Career Questions

It’s been nearly 3 months since I last wrote. I did write a post in December, an enthusiastic review of “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” but it was lost when my phone crashed, and I couldn’t bring myself to rewrite the whole thing.

And of course there were the holidays – work to do and visitors and visits to be had.

But there was also the greyness. A feeling of running in a hamster wheel. Days of happiness, excitement, and energy – followed by days of stress, worry, or exhaustion.

I’ve seen the psychiatrist monthly, and I really think my current combo is helping. In a sense, the world has gone from gray to colorful again. It’s merely that I can see intense blue as well as bright yellow.

Work is… Disappointing. I feel less of a sense of purpose and direction than, frankly, ever before. Even as my passion waned somewhat in my darker times, I’ve always known what I wanted, where I wanted to go. And usually I had the determination to work hard to find it, to earn it.

But now, I’m unsure of what I would like next. There are things that call to me, but with each there are aspects that take my excitement down a notch. I know this is common for young adults, but the feeling is foreign to me.

I know that I am lucky that I have so many skills on which I could base a career – and likely a successful one. But I feel equally pulled toward each, but unwilling to yet give up any. As of late I’ve been dreaming up ways to incorporate them all. I may have an idea, but I don’t know yet how realistic it is. But I don’t like to leap without looking. I wish to gather information.

And that’s why I’m writing now. I would like to interview people with knowledge or experience in a number of areas. It could be over e-mail or phone (or in person if you can meet in NYC). I could write a post about it, feature you and links, or I could keep it private or anonymous.

If you have knowledge about or experience in a career in any of the following areas, please contact me!

Figure skating coach – basics
Figure skating coach – freestyle/test track
Figure skating program director
Environmental eng/scientist – government regulator
Environmental eng/scientist – government researcher
Environmental eng/scientist – consultant for private companies
Environmental eng/scientist – consultant for government
Environmental scientist – public interest researcher
Science writer – magazines, news, or books
Science professor – adjunct (lab instructor and early undergrads)
Project manager – web company
Pro blogger
Etsy shop/home business owner
How-to writer

I’m extra interested in hearing from you if you are a mom!

Patterns in Depression and Dysthymia

Once, a few years back while in a therapy session, my doctor mentioned to me that although she didn’t like to label, she had diagnosed me with dysthymia. At the time I didn’t think much of it, figuring it was just a particular diagnostic class of depression and that I didn’t need to know the details. But for a number of reasons recently, I decided to look into what it meant. In short, dysthymia (sometimes called chronic depression) is a form of mood disorder which has similar symptoms to depression, but they are often milder and last longer, for years. For me, the symptoms could be described as varying levels of hypersomnia, hopelessness, anxiety, guilt, loss of interest, sadness, and excessive crying, although many people experience it differently.

I’ve always felt that I was particularly sensitive to environment, in that in certain surroundings and social groups, the effort it would take to pull myself out of my self-critical thought patterns and incessant negative thoughts was more than I could manage. So I carefully considered the location of my university choice so as to put me in the place I felt most comfortable. For me, that place is a big city: a place so abundant with people that although I am surrounded by them, very few of us have the time to observe our neighbors closely, care about their choices, or actually express to them that we are uncomfortable with their differences. To me, this is the place where I can be me, find others like me, and find the inner strength to not worry about whether or not I fit in and am liked by the people I encounter each day. Living in this city filled with life and energy quells my anxious thoughts and helps me to be both carefree and driven. I feel at home here, and I love to show my acceptance of all the varied people who are my neighbors. And I can find any service that I need quickly, while not having to return to the car culture that my youth was so entrenched in. I firmly believe that this is both a great place to be and a great place for me.

Dysthymic people can also suffer from major depressive episodes, in this case termed “double depression.” I think I’m beginning to see some patterns to when my stronger depressive episodes develop. This last few months, there have been similarities to the depressed period which had originally brought me to my therapist in the first place. It seems that I am very sensitive to my social environment. When I was skating, it meant my home club and coaches. In school this meant my classmates and professors. At work it’s my coworkers and bosses. While some uneasiness may kick in right after a switch (new semester, new job, etc.), I’m often buoyed for the initial period by my love of new things. To me something new is something to learn from, and I love learning. But after the newness wears off, generally 3 to 6 months in, things get bumpier. I often start to really notice the people around me, and in many cases I start to fixate on the feeling that I don’t belong.

As I write this, I can remember so many times when this has happened. The first instance when I felt this way to the degree that I was not in control of my thoughts was when I was 17, and my training routine at the rink had changed. I was skating full-time at a club that I had rarely felt quite right at, and I was not able to spend much time at my favorite club, the place where I really felt at home. Many of my closest friends, skaters at that club, had moved on to other things. My coaches had decided to teach exclusively at this place that never felt as homey, and I found myself surrounded by ambitious young skaters. I was unable to value the maturity and strength that my skating had, and I only saw myself as a giant among little girls in a sport where smallness is an advantage. The bulimia that had began less than a year earlier spiraled out of control, and by the end of the summer I decided to quit, thinking that taking myself out of this environment, this competitive skating world, would help me heal. At the time, I didn’t realize how long that process would take.

Years later, when I was a junior in college, it was the beginning of classes with other driven students from my major field of study that led to this place. At first I did well enough, enjoying the challenge and the new things to learn. But as the semester wore on, the attitude of my professors and classmates wore me thin. By Christmas I couldn’t bear to attend the Holiday Party for fear that my professors would secretly be laughing at me for thinking I had a place in the department. By spring, I was missing classes and homework assignments because I couldn’t bear to turn in what I thought was such poor work or even to get out of bed and face the day. At some point I got low enough to feel that I was out of control and that my school success was in danger, and I wrote an emotional, pleading e-mail to my Dean. And so began that road to recovery.

