitely not too old in my book.

Best of luck and please know that you've made a difference in many of the people that reads you.

At 11:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


A few months ago, I came across this blog after looking for stories about the frustrations people face in pursuit of a career in science. I'm glad to see a new post, although I'm sorry to hear about your disatisfaction with your current situation.

I'd be interested to hear more details about how people pilfer ideas without giving credit in your line of work. Is this a case of working on a paper and not being listed as a coauthor? Or is a corporate setting where people are strategizing with regards to some project and the team leader presents material to more senior people without listing each team member's contribution in detail?

In the former setting, I've dealt with someone in the past who attempted to inappropriately claim credit for other people's ideas. When he attempted that with me (twice), I found it effective to immediately point this out and explicitly lay claim to the idea so as to disabuse him of his version of history. Ultimately, such people won't change, but like bullies, if you hit back they will tend to go find easier prey and at least you won't have to deal with them. Plus, it's satisfying to stand up for yourself.

I think I've seen in more than one of your posts that you've thought about getting out of science completely. And you mention writing. Have you thought about doing science writing, or working for science magazines/journals?

I'm also saddened to hear about your worries regarding children. Have you read "Tenure Track, Mommy Track" by Susan Landau? I realize you are not on the TT now, but I think the story of "there's no really good time to have children, go ahead and work through it, rather than putting it off for professional reasons" seems plausible. And the tone of your post suggests you too don't believe the sacrifice is worth it.

Anyway, I hope you'll keep updating, I enjoyed your past postings.


At 12:38 PM, Anonymous Lou Dobbs said...


Good to see you're still alive and kicking. I check in on this site now and again.

I've no idea how old you are but I'd be reluctant to make conclusions about your reproductive capacities being diminished until you actually speak to a specialist in reproductive medicine about it. This is one of those areas where science and technology may actually be of assistance to you, and a professional would be more helpful than reading the primary literature (the statistics and risks are scary for the older woman, I agree, but take your doctor's interpretation of the evidence rather than your own - there is a lot of art involved in assisted reproduction). In addition infertility is down to the male in ~30% of cases and unless you're aware of it, it may be months before anyone figures it out.

Secondly there is nothing wrong with leaving a scientific career and doing something, anything else with your life. The time you have given to science will at some point be useful to someone (One has to believe this - that at some point your papers will be stumbled across and read by someone seeking to build on your ideas - although, you may never get the recognition for it in your lifetime). You have made a contribution, however small it may seem, which is more than many do and more than most ever get the chance to. The real challenge is how to accept this and move forward without constant, debilitating regret about how you could've been a contender. To find joy and interest in new things (work or non-work related) and develop yourself in new ways. That is the only way that time starts to move faster. Or, have kids and you'll be 60 tomorrow :)

Thirdly, watch Searching for Sugarman if you haven't already. It'll help.

And keep writing. Maybe start a new blog?

At 2:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What became of the book you were writing?

At 11:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I first came across your blog some four or maybe even five years ago, while in the middle of a depressing postdoc situation. I had to pinch myself to make sure I was awake, since every single word you wrote seemed to be the same thought I had in my head. It made me realize I was not crazy and that the system was really working against me. I have come back to your blog often and was sad when your posts started to become less and less frequent. And it dawned on me that you must have gotten divorced or broken up in the midst of everything and how painful that must have been. But just as I read your last paragraph, my heart went out to you. I have never posted before, but wanted to tell you how much you touched me, a stranger you will never meet. You helped me decide to leave the lab for an administrative career (I am very happy with my job). This in turn helped my husband and I start a family (after I was told I may not be able to have kids). And it switched the focus to my husbands career which blossomed because we were no longer forced into a holding pattern in case I got a position somewhere on the other side of the country. And while the feminist inside me recoiled at the idea that I was giving up on my dream of being the PI, the lives of women who were living that dream, seemed less and less appealing. I realized I wanted a child more than I wanted to be a PI. Maybe that makes me a traitor to feminism. But I am so grateful everyday for my son and for a job that pays me well, gets me home by 5 and lets me have the weekends and nights at home. My life is not perfect, but I am happy. You helped me get to this place.
I wish you all the best in life - you deserve it.

At 1:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing here again. I love your blog. i hope you retururn one day.

lone post doc in europe

At 12:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can definitely feel you on every single one of your observations. In fact, reading your post made me feel as if I was reading a diary. You are not alone. I wish those words could help.

On another note: you are not too old to have children. I know women who have had children in their early 40's. What you should probably do is think really hard about your timeframe for having kids with your partner, if you want to have them, and then negotiate the obstacles as they arise (because you know that they will). Don't worry about comparing yourself to anyone else, in the meantime - you have your own life story to complete. Do it justice and be true to yourself. A career of some kind in science will always be there, unless you don't want it.

Life would be awfully boring if everything was easy.

