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.

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!


Ok, so it’s Sunday and the carnival is nearing completion, but not quite ready yet.  I feel really bad about this! I’m so sorry, oh blogosphere!  But really it’s just a blog carnival and being a few days late won’t hurt anyone, right?

I did indeed have that catastrophic distraction that I thought I might be about to have – wherein I got an ominous e-mail on Thursday and then learned on Friday for sure – I failed the quals, take two, and now must leave the degree program I was in.  I got my master’s in Feb, so I’ll be taking a concrete degree away with me, but this pretty much sucks.  I’m doing pretty well all things considered.  I’m sure I’ll write at least a post or two more about this experience, and then I’ll probably chronicle my further research into other career options and jobs.  So I’ll write more about what happened, how it is that I failed (twice), and why I struggle with this kind of test even though I am a great researcher and I make a productive grad student nonetheless, in case you’re wondering what’s going on.  So that’s been pretty distracting as I’ve been pretty devastated and just wanted to relax for a good part of the weekend (not to mention other work I had to do).

I also didn’t realize quite how massive this carnival is going to be.  We got over 30 submissions, some of them very detailed, and it’s taking me a while to work through them all. I’m so sorry I’m so late, but I still do want to complete it myself as it’s been very therapeutic and informational for me too.  I worked on it for a lot of the day today, but I have a bit more to do and I’ll only have a little time tomorrow, so it will be ready either tomorrow or Tuesday, I think. Stay tuned!

An analysis of my current career path

So I’ve been doing some research lately, for myself. Personal research. The type where you have no doubt that it’s useful and of what it’s applications are. The topic? What it’s like to leave academia, in particular to leave science academia. Possibly, what it’s like to leave science research. I’m looking for information on people who have made that choice, how they made it, and if they’re now happy with it. Below I’ve linked to some articles I’ve found, and I’ve tried to parse them all by general area. I hope that some of my readers may find this information useful as well! Also, if my lovely readers have any tips for resources, I’d be appreciative!

Research and teaching careers at small liberal arts colleges still appeal to me, I think:
There is a great brand new CHE article: A Research Career at a Liberal-Arts College:

The department offered me a competitive salary and a teaching load of two courses a semester, comparable to what I would expect at a major research university, as well as a generous pot of start-up money and the promise of a one-year sabbatical after my third year on the tenure track.

Ultimately I did get the chance to leave for the supposed promised land of a Research I university. Instead I stayed. I stayed because I realized that most of the advice I had been given as a graduate student was just plain wrong. I believe the general disdain for the liberal-arts college that I heard back in 2001 is alive and well today, preventing aspiring researchers from even considering positions at such institutions.

In my own case, as a result of a low teaching load, generous internal grants, and two years of junior leave to take advantage of external fellowships, I was able to do the research and writing for a second book and several peer-reviewed journal articles. I successfully came up for tenure in my sixth year.

But the truth is, some of those universities offer comparatively lower salaries, less generous leave policies, fewer internal resources, more service commitments, larger bureaucracies, and, when graduate advising is considered, higher teaching and mentoring commitments. In exchange for those considerably poorer labor conditions, many universities proffer the cachet of being at a Research I, the highest totem on the status pole of academe.

But for serious scholars committed to living in the world of ideas, the ability to carve out of one’s professional obligations enough time for reading, thinking, and writing should be the true measure of whether an institution is conducive to research — and not simply whether it is called a “research” institution.

But what are my chances of finding a job like hers?

The plausible career paths look less and less appealing the more I look into them, and I think the chance of securing one of the few jobs I’m interested in may be too low to justify the time put in towards reaching it. From CHE‘s September 2007 article, The Real Science Crisis: Bleak Prospects for Young Researchers (tagline: tight budgets, scarce jobs, and stalled reforms push students away from scientific careers):

But for many of today’s graduate students, the future could not look much bleaker.

They see long periods of training, a shortage of academic jobs, and intense competition for research grants looming ahead of them. “They get a sense that this is a really frustrating career path,” says Thomas R. Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health.

In particular, I find the following excerpt of the article speaks to me.

