Friday, October 08, 2010

Give the Girls a Chance

A colleague of mine is in an academic system in which he, as Big Professor, directly selects a few graduate students who will work with him. There is no admissions committee or other complicating factors like that; he just looks around and selects 1-2 students to work with him.

All of these students have thus far been male.

Not long ago, this colleague was complaining to me about how he recently has had trouble finding graduate students who want to work hard. I should note that this colleague works very hard and no doubt expects the same, or more, from his students. I am sure that his definition of "hard work" is a bit on the high side, and it would not be easy to be his graduate student. Nevertheless, he always used to be able to find students, but is now having trouble recruiting.

He informed me that, out of desperation, he has recently accepted two "girls" as graduate students. The conversation was a bit surreal. Did he expect me to sympathize with the fact that he had no choice but to take on some female graduate students?

Anyway, I was semi-pleased to hear this. I hope these young women do well, for their own sakes as well as for the unfortunate reason that their status as pioneers as female graduate students of this adviser puts them in the unpleasant position of representing our gender. If they do well -- or maybe if at least one of them does well -- then this colleague may in the future be enthusiastic about working with female graduate students, thereby providing young women with a heretofore unattainable opportunity for graduate study.

It would be nice if my colleague also examined his advising philosophy, just in case his inability to attract graduate students has nothing to do with the slothfulness of the modern young male (his hypothesis), but that does not yet seem to be in the offing. It would also be nice if the young women were as free to fail as the male graduate students.

This colleague has had his share of failed male graduate students in the past, so it's not as if he has had non-stop success (until now) advising young men. In fact, I was a sort of co-adviser of one of his students who ended up costing me a lot of time and money before he suddenly dropped out of the graduate program. As soon as this student acquired a girlfriend, he lost interest in working long hours in a lab. My colleague was completely disgusted by this ex-student's lack of commitment to Science and his inability to balance work and girlfriend.
(Many years later, this student sent me an e-mail to say that he has long been filled with shame and regret that he dropped out without telling me or even thanking me for all the help I gave him. I told him that these things happen and he should not feel guilty about this ancient incident, although I appreciated that he communicate with me eventually.)

Even so, none of these men represent all of their gender. Those who dropped out did so because of their individual personalities. I hope the same will be true for these young women, whatever the outcome of their graduate studies, although mostly I hope they will succeed.

And if one of them does drop out for personal reasons, I hope my colleague will remember that he has had male students drop out for similar reasons. And if he does not remember this, I will remind him.

25 comments:

Kea said...

He's having trouble getting students? Hah, maybe he's a string theorist then.

Anonymous said...

I was my advisor's first female grad student and for the first 3 years it seemed he would only come near me with a ten-foot pole (figuratively of course). Well it's been 10 years since I've graduated and he's had more female grad students since then so hopefully I wasn't such a bad experience for him.

Anonymous said...

This happens far too frequently in my experience. The worst part is that these students are already more likely to fail because of their advisor's attitude. I doubt he'll be any more supportive once their start than he appears to be now.

Nicole said...

That was a big point in one of the books on women in academia I read (I get Failing at Fairness and Lifting a Ton of Feathers mixed up sometimes), detailing a case of a woman who didn't get tenure at Berkeley or a similar place. She was above the mean and the median of the tenured, but not the best in the department. The case noted that women have to be BETTER than everyone else to be perceived as equal. And that isn't fair.

It's similar for arguments for letting in more minorities into law school etc. What if some of them fail? Then we've hurt them. But don't we allow whites to fail? It really isn't fair.

Anonymous said...

No offense, but your colleague sounds like a jerk.

Anonymous said...

Man, kids these days are so lazy! They've gotten so bad I'M EVEN CONSIDERING HIRING GIRLS!!!

*boggle*

Anonymous said...

My PhD supervisor liked to say how he "had no choice" but to take women graduate students because they tended to have better grades and work harder.

Anonymous said...

I hope the women wow him!

I've seen this a couple times...big-name prof has lots of excellent students who want to work with him (so far, in my experiences it has always been a him but it could happen to a her). Then, he gets a reputation of being excessively demanding and these excellent students also receive offers from other big-name profs, but who have a better reputation of advising.

So big-name excessively-demanding prof has to take "sub-par" grad students (perfectly decent grad students, just not his first choice) and isn't happy with them and drives them even harder, making his reputation worse...

Rosalind said...

It's kind of sad that there are still such double standards for women in science. I've been fortunate to work with people who have treated me equally, and fortunate that my PhD advisor was a women (and hers was as well!). But, if I was one of these women, I'm not sure I would want to work in that lab, except of course to show that women can kick science's a** too. I would be concerned about not getting credit where it is due, but at least you can poke your nose in and keep an eye on it.

Alex said...