Having been acutely aware of my environment, when I found myself struggling not long after having entered my first office job, I figured it was pretty normal. I was in a new environment, a foreign environment to me, and it would take me time to learn the ropes and find my place. But now I think it’s more than that, and I’m beginning to see the similarities to other situations that have led me to this emotional place.

This time, I was nervous about the new setting and lifestyle. But for the first 3 months, I was happily engrossed in a high priority, fast-paced project. I drew energy from this and didn’t concern myself much with the coworkers who weren’t on the project. There were many instances of a coworker’s statement or behavior being an unpleasant surprise to me, but the good parts outweighed the bad, and I could almost say that I was loving my job.

Then, in July, that project’s major deadline passed and I didn’t have much to do for it anymore. My work day slowed down, and I took on more varied tasks requiring interaction with more of my coworkers. And the feeling that I didn’t belong grew stronger.

Now, It’s been 6 months since I started this job, and I’ve been feeling somewhat out of control of my thoughts and emotions for the past couple of months. By the end of August it was pretty clear to me that I was having more difficulty than normal, healthy people do. This was compounded by my period of no health insurance (I had to wait 3 months after my job began to get health benefits) and the difficulty I had in obtaining my antidepressant prescription, which I’d been on for over 5 years. I managed to get the Rx, but not without significant stress, cost, frustration, and two hospital visits.

It was at the second of those emergency visits (I had tried but been unable to find a psychiatrist that would see me, a new patient, on short notice, and my therapist was out of town) that I realized that my struggle to adjust was outside the bounds of healthy behavior. I confided in the doctor that I had cried at work almost every day the prior week, and she said that sounded like the meds weren’t working. She let me go home with a prescription and the promise that I would go to my new psychiatrist appointment the next week  and come back in if I couldn’t make it until then. To top things off, this particular visit marked the first day of our “staycation,” and I spent the whole day in the hospital (the wait was over 7 hours!). I resolved to shake the feeling that I couldn’t even properly enjoy a vacation from work, and Husband and I made the best of the rest of our time off.

Since then it’s been a struggle, but I see the light at the end of the tunnel. My insurance has kicked in and I’ve found a psychiatrist that I feel comfortable with. We increased my dosage in September, and things have gotten only slightly more manageable. He said if things were still rough by this week, I should go back in and we’ll try a combination instead. So I will do that this week, and try it out for a while. Between him, my therapist, and the support of my husband and friends, I will get out of this rough patch too.

*Edited slightly from original posting

A new career direction

I’m extremely pleased to share that I may have found a new job.  A regular day job, with a salary, benefits, and vacation time.  It even has a 35 hour work week and a good helping of holidays.  What I’m most excited about is that it’s doing something good for the city of New York!  So what is it?

Well, I’ll tell you this.  It is in environmental engineering.  This is a shift for me, as I’d studied a broader, related field.  I’ve found myself wondering, over the past year, why I chose to study the field that I did.  And the answer, most clearly, is that I love the material covered in it.  But in choosing that field I neglected some other factors that are important to me: societal impact and geographic location of jobs.

I’ve always felt that the fundamentals of the field were principles needed and worthy of understanding and study, but the ends to which these principles are put to use left me feeling something lacking.  While society could not function as it does without practitioners of this field, they most often are found in corporations working towards profit, profit which is mostly seen by shareholders and executives.  Meanwhile these corporations often have large lobbying components and are parts of industries that I see as being corrupt or under-regulated.

So as I dove further into the subject and the field, I found myself drawn towards continuing academic study or teaching.   By working in that part of the field, I could work in a city (industry jobs are largely in rural or suburban areas, where there is land for the sprawling corporate campuses and industrial plants, but I am uninterested in living outside of a city).  By working in academia or teaching, I could make an impact by helping future generations, or by moving the edge of science along.  But I found that I don’t like much of the culture and requirements of academia, nor do I care for the scarcity of jobs and low salaries available in teaching.  I came to this realization mostly over the course of 2008, when I left graduate school and, in the fall, taught lab courses at a local college.  There were parts of that which were great, but, as a full career, I’m not sure that it’s quite right for me.

In December, I found myself looking back at a year in which I’d seen a lot of changes.  Husband and I, working hard at our startup company, were living sparsely.  Bill collectors were calling often, we were constantly declining when our friends proposed nights out in the city, and we found ourselves once again unable to share more than love, friendship, and thanks during the season of giving.  We had, and always have, our love and companionship, and I was still happy. But I was also tired and stressed, and by the end of 2008 I finally felt like it was time for me to start planning what was next.

I was in the fortunate situation of having multiple directions to choose from, and I barely knew where to start.  I perused job postings and the career website from my Alma Mater, looking at a few different career paths that seemed possible and at least somewhat interesting.  And I discovered that environmental engineering might hold what I was really looking for – the interesting topics, rigorous problem solving, and teamwork that I found in my previous discipline, but with the important added aspects of a positive societal impact and jobs in urban areas.  On top of that, the field looks poised to grow as the green movement gains strength and political support. I’m enthusiastic about the potential in this new area, but I still only know a little bit about it.

Nonetheless, I had the good fortune of a successful job interview a little over a week ago, and now have a tentative job offer, which is going through the steps of paperwork approval.  It even appears I negotiated for a top salary in the department for my position!  I’m very excited and immensely looking forward to learning about this new area for me.