Melinda Maris also sees hints of that dark future at the Johns Hopkins University. Ms. Maris, assistant director of the office of preprofessional programs and advising, says the brightest undergrads often work in labs where they can spot the warning signs: Professors can’t get grants, and postdocs can’t get tenure-track jobs.

Such undergraduates, she says, “are really weighing their professional options and realize that they’re not going to be in a strong financial position until really their mid-30s.” In particular, those dim prospects drive away Americans with fewer financial resources, including many minority students.

Although I’ve been in this lab since my undergrad years, I didn’t know all the details of what was going on around me back then. So I didn’t realize that it was very hard to get grants and to find jobs. It’s the second paragraph that weighs strongly in my mind. If I stick it out long enough to actually get myself a tenure-track job somewhere, I’ll be in my 30’s by the time I reach a strong financial position. Even then, how much would I make at a small liberal arts college? The average female assistant professor at Sarah Lawrence is $61,700. Well if you’re trying to raise a family on that in NYC, you’re gonna want your spouse to contribute too.

I’m so tired of living the way we do, and I know it will get better soon if Husband’s investors come through (which it looks like they will), but still it’s been so hard and it will take us a while to dig out of the debt and I just…need to look into if it’s worth it, to keep doing this grad school thing for such cheap pay. I could make more money private tutoring and teaching ice skating!

I think maybe I’ve been pursuing this career as a science professor because it seems so noble and grand, but I’m really scared that it won’t be attainable without making concessions I’m not willing to make.

Once you narrow it down to the places I think Husband and I are willing to live, the number of schools and departments where a job such as I would want might exist could probably be counted easily. Maybe even on both hands. If there are 20 such institutions in places I’d like to live…well that might be the most I could get. And then, the chances that they’ll be hiring anyone, and that I can convince them to hire ME, out of the huge numbers of candidates they’ll likely have….well, the odds seems low, don’t they?

I’m thinking of finding out information directly from and about those actual places in order to further assess what the chances are. I worry that they aren’t good enough to go through another 3 years of grad school just for that chance.

Which brings me to looking at what else I might do with my PhD, or, if I’d rather just go do something else now, with my MS in hand. So the next question is:

What are the other things I’d like to do, and do they require a PhD?

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I love most about what I do these days, and far and away the first thing is mentoring undergraduates. Then, I like teaching interested students. I like science research, but…really just parts of it. I like the benchwork but not so much the data analysis. I can write well, but writing technical science papers bores me. I can’t imagine I’d like writing grant applications very much, and it seems like that takes up an enormous amount of the research time new professors have.

And when I think of what I like to teach, I can’t help but answer that it is not this material that I’ve been studying for the quals, but rather high school and first year undergraduate level science of a sort similar to what I do now. (Note that I could, however, get my PhD in the discipline I’m in now and then teach in that related discipline). I don’t like preparing lectures, writing or grading tests or homework problems, or dealing with students who only care about getting A’s. Although I might be able to mentor more and create more intimate relationships with my students at a small college, I would still have to do large amounts of the parts of teaching that I don’t like. And there are jobs that are more just mentoring and less teaching, or where I don’t have to do the boring parts. For example, one-on-one tutoring of high school and college students.

Another thing I love to do is to manage long-term projects and teams that work on those projects. I’m good at it, and that’s a valuable skill. I also like to research a topic and to organize the information in an easy to understand way, which is also a valuable skill.

Articles recounting experiences of leaving academia and academic science:

I have recently discovered the ongoing saga of Micella Phoenix DeWhyse, who has been writing updates on grad school and then post-doc life for Science magazine since 2002. You can see an index of all of the chapters here. Most recently, she is very excited to have found a job outside of academic science. She tells us about it in her latest installment, Educated Woman, Postdoc Edition, Chapter 15: This Strange, Funny Feeling:

At long last, it has finally happened. I have been blessed with a job opportunity (which I have accepted), and I am damn happy about it. For a while there (as many of you could see; it was raw and in the open), I had no confidence, little hope, lots of numbness, rage, angst, and dread that my life would suck forever. I know, it sounds like hyperbole or extreme neurosis, but from the e-mail I get I know I’m not alone. Anyway, now that the guilt about leaving academic-type science has lifted and I have a new and shiny place to go (that I actually want to go to, instead of just fleeing from the current place), I feel like a new human being.