This is why I would insist that all male grad students do what I did and get an out of town girlfriend. They will work hard all week and some weekends because they have nothing else to do, but by having a girlfriend they don't have the restlessness that is typical of a male seeking a mate. In fact, if my department had a grad program, I'd select my grad students based on a point system. Students with girlfriends an hour away get a certain amount of points, more points for longer driving distances, still more points for girlfriends who can only be visited via airplane, and top points for girlfriends in foreign countries that are difficult to visit.

In town girlfriends would only be acceptable if they work a lot of evening shifts. He'd still come in during the day, because those are normal business hours, and he'd have nothing to do at night, so he can work then too. But weekends might be a problem.

What could possibly go wrong?

Alex said...

(Because this is the internet, I need to state explicitly that the previous comment was sarcasm.)

Anonymous said...

I was fortunate to have an excellent PhD advisor who had extremely high expectations of ALL of his students and expected us to work very hard, but made absolutely NO distinction between the female and male students in his lab. As a result, he has an astounding number of successful male and female former advisees. He has essentially populated an entire scientific field single-handedly. However, although many of his former advisees have nominated him repeatedly for an award given in the field for outstanding mentoring of female students, we have been unable to convince the award committee that a MAN could be a good mentor for "the girls". (This award has always gone to a woman, of course, a woman who was also an outstanding mentor and deserving of the award.) But considering the number of advisors like the one you discuss in this post, it seems to me that gender-unbiased mentoring and promoting the equal success of male and female advisees should be rewarded more than it is, since it is still rather rarer than it should be.

Ms.PhD said...

I can't help wondering how old this guy is. I can only hope that he is either

a) able to learn from good examples (not everyone is!)
b) relatively close to retiring or
c) relatively close to dropping dead.

That surreal feeling you're describing = subconscious recognition of outright sexism. The first stage is denial. Next time it happens, you'll get a little bit angry as you realize this is not going away on its own, and it's a lot more prevalent than you realized.

Good luck to those girls. I don't think I'd want to be in their shoes.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe he would say that to you!!!

Anonymous said...

This guy should be not be allowed to have grad students. If he had a similar attitude to any race - i.e. "I had to accept a black student but don't believe they can be possibly as good as my white students" it would be considered an outrageous level of racism and not tolerated. Why is it acceptable when it's sexism? I'm not saying you accept it nut really this goes to a level where there should be involvement from higher up. This man should not be supported by tax payer funds - he is violating work place anti-discrimination laws. This is actually a crime not just a nasty habit.

And also yes it blows to have to represent your entire gender (or race) and not be treated as an individual.

Female Science Professor said...

Oh yes, this particular colleague rates rather high on the jerk scale.

Jean Grey said...

One of my advisors was this way, and surprisingly he was relatively young.

He once told me (I'm female) that he wanted to fire his first female student but "wasn't allowed to because she was a [minority] female."

He would have fired me, too, if he was 'allowed.' Instead he made my life so miserable that I quit (which, of course, is essentially the same thing). After five female students total, only two of which he treated with even a little bit of respect, I doubt he'll ever hire another woman again. It's probably a good thing for females everywhere.

Anonymous said...

how would he feel about grad students who are married and maybe even already have kids?

Murr Brewster said...

I'd have more to say, but my uterus is so distracting.

Anonymous said...

And you listened to this without saying anything? Why?

Doctor Pion said...

Sadly, this doesn't surprise me at all. That attitude (and style of working and advising) would have been typical of HIS adviser's research group and a "generation" is more like 40 years rather than 20 years in academia.

In my experience, the subset "hard working students" is likely to have a greater proportion of women than the class as a whole, so this guy might be in for a surprise.

I also have to wonder how much of his problem is that his work is no longer fashionable and hip. (I LOL'd at the string theory comment!) You see people who remain a Big Professor long after their work is as exciting as it was when he was a Big Asst Prof.

Female Science Professor said...

Sorry for not publishing a complete transcript of the entire conversation. I did say something,albeit something sarcastic, but this colleague (did I mention he is a jerk?) is not known for his listening abilities. I stopped working with him a long time ago because I developed a great loathing for him; the feeling was mutual. Our interactions are now limited to brief conversations, and even that is more than enough for both of us.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I am the first "girl" in my lab and I had countless nights of crying because of the attitude of my advisor and the atmosphere of the lab. First years were so miserable, so miserable- now it has gotten much better but still I long for the day I break away from this lab with my degree. I hope no one ever feels the same way as I did and thus strongly advise any female students interested in the lab to stay away from here. Good luck to the two girls..

Brandi Badass said...

"It would also be nice if the young women were as free to fail as the male graduate students." #realtalk #storyofmylife

Female Postdoc said...

I hope those women are able to find a good mentor or two to help them through the experience with this dude!