Readers, does anyone have any advice about the field or great books to recommend?

Settling in to the summer

The last few weeks have seen an interesting hodgepodge of demands on my time, but I think I’ve managed to secure enough babysitting hours to stabilize the financial situation a little bit until we get our next cash influx, which should be a few weeks away now. Financially we’re in what Husband is calling a “famine cycle,” but I think I’ve succeeded in keeping it from getting as bad as it has been in the past. I pulled in all the cash from any savings account we had, enough to bring our bank account in the black again, and now I can put enough cash from babysitting into the account to keep from bank fees and bounced payments when some of our unavoidable bills are processed. This feels a little better, although it’s still really stressful as a significant portion of our bills are going unpaid, and thus our debt is just growing further.

I found a new occasional baby sitting gig, watching a 2 month old. I’m happy to be around a baby again, as the toddlers at my other gig are now 20 months and 3 1/4 yrs old. And so far, the baby seems to be a pretty easy baby, although I haven’t spent too much time with him yet. His parents are both musicians, and I’m going to be helping out while his momma gets some practice time in. So I get to listen to some great classical piano while I’m working, too! It’s pretty soothing. So far the baby and I seem to interact well – he likes my smile and my laugh.

So this is what my weekly schedule is shaping up to look like: 5-10 hours with the 2 month old, 10-15 hours with the toddlers, unknown number of hours in the lab (I’m a “part-time staff associate” for the summer), and 10-20 hours on the startup company. I’ve been taking time off from lab work the past few weeks to focus on helping to get the business pitch ready for our next attempts to secure funding, but I begin lab stuff again this week. We have some new summer undergrads who I will be meeting on Thursday and begin training on Friday. I’m looking forward to new potential mentees!

As for my mental and physical health, I’m struggling, but fighting hard. I’ve been a revolving door of various infections, viruses, and other stress-related sickness. I feel the pull of the bed, with the comfy covers and the promise of sleep and dreams, but I’m managing somewhat to get myself to do work. Last week I felt myself wanting to sleep an awful lot, but on Thursday I fought hard against the desire to stay in bed, and it was a good step. I went out and ran some errands in the neighborhood and then went to Starbucks and did some work there, and by the time I returned home I felt somewhat rejuvenated. When I get stressed out too much, I try to meditate and relax. When I feel like sleeping but know that I’ve had enough sleep, I try to get out and just do little things to get myself going. It’s these small skills that I’ve been cultivating to fight depression, and I’m definitely getting better at it. These struggles with depression and anxiety haven’t been easy, but I am definitely able to see progress in my ability to deal with everything and to fight my way out of the depressed state. I know that I’m dealing with everything that’s going on now in a much, much stronger way than I would have even two years ago, and for that I’m proud.

Check out these women in science posters

Check out this poster project site.  You can see thumbnails of the posters and even order some or all of the set for your office or school corridors, so that future students will have visual evidence that you care about and support women in science!

And if you happen to be in the NYC area, you can come and attend the opening celebration and panel for the “Women in Science Poster Project.”  I’m going to try to go!

What: Opening celebration and panel of an exhibition of the poster project.  The panelists will tell personal stories about becoming a scientist and visualizing science.

Where: Columbia Teacher’s College Offit Gallery in the Gottesman Libraries at Columbia University.

When: The opening starts at 6PM on Wednesday June 4th, with a panel discussion to follow at 7:15PM.

On failing the quals … again!

I failed the quals again, on my second try, and now I must leave the program. I learned this on Friday, May 2nd, (it started with an ominous e-mail late Thursday night, leaving me unable to sleep or relax or frankly function well at all until I met with the committee chair on Friday) and was sort of reeling from the information for a while. I originally began this post the weekend after that, but I was busy dealing with the actual life decisions and the immediate need for fun and relaxation, and I forgot to come back to it until now.

I’m still pretty shocked and fairly pissed at the faculty of my department. The other person who had failed the first time and been encouraged to stay and take it again also failed this time around too; I ran into him on my way home from meeting with the committee chair and he was on his way to meet with him. Perhaps I had misinterpreted, but I had thought when they asked me to stay and try again that I just needed to show a good faith effort to do better this time around. After all, I had to stick around for an entire year in order to take the exam again, including a semester after receiving my Master’s degree. And for that year they funded me on a departmental NSF grant. They had invested in me and they had been the only ones to educate me (I stayed at the same school as I did my undergrad). They had accepted me into the graduate program even after my struggles with depression throughout my undergrad years, and they had encouraged me to stay and try again when I failed the first time. I really thought that I’d be fine as long as I studied hard. And I did study hard – but I still failed.

So, you may be wondering, what happened?

Things I don’t know:

