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.
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.
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!