Also, this article recently ran in CHE about someone who left academia many years ago for his family’s business.  This was interesting to me as an example of how the skills I’ve learned are useful even if I, say, leave science research altogether.

For the immediate future, I will stick it out. Let some time pass, try to get back into research, and just look around and analyze my options as the summer begins. Hopefully Husband will bring in some more cash, and I’ll get my summer stipend payment, and we’ll be a little more comfortable. The quals will be further behind me and this experience of grad school itself won’t seem so raw, and with distance, all things are clearer. But the information gathering has begun, and the question is being analyzed.

The quals are over!!!

And whether I pass or fail, I’ll never have to deal with them again! Woohoo!!!!!!!

So um, the exam was ridiculous. I had a hard time, with my mental state, and seriously considered just turning in the exam, saying “Sorry, I can’t do it,” and walking out of there, many times during the exam. My focus wained and I even teared up once or twice. All in all it was a hellish experience. But I stuck through it (go me!) and I kept trying, and by the end I had conjured up something for most of the problems. The chief issue I had was time. Many of the exam questions had 5-7 parts, and I just couldn’t work through it all that quickly. Without a book or notes or an equation sheet, I had to stop and think if I had the right equation, and sometimes I had only managed to memorize related or basic equations that needed extra manipulation, which of course took time, so that even if I worked through it, confident that my math skills would get me where I needed to go with the basic equations I had at my disposal, I simply did not have enough time to do so. One of the problems I essentially didn’t get to at all…leaving it nearly blank. It was the advanced problem for one of the subjects of which there were two questions, so realizing that I would need even more time to stop and think about which equations were correct and to work through how I might even begin this problem, I chose to try to get the basic problem in that discipline further along. I think I successfully completed parts a and maybe b of a-e on the simpler problem from that discipline. Yummy.

Later in the evening I spoke to one of my friends as the other exam-takers were all going out to celebrate (I had my own plans as Husband had been planning on showing me a great time all weekend), and he told me that everyone was complaining about how ridiculous it was. It sounds like they all struggled too and my own performance may well have been par for the course. As such, I know think there’s a decent chance that the faculty will give me a pass on the exam, especially considering it’s my second attempt at it.

Unfortunately, that does not remove the bitter taste from my mouth. I don’t want to be all complaints and disgruntled, but as the solid Generation Y-er that I am, or perhaps the idealist, or the dreamer, or the honest pragmatist who realizes that people can change things…I just don’t understand why the faculty, who this year have seemed to acknowledge the ridiculous format of this exam, couldn’t have managed to just, well, make it more useful and realistic. Graduate degree programs aren’t regulated by the undergraduate accrediting boards like ABET, and there are many other forms of PhD qualifying exams out there in academia. The particular form that my department is currently using seems completely out of touch with modernity and the skills a modern PhD student in my discipline actually needs. The level to which we were expected to perform required hours upon hours of studying, something that took significant time away from my research, and as such, from my junior faculty member PI’s progress this semester as well (I am the only current graduate student in the lab group). My time could have been much better used while still requiring me to do significant work to show that I am worthy of a PhD if I had been asked to do a literature review, or if I had even been asked to be tested on these different subjects at different times so as to be able to focus and spread out the work more evenly, or even just by simply having the exam have been open book or, gasp, with the use of a laptop and all the internet allowed (because by putting a time limit on it, I still have to show significant amounts of knowledge and skill to be able to solve these problems in a limited amount of time, no matter what tools I have at my disposal).

I am left to conclude that this was a rite of passage, something that the faculty didn’t change because they see it as “the way it is.” Their reluctance to modify the exam format to match with the real tools we’ll have at disposal any other time in our lives when we’ll need to work with these concepts, their poorly guided use of so many of the resources that graduate students are to their research programs…well, I can’t help but feel that this is indicative of a lot of the larger problems I see with academia.

