Sunday, March 11, 2007

Anti-Mentors, part 2

A while ago, I wrote about anti-mentors who actively discourage young scientists (in particular women) from pursuing their careers. I wrote in particular about 2 evil ones I had encountered in my academic life. There are other kinds of anti-mentors, though, including.. me.

I have long been aware, even in the pre-blog era, that I am an anti-mentor to some people, in the sense that they see what my life/career is like and decide they don't want to have that kind of life/career. Anti-mentor isn't really the right term for this, as I am not actively trying to discourage students who would otherwise have a happy, fulfilling career in academia/science. But the effect is the same in the end. I have seen this effect on some of my own students (male and female), and I see it in blog comments from time to time.

To put a positive spin on it, perhaps people who wouldn't enjoy this kind of life are finding that out by seeing examples of what life is like for a science professor at a big research university, and perhaps it's better to find that out sooner rather than later. I think I have the greatest job in the world and can't imagine doing anything else that I'd enjoy so much, but maybe if I didn't have that passion for research and teaching and all the rest of it, the negative aspects of the job would drive me crazy.

I hope that all the anecdotes and other reports about how women are treated unfairly do not discourage anyone who is passionate about science. It's still worth pursuing this career if you think that's what you want to do. It's worth pursuing it at a personal level, and it's worth it at a global level: the world will be a better place when there are more women scientists and science professors.

There have been major positive changes for women in science in the decades since I was a student. We can continue to change the culture of academia for the better by being a major part of the culture instead of existing mostly as isolated individuals. I hope, therefore, that overall more women are encouraged than discouraged.


Anonymous said...

I was the anon who left the last comment about being discouraged about pursuing academia after reading about your experiences and those of other females like you.

You are right in saying that blogs such as yours are good in that they increase the information flow and allows for better decisionmaking. I rather know the 'truth' about academia and not pursue that path, than walk blindly down it only to be miserable. So I thank you, and others like you, for spending the time to pen down your thoughts and experiences, because it makes it easier for other women who are considering the option you have taken up.

Personally, my biggest problem is that I don't really know what I want to do. And while I am passionate about my field, I'm not sure I'm passionate enough to put up with all these obstacles - the benefits of pursuing a career in academia don't outweigh the costs.

Anonymous said...

I think it's good that women considering going into academia in the physical sciences get an accurate picture of what the career path is like before deciding to devote half a decade to getting a Ph.D. and then, depending upon the specific field, a few more years of postdoc positions.

These days it's a pretty long shot that one will end up in an academic position even after making it through the hoops and hurdles, what with 200 applications for faculty positions being routine, so I hear. I think that two or three out of my entering graduate class of 26 students (physics at University of Chicago) might have tenure-track positions, and another didn't get tenure and is getting out of academia.

Having the goal of becoming a professor at a research professor is nice but probably won't pan out for most people. I've seen people get derailed at many different stages of their fledgling careers for reasons ranging from ill-advised projects to advisers refusing to write letters of recommendation unless the student did something else. So these are factors that I think any student should consider.

Grad school in science is a unique learning experience, and I learned some valuable, if not always pleasant, lessons there. But I think people should go into it with their eyes more open than mine were.

Anonymous said...

First, I would like to thank you for your blog. I am a female graduate student in physics and I do not personally know any women in physics who are successfully balancing a career and family. You, and others who are writing similar blogs, are my evidence that this can be done! And it is because of your blog, and others, that I can confidently ignore those who tell me it is too demanding for a woman to do cutting-edge research and have a family as well.

That said, I must admit that reading about the problems you still encounter as a full professor gets me down. It would be so much easier if I knew that things would get better after graduate school. I was extremely passionate about physics in college (small liberal arts school) and it seemed natural to go to graduate school. But I feel graduate school is slowly killing that passion. There is so much arrogance, negativity, narrow mindedness, and lack of support. I'm trying with all my might to keep my excitement about physics alive. I can tell it's still there. Some nights at the lab when things are working or when I'm successfully trouble shooting a problem, I know there is nothing I would rather be doing. But I feel it's hanging by a thread. And I am so very very tired from fighting to keep it alive. I don't know how I'm going to keep this up my whole life. Yet the thought of not doing physics is definitely far worse.