  • Whether they deemed my performance better or worse than last time (i.e. what they were looking for). I took a different approach to studying this time around. I started studying before anyone else who took the exam this year, and it was my second time taking it so I had a better idea of what the experience would be like (but apparently no better of an idea of what they were looking for me to do). After I failed the first time, I was left with very little feedback. I asked to see my exam, but it wasn’t allowed. While he offered me some details about which subjects I had performed better and worse on, I had no idea if I had actually gotten things wrong, if they were unhappy with the place(s?) where I had to write “This is what I would do if I had the equation to start,” or if it was just that I hadn’t finished enough of it. This time, I felt more prepared and knew more material going into the exam, but there were still gaps in my knowledge. I felt (and still feel) like it was somewhat of a crapshoot, and all I could do was hope they’d either keep it to the most essential topics or that I’d be lucky enough to have recently reviewed the more obscure topics.
  • Whether I got things wrong on the exam or merely didn’t finish enough of it. This time, I’ve been somewhat unable to think about and exam my exam performance too much. It’s just too painful. So I didn’t ask any questions when I met with the committee chair.
  • What kind of departmental politics are going on and how they may have impacted the faculty’s decision to fail myself and my peer. Earlier this year, the faculty considered getting rid of the qualifying exam. Apparently some of the faculty think that we should still have it, but that it should be extremely strict, with no room for “Well he did better than last time” or “She’s a great researcher.” Those faculty think that in the past they had sometimes been too lenient. They cite departments at other schools (Princeton and MIT) where 1/3rd or more of the class is cut after the quals. On the other end of the spectrum, some of the faculty advocate completely getting rid of the quals. Some of these arguments and views may have been formed after last year, when 11 people took the exam and 3 of us failed. One person was taking it for the second time and passed, but I heard their performance was only marginally better. Of the three of us that failed, 2 of us were encouraged to stay and try again and the third was just told to leave. Later, there were complaints of politics playing a role in who got to stay and who didn’t, and I think this may have led to the viewpoints that it should be stricter. Meanwhile other professors saw that those of us that had failed were excellent researchers and had of course passed (and done fairly well in, I’m sure) the courses on which the exam was based. My understanding is that it is still possible they will get rid of the exam next year, or at least change its format.

Things I know:

  • I struggle with this exam format. I’ve written about this before. It was a closed book exam, 4 hours long. There were 6 questions, giving us about 45 minutes per question. Most of the questions were very detailed, and I just couldn’t work through them fast enough. I left some serious chunks undone because I ran out of time. Also, my subject uses math heavily, and while I’m good at and enjoy math, I’ve never been good at memorizing equations (or memorizing anything). For most of my undergraduate education (at the same institution with many of the same professors who wrote the qualifying exam), exams were open book. That worked for me because I’m very good at using the available tools and information to solve problems, but I don’t see the point in memorizing anything that isn’t used so often that I memorize it without trying. This time around, I had written out about 100 flashcards of equations I thought I needed to memorize to be prepared. While many of the questions on the exam were fairly central to their subject matter, about three of the six were what I’d consider to be detailed specific cases which ended up requiring the use of equations that hadn’t even made it into my flashcard pack. One of the questions began with and required an equation for a special case that I had not memorized, and I was left completely crippled on that question.
  • I succumbed to the pressure during the exam. I had been studying for months, and I knew this was my last chance at the exam, and there was a lot of pressure. As I was working through the exam and finding it challenging, I began to get increasingly flustered to the point where I did shed some tears and I considered handing it in unfinished and walking away. I was distracted by how upset I was and unable to focus on trying to solve the problems in front of me.
  • I’m a great researcher. I’m organized and self-driven. Because I began researching in my advisor’s lab as an undergrad, I’d made significant progress on my projects and we had thought I might be able do the degree in a shorter time than average. As a member of a small lab group, I’d managed as many as 4 projects at once, while most of my peers were only in charge of one. I’d voluntarily taken on managing and mentoring the undergrads in my lab. And I’m first author on a paper with my advisor that was published in the main journal for the subject area last fall. Many of my peers were struggling to come up with a project and to write their thesis proposal, and I already have a draft from a year ago when I used a class project to write it. And my first poster drew compliments not only on the science but on the easy organization of information and appealing visuals.
  • Some of the faculty are sad to see me go. I know this because they’ve either told me directly or they’ve told my advisor.
  • I contributed significantly to the department. I’m the founding president of the department’s graduate student association; in fact I was the ONLY grad student to even respond when the committee chair was looking for students to get a GSA started, and I went and recruited others to work with me. I’ve interacted directly with the graduate committee chair and the department chair, and I’ve often contributed my ideas and insights when they were looking for feedback or evaluation. Also, whenever prospective students visited I gave them tours and made them feel welcome.
  • There are lots of places I can go from here. The graduate committee chair who gave me the news reminded me that I could still apply to other programs and that it wouldn’t go on my record or anything so it will just look like I just left with my MS degree. If I ever want to, I can return to grad school in the future, and I will be better able to choose a department that fits me.
  • I am looking forward to trying out other directions. I wrote about this before the exam in my post on my career path, but I am excited about exploring other research areas (perhaps some women in science research?), popular science writing, teaching and tutoring, or maybe research or project management in industry. I’m also considering working full-time for Husband’s company in the fall, doing a combination of marketing, project management, financial management, and online community building.

Overall, this was a pretty bad experience, but certainly one that I’ve learned from. Some days I am happy and excited about exploring other opportunities. Other days I get a bit down from the shock and emotions of it all. Always, I have my husband, family, and friends supporting me, and for that I am both happy and thankful.

Science Fairs and socio-economics

I’ve been loosely following Science Woman’s live blogging of the International Science & Engineering Fair, and in particular I’ve enjoyed the discussion in the comments section of this post. I’m particularly interested in the socio-economic status of the students who compete in the fair, and recently Podblack Cat discussed that in her post “Girls Got What? Competitions, Science Careers And Benefits.”  She asks:

Of course, the selection is made without knowledge of the backgrounds, but how many of them came from enriched environments? How do we factor in mentoring by grad students / faculty or even parental support?

Her post is interesting and informative, so go check it out.  And be sure to check out the posts and discussion on Science Woman‘s blog, too!

Congress wants more female science professors

But I’m not sure they have any idea what would actually increase the numbers.  I got to this article from a new commenter, avacodo in paradise, who mentioned the article here.