It is too slow to change – egos are too big and tiffs between faculty members lead to poor decisions on the part of what’s best for the students. Younger faculty members who have better ideas about how to interface with the current generation of students and how to move the discipline and the education of the grad students into the future are ignored because they haven’t earned their say yet. And these people are already in their 30’s, full adults who’ve been growing and learning in their discipline for years. Blogs and articles everywhere illuminate the disconnect between the older members of academia and the younger; those who accept and promote the status quo versus those who work to change it.

Well I will not accept the status quo. I don’t know if I will or won’t stay in academia, but wherever I am, I will be an agent for change – I will stand up and point out the value of a compassionate workplace, of listening to ideas that have value no matter who they come from. This may mean I will lose jobs or favor at various places because of my refusal to just fit in and accept things, to just try to blend, oftentimes, to be an “honorary man” in a workplace full of masculinity. But there are enough new options out there, enough new opportunities, enough others entering the workforce who feel the way I do, that I see no reason to settle for less than what will make me happy, and I will work to create a career for myself where I am respected, my ideas are valued, and where I enjoy the majority of aspects of my work.

Quals are almost upon me

They begin at 9 am tomorrow morning.  I am fairly calm, but mostly because Hubby is great and I’ve been clinging to him all afternoon and evening for company, assistance, and distraction.  I just couldn’t look at the material anymore…I’m really, really tired of it.  I feel a lot more prepared than last year, but I am still not sure how I will perform – there are just so many things to know.  I think my study strategy was better than last year – since they failed me when I understood concepts but forgot some equations and could only explain how I would solve it if I had the correct starting equation, this time I put more of an emphasis on memorizing equations.  But this has annoyed me to no end, because I honestly hate it and think it’s a waste of my time.  Nonetheless, time is not infinite and there is only so much information I can hold in my head at once, such that things I reviewed 2 months ago for the exam may already be fading from memory.  Earlier today, however, I decided that at this point I know what I know and that would have to be good enough, and settled for reviewing the (numerous, oh so numerous) equations that I think I should have memorized.  As I see it, the possibility still remains that they could throw a topic at me that I simply didn’t have time to cover, or covered a month ago and since forgot, or that requires an equation that has gotten jumbled in my head amongst all the variables, partial derivatives, tensors, del operations, solution methods, manipulations, and whatnot.  And that possibility isn’t as tiny as it could be.  If this were an open book, or open notes, or even if we were just allowed a one page cheat sheet, I would feel very confident that I am prepared.  But it’s not.  So I will go in tomorrow, I will do what I can, and whatever will be, will be.

In upcoming news, expect a discussion of my intent to re-evaluate my career trajectory and whether or not I really want to stay in graduate school, or if I’d like to pursue other options.  I got my MS this spring, and with that in hand, I recognize that now is the ideal time to evaluate my choice and whether it remains the right choice for me (i.e. if I were to get out, I’d better get out quick before I get sucked in and begin to believe that I am failure if I choose to leave the cult of academia).  Economic factors weigh heavily on my mind, as do chances of achieving what I had originally imagined for myself, and the viability of creating a career path that allows for the voluntary lessening of both work hours and pay during my children’s younger years.  Things I’ve learned since entering graduate school about the nature and culture of academia and about being a women in academia and a women in science have only served to exacerbate my fears that this is not the ideal career I thought it might be.  Other options that are chief on my mind: tutoring, popular science writing and science journalism, public policy, jobs in the atheist movement, and working full-time for my husband’s company (which looks like it well may be a viable option starting within the next few months).

