Friday, November 09, 2007

Ambition

Today I had an argument with a colleague about the concept of ambition. He and another colleague had been discussing their shared opinion that many young scientists today, especially women, lack ambition. That is, young scientists are easily derailed by obstacles and/or choose an unambitious career path; i.e., one that doesn't involve seeking a faculty position at a research university. This lack of ambition is caused by many different factors, including: lack of confidence, laziness, an inability to deal with obstacles, lack of passion for Science, or poor choice of partners (e.g., women marrying unsupportive men).

I must first note that both of these colleagues are strong supporters of women in science and equally apply this definition of lack of ambition to men and women. For example, I don't think they believe that lack of ambition is a major reason for the so-called leaky pipeline that results in so few senior women in science. Even so, I disagree with their view of what it takes to be a successful science professor.

When I argued with my colleague today, I objected to his definition of ambition and his characterization of young scientists who choose a different career path as unambitious. By this definition, only those who have successful careers as professors at research universities are ambitious, and anyone who 'fails' at this (or doesn't even try) lacks ambition. My colleague used me as an example of someone who didn't let obstacles derail her career as a science professor at a research university. That is, there are obstacles to succeeding at this career, but they are surmountable (with ambition).

I hate it when people use me as an example to argue that the current academic system is fine. If the current academic system were just fine, there would be a lot more FSPs than there are. It does not follow that just because I "made it" as an FSP, academia is a family-friendly place that fosters the careers of women in science. That would be a bizarre and unscientific conclusion for anyone to make. That is where the argument today kept reaching an impasse. I would say "What does ambition have to do with it if a young woman decides she doesn't want to spend her life dealing with sexist men?" and my colleague would say "But you did that. And you did that because you are ambitious."

I have never felt particularly ambitious. There was never a point -- not in college, grad school, or even during my postdoc -- where I had my sights set only on a faculty position at a research university. At my graduate and postdoctoral universities, the faculty were not people whose lives I aspired to emulate. I continued doing research because I love the discovery aspects of it -- the creative thinking and the always-learning-new-things aspects. I think I have always been more driven by curiosity than ambition.

If young scientists today do not find the prospect of being a science professor at a research university appealing, perhaps this is because universities have not changed sufficiently from the days when all it took to succeed was to be a white male with the right academic pedigree (and perhaps a wife to take care of things at home). Some people probably lack sufficient passion for science -- surely this has always been so -- but I don't believe this has anything to do with ambition. For example, considering the pluses and minuses of a career as an FSP -- 'get to work on interesting scientific problems' vs. 'get to work daily with sexist trolls' -- some women will decide that such a career is worthwhile and conducive to an overall happy life and career, and others will decide it is not worth it. The latter may not indicate a lack of ambition so much as problems with the academic ecosystem.

I hope at least some of this discussion makes sense. This afternoon, I had a long and frustrating meeting that was an excellent demonstration of an obstacle to enjoying life as an FSP, and I would not be surprised if my ability to be lucid were severely impacted.

37 comments:

Kim said...

You know, the really ambitious people that I knew in college got MBAs or law degrees.

ready to graduate said...

That's a really interesting point. I agree that one can be ambitious in many fields besides academia (!) but that scientific curiosity keeps many of us in the game of academic science.

I've spoken with many female grad students, though, who just seem to be harder on themselves than they are on anyone else--e.g. "He has a spiffy paper because he's really smart, but I just have one because I got lucky/my advisor put me on a good project/etc etc." One recent grad with a string of good papers said to me that her feeling on arriving in a postdoc lab was, "I know that I have great recommendations and people think I'm good, but please just don't expect anything of me...I'm not as good as all that!" Yet she's scientifically intelligent and curious and wonderfully thoughtful. I wonder if women are most susceptible to being sandbagged by these negative and anxious thoughts about themselves, and that as a result they suppress their natural ambition?

Anonymous said...

I cannot agree more with your notion that whether someone decides to get on the academic path has nothing to do with ambition. I consider myself rather driven/ambitious, and I have always wanted to work in industry before I even started my Ph.D. I made it abundantly clear to my PI that was my wish - big mistake. I was essentially "written off the will" since I was not going to become a prof and continue the "academic legacy" of my PI (I was not invited to participate in significant grant/review article writing/teaching special graduate courses/nominated for fellowships, etc., although I never thought I was any less ambitious/successful/ worked less hard than others who were given these opportunities. While this is discouraging to anyone who does not want a career as a prof, it is a deeper issue than just men vs. women in my opinion. My graduate advisor was a= FSP and she treats anyone who aren't on the academic path the same, men or women. The issue really is, if most of the faculty members were taught this kind of view when they went to grad school, and that's all they know and value, how are they supposed to have any appreciation for non-academic career choices? I am truly impressed that you remain open-minded and most importantly, respectful of your students' career choices. After all, that's someone else's career decision to make, and I have no idea why someone would want to be an educator, if all they care about is their own wishes and ego. Perhaps I am totally naive but I thought as a science prof., the job is to help educate students about science, not just grooming them for professorship.

