Tuesday, July 14, 2009

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.

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At 11:23 AM, Blogger Sandra said...

Jeez, that is so true. We need to stop beating ourselves up and just love what we do and do our best. I hate when I get negative on myself (which is happening less often) because there are so many things that I have done that have turned out well.

At 1:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, I mean, wow. Are you sure you're in biomed sciences? If not, I'd say you know me, and I will not stop beating myself up ever. I think I gave up catholic guilt and it morphed into need-to-spend-my-life-being-successful-and-awesome-researcher guilt (aka if I'm not working, I'm a bad person).

How does one stop beating one's self up? The high points are few and far between and all that's left in the middle is inadequacy. It sucks but we keep coming back for more. I just don't get that stopping it is an option.

This is similar to my not having any clue how to relax. My fiance tells me to relax and thinks I'm crazy when I say I forgot how. I cannot remember the last time I wasn't working or worrying about work. Sure, I may have hour long spans where I'm so busy with something else that I forget, but I can't go waking hours without it.

I'm a masochist, what can I say?

At 4:16 PM, Blogger Jessica Ball said...

It's hard for me to tell myself that when I start getting upset or stressed over something, even though I know I shouldn't abuse myself so much. I think it's a symptom of a long time spent competing with other people - in college, highschool, grade school, whatever - the end result is, you sometimes hold yourself to impossible standards, even though you know how impossible they are.

All I can say is be there for them - and be a little persistent if they try to brush you off - because the fear you're talking about can definitely lead to some real mental health problems, and those can make life even more miserable. I had the same thing happen going into grad school, and if it wasn't for the people around me who helped snap me out of it, I'd be in bad shape. It still comes back, but at least now I can look at it with some detachment and choose not to fall into the same trap so easily.

At 4:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the best piece of advice you can give them is GET OUT OF ACADEMIA, NOW!!!!

Seriously. You know what lies ahead. We permadocs all know what lies ahead because we discovered it on our own the hard way since no one told us. But the young ones don't know because how could they? So, be the one to tell them.

Give them the link to your blog! (you don't have to tell them it's you...)

We senior postdocs have already invested too much of our lives that changing paths at this late stage is extremely difficult (even though most of us will end up doing it anyway out of lack of options). It would be so much easier - and make more sense - to change paths way back when....

Now if they are doing their PhD out of some 'personal satisfaction' thing, then fine so be it. But if they are at all invested in their future careers, I think the most responsible thing is to steer them away from academia. Or at least give them all the info up front so that if they still decide to try for an academic career they are aware from the outset what it is they will be facing.

At 8:04 PM, Anonymous old female physics postdoc said...

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.

OK, this statement sounds like the students have bigger issues going on than what they are encountering in the lab.

They intend to go into industry. They are disgusted with academia. YET they feel "pressured" to stay in academia. Red flag. It's a bad idea to lead your life/career based on "pressure". If "pressure" is what drives their decisions, they're basically directionless. it's hard enough to survive let alone do well in a PhD program if you are motivated, never mind if you're not! This is doing a PhD for all the WRONG reasons.

And then what if they do manage to get their PhDs. Then what? What new "pressure" will they bow down to then? After the PhD, you have far fewer employment options than before. you are now older. Industry sees you as overqualified or too narrow/obscure in your skills/knowledge. So maybe they will take a postdoc cos that's the easiest job to get as a new PhD. But that just postpones the problem of being able to get a job outside of academia that makes the PhD worthwhile. Trust me, I made this mistake, I am now trying to get a job in industry (finally gave up trying to get an academic job) and it is very difficult to get a job that is "PhD-level" that is still in science rather than management or admin. I didn't go through grad school and postdoc to sit behind a desk all day. But that is what I have to do now because of limited options. The 'higher' up you go, the fewer your options to get out of academia and STILL recoup your losses in terms of the time and money spent on your education. So if you don't get the academic job, you are screwed. Again, the purpose of getting a PhD is to go into academic research as a career. that is why I got my PhD, but I later on failed to get the academic job, that's why I'm screwed now. But if they're not even intending to try for academic jobs, then what's the point??

Second part of the above statement: so they hate grad school, but also stay for now because they fear that the bad economy means they can't get jobs now and they also fear that the economy in their sector will never improve. So...how does staying on in grad school help this?? If the economy in their sector never improves, how does having a PhD help? If anything, having a PhD makes it even harder to find a job in industry in good times let alone in bad times - there's always, always more jobs in industry for non-PhDs.

I think these students need to reassess what they are doing in grad school to begin with, otherwise I see trouble ahead that is worse than what they're experiencing now.

I've known a few female grad students who really hated being in their PhD programs but felt compelled to continue because they feared that dropping out would reflect badly on them personally. I don't know if that is a factor in your grad students too or not...This is another self-esteem issue. Your life is not defined by whether you get a certain degree or not. Do what is smart and what is best for you, not what you think will make others respect you more. self-esteem).

sorry if I way off base about your grad students, but that is what it sounds like to me

At 2:51 AM, Blogger JaneB said...

