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!

scientiae…almost…there

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!

Scientiae coming soon

Ok so I’m slaving away over the new Scientiae…which will be awesome!  There are so many great submissions, I hope this month’s carnival becomes a good source for future scientists reading about what it might really be like to pursue a career as a woman in science.  It’s already 6:30 and I’m only through maybe 1/3rd of the submissions, so I’m afraid to say I may not quite get up by midnight tonight.  But it will be here as soon as possible, I promise!  So bear with me, because it’s gonna be a good one!

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.

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).

How have your views of yourself and your career changed over time?

In celebration of having finished my quals, no matter the outcome, I’ll be hosting the next Scientiae carnival on May 1st. I just posted the call for posts over at the Scientiae blog, but I’ll repeat that here.

The topic will be our changing views of ourselves and our careers as we progress through life. Here are a few questions I was thinking of as possible prompts for the topic:

  • How have your career goals changed in the past year? 5 years? 10 years?
  • How has your perception of self changed in the past year? 5 years? 10 years?
  • How is where you are now different from what you imagined for yourself as you worked toward this point?
  • How much of a role have things outside of science had on your changing career goals?

Please feel free to discuss other questions relating to your career trajectory or your self-perception, and off-topic posts are welcome as well.

To submit, send an e-mail with the permalink for your post to scientiaecarnival [at] gmail [dot] com by midnight April 28th, and also tag your post with scientiae-carnival. The complete submission instructions are here.

I look forward to reading your posts!

April’s Scientiae is up and it’s Cat Wisdom Wednesday

Go check out the April Scientiae at Peggy’s Women in Science blog.  The theme is fools and foolishness.  And for next month, the Scientiae host will be none other than yours truly.  Soon I’ll announce the topic, which I’ve been thinking about.

Also, posting will likely be light in April, as the supernatural beings that live in the skies have conspired to make my qualifying exam and Husband’s first pitches to possible angel investors coincide.  So when I’m not busy studying my butt off for the exam, I’ll be busy listening to husband’s ideas, providing valuable feedback, helping him to create a great pitch, and otherwise calming him and myself down as we plow through the incredibly busy and stressful month that April will surely prove to be.

In honor of the hard work I expect both of us to be doing, I present this week’s quotation, by Maxine Hong Kingston:

The sweat of hard work is not to be displayed. It is much more graceful to appear to be favored by the gods.

Wish us both luck!

On self-doubt

On Wednesday, which happens to be when I wrote that post about lack of motivation, I had class. I’m only in one class – this one – so you would think I’d be able to handle it, but still it’s not going that smoothly for me. This class is, I would say, very advanced. I am taking it at a different institution in NYC, and so the experience feels more “different” and “other” than usual. On top of that, it uses a fair amount of linear algebra, which I never took but have needed for at least 3 courses now, so it’s got an odd history as a sticking point with me and I always struggle with it. I am convinced that I should have taken it as an undergrad, and I think that it should either be required for my major (it is at some universities) or that at least someone should have advised me that if I wanted to study advanced theories in my discipline, I should take it. Neither happened, and I did not take it, because I did not know that it would be needed, or even that it would be any more useful than any other math course that was not recommended in the department’s advising materials or bulletins.

Enough about linear algebra…

And furthermore, this one class I’m in now marks the first time I have ever been in a class where I am the only female. Now, I recognize I am lucky that I haven’t encountered that yet – I know that things are a lot better than they were 20 years ago, and even some of my peers currently tell me that in their undergrad departments they were in classes that had no women at all. But somehow I find that it is on my mind sometimes, when I’m there. The class has 12 other students, at least half of which are foreign students, and the professor is about 70 years old, and (of course) a white male. He is a big name in the field, and as such it is an excellent course to have the opportunity to experience, to learn this subject from him. But it somehow feels very surreal to me. It’s hard to place; it’s not really outright upsetting, but it just feels…odd. Strange.

When I was leaving class this week, a student said hi to me, and went on to note how I had been absent from class the week before. Aside from wondering where he was going with that, I also thought about how I wouldn’t have noticed if he was missing, but that I’d be hard to miss as the only woman in a room full of men. And that made me wonder, if these sorts of thoughts come up often for members of minority groups.