Dr. Lisa said...

When I decided to teach at the community college, some of the faculty at my grad school said they were sorry that I was "selling myself short." Although I miss research, I find teaching science to be more challenging and extremely fulfilling. Guess I'm not ambitious? My 60-hour weeks would seem to indicate otherwise. ;)

Cloud said...

This is an interesting post, and yes, your argument makes sense.

I consider myself reasonably ambitious, in that I want to have a productive career working on meaningful and interesting things. It never occurred to me that pursuing a career in industry was not compatible with that ambition. However, I chose to go into industry because that is where I thought I could do the type of work that most interested me, not because of the sexist environment in academia. I actually assumed that the environment in industry would be equally sexist, and was pleasantly surprised to find that I was wrong. (Which is not to say that industry is a beacon of enlightenment... but I've certainly run into less overt sexism since leaving graduate school and going into industry.)

EcoGeoFemme said...

I think your colleagues are a little self centered for thinking that the carrer they chose is the only one worthy of ambition. Some people get PhDs because they want SLAC, industry, or policy jobs at the outset. I know someone considering a PhD because she wants a community college position. That's her ambition. This attitude is so damaging for people, especially women and extra-specially for women with children who are at the start of their careers. We need options that are respected.

Part of the reason I like your blog is that you do not write with that attitude, FSP.

Cherish said...

I completely agree. Just because one is ambitious doesn't mean that they don't succumb to exhaustion, frustration, and the general desire to have a life unencumbered by trolls and other annoying people. Guys seem to learn (or instinctively know?) how to blow those sorts of things off, but I find it rather difficult.

Am I a woman scientist? said...

I find it interesting that these men think that it's simply a lack of ambition which determines who makes it in academia and who doesn't (and, conversely, that all those who make it into faculty positions are ambitious).

Mr. B. said...

Hmm...

Being a realist and knowing what one wants to get out of life does not equate to lack of ambition.

The costs of an academic life have gradually overtaken the benefits as the coin of the realm - at least in research universities - has become, well the coin.

I always tell my students not to go into academic science unless you are CRAZY about science, the same way you might be CRAZY about philosophy and get a Ph.D.

But puhleeze, let's cut out this criticism of students for a lack of ambition by those who have managed to claw their way to the top of the academic greasy pole.

Ciao,
Bonzo

(Who has to go over to the lab and turn off a reaction right now because he is, well er crazy.)

Schlupp said...

Ha, you Americans just don't know ho good you have it:* At least, ambition is seen as somtheing positive in a woman. It isn't in MyCountry, where 'But she is just overly ambitious' is used to deride any woman who wants to be in academia.

* Or rather: How much you have already achieved in this equality thing. Pleas do go on!

Ioana said...

FSP, you are right to point out that some women make the optimal choice not to go for an academic career because the objective obstacles are too burdensome and outweigh the benefits for them. And this is of course not fair in that they face higher obstacles than men do. Putting everything up to ambition is belittling these obstacles and the women.

That being said, I think ambition HAS something to do with it, precisely because it allows some women to persist in the face of obstacles. Of course, it is not clear what we mean by ambition, but let's say that it's a drive to succeed in one's career (in science this implicitly includes a real interest for research). Well, now for many women this drive is obscured by various psychological factors such as a lack of self confidence and limited ability to stand up for oneself. There are two interesting papers in economics (the field in which I work) about this topic. One of them (Niederle and Versterlund 2007: http://www.stanford.edu/~niederle/Women.Competition.pdf) shows that women are prone to think that they are less good than men are, and even for a given level of self-confidence they are less likely to be willing to enter competition. Now, because science is a very competitive field, this can explain some of the observed patterns. Second, in the book "women don't ask" by Babcock and Laschever, they show that women are less likely to enter a negotiation in a given setting than men are. So now if science is a competitive field dominated by men who stand up for themselves, then on average women will tend to do worse. That is, unless they have enough ambition to surmount whatever obstacles and psychological propensities that hold them back. Or unless structures in the field change such that women are at less of a structural disadvantage (for example one could try to provide more mentoring, etc.).

