Saturday, April 21, 2007

Debate With Dr. DeMentor

This week, a colleague/mentor of mine visited; this is the person who taught me how to teach and has been an important supporter of mine throughout my academic career. In the past couple of days, we have had several debates (arguments) about whether I should pursue an opportunity to become an Administrator (an assistant Dean) at my university. We disagree about whether I can do more 'good' for women-in-science as an administrator or as a scientist. He thinks the former, I think the latter. I think the latter mostly in the context of where I am now with my career, but could see changing my mind in the future. Even so, he thinks I should make this career change now.

I convinced my friend, colleague, mentor to put our debate in writing for posting here. This will occur in several stages, with the first part (posted here) involving our staking out our initial positions:

DDM (Dr. DeMentor): A person at your stage in her career has 2 basic choices: you can continue what you've been doing, which presumably has been very satisfying and serves your own agenda for personal growth and contributions that you feel are critical. And that path remains largely about you and your interests, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. I just believe that at a certain stage in the life of an academic that there is the opportunity to move to a different track where it is less about building your own career and reputation (awards, accolades, opportunities) and more about giving back as you set the stage for the next generation of people in your field and in particular in your case women in your field. So one is kind of a self-interested path and one is more philanthropic. You are a good role model and you help individuals achieve their goals, but I believe you would have a greater impact of changing the culture on your campus and beyond if you were in a position of authority and could effect institutional change rather than individual change.

FSP (me): But I think that my being a senior and somewhat successful researcher and professor gives me more opportunities and more credibility as a role model for women scientists. The opportunities come through professional outlets -- giving talks at universities and conferences, participating in panels and committees, and just by being visible in my field as a senior woman who is a productive researcher. As a deanlet, I could have more of an impact on my university, but as a visible researcher, I can have a broader impact beyond this university. Also, keep in mind that my research ambitions aren't primarily about accolades or even being a role model: the reason I do this job is because I love the science, both as a researcher and a teacher. It's hard for me to imagine giving all or even some of that up right now, even if that seems selfish.

To be continued, I think, if DDM sends me his counter-point, though in the end we didn't evolve much beyond these main points.


Propter Doc said...

I understand your point - my PI is an associate dean (currently running for a dean position) and is a strong voice for women in science, but it sounds a little strange coming from someone who is no longer as active a scientist.
As associate dean she influences far more fledgling scientists than she could ever see through her group, but more to pave the way for them, rather than be a strong role model.
I don't think there is any value in being talked into doing a position, any position that you are reluctant about. It will only negatively impact your performance across the board.
I should note that my PI maintains a group of about 15 students, technicians and postdocs with the aid of a lab manager.

Mr. B. said...

When this topic comes up, Mr. B. always thinks of a definition of an associate dean that he heard long ago.

An associate dean is a mouse learning how to become a rat.


A said...

It is sometimes the case that the very assertion that a female science professor ought to spend her time "doing good for women in science" is the problem in and of itself. Women in physics frequently get distracted unnecessarily away from good research in order that they spend time "doing good for women in science". There is no reason that this should be the case. Men are infrequently asked to take time away from their research to "do good for women in science". Solving gender issues is part of the responsibility for all of us.

Yvette said...

If you don't want to become an associate dean, don't do it. Done. And I've never heard of someone getting into science because of a dean anyway.

Though I admit here, as a student I'm biased because you said you keep winning the teaching award given by the students. If you want to get more girls into the field, I will tell you now that this will do more to change the numbers than anything else. Besides which, there is nothing more sad for the students than a great professor who leaves the classroom for administrative duty... I have one doing this next semester, and it's like we already miss him.

Anna said...

I think you make excellent points. As yvette says, a great teacher is worth her weight in gold. And we need to know, by example, that women can be professors and researchers, too.

This might be a good time to point out that your blog is doing great good for women in science. I, at least, have found it immensely encouraging. Thank you!

Zuska said...

