Tuesday, June 06, 2006


The question I am asked the most often is how I manage a career as a science professor at research university with raising a young child. I suppose it is hard, but I don't see that it's any more difficult than being in business or some other career and raising a kid. In fact, I think it's actually easier. I have a lot of flexibility in terms of my work schedule, and the University has a child care center that my daughter absolutely loved when she was preschool aged. That really helped me a lot as well because I knew that my daughter was happy, having fun, and nearby.

I think the #1 key to balancing everything is to have a husband or partner who shares child care. It shocks me when I visit college friends and see that their husbands never take care of their kids alone -- some of these guys have never fed, bathed, or put a kid to bed. They are missing out! And my friends are stressed out because they never have time to themselves. I am glad that is not how my husband and I live. He can take care of our daughter just as well as I can, and, because he's a professor too, we understand each other's careers. I am trying not to sound smug, but it really works.

The main point, though, is that it's too bad if any young women decide that they can't have an academic career, and particularly not one at a research university, because they think it's too difficult to balance a career and family. It's only too difficult if you try to do it all yourself and if you don't have a supportive department. Otherwise, if you like research and teaching, it's a great life.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Broader Impacts

I recently finished a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF), and it was actually great fun putting it all together. I like writing proposals because putting the whole package together really makes you think about what you are doing and why, and I like the challenge of making the most compelling case possible within the space limitations of the proposal (15 pages). I do not like constructing the budget, but the writing part is interesting. I've been very lucky with grants in the past decade or so, and always feel optimistic when I send a new proposal off, even if it is semi-delusional to hope it will be funded the first time it is submitted.

In addition to writing about the scientific work to be done, proposal-writers must also address what is called Broader Impacts. Advising graduate and undergraduate students is a Broader Impact, so that's an easy one, as it's just part of our jobs as teachers and researchers at a university. In the past, I've tried to come up with new and inventive ways to broaden the impact of my research, which is rather more of the curiosity-driven, basic science type of research than the applied kind with obvious and direct benefit to society.

However, no matter how elaborate the broader impact component of my proposals are (e.g., collaborations with K-12 or with local teacher training programs), I always get an 'average' score from reviewers and the panel for BI. I wondered what my colleagues were doing and if they got similar reviews for BI, as it didn't seem like most of them were doing much in the way of novel activities outside their basic research. To my surprise (speaking of being delusional), I found that one of my (male) colleagues got rave BI reviews for saying he was going to supervise an undergraduate in the summer. I supervise undergrads in the summer, and have never gotten any positive comments from reviewers or panels for it. Another (male) colleague got positive comments for saying he was going to incorporate his research in his classes. I do that too! I do not have enough 'data' to figure out if these differences are random, owing to the vagaries of reviewers/panels, but it adds an extra component of uncertainty for me when I write about the broader impacts of my research.

In my more paranoid moments, which are, I think, still relatively infrequent, I wonder if it relates to the fact that teaching is an expected part of women's jobs, but when men write about doing teaching AND research, it seems more special. It would be interesting if funding agencies compiled statistics on how reviewers/panels rated different Broader Impact activities. If there are discrepancies, it is quite clear that they do not result in women being funded at a lower rate than men -- NSF is an extremely fair organization with an excellent track record of supporting women in the physical sciences -- but it might show something interesting about people's perceptions and expectations regarding men and women scientists.

Thursday, June 01, 2006


The other day I mentioned that professors are not paid by the university in the summer, so technically we can't be expected to do any teaching or administrative work. Of course we still advise graduate students and work with undergraduate research assistants and interns and do random things to get ready for the next semester, but the focus for many of us is on research. Even so, I spent 5 years directing a summer intern program as part of my department 'service', and this task (which is actually quite rewarding, even if unpaid) has now been taken on by junior colleagues. OK, that's fine, but today one of the office staff told me that the department chair was reluctant to ask a senior colleague to spend part of an afternoon helping out with a student recruiting activity because faculty are 'off payroll' in the summer. The chair has never been reluctant to ask me and some others to do 'off payroll' activities, even things involving vast amounts of time. I think this again relates to the fact that some people are just more Professorial than others, and professorialness is not related to objective measures of productivity as researchers or talent as teachers. But if we all refuse to help out the department, even in the summer, important things will not get done. Nothing is every totally *fair*, but maybe they could be just a bit fairer than they are now.

We all write annual reports documenting the things we've done each year, and our teaching evaluations are scrutinized, but then it seems like these 'data' are plugged into an equation that involves variables such as amount of facial hair, number of sport jackets in one's wardrobe, and so on.