I wish you nothing but happiness.

-a long-time reader

At 1:40 AM, Anonymous roy said...

I get that a lot too. It is terrible when I am referred to as Dr. so-n-so's wife instead of Dr. so-n-so. I am not a feminist I rather think am an individualist. I met a lady, who is a prominent scientist in India and who was always asked whether her prefix is Miss or Mrs. When she replied Dr., it was never good enough for the administration staff!
BTW you are never too late to have a family. Take it from an experienced female scientist. It may not be easy, but definitely doable.

At 9:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

are you in a fly-over state or on the coast? I'm originally a fly-over person, but then moved to a coast for several yrs and am now back in my fly-over state. The sexism is so much more blatant in fly-over land.

I'm also a lesbian (former scientist who went into business). It is interesting how I'm treated by male colleagues- 'you're cool, bc you're not actually a woman.' is the basic attitude. my straight female colleagues have to put up with a lot more sh*t than I do. have you noticed the same in science?

At 3:21 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Thank you for all the supportive comments!

"M" aka @Anon 11:48 AM,

re: not giving credit, yes, I have gotten screwed on authorship as well as not being credited in presentations to upper management (and peers).

I do make a point to stand up for myself wherever it is possible to do so somewhat gracefully. It's a fine line to walk, being just enough of the bitch who won't just lay down and take it.

I don't want to do science writing.

I have not read Tenure Track, Mommy Track. I definitely think if you are sure you want to have kids, you should find a way to do it.

Lou Dobbs,

I will add Searching for Sugarman to my queue!

I have considered starting another blog.

re: the book, it is still in progress. I had to put it in a drawer for a while because there were some painful parts I wasn't ready to write about yet. And I was struggling to find the right editor(s), because I kept giving sections to people who are not scientists and they were completely not the right audience. Or friends who already knew most of the story, who are not writers. So then I was struggling with who is my audience? Will non-scientists want to read this? And I still don't quite know how many real names to keep, if any. I haven't made time to get back to it lately.

@Anon 9:35 AM,

re: lesbian women and less-feminine women having an easier time with the boys, yes I think so. Although I can't really do the control experiment myself, and I'm extrapolating from a relatively small N.

from what I can tell, yes fly-over is probably generally worse... although there are plenty of coastal areas that are just as bad. I think that has to do with how far South you go.

At 12:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I'd like to chime in with the others: Your blog was an eye opener to me as well when I was doing a postdoc. So thank you. As you can tell you've made a big impact on many of our lives, even if we are still struggling in academia because we are stubborn (like me). Time is running out though, and within the next 6 months I have to decide if I am staying in academia (it might involve another move to yet another country and I am sick and tired of leaving everything behind) or whether I am calling it quits. Please finish the book. It might be the highest impact thing you'll ever have written and unlike many other high impact stories it will directly affect people's lives!
Hang in there!

At 1:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even though my scientific career and personal life also haven't turned out how I had so hoped for when I was a grad student over 15 years ago (just to give you an idea of my age range), I don't feel regret and wonder what if. I know that I made the choices I did based on the circumstances and information and who I was at the time. Life changes you. And hindsight is always 20/20. Who you are now is not who you were a decade ago and more. You have to believe that the choices you made years ago - if they were honestly thought through and calculated - were the best ones for you at the time. It couldn't have been any other way or else you wouldn't be "you ". I do regret what I consider dumb mistakes - mistakes made because I didn't take the time to gather more information or think things through more. But I do not regret decisions based on gut feeling or made with incomplete knowledge if it was the best I could have done at the time. Thus even though I am nowhere near what I had hoped to accomplish (both professionally and personally) I do not regret choices I made because it could not have been any other way unless I had been someone totally different to who I actually was.

At 12:58 AM, Anonymous Johanna said...

I understand. At the moment, I am finishing up my PhD and I have six months until my defence. When I am finished, I will walk away from my field. People around me are somewhat surprised by my choice because not only have I been offerred a PostDoc at my current uni, but I have also been offerred another position that is similar to what I am doing today. But I cannot accept either of them. I feel that you understand why.

However, I have been offerred an amazing job that excites me. In business. Eventually, that will take me into consultancy. And I am so looking forward to that.

When I compared myself to when I started the PhD project, I can see a tremendous difference. Not only have I learned to ask for the feedback/confirmation that I lacked so much during the first years, but I have developed into a person that set my own criterias for success. Something that is very difficult in the scientific field.

About your book. I hope you make time to write it, I would love to read it. If you are struggling with identifying your audience, perhaps your audience could be other female scientists. We are here and trying to find approaches to work and life everyday. And, more importantly, perhaps your book could be something that you do for yourself...