Drugmonkey said...

My ambition is to do the science I love while still maintaining a decent relationship with spouse and kids. My ambition is to do better than those careerist knuckleheads who can't seem to understand that their career choices are fundamentally selfish. Not to mention that since they typically have failed to cure cancer through this career of self-involved behavior the "compromises" to family life are unjustified in the end.

I mean seriously, choosing to marry a braindead puppy who will follow you across the country for low paying work for the sake of your career? That's called "ambitious"? No, that's called sociopathic...

Young Applied Math Prof. said...

Younger people in many fields are defining their careers differently than their more senior colleagues. Typically this is received as different = wrong and inferior by the senior generation who too tightly couple ambition with 'single-mindedness'.

My wife runs workshops on the generation gap developing in medicine. Young doctors seem not to want to work 80+ hour weeks, they carry PDAs to look things up and, god forbid, they take either maternity or paternity leave! The younger doctors resent being made to feel that they don't care about patients just because they also care about themselves, family and friends.

I see the same things in academia with senior colleagues scoffing at my desire to have a family. They see this as too distracting.

I am certain we will grow out of all these conflicts and into a new set.

YAMP.

Anonymous said...

You make perfect sense, and I am happy to hear you think that way. My own advisor, an extremely successful yet balanced FSP, agrees with you. As someone with 2 pre-tenure children (TWO children?!?!) I am often faced with the attitude that my decision to reproduce shows an inherent lack of ambition. To be fair, I am now and then also faced with the attitude that I am some sort of beacon for the new generation -- have a life, do great science, poop on the senior bearded male professors.

I was recently part of a twilight zone conversation with two senior profs. They both started talking about fame and how they didn't care about it. I sat there thinking about Brittney Spears and Paris Hilton -type fame and wondering what they were talking about. It had never even occurred to me one might be in this for fame. Like you, I am motivated more by (somewhat self-centered) curiosity than by anything else.

Then there is also the issue of seeing academia as the pinnacle of all career ambitions. The ego it must take to think like that! However, I think calling someone a "braindead puppy" because they put their ambitions in things other than the job they hold is falling prey to the same sort of thinking: those who do not want what I want do not want things badly enough. Believe it or not, some people's ambition is to hold a 40hr/week job that gives them enough money, and importantly, enough time, to pursue a variety of other interests as doggedly and with as much burning ambition as others pursue scientific questions, fame, or material goods. The idea that one can measure someone's ambition based on the amount of money or recognition they want is a common one, a product of a culture that values productivity (in $$) above all, but I think it is ultimately a misguided idea.

VWXYNot? said...

Very thought-provoking post. I realised quite early on during my PhD that I did not want to be a PI, but chose to do a postdoc anyway as I knew I'd enjoy it and learn some very valuable skills for what I do want to do, i.e. science communication. (The full story is here if anyone is in the least bit interested!).

I did make a wee bit of a bad move after that (marketing - yeurch), but I've just started a new job that is much closer to my ultimate aim and I'm also doing some freelance writing on the side. I never considered myself to be unambitious, maybe just differently-ambitious. I was very lucky in that both my PhD (male) and postdoc (female) advisers have been extremely supportive of my decisions, but I guess not everyone is so fortunate.

alh said...

You are so very right. I had a simalar argument recently as well. Getting a PhD, takes a certain amount of ambition. Period. Staying in a sexist, unwelcoming, often stressful and cut-throat environment takes a certain amount of willpower. Not the same as ambition.

People are often saying that to fix the broken "pipeline" we need to have better inputs an encourage young (K-12) women scientists. While I agree with this, part of the problem is the academic system itself. There comes a point were being treated as an invisible entity or worse just isn't worth the cool science.

Sorry, that was a bit of a rant,and fueled by my own bad academic environment situation that occurred yesterday. I really just wanted to voice my agreement. :)

Unbalanced Reaction said...

Refreshing! I'm currently applying for positions at small schools with very little or no research component. For the past month, I've been experiencing exactly what dr. lisa commented about. Although The Boss is very supportive of my decision, other faculty members have approached The Boss with their concerns of me "selling myself short" and that I should pursue more research-oriented schools. While some might find it flattering, I find it somewhat disheartening to be basically told that if I choose to teach at small schools rather than make a name for myself in the field, that I am wasting my LargeU degree.

Great post!

Female Science Professor said...

Yes, that happens a lot. In fact, the person I was arguing with has recently been very upset that a talented female grad student has been applying only for 'unambitious' jobs. He thinks she is wasting her talents. We argued about that as well.