I have done research, and I have been an administrator. I loved both. I would say that there is only one good reason to become an administrator, and that is because you think you'd like to develop and exercise your administrative talents. University administration can be incredibly rewarding work, and it bugs me to no end when people (like Mr. B) badmouth administrators. How do the faculty think they'd be able to get their work done if there weren't any administrators around to do all the daily management work that faculty don't want to do?

You will have a great impact on women in science no matter what you do because that is the kind of person you are. You don't need to become an administrator to affect women in science. You'd just do it differently as an administrator. Don't become an associate dean because of some mistaken idea of how you should consecrate your life to the noble goal of women-in-science issues. That way lies burnout. First, do what makes you happy. Do what your talents and desires draw you to. Look at Geraldine Richmond at U. Oregon, and how much good she has done for women in chemistry, on a national level - and she is not an "official" administrator, but is still a professor. There are many ways to make a contribution. I absolutely loved being an administrator but it isn't for everyone. Do what makes you happy and the path to contribute, if that's what you want to do, will open up before you.

Anonymous said...

I think you should stay a professor. I'm a grad student in a field with very few women, so each and every positive role model is important. One of our two female professors is spending time at another school this year and we definitely feel her absence.

Laura said...

In my opinion, you do the most good for others when you are pursuing what you are passionate about.

As a woman engineer, I can tell you that it is *always* an inspiration to meet other women in technology and science, who are doing the research, finding the breakthroughs, having a voice in the profession.

In other words, simply by doing what you love and being effective in it, you will stand as an example for women scientists in your profession to aspire to. Opportunities to mentor others will continue to open up for you, as they are now.

When we do something that our heart isn't truly in, we die a little inside. I know this because I lived it, having to take a job for a while to support my family that wasn't where my passion lay. I'm still trying to recover myself, professionally.

If your true interest is in the research and teaching, stick with that. Or as we say in SF, follow your weird.

Kate said...

I'm about to give a very cynical viewpoint on this.

The women I know who have gone into administrative appointments (so, only at my grad school) have only hurt women in science. They were already the kinds of women who were dealing with a lot of internalized sexism and so were glad to be tokenized. They pulled the ladder up behind them, when they could have done something to make the ladder easier for women to climb.

I think people push women into administrative jobs because it puts a band aid on a larger problem (meaning, they put women in prominent positions, but make no real, institutional commitment to change). The women who take the jobs and want to make a difference are often hamstrung. They end up towing the line of the university. And the university pats itself on the back, because look at how they care about women! They make them assistant deans of things!

Obviously I feel strongly about this, but it is in part because of my particular experience at my particular university. Yours could very well be different.

Rosie Redfield said...

Assuming we women scientists want to benefit others as well as ourselves, there are two different 'communities' we might care to give back to.

One is the community of potential women scientists, and we may indeed benefit them most strongly by administrative work.

But the other community is that of science. Other scientists have invested a lot in us, because they thought we had potential to produce good science (I suspect not because they thought we would produce good administration).

Both kinds of work can benefit both communities. But I like to think that we do our best work when we're doing what we enjoy the most.

Mr. B. said...

Ah, Zuska, Mr. B. does not badmouth all administrators. If the shoe fits... Over about forty years Mr. B. has known some outstanding administrators. Unfortunately, the overall percentage of good ones is a little discouraging.

Tell my little joke about associate deans to any academic and you will get a big laugh - if they haven't already heard it.

Perhaps this is because there is some truth to it?

And, in agreement with a majority of the commenters so far, I would encourage FSP not to go over to the dark side. I think she is doing a lot more for the cause than any adminstrator is likely to be able to do - "buried in all the daily management work that faculty don't want to do."



Female Science Professor said...

Thanks for all the great and supportive comments. Keep in mind, though, that DDM is one of the good guys -- he encouraged me in grad school at a time when all other faculty were telling me I wasn't good enough, and he wrote reference letters that helped me get my first faculty positions. He is encouraging me to take an administrative position out of a belief that I would be good at it and would help a lot of people. I just happen to disagree with him on this particular issue for where I am with my career right now.