Random bullets

  • I am having a very negative day inside my head.  It is one of those days where the tasks of being an adult and taking care of oneself and a small household of two adults seem overwhelming.  One of those days in which I think, godD*MN, there are just too many things to be done!
  • It goes something like this.  Flicka Mawa lists off stressors in her head, and then feels tense and irritated.  Flicka Mawa thinks of Husband, and how he would tell her not to give in to those feelings, and wills her brain to busy itself with other topics, mostly through meditation.  Thoughts turn to stuff like: “It will get better. It will not always be like this.  Focus on your breathing. Let the calm flow through you…” you get the idea, right?
  • Shortly, Flicka Mawa’s brain distracts itself with thoughts of impending doom and lists of things to do or things to be upset about.  Flicka Mawa either 1)gives in and sheds a few tears while she cuddles in a blanket and tries not to disturb Husband who is very busy prepping for his first business pitch to his older brother tonight, or 2)manages to be strong for some period of time, meditating and willing self not to dwell on the negative thoughts.  Switching between 1 and 2 ensues for the remainder of the day.
  • Primary reason for today’s stressing? The sudden realization that in the past 2 days our bank account went from low to -$500, and all of a sudden that $1k check that Husband FINALLY got his freelance boss to send is going to be cut in half before we even see it.  This is the bank accounts first dip into negativity since, oh, February of this year.  It has probably spent more than 30 days in the past 6 months in such a state.
  • I am getting kind of sick of it.  But I know it’s almost over, Husband and I have agreed and things really ARE going stellar for him right now, but it’s just, well…I just DON’T want to deal with this right now.  I have $5 in my purse, he might have up to $10 in his, and among things like having to pack something for lunch and dinner tomorrow from the limited food we have here, this also means that I can’t even afford to buy your basic over the counter medication for the d*mn yeast infection I seem to have gotten…
  • The yeast infection is probably from all that sex I’ve been having.  At least this is a positive point in my list of random bullets.
  • This morning’s realization led to another one – tax day is less than a week away, and now we don’t even have enough funds to pay someone to help us file, let alone to pay anything that we might owe.  And they’re going to be uber-complicated this year, because neither of us got W-2’s, I got paid via outside stipend for part of the year and internal university stipend for part of the year, and of course cash for my babysitting, but then husband, his is more complicated, as he had no full-time job all year – just a few of those MISC forms for some freelance work, and some cash investments in the company that went towards paying for Husband’s time as he worked on it.  Then there were some company expenses paid for out of our own accounts, and he works at home so we have can factor in home office costs.  All this leads to the taxes being much more complicated than last year and likely taking 10 times more time to do than either of us has to give in the next 3 weeks.
  • And my Dad is about to drive past our corner of the world as he moves from my childhood homestate of MA to Myrtle Beach, SC.  He wishes to visit and take us to dinner and see us before he moves further away (SC) than he is now (MA).  But the best part is he’s planning to pass by in 2 weeks and my quals are in 2.5 weeks which means he should be planning to move a few days before the quals.  Now, if visits with my dad were all fun and no stress, I’d definitely say I’d make a way for it to work, but it’s not like that.
  • I think that’s enough random bullets of consciousness (Is that what RBOC stands for when I see it on blogs?). I’m going to go watch some CSI:NY.
  • Speaking of CSI:NY, at times like these, I find myself thinking of all the myriad of things I could go and do with the training I have up to this point at time.  One of the things I think about sometimes is forensic science.  I love solving mysteries, and chemistry, and if it weren’t for the danger and the crime involved, this would be an ideal endeavor for me, I think.
  • Other things I think about doing instead of or after finishing grad school: science writing, like trying to go get a job at a science magazine or working as a freelance science writer.  Working in a paid position in a lab somewhere.  Being a professor who specializes in the interaction of science and the public, and maybe writes popular science books.  Finding some way to be a full-time mentor to aspiring women in science (mentoring the undergrads is my FAVORITE part of my current job).
  • Or I could just wait for Husband’s company to sell for 10 million (not a completely unreasonable amount for an innovative website company such as the one he’s creating) and then play computer games all the time. And have a second home in Amsterdam.
  • And have kids.
  • Really cute kids.
  • Like the ones I watch part-time, who love me so much it totally warms my heart.  The mama told me the other day that older toddler asks her if I’m coming over on days that I’m not, and that he’s even said “Mommy, I love you…and I love Flicka Mawa” when I wasn’t even there.  Kid, I love you too.
  • Seriously, I’m off now.  Hope you all are having a better day than I am!