A draft bill introduced by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Texas Democrat, would promote the use of workshops “to increase awareness of implicit gender bias in grant review, hiring, tenure, promotion, and selection for other honors based on merit,” according to a news release issued by the House Science Committee’s Subcommittee on Research and Science Education.

Although specific details on the bill or the workshops it proposes have not yet been given, I am skeptical that this would be the most effective way to change.  Having workshops that people are required to attend, I think, often leads them to harbor resentment at the group that they perceive as needing special treatment. Additionally, such workshops are often only held annually or less, which doesn’t give nearly as much emphasis on the issue at it should. Personally, I think actual policies would do a better job of effecting change – policies that support the hiring and retention of women, and policies that support the needs of parent workers.

There were no actual scientists at the congressional hearing, but the one academic who was there had similar ideas. Donna Ginther, an associate professor at the University of Kansas who conducted research on women in academic science, suggested

The best way Congress could help women in academic science, she said, would be to improve their access to child care. She proposed allowing universities to support child-care facilities with the indirect costs that they take from research grants made to faculty members.

That’s a great idea.  Now can we take it a step further and offer real incentives for those universities to do so, such as, I don’t know, legally requiring it? Or perhaps we could actually offer subsidized childcare to all citizens, like they do in some of the more progressive countries in Europe.  Imagine, society as a whole taking on some of the burden of raising the next generation!

Books for and about women in science and academia

I came across these through a commenter, Emily, on the May Scientiae Carnival. Emily’s book, Motherhood, the Elephant in the Laboratory: Women Scientists Speak Out, came out recently. She’s set up a blog where she hopes to encourage discussion about how we combine motherhood and science. I haven’t read the book yet myself, but once things settle down and we have some meager amounts of cash, I’ll probably go right out and get it!

Through Emily’s blog I also found out about this book: Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life. It will be released later this year and looks like a promising collection of essays about combining motherhood and academia. This book also has an accompanying blog at MamaPhD.com.

May Scientiae Carnival: Career paths, perspective, and changing self-image

Stories of and from women in science, engineering, technology and math.

Hey there, and welcome to my cozy spot by the window. From here you can see all sorts of great insights into the lives and careers of women in science. It’s a particularly great scene right now as I have invited all you wonderful science-inclined cats to come and join me to talk about our changing views of ourselves and of our careers. The occasion is the May Scientiae carnival, and there were lots of great submissions. In fact, I really want to take this chance to note that there seem to be lots of new women-in-STEM bloggers out there. We’re creating a community, and it will help all of us. I’m so glad to see it seems to be growing at a faster rate, with all of the new bloggers I’ve seen since 2008 began!

I tried to include all of the submissions so if I forgot anyone, please leave me a comment. You’ll definitely want to follow through on the links and read all of the great posts, so be sure to bookmark this page or the links so you can come back and read them when you have time!

As a suggested prompt, I asked about how our career goals have changed over the past year, 5 years, or 10 years, and how our views of ourselves have changed in that same time frame. I also asked about how where we are now is different from where we imagined, and what role things outside of science have had in our changing perspectives.

How do our career goals change over time?

If there was one thing that was constant for all of the respondents it would be that our goals and aspirations have changed over time. For some, interests and desires have changed considerably, while for others, small tweaks have been made as we learn more about our chosen career paths.

Jennie tries to get some perspective as she tells us about how she can question her career goals constantly, saying “So in answer to the first proposed question my career goals have changed over the course of a day.” Later, she tells us more about her path to where she is now:

My long term goals have never been definite, I’ve just been cruising along going which ever direction my life takes me (re: question four, my husband has determined where I lived, am living and will live so that has shaped a lot of what I study/do). I enjoyed my undergraduate educational experience, my undergrad research project and my technician-type job at a government agency. I’ve wanted to be a scientist since I can remember. When I was in elementary school I wanted nothing more than to wear a white lab coat and make discoveries.

She’s not alone. Maria at Green Gabbro gives us the “soap opera summary” of her path from burned out undergrad to young professional, back to grad school within a year and then thinking about leaving within the following year. Then she tells us how she came to learn that “clinging too stubbornly to long-term goals” doesn’t work for her. She concludes, “Instead of planning for a long-term goal, I am planning for change.”

Similarly, Rivikah tells us that she’s not sure how she got from where she was 10 years ago to now, saying “most of the decisions along the way have been obvious ones.” And Addy tells us that not having a plan has worked out pretty well for her. She shares:

Despite my lack of “a plan”, things have turned out amazing well: I am happily married as we approach our 9th anniversary this summer, I have a happy, healthy eight-year-old daughter, and I have just gotten tenure. I really can’t complain (not that I don’t!).

And Silver Fox takes us through her journey over the past 10 years in her post “5 and 10: where has the time gone?” She tells of moving in and out of the mining exploration industry and of the other places her path crossed in between. She also isn’t much of one for long-term goals, saying instead, “that some of my best ideas have been almost spur of the moment things, ideas that have ultimately taken me to places I never would have imagined – like being a field geologist.”

*Wayward Elf takes us through the path of her own career, with her goals being a “moving target.” She tells us of all of her different jobs, and how among them, her favorite was the video store:

I’ve had a paying job of one type or another since I was 14. I have never not worked. Sometimes I fantasize about it would be like to be unemployed or retired.

My favorite job, bar none, was at the video store. I loved that store. I liked the coworkers, I adored and respected my boss, I liked (most of) the regular customers. I loved that I was getting paid to stand around talking about movies, watching movies (free tape!), repairing broken tapes, and, best of all, just interacting with people all day.