Jenny F. Scientist said...

I struggle with this too. Would I be better able to be a role model and an agent for change if I were a professor? Would my loathing for this prospect make it untenable? Am I selling out because I'm not fitting into someone's definition of how I should change the world? I know I'm not, but I still feel guilty about it.

On deans in general: My mentor used to be a professor and is now a dean (but only because it was what she truly wanted). She's been making a huge difference here in terms of women in science and elsewhere, more humane policies overall, parental leave, the works. So it can be done. Not all deans are evil!

Anna said...

I just read a really interesting post about women in video games that relates to this. On Hellchick's blog, the post is "how to fight sexism in games: stop making cool female characters"

The gist of it is that we're seeing improvement in the token female characters (they actually have substance rather than being eye-candy for the boys), but we're not seeing more ordinary female characters. And because there's cool female characters, we should be happy and stop complaining about sexism.

So the tie-in is to your point that we really need to see women doing what they love everywhere, and that in itself is immensely valuable. Just seeing women doing good science, without *every* woman having to be a high-powered activist, is important. Women doing science---what a natural concept! And, as has been said, you have to do what you love.

TW Andrews said...

If the only criterion is how much good you can do and change you can effect, Dr. DeMentor is without a doubt correct. Role models are great, but they don't have any real power.

As other commenters have mentioned, there's no overstating the importance of a good teacher, but from reading this blog (and others) it sounds as if the principle problem in science isn't getting young women interested, it's getting them promoted as they get mid-career (as described by the post where you saw a sea of older men at the front of the room during a lecture).

Teachers, no matter how good, don't have the power to change institutional sexism. Administrators do.

Auntie Em said...

FSP - I love that you're an FSP! The fact that you're able to persue what you love is an inspiration to this FCSR (Female Comuter Science Researcher).

As Laura said - it's about the passion.

Ms.PhD said...

I'm with tw andrews. We need women in positions where they can hire and fire.

But I'm confused. At my university, I don't think you have to give up your lab in order to be a dean (of any level of rodentia)? Is it impossible to do both, at least for a while?

I agree with your point that it's important to *also* be a role model, because it does give you credibility and it's also an important contribution.

Just be glad you have someone like Dr. DeMentor, who sees such potential in you, even if he's a little bit impatient and you're a little bit uncertain.

yahaa said...

hi! i like your style of blogging

Prisoners of the Cave said...

I agree with FSP, not DDM.

Here is why.

Take a look at David Baltimore.

He was past President of Caltech, and upon retirement, went back into research - his first passion.

Read his two notable biographies, if you haven't already.

Why is Baltimore representative of this issue?

Because as a passionate and successful researcher, winning the rare Nobel Prize in biology, and singlemindedly driven by his passion for this field, at the right time in his career, he became the President of the top science university in the nation (okay my own alma mater MIT included in the top category, but my son takes issue with that).

The current president of MIT, another 'FSP' with distinguished credentials, also became its President after successful accomplishments as a researcher in her own field. Susan is one of the best Presidents of MIT, imho, at least from the perspective of the welfare of the students.

Things happen in due course. Our internal state informs us when it is time.

If an impetus has to come from outside to goad us in this or that direction from our own internal state, then we are not ready for that impetus.

Advice however, and hearing others' opinions is always useful, and not doing so can be detrimental for we are not know-it-alls.

However not listening to our inner voice, both of reason, and of passion, can lead to an unfulfilled life. Often times, only we are the best judge of that, and only we are left to lament. The advice givers move on.

For what that's worth.


nonk9 said...

I convinced my friend, colleague, mentor to put our debate in writing for posting here....DDM (Dr. DeMentor): A person at your stage in her career has 2 basic choices:
Actually, she has three.

Option 3: Stop pretending that you give a rodent's tuchus about the cogitations of a senior white male colleague whose letters of recommendation you no longer need!

Female Science Professor said...

In fact, DDM and I are FRIENDS, and I value his opinion for many reasons, none of which relate to the fact that he wrote letters for me when I needed them.