Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Answer Is 45

During a recent conversation that involved some review and contemplation of the various twists and turns and trajectories of my career, I came up with a number to answer the question:

When did most people start taking you seriously? (as a science professor)

That is: At what age did the number of incidents of being ignored/disrespected become significantly less frequent than incidents of being taken seriously/respected in a professional context? When did it become routine to be (or feel) respected?

Or, as a male colleague recently put it in a more direct way: You have won. (And then we mused about when I officially "won", although I would not have phrased it that way.)

The answer is 45 (± 0.5).

This is of course a very personal number because it is influenced by a wide range of specific factors such as details of education and employment history and personal characteristics. This number will vary considerably from person to person, and for some people, the question is not even worth asking because they have always been taken seriously in their profession.

At some point in this blog, I wrote that the last time I felt routinely respected as a woman involved in science was when I was an undergraduate in a very supportive science program with excellent mentors, but I realized recently that I had mostly re-attained this level in the past few years (Figure 1). It took nearly 25 years.


This is not a fair comparison in some ways (i.e., comparing now vs. then) because then my professional universe was so much smaller than it is now and the challenge of being respected was in many ways much less, but, as you may have surmised, this is not a rigorous quantitative analysis. Note also I am not talking about professional fame, or even success (although success and respect in a professional context do tend to go together). This is about perceptions and interpersonal interactions.

I think the key factors contributing to my delta-t of ~25 years were:
  • gender (F),
  • specific field (physical sciences),
  • specific decade of PhD (i.e., my PhD 'generation'),
  • personality (mostly nice, rather quiet, totally lacking in charisma);
  • appearance (not tall; very to somewhat 'youthful' until.. ~ age 45).
Nevertheless, despite some early-career blips and some shallow-slope professorial segments of the trend (Figure 1), it is important to note that I have mostly felt that I have been on an upward trajectory. I have not plotted the actual data points (because of course there aren't any), but if I did, there would be some major outliers on either side of the red line, with more below the line than above, but with this number of low outliers decreasing with time to some critical 'tipping point' at age ~ 45.

Developing a respected reputation as a scientist is of course essential to reaching the tipping point in terms of being respected most of the time by most people in most professional contexts, and there are many factors in one's professional evolution: e.g., publication record, funding history, prestige of university/department/associates. This all adds to the complexity and fun. In addition, some subsets of the academic ecosystem will 'tip' before others, and there will be some hold-outs no matter how respectable a professional record you amass over the years.

It is possible that my perception of having surpassed some sort of tipping point at 45(ish) is an illusion, as I have not had nearly as much time collecting data at t > 45 as I have at t < 45, but that is not a nice thought. I prefer instead to feel some contentment at having apparently won (something), at least much of the time, at least for now.

23 comments:

John V said...

For me, the more relevant question is how wide a circle take me seriously. In grad school, I developed some useful numerical methods, so people using them were not so dismissive if they wanted some help even back then. Generally, people took me about as seriously as they should have, in retrospect, although it seemed often inadequate at the time.

A more relevant question is when did people start to take me way too seriously on issues on which I'm opinionated and ignorant. That started about 12 years ago, at 40.

mOOm said...

I'm 46 and I might say 45 too, but yes, I don't have much data this side of 45 :) It's an upward trajectory mostly but with a lot of bumps along the way.

nicoleandmaggie said...

Maybe in 10 years I won't feel so crappy. :(

But hey, at least we're becoming famous on the internet.

Anonymous said...

Not 42... :)

As an Asst. Prof. in her early 30s, this is a little disheartening since I still have so far to go. But the upward trajectory is nice to see.

I would have expected a bit of a jump at the transition from asst. to assoc. prof. I thought the change in title would have garnered a bit of additional respect.

plam said...

I'd tend to believe that the jump between postdoc and assistant prof exists while the one between assistant prof and associate prof isn't that large; I've kind of heard of people saying "OK, I'm tenured now, so what?". I don't know this from personal experience, but from observations in my own department, it doesn't seem to be a big deal here.

Of course, getting denied tenure might lead to a big decline (depending on what you do next).

Anonymous said...

There's a slight break in slope at tenure, with a steeper positive assoc prof slope, but definitely no major increase. Tenure is a huge personal victory, but in my academic life as a whole it was more like "Oh good, you're still around. Now you can (long list of research, teaching, service things to do)."

Anonymous said...

For me, the line could be very low at undergrad (I went to an engineering college with a very macho, male-dominated culture), kind of like yours at grad school, and about the same level as grad school as a postdoc (that is, no upward jumps). Then there was the jump as an assistant professor. I am still an asst. prof though at 32, so can't say about the future stages.

John V said...

Sorry to be pesky, but presumably, if some are paid too little attention, given the value of their contributions, others must be overattended. I think the assumption here is the overattended are the old white males, but perhaps people could be more specific so readers don't need to interpret unstated assumptions. Or perhaps age is the only perceived variable.

A series of posts complaining "I'm not taken seriously" is enlightening, fun and cathartic, but only part of the picture.

DrDoyenne said...