Twice Tenured wrote a great post about what she originally thought she wanted (to teach at a SLAC), what she found at first and loved (a tenure track job at a regional master’s level institution), how she left that to solve her two body problem and eventually found a job at a SLAC near her husband. She shares great details as well about what it was like to teach and research at both types of institutions and how the student bodies varied.

Kim tells us of how writing about the beauty and wonder she sees helps her remember her passion for her science. “I do geology because it’s beautiful,” she says. After having her son, she says she ” slacked off, let the fieldwork slide, didn’t publish.” Others, like myself, prefer to recognize this as her having (quite justifiably) changed her priorities for the period of time when her child was young. Now, she says:

I’m working my way back. But I can’t do it by simply sitting down and writing an impersonal article. I need to be driven by the sense of wonder, as well.

Brigindo takes us along a detailed journey of her path from the “superstar track” to a place that fit her and her family’s lifestyles better. Of her current position, she writes:

It felt like a good fit. It felt like a place where I could at least attempt to have the lifestyle I wanted and where my new research agenda would be welcomed. It gave me the opportunity to teach what I consider to be a reasonable amount of classes. It’s been almost 2 years and it’s working for me, big time. I know there are many from my previous life that don’t “get” my choice since I’m no longer on the superstar track but I no longer get their choice either.

Liberal Arts Lady, who is a scientist who will be starting this fall as a new professor at a liberal arts focused institution, talks about a shift in what is important to her:

I started out as a gung-ho, I’ll-suffer-anything-for-the-project undergrad, and although I’ve really enjoyed the majority of my field time, over the past few years I’ve become much more reluctant and resigned to field work as actual work that also takes me away from my home life.

What have we learned about our chosen careers as we’ve gotten more immersed in them?

Probably few of us had a good idea of what it’s really like to follow our chosen career paths at a young stage in our lives. Some of us grew up with professors close in our families, and were able to see into at least a particular type of science job. Others had little to go on except for what we learned from popular media. Some of us (this cat included) didn’t even consider the thought of pursuing a PhD until partway through our college experience. Ecogeofemme tells us:

In short, I had no experience with the concept of a Ph.D. before I went to college and had Ph.D.s for professors. Scientists were people interviewed on the news about cancer breakthroughs or marine biology.

Similarly, in her post “I wanna be a scientist when I grow up“, Doc-in-training highlights what she didn’t know when she entered college (emphasis mine):

Up to this point, nevertheless, the aspiration was merely about getting into college, so that I could spend more time on space stuff, along with the fact that I would be trained to get a job with a cool job title and rewarded by regular paychecks. But quite honestly, I had no idea what a rocket scientist, or any kind of scientist, does on a daily basis. I mean, two of my extended relatives are professors – one of them is an astrophysicist and the other is a food scientist. But they are extended relatives and were living somewhere overseas. So I got a good concept of what a scientist does from… hmm… television (?!), but I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

Whether we knew professors or researchers as we grew up or we discovered this career path as an option after we were already in college, all of us learned more about science research and the world of academia after we entered grad school.

In her post “Not what I’d planned, but what I was meant to do…the impossible?” ScienceWoman writes about how watching her mother work as a professor at a teaching-focused institution affected her views, and then about how she went from not wanting a job where she has to be good at both teaching and research to her current position. She shares:

As I worked through my PhD and my life evolved, I learned some things that made my mantra of ‘teaching OR research’ seem a bit less tenable, and the impossible started to seem a bit more attractive.

My job requires both teaching and research and expects me to be good at both. It’s not exactly what I planned, but I really think it’s where I was meant to be.

Hannah at Young Stellar Objects writes in her post “Changing with the times”:

However, it isn’t just about having good ideas. It’s as much about politics and networking and self-promotion and schmoozing as it is about writing papers and winning grants. My postdoc years have been a lot about becoming savvy about self-promotion and trying to get over being an introvert.

While some women are still determined to continue even as they’ve seen more of the difficult realities of being a women in academic science research, others question if this is where they want to stay, while still others are already planning to pursue other avenues. In an older post that Ecogeofemme cites, she writes about her decision that she wants “nothing to do with academia long term.” And Candid Engineer tells us how she’s questioned her competency and abilities along the way, eventually realizing that she probably can be a professor but unsure if she wants to be one:

I am getting older and more experienced in the ways and burdens of adulthood. I regard life as a complex prism of needs, wants, actions, and consequences. So today, if you asked me, I would tell you that, yes, I believe that I could make a fine professor. I would also tell you that I don’t know if I want to.

The Ethical Paleontologist tells us about her progression over the last ten years from a bright-eyed and headstrong 18 year old to where she is now, “Now? I’ll be honest. The year at Wash U almost broke me.” She later explains, “It was events within the science that destroyed the passion – I’m sure if I still felt that ambitious I’d find a way around the job-PhD problem.”

And I wrote a post analyzing my current career path and questioning whether it was what I wanted anymore. Not a week later I learned that I had failed my qualifying exam (for the second time) and am being kicked out of the PhD program I was in. Remarkably, I’m pretty upbeat about it all, ready to go try some other way of combining my skills, something that will use my broad and varied skill set better than the very focused area of academic science research. The more I’ve learned about academia and academic research, the more I think it’s not really the best place for me.

How has being a woman in science impacted our view of this?