Even so, I should mention something I've written about before: i.e., when I was first applying for faculty positions, I thought I wanted to be at a small liberal arts college. My first job was at a SLAC, and I hated it. It turns out that the best job for me in terms of having the right (for me) balance between research and teaching is at a university. I didn't know that when I started out, but was lucky enough to be able to move to a job I loved. In a recent discussion about jobs with my Ph.D. students, I told them to keep their options open for as long as possible.

Anonymous said...

The term "ambitious" resonates with me because when I chose my post-doctoral advisor, a highly successful FSP, I asked a senior male professor at my PhD institution (who knew her well and had post-docked in the same lab as she had) for his insights into her science as well as what he knew about the way her lab worked, the first thing that he said was that she was "a very ambitious... woman", like that was a bad thing. So, I took from this interaction that it was OK as a female myself to have the ambition to do a good postdoc and maybe even get a faculty position someday as long as you don't aspire to be a direct threat to the old boys. I am not sure that ambition (maybe I see it as aggression in many of my male co-students and postdocs) has ever been encouraged in me. I had mostly made my decision on the postdoc lab and stuck with it, because maybe this old professor just didn't like anyone. Some people are like that.

I am in total agreement that there are other valid ambitions besides faculty positions, and the work-life imbalance of the academic path that I picked makes me think I'm nuts. But I love my research, and I don't think I could love another job this much.

Female PhD Student said...

Hi all, the latest Science issue cited a recent survey of 1300 NIH post docs by Martinez et al. -- and guess what...

"The survey found that more than 70% of the men have their sights set on a PI position compared with only 50% of the women. Men were also more confident--by a margin of 59% to 40%--that they would become PIs. One apparent reason for the gender discrepancy is that women appear more willing to make career sacrifices for the sake of their families (see graph). For example, 57% of female postdocs who were married but without children said that having children would influence their career choices compared with only 29% of married men without children. Similarly, 31% of married women expressed a willingness to make concessions to accommodate their spouses' careers versus 21% of the men."

It think women are not just that ambitious, don't believe in themselves-- or they do not know that they should learn the ABC of feminism.

Anonymous said...

A question for the FSP: Do you think that you started your career aspiring to a position at a small liberal arts college because you had been nudged in that direction by mentors etc.? As another FSP a R1 university, I sometimes see senior profs assume that women grad students are going to want a 'less ambitious' job when they might in fact be better suited to research university faculty position.

Female Science Professor said...

I went to a small liberal arts college as an undergrad and I loved it, so I thought that I would also love being at one as a professor. I didn't get any advice either way from professors in grad school, though I got some negative comments when I wrote on a grad fellowship application that my career goal was to be at a SLAC (and I didn't get the fellowship).

I was just talking about this kind of thing with one of my grad students today -- he says he doesn't know what he's capable of yet and so doesn't know what kinds of places he can and should apply to -- small schools, research schools etc. I think he is capable of doing well anywhere (and told him so), and stressed that the main thing now is that he not limit his options or let a lack of confidence prevent him from pursuing options that intimidate him at the moment.

Ann said...

When I read articles in professional magazines describing the "leak" in the pipeline, I'm frustrated that I'm considered one of the "drips" because I chose to teach at a liberal arts institution. Why is that not considered a "good enough" position? It's a perfect fit for me--lots of student contact (which I love), opportunities to do "real" research on a regular basis, and not spend all my time writing papers and grants. I actually get to DO experiments--something I don't observe any midlevel or higher professor at an R1 univeristy doing. I also did it because I knew the pressure to bring in grants was just not my thing, and I wanted more balance in my pre-tenure life (i.e. 60 hr weeks instead of 80 hr weeks).

If that makes me a "drip" or unambitious, so be it--but I wouldn't have it any other way...unless I was staying home with my kids :)

Global Girl said...

My ambition is to become CEO of a Fortune 500 company. I would like my own jet. That is all.

Female Science Professor said...

Ann, it surprises me that you would be considered a leak/drip just because you teach at a college. As long as you are a professor at an institution of higher learning, aren't you counted as an FSP still in the 'pipeline'?

Patricia said...

Sounds like a lot of the comments are about "following passions" instead of "ambition"
Give me working with a passion to working with ambition any day!!
Those folks are much more fun to work with too...

Patricia

Ms.PhD said...

I hate it when people use me as an example to argue that the current academic system is fine. This made me smile.

The part where you say you've never felt particularly ambitious kind of surprised me. I guess you think of yourself more as persistent (a la the person who mentioned 'willpower')? You clearly set goals for yourself and stubbornly hold on until you reach them.