I’m not saying that this is a big deal, and certainly in this class I have never witnessed any discrimination, but it does make one think about the subtler aspects of …bias. The part where a person’s mental conversation is occupied with thoughts of how they are different. It makes me think of what it might be like to be part of a smaller minority, and thus feel more…alone.

With regards to the class, though, it’s mostly the material that intimidates me. I realized that part of my lack of motivation was a fear that I would encounter too much difficulty and find myself unable to overcome it. But I did manage to get some work done, and then I went to class, walking in embarrassed to both be late and to have missed the last TWO classes (heck, I’m even embarrassed to admit that here). I must look like a horrible student, I think to myself, as I shuffle towards a seat in the back of the small room, as if there were really anywhere to hide.

Distinguished Professor (here I imagine you read his name with a deep, authoritative voice) looks over at me and nods hello, even though he’s already started the lecture. I realize it’s a fairly friendly smile and that maybe I’m not that horrible of a student (I did email him and we talked about what I had missed), and settle into copying the notes and figuring out what’s going on. And do you know what? I understood it very comfortably. As the lecture progressed, some students in the class asked questions, and I realized that I knew the basics of the answers even before they were explained. As he lectured on, I realized that I could handle this class, that even here in week 7 I still knew what he was talking about, at least most of the time.

After class, I called Husband and told him this. It was a good thing I did, too, because the next night when I was a bawling basketcase over how overwhelming the quals are and how I couldn’t really handle a PhD program in my discipline, he was able to remind me that I was just telling him how I had not needed to be so intimidated by the class because I do understand what’s going on. I do usually tell him these things anyhow, but now I have the added incentive that I know if I tell him when I’m feeling confident, that next week or the week after when I am paralyzed with self-doubt about my abilities again, he can remind me, as he did last night, that I was just telling him how I am proceeding alright, getting my work and studying done, and that I can understand the class material and I do understand the core material of my discipline better than I did last year. And it will take me a while, but eventually, I’ll remember that I can do this.

Research at small colleges and part-time science

There are two articles I read today that I wanted to share. Both deal with career options for scientists within academia that are less traditional – and that I am definitely considering chasing after myself when it comes time. The Chronicle recently featured an article called Big Research, Small College on an area of academia that I am intensely interested in learning more about: doing research at small colleges.

When scientists at small colleges and universities seek research grants, they often run into challenges not faced by their colleagues at major institutions. It is, nonetheless, possible to maintain a research program at a small institution — if you have a great deal of passion and a little ingenuity.

Although there are definitely some difficulties, the description of research at a small college doesn’t sound too unlike research in a small, poorly funded lab group that is not receiving much help from the university – use undergrads wisely, look for small grants for seed money, cultivate relationships for collaboration with other researchers in academia or in industry, and be willing to do some bench work yourself.

Another interesting article is from Science magazine’s December 2007 issue: Part-Time Science in Perspective. I imagine this trend is rather sparse so far, but I hope that it continues. A part-time science job is one of the most appealing opportunities I could imagine. The article states:

Data and anecdote show otherwise. According to the U.S. National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) 2003 Survey of Doctorate Recipients (SDR), 4.7% of doctoral-level scientists and engineers who conduct basic research work part-time. Several funding agencies offer opportunities to people who want to work part-time or have that flexibility built into their policies. And universities are recognizing, as industry has for years, that to be competitive and attract the best scientists, they need to offer flexible work policies.

Definitely go check them both out, and let me know what you think! Do you know anyone who works in one of these situations?

Renewal followed by foolishness

Hehe. Renewal doesn’t really lead to foolishness…not usually. No, what I’m actually talking about is that the new Scientiae is up at Rants of a feminist engineer, and the topic is renewal. Renewal…because it’s the one year anniversary of the inception of Scientiae! And I think that since then, the number of female women in science blogs seems to be grown…at least the number that I know of. The Scientiae carnival was even mentioned in the resources at the back of the book Who’s Afraid of Marie Curie?: The Challenges Facing Women in Science and Technology (which I highly recommend)! Pretty neat, don’t you agree? So head on over and check out the current carnival.

And foolishness? The theme for the April carnival, which will be at Peggy’s Women in Science blog, is fools and foolishness. Check out the call for posts. Hopefully I’ll write one this time, I haven’t submitted to Scientiae in quite a while!