For most of us, being a woman pursuing these career paths has impacted us in some way. Some of us were outright denied access to opportunities because of our gender. Challenges earlier in our careers led us to make choices along the way, sometimes choices that might help to learn more about those barriers that were faced. Pat from Fairer Science gives us a great overview of her career in acts, telling us about instances in her younger days where she was outright denied access to things because of her gender. Now, she is actively working to change the world (Go Pat!):

Act 5: President Pat founds Campbell-Kibler Associates, an educational research and evaluation firm with an emphasis on science and math education and gender, disability and race/ethnicity.

Others heard often of how girls weren’t supposed to do what we want to do. Doc-in-training tells us of how her willingness to tell others of her aspirations changed over time, as she grew better able to handle the “girls-shouldn’t-do-this craps.”

Still others deal with more subtle aspects of being a woman in science. Jokerine pointed me to this post by a current undergraduate in science, and as a fairly recent B.S. recipient myself, I can completely relate. Despite the fact that I and many of the younger women in science, unlike those who came earlier, were admitted to many top schools in order to study science and engineering, we still see many of the things Noel writes about in her post. She shares:

So please, stop acting like a sleazy pig. Because of the things you say and do, I feel obligated to look frumpy and completely covered up. I feel self-conscious for looking and acting feminine. I feel embarrassed to participate in an academic discussion or show any signs of comparable intelligence. I even feel a little inadequate on performing tasks that I am perfectly capable of doing. It’s the type of workplace discrimination that nobody would ever acknowledge or address.

In her post, Hannah also tells us about the subtler aspects of being a women in science. She adds some great insight into how promoting our ideas can be hard for women in science:

When it comes time to apply for faculty positions and tenure and all that, it’s more about the impact of your research. This is where the networking comes in: you gotta give talks, go to conferences, talk important people up, promote your ideas, yadda yadda. You need to find people who will promote your ideas for you as well: advisors and mentors. Then social conditioning comes into play. It’s hard to break into the old boys’ network. Heck, it can be hard to speak up when you’re talking informally in a group where you’re the only woman. It’s hard to get over the social conditioning that says you should be quiet and meek, and someday Prince Charming will notice that elegant but little-cited paper of yours and swoop in with a job offer on a silver platter.

And for many of us, our desires to start a family and to balance our non-work lives with our scientist sides lead to yet more challenging choices and changes in perspective. And of course, many of us have seen new reasons to worry about geography and location of jobs after we’ve met someone we want to make a life with.

Amanda tells us about how she always wanted to be a doctor when she grows up, to work toward curing diseases. After discovering she likes research, she decided to pursue a PhD. But after dating and deciding to marry her Dr. Man, she has discovered new uncertainties. She also finds herself asking an all-too familiar question, “Can I do everything?”

Woman Scientist tells us about how she progressed from fearless child to questioning grad student. She asks “Can I be a great mother and a great scientist at the same time? The more important question is do I want to?” For now, she’s going to press on. She concludes:

There may come a time when I change my mind. Until then, I keep telling myself that I can do this. I have to remind myself of that a lot, but I’m starting to believe it. I’m really starting to believe it.

Stepwise Girl talks about the price of the career path she’s been following:

I never really had a precise career plan, but I seized opportunities to carry on doing what I realised I love doing: research. But the career has interfered with all other aspects of my life. I met Husband doing fieldwork (how’s that for a field collection!), so it’s of course not all bad or impedance. But currently the career is delaying personal life plans. That’s what I chose. But, just like everything else, it comes at a price. This dawned on me only a few weeks ago.

*Mother of All Scientists wrote a great post in her series “On going back to work,” which discusses her feelings about returning to work after spending a maternity leave with her beautiful daughter, Bean. She tells us in her recent post, part 8, of how working time being time away from her precious daughter has made her place more value on the work being worth it:

Before I think it would have been too much for me to actually contemplate leaving the bench for good. After all, it’s been 6 years since I realized that bench work wasn’t right for me, and yet here I am. But having the Bean has really made me re-evaluate my priorities. And I’m just not going to settle for a job that makes me unhappy. If I’m going to be away from the Bean, I have to make that time count. I want a career that makes the time away from her “worth it”.

Julie tells us about the day her life changed forever – the day she learned that the baby her and her husband had planned as she finished up her PhD and looked for a post-doc was, in fact, twins! She shares:

Before getting pregnant, I kind of had some, well for lack of a better word, fantasies about combining motherhood with a science career, but all of those imaginings were for only one baby. How would I manage to fit two children into my career? At the same time? I had absolutely no idea. At that point, I kind of just tossed my plans out the window. Whatever would come would come and I would deal with it as it came. I would finish my degree and figure out my life later. It turns out that it was a good thing I chose a “take it as it comes” approach because my life was about to get even less predictable.

And finally, in her post “Career, interrupted“, the Raising Scientists blogger tells us about a recent setback which I would argue is a clear instance of institutionalized discrimination. She tells about how, despite mostly positive reviews, her grant proposal was rejected for reasons she was given no opportunity to explain:

The major concern they had was that, although I was very productive in my previous research career I had not, as of yet, published a paper as a post-doc, and that my non-productivity might be a warning flag as to the feasibility of my actually completing the proposed research. Unproductive? Let me ask you this… where, on my CV, can I put that I got pregnant and gave birth… twice?

We’ve moved from the outright discrimination (no girls admitted!) of Pat’s days to institutionalized discrimination to the more subtle gender issues where young woman find themselves dressing messily so as to have people pay attention to their ideas instead of their breasts. Maybe change is occurring, but is it happening too slowly? Luckily, there are still many brave women scientists for whom the current state of the system is workable, and for many, their love of science may get them through. Hopefully, all of us will do what we can to help effect some change, from outside the academic science world and from within it, so that those who truly do want an academic science career won’t be hindered by many of the biases we still face today.