I don't get the impression that all of your career just fell into your lap. And that's what it sounds like when you say you've never been very ambitious.

So when you say you don't think of yourself as ambitious, and your colleagues get this impression of young women in science, don't you think this is exactly the problem? Aren't you happy? Wouldn't you consider yourself successful?

Or is it that ambitious people are never satisfied?

Doesn't this go back to an earlier post where we discussed how it can sometimes be harmful that you make it look easier than it actually is?

Ambition might not have to mean you're willing to do anything or step on other people in order to get to the top, or that being at the top is the point of the climb. It might just mean that you set goals and then work toward them.

You did that. You must have a little ambition to deal with the trolls and other obstacles the way you do.

Anyway very interesting discussion, all of it. But I still hate how everyone equates women's ambition or lack thereof with desire for/importance of having a family. For many of us it really is all about the trolls and the competitive, careerist atmosphere. I still think solving the family problem will not solve sexism or the fundamental problems in academia.

Jenny F. Scientist said...

What a... truly amazing circular argument. I think required courses in logic for faculty would at least make meetings more interesting.

Your colleague is defining ambition as 'the desire to become one's advisor.'

Anon. #1: Oh, we wish.
Mr. B: I would agree, one has to be crazy. :)

EcoGeoFemme said...

unrelated comment: FSP, you dyed your hair "graph paper"!!!

CCPhysicist said...

Ambition. Why would an ambitious person want to spend a decade going through grad school and a post doc before even starting on a career? Really ambitious people quit school and start a business and never look back.

And, to respond to another comment, yes, I have seen faculty who were seeking fame in physics.

But my comment was really triggered by the observation about a survey of 1300 post docs, more than half of whom expect to become PIs on an NIH grant. Shudder. And how many new PIs get funded each year, in proportion to the number of new post docs that get created each year? Shades of 1970 in physics, when reality sunk in and people bailed out before they ended up overqualified for sales jobs.

If you don't know what it looked like when supply met demand, take a look at a post from last summer on the subject.

Laura said...

I'm a female graduate student in physics, and one thing graduate school has taught me is that I don't want to do research the rest of my life, nor do I want to teach. That rules out academia rather nicely...sometimes I wonder if it is a lack of ambition or confidence in my abilities, but even if that's part of it, my overwhelming desire is to find something I know I'm good at. It turns out my passion lies with editing, with helping make science easier to communicate. I'd rather spend my life on something I really care about than on a profession that other people hold in higher regard.

Karina said...

FSP, what was it that you didn't like about teaching at a SLAC? As someone who went to a SLAC and now aspires to teach at a SLAC I'm very curious. My advisor (who coincidentally-or not?- went to the same Small Friendly College) keeps telling me not to pigeon-hole myself because some people reviewing my grant/fellowship applications just won't understand why someone would ASPIRE to teach at a SLAC.

laura2 said...

I agree with most of the discussion here: that a Ph.D. who doesn't seek and get an academic (tenure-track) position does is not necessarily unambitious, and that PIs who maintain this standard are generally selfish and completely wrapped up in the insular world of research academia. In fact, I'd add that it's quite a shame for these "educated" folks to discourage their certainly well-educated students from entering other professions. Our society would benefit if more decision-makers, media-makers, and educators of the wider populace held such a solid working knowledge of the scientific method and problem solving and weren't driven primarily by the "ambition" to get rich or famous.

usagibrian said...

So, the way your colleagues define "ambition" is different from the concept behind "The Secret" how exactly?

As a grad school colleague of mine said back in the Mesozoic when we were ambitiously conducting our job searches, "My favorite rejection letter was the one that said, 'Thanks for your interest. We've hired Eric Bentley.'" (Those of you not familiar with the name, he's the foremost Brecht scholar in the world.) We were quite sure he did not submit a resume blind in response to an ad in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Carrie said...

Grrrr. I am ambitious. But I didn't get the tenure-track job (applied and interviewed for many, but no offers -- not surprising given the stats). I now work for industry and have gained respect and do good work here. I have a position of leadership.

Maybe I'm not ambitious because I was willing to change my academic plans to fit my life circumstances. But regardless of where I am working, I am going to do the best possible work that I can -- and THAT is ambition!

Katie said...

Great post! I, too, hate the use of the word "ambition" to describe the lack of women at research universities.

A Grad Student said...

Thank you! It drives me slightly batty that my professor's description of "success" in science is a description of himself. On such occasions, I bite my tongue to keep from blurting out "But I don't want to be like you!"