You are never too late for anything! ;)

At 5:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Selah. 5 years postdoc, an H-index of 9 and I'm looking for a job in the age of sequestration. Fucking blow me, Congress. My number one option looks to be parking my butt in a core facility, and thank Jeebus I have that choice,

FWIW, the thing your friend probably had was enthusiastic behind the scenes backing from her mentor. Some mentors know to do that but a lot of them don't, and women can get overlooked even by mentors who should know better. There is a lot more to scoring a faculty job than a good CV and chalk talk.

At 3:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

At a biochemistry graduate school in a BigName public university.

A week prior to the incident, the faculty mentor told three of his graduate students to continuously TA to support themselves.

Budget has been a problem, especially since the sequestration, the talk of buying the Invitrogen protein gels were depressing. Many of the lab members were surprised by the financial situation the lab was in. How bad is it? No one knew, but it's probably the worst in this faculty's 20 years as a PI.
A week later, one student had difficulty with a take-home assignment. He was too occupied with his roles in the lab (full-time), Teaching Assistant, and a class he took. Also, this student was supporting one of his sibling's family and caring about his own sister and nephew was emotionally draining for him. The father of the nephew could live or die just about any time. It was sad. The class instructor complained to the grad student's "mentor" the day prior to the incident.
The next day, the "mentor" fired the graduate student. It was his opportunity to do so. His reasoning is: the student cannot TA and take classes and do research at the same time.
The students was producing in the lab. The PI relied on the student's results for grant applications. But unfortunately, the PI is very new in the field, and none of his ideas would ever be good enough for this new field.

It was such an unfortunate event. Another professor who used to be a graduate student at this university also said the student was handling too much. The "mentor" did not express any concerns for the student. Just saw the opportunity to fire the student the next day. There was never any warning prior to the incident.

I am that student. It has been over a month, but a resolution has not yet been found.

At 6:02 PM, Anonymous JusticeWillCome said...

Re: Anonymous 3:19 PM. That is I. Ironically, I'm also the same Anon that posted the questions leading to the post:

Now, still looking for a solution. Lessons learned: If you knew someting is shit, then by all means, find something else.

At 11:52 AM, Anonymous Lora @PhDinComputerScience said...

The title of your post is quiet intriguing for me. Really? Maybe in your case, but I have lots of friends having the same situation as you. yes, you will really envy on the fact that almost every woman at your age are already married with kids, however, never loss hope as things could never be too late for the right time.

At 11:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just want to float the idea that you may be suffering from a pernicious form of reasoning that affects most people that are put into a situation where they are part of a minority group. In this case it's the confirmation bias that negative experiences stem from other people treating you differently because you're a woman. After saying this, I still want to stress that you could be completely correct in all your assessments above. I'm just saying that sometimes people are jerks to everyone, or they are jerks to only specific people but not because of their gender, and reacting to their abuses always through the prism of gender can lead you to believe that everyone is out to get you.

Also if you still want to have kids, do it. And if you think you're too old, adopt.

I wish you the best.

At 8:40 PM, Blogger Rased Oren said...

And Marie Curie beats all.

At 10:00 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

well, this is interesting. I don't remember moderating some of these comments, or maybe I was in a rush so I didn't get a chance to reply?

thanks for the words of encouragement, y'all.

@Anon3:19, I'm so sorry I didn't see your comment sooner.

I'm sure it's disappointing, but honestly, it sounds like it might be better to spend some time dealing with real life/death things with your family, at least right now.

If after that, you are really certain that in spite of everything you've read and heard about academia, you still want to go to grad school, talk to the dean of your program and switch labs.

Most graduate schools do not want to fire students, especially if they're willing to TA. If you can find a better mentor, do it, but don't throw yourself back into a full-time graduate school experience until you're ready. It is a lifestyle choice, not just a career.

yes, lessons learned for us all. It's so hard to know whether to listen to the people who say to just keep trying, don't give up, etc. when your gut is saying "this is not going to get better, I don't think I can do this anymore".

@Lora, see the comment above yours.


Yeah, thanks, this is not pernicious reasoning. I have seen what you're talking about, and this is not that.

I am pretty good at telling the "jerks to everyone" vs. the "only jerks to me" or "only jerks to women".

More common, actually, is the type who are "only jerks to certain women" or "only jerks to women who are not sufficiently subordinate/stereotypical".

I'm also pretty good at telling when someone seems to be "a good mentor" or "a great guy" but it turns out he just has a favorite, and if you're not the favorite, you're fucked.

For example.

However, at some point, it's kind of moot, since in any of those scenarios, they're not going to be helpful mentors to me. Whether it's because I'm a woman or not is almost irrelevant at that point.

The problem comes if you're always asking, say, men, for recommendations on who is a good mentor, they often can't comment on whether someone happens to be sexist. They might not have any way to know.

And not everyone is good at identifying the jerks. Some people come from sucky family lives and it's just how they're used to being treated, so they don't think anything of it (for example).


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