ScienceWoman plans to work for change:

My hope now is that I can work in some small way to transform academia into a place where future generations of young women won’t think that the combination of teaching, research, and motherhood is an impossible combination.

How have our views of ourselves changed?

Lots of submissions included great details and insight into how our self-perceptions have evolved over time. Many of the posts linked to already have also touched upon this, so be sure to go check out the original posts!

Many bloggers talked about feelings of doubt and fears of stupidity. ReBecca at Dinochick blogs wrote an excellent and detailed post about her career changes in the past ten years. At the end of her post, she leaves us with some great insight as to how she has managed to deal with the changes and setbacks that she has faced:

My brain and I are not always friends, and sometimes I am just not smart enough to get where I want to be I guess. I wish I were more intelligent, articulate, or better at playing the game. I finally figured out that I have to work with what I have been given. I had to learn to love myself for who I am. I can not make my brain work any better than it does. I can try to learn and improve, but I am only what I am. And I have to accept that. While I am about to give up a job I really love for a man I really love, I know that I am not giving up a part of myself in the process, and that is the most important thing that I never did before. This new chapter is only going to help me continue to pursue my goals because this time I know I have this individual’s utmost support and encouragement on all levels. My goals might have been delayed some, but they are still there.

Acmegirl from Thesis – with Children tells us about how she’s moved from pursuing a career as a dancer and choreographer to studying physical therapy to redefining herself as a scientist. Then, she considers how she can make her own box to fit into:

I’ve always been into science. I just didn’t see myself as a scientist. I still sort of stutter on the word when people ask me what I do. I’d rather say I’m a graduate student. This is an ongoing process, I guess. Ten years ago, I had no idea what I would look like as a scientist. I couldn’t really fit myself into that box. Instead, I’ve taken up the challenge of creating a different box. It needs to be a pretty big box, since I like to dance around in the lab while doing experiments.

Cherish Maunders from Faraday’s Cage is where you put Schroedinger’s cat wrote a wonderful introspective post in which she analyzes each of the prompts I asked. She talks about realizing that her struggles weren’t always because of her own ineptitude but rather because she was in the wrong environment:

I always thought I was pretty dumb, and this has been a huge obstacle for me to deal with. It wasn’t until the past five years, especially dealing with the struggles my older son had and the homeschooling that made me realize that I’m not. It’s amazing how I used to feel that my struggles were due to my own ineptitude. Watching my son go through the same things I did helped me realize that a lot of it was not due to me being stupid or inept but that I was in the wrong environment with the wrong teachers. It has really changed my whole perception of growing up. I spend a lot less time mentally beating myself. I’ve stopped being angry at how things changed…now I just need to learn to accept that the people involved were just doing their best. (Dealing with this is probably a good goal for the next five years.)

Lab Cat tells us about how she learned to deal with her dyslexia as a teenager, and overcame this disability by forcing herself to look everything up in a dictionary until she had memorized the correct spelling of things. It paid off and she says “finally my Mum, a remedial English teacher, stated that I was cured of dyslexia, which she had never met in her professional life before.”

Most of us have experienced doubt and fear at some point in our careers. Some of us came out the other end feeling more sure and confident. Academic tells us about how despite the fact that she knows an academic career won’t be “easy, rosy, or clear,” she is confident now that she is in the right place:

One thing that has been becoming increasingly true is the realization that I want to be an academic. I can see that my chosen path will stretch me far outside of my comfort zone. However, there’s a lot of power in knowing that I am choosing the path instead of being my advisor’s puppet. Even though I’m on the front end of the graduate school experience, I’m coming to appreciate the uncertainty that is the journey.

Rebecca from Adventures in Applied Math wrote a wonderful post in which she showed her changing perspectives on graphs. You really should go check it out there to see the graphs and her explanation of them!

So, that about rounds out our discussion of our changing career goals and views, the effect being a woman has played, and our changing self-perceptions. There are so many different perspectives and experiences being shared out there in the blogosphere; hopefully this month’s Scientiae Carnival provides a good glimpse into some of the many varied stories of women in science, engineering, technology, and math.

A few other things to check out

I feel a bit like the teacher who at the end of a long, tiring, yet informative lecture says “OK, class, you can go in a minute I just need to tell you a few more things…” and then goes on for another half hour. Here are some off-topic submissions and articles of note:

1. Podblack cat talks about Women and Superstitions (and a candy bar whose advertising slogan is “It’s NOT for girls!”)

2. At Missives from the Frontal Lobe, KLDickson rants about decreased government funding in the US and speculates about the future of intelligence research.

3. A post in the theme of last month’s Scientiae about playing the fool: Jingling Bells at the blog The Honeycomb:

Now, as a generalist working with specialists, I find I’m sometimes the first to confess ignorance. I fear that if no one breaks the ice people will posture rather than communicate, especially when attempting to work across disciplines.

4. I came across this article through MentorNet about a new book, Gendered Innovations in Science and Engineering.

5. This article was suggested to me in the comments 3 times by 3 different commenters after my posts about analyzing my career path and pursuing other careers that meld science, writing, and mentorship.

6. Sheril Kirshenbaum asks “Is Our Children Learning? (maybe not)” and then leads a discussion. She says, “Moreover, if the examination methods were reasonable, I’m extremely troubled by the ladies’ overall performance. Therefore, I plan to spend this week exploring the disparity that leaves me speechless.”

*These submissions were added after the initial posting. Sorry I missed them the first time!