If you work out how to get that message across, please could you come and tell me too?

At 7:21 PM, Anonymous kt said...

Frankly, that's just what I needed to hear right now... as a grad student beating herself up... Thanks.

At 10:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A nice post. Thank you, msphd.

I've thought for a long time about disparate impact (for example, when they decided that they'd only make astronaut suits sized for men). There's also an interesting line of research, by John Dovidio at Yale, that talks about how bias (he seems to study race, but gender would be similar, in this instance i think) affects decision making when the decision is ambiguous (i.e. the people in the middle).

I admire you for keeping on talking when people don't want to hear you, because they want to believe that doing all the right things, being smart will mean success, without randomness, unfairness, bias, coming into it at all.

(the phrase I've heard is the "the weight of a thousand feathers.")

At 12:41 PM, Anonymous a physicist said...

Not directly relevant to this post in particular, but highly relevant to the blog: Y'all may be interested in this link.


The article is "Women in the Sciences" and it's about unconscious biases that lead to gender based discrimination. Quite a lot of evidence is presented that supports points Ms. PhD regularly makes. It's from the American Physical Society's Forum on Physics & Society, their summer newsletter.

At 1:19 PM, Blogger Ritu said...

I'm the youngest (female) PhD student in my department with a habit of beating myself up... I'm convinced that this is a learned trait (for me from both competitive academic and previous athletic life....) The thing that keeps me from sinking too low is an advisor (male) and a couple of more senior colleagues (male and female) who take time to answer questions and teach quick lessons so that I can avoid some rookie mistakes before making them. These people also remind me not to beat myself up... or at least tell me not to be *quite* so hard on myself when they see I am headed that direction again.

Be supportive and give a little bit of your time and knowledge to these young women. It's likely they won't stop beating themselves up (it's hard not to when one is used to it), but it might help them get over a few more hurdles and closer to their own finish line with a hint of a smile on their faces...

At 1:44 PM, Blogger butterflywings said...

Oh yes, I so identify with the beating yourself up thing. I do that all the damn time.

Had not heard the term disparate impact, but agree with the idea. I absolutely agree, in general, that people don't have to actively *intend* to be racist/ sexist/ whatever to perpetuate racist, sexist, -ist society. It is not some old white men sitting with cigars deciding to deliberately keep women out.

At 9:37 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

butterflywings- It is not some old white men sitting with cigars deciding to deliberately keep women out.

And yet, sometimes it is. Did you actually watch the Sotomayor hearings?

At 7:53 AM, Blogger Surmounting Science said...

Ms. PhD, thank you for engaging me in a discussion that I should have had with myself long ago. I think it is so easy to loose sight of the fact that we are human, and make mistakes. I have been recently struggling with issues of feeling "inadequate" after returning to my postdoc after 5 weeks of maternity leave (mind you I only started it a year ago). I feel behind, and compelled to compete with my postdoc counterparts who are in their late 30's, unmarried, and pracitally live in the lab. Yet I subconsciously ignore the fact that I am 27, married, have a newborn and toddler, and a nearly 1 hour commute to work. Still there is a fear that I am not good enough, not smart enough, and that I need to prove myself. Then I begin to travel down what amounts to a lenghty road towards anxiety, lack of motivation, and depression. I certainly feel that more support and education for women scientists needs to become a part of the culture and not the topic of a special lecture, or a pamphlet that in the end leaves me at square one.

At 10:32 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Re-read a few of these and just wanted to say this:

Ritu wrote I'm convinced that this is a learned trait and I think this is a really important point. I learned it from my family, not from work, so I notice it when people try to put me down at work and I don't deserve it. I think for students who only had a supportive family, it might be harder to recognize what's going on when they're being held to a ridiculous standard, as I see women so often are. And we reinforce it ourselves. I can't tell you how many times I've seen women criticized for things men do all the time (or for not doing things men never do). I sometimes catch myself also wanting to hold my role models to a higher standard, and I'm pretty sure that is something I learned from the culture.

Surmounting Science,

Sounds like you're quite a superhero already! I agree that one lecture or a flimsy pamphlet do not make for much cultural change.

I hope you'll re-read this post whenever you're feeling afraid. You're doing just fine being a real live human being, who also happens to be a postdoc. Don't let the pressure define you or make you feel like you should be someone you're not.

At 12:35 PM, Blogger butterflywings said...

MsPhD - sure, *sometimes* it is. I should have said it is not *always* some old white men, etc.
But often it is a lot more complex than said men plotting to keep women out, due to explicit misogyny i.e. 'ha ha, we hate women and do not want to hire/ promote them'. It is the more subtle things, that no-one actively intends, that make us feel left out, and so on.
No, I didn't watch the Sotomayor hearings, but I have read about them online.


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