My pattern of being "taken seriously" is remarkably similar to FSP's, although the details (and some of the reasons) differ. I also looked younger than my age, which I've always believed was a big factor (in addition to being female). I was pretty clueless about the politics of science, also, until much later in my career.

I began to be taken seriously as a scientist at around age 45, but it was not until after age 50 or so that people routinely referred to me as an expert in my field. My path has not been entirely smooth, though; there are still some who refuse to take me seriously (or to even acknowledge my existence).

Because of my experience, I've made an effort to raise the "visibility" of female post-docs and students (mine and others) by including them in symposia I organize (or recommend them to speak in my place when I can't participate). I think this early exposure is critical to creating an image.

My impression is that some of them are being accepted as full-fledged scientists at a much earlier age (30s) than I was. However, my help only goes so far. It's mainly up to them.

a physicist said...

Did the change at 45 coincide with any particular retirements in your department? I recall your blog posts from a few years ago featured one older faculty member in particular, who you haven't mentioned in quite a while.

inBetween said...

How did the timing of having a baby factor into this? did it set things back or move them forward or just change your attitude about it?

Anonymous said...

FPS, I also wonder how the timing of having your child factored into this. For me there was a huge decline in respect between assistant professor (when I got the "hot young star" treatment) and associate professor (when I got more of the "oh good, you're still around, what have you done for us lately" treatment). But this transition also coincided with me having my first child, so this is a confounding factor. I suddenly got a lot of comments within the department about becoming unreliable (needing to cancel meetings at the last minute to pick up a sick kid, etc.). I think my external reputation has also suffered, although less so, because I was able to travel much less for conference and review panels, and I became one of those journal referees who is perpetually late. Did you (or other commenters) experience this?

I've also wondered, separate from this issue, when you had your child versus when you had your two-body problem solved. I'm finding it extremely difficult to raise young kids with my husband at another institution. At the same time, it is very difficult to travel, so it is hard for us to both go on the market again to get jobs together. We have done this once, and I ended up dragging a baby around the country with me to give several seminars. I also feel very pressured to keep up my research to the highest level that I can manage, so that we are both competitive when we decide to go on the market again.

Off topic, I know, but I've always wondered how you managed this. Maybe a topic for another post?

Female Science Professor said...

a physicist is very perceptive.. I think retirements were an important factor, along with the hiring of younger people who never knew me as anything other than an established older professor.

Female Science Professor said...

I don't think having a baby affected my 'respect level' either within or beyond my department. I have been fortunate to have family-friendly colleagues and administrators.

We solved the 2-body problem (got the offers) and a few months later told the chair of our new department that we'd be arriving with an infant. This was not planned.

Anonymous said...

I did well as a postdoc and early tenure-track, where I was a bigger fish in a small pond. Then I moved to a place where I'm definitely a small fish in a big pond. Since I've been traveling less and am a nobody in my current dept, my reputation leveled off quickly and probably sank a bit. I'd like to think that it's flat now, post-tenure, and not sinking further...

Anonymous said...

There was a long time when I felt respected in my research field but not respected in my department. My research field reputation was based on my papers, grants, conference presentations etc., but in my department, the old guys (esp. those in subfields far from my own) just saw a short blond woman. It took a while (15 years?) for things to even out -- retirements helped, the fact that I got some awards, and also these old guys started hearing about me from people at other universities. The biggest jump occurred when I got another offer. Sometimes that's what it takes for the people who see you every day to think you are actually maybe kind of good at your job.

Anonymous said...

I suspect that the "small and young-looking" factor is bigger than most people let on. I'm a FemaleScienceTrainee, and rather tall - which makes people assume I'm older. (The first time someone asked if I was "on the market" for tenure-track...I was 23.)

Still, it's good for us younger folk to hear the game is winnable...even if one must collect the winnings one retirement at a time.

a physicist said...

I just remember a few years ago, you had more posts about an unpleasant senior colleague. Those posts stopped, and I had always been curious if that was because of retirement or you were just avoiding complaining about him. (I just looked back through your older posts, I can't find a really good example.) Anyway I'm glad the retirements make a difference: they do in my department, too. Sometimes positive sometimes negative, but the long-term trend is positive.

Anonymous said...

And then there are those who 'retire' but not really and become stunning examples of why post-tenure review is important.

Optixmom said...

I have been a successful engineer for over 20 years my answer is 44. I am an adjunct at two large optics universities and have been the only woman consultant in my field for over 12 years. I have a reputation for being a "very driven woman", whatever that means; but only recently do I feel like optics types outside of my niche look me up first to get an answer to a question. I also feel more at liberty to participate in university functions because my children are beyond the age where a babysitter is necessary. That freedom has added a lot to my participation and also to my confidence level. I also now have critical mass of past students who are out in industry or in graduate school who will mention my name as their "go to" person in my niche.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting that mid-40s keeps coming up. I don't know if there are m/any older readers, but in case there are: would anyone put their personal Respect Number higher than that? Maybe there are some older women who never felt they reached that point? (I hope not)

Anonymous said...

Hm... is the Y-axis on a linear or logarithmic scale?

Anonymous said...

In my version, it's a semilog plot. I think the Assoc Prof field will be the last one, and the slope will go negative at some point. That is, unless something changes!