I certainly appreciate knowing the reality of academia. Could you possibly share some insight on how you or others you know are able to keep your passion alive despite all the difficulties?

Female Science Professor said...

I had some close calls with quitting in grad school and during my postdoc -- the level of harassment was sometimes too much to bear, and the amount I had to achieve to be noticed and respected seemed, at times, impossible. I kept going because I loved my research and I had some great friends (fellow grads, postdocs) for support. AND THEN IT GETS BETTER. MUCH BETTER.

Anonymous said...

It is always better to make a decision based on more information than on less, no matter how little we might like the look and feel of that information. I think we have a prejudice here, perhaps: we love what we do and we want all the bright young men and women to do it with us if they have a talent for it. Sometimes that causes us to perhaps be a little blind to the other talents they have, or the weaknesses they also have. I try and remember also that it's just as or perhaps more dangerous to overestimate someone as it is to underestimate them. In these cases, I think we see people who have a true passion to certain types of ends, and we are very committed to a certain type of means that generally lead to those ends, but our means are not the only ones. We don't need pigeonhole every bright young logical student we see into certain kinds of research if they are not going to enjoy that kind of lifestyle and perhaps they might achieve their goals better working in a slightly different capacity.

I think also it's even tougher for the students who don't think they're worth anything if they aren't in some sort of 'hard' science or engineering field because they've been now brought up to think that worth is defined by careers and achievements in those areas, that their accomplishments in the areas of law or policy or even biological sciences are somehow less important and diminishing to their intellect. There are many ways to become academic and research professors or intellectuals, I might say in the end.

Anonymous said...

I read your blog every day. I really get a lot out of hearing candid thoughts of a senior scientist. I have fantastic female mentorship, but this blog adds to that because you are so open and talk about things I would never ask my advisor. I think it has made me more optimistic about my career rather than less.

A tangent: I have been thinking lately about how people work. There is a common view that scientists need to work many extra hours to be successful. But I have noticed that people waste a lot of time at work, shooting the breeze, working on low priority tasks, etc. I wonder if they could be as productive in 40 hours if they just really focused while at the lab/office. Does anyone else think this is possible, or is this just wishful thinking on my part?

Female Science Professor said...

I am definitely not trying to clone myself, and do not think that all of my students should get jobs like mine. The point of this post is that I don't want to discourage anyone who might well thrive in this environment and really enjoy it.

Female Science Professor said...

Interesting tangent.. I wrote about that in September -- something about the 60 hour week and efficiency. I could be a lot more efficient, but I enjoy very much the 'shooting the breeze' kind of interactions with my colleagues and students. The local cafe is my office annex, and I mix chatting and work when I'm there (the two are not mutually exclusive). If I cut that kind of activity out, I wouldn't have to work at night so much.

Anonymous said...

Same anon here. I should look up your post about efficiency. Sometimes I think that there is as much value placed on a person being at work as there is on actually getting work done. I have just started carpooling a 40-hour-only technician (I am a grad student), so I can no longer stay late if I screw around during the day. I think my efficiency has improved by working fewer hours. I also have a very long commute which eats into my leisure time.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I find your blog discouraging because I guess the facts about women in science are discouraging. I'm applying for graduate study at the moment and I couldn't find any groups with a female lab head to apply to. In my top two university choices there was one female option out of about twelve, and that was in a topic I wasn't so interested in. In my college we've had very very few female lecturers and there are no female-led groups in the topic I'm really interested in. In secondary school my reports from science and maths subjects commented on my tidy handwriting and well-completed homework - my twin brother with the same teachers and courses but worse grades had comments on how smart and good at science he was. I guess I've noticed that there was a bit of an issue with females in science for a while. I guess I just find it discouraging that there isn't a point of which people just accept that if you've got that far you must be good, even if you happen to be female! On the plus side it's really encouraging to read that some people make it.

A question about grad school. When you were choosing a lab/group to join, did you think about how the group would be as a female? Are there any warning signs that a group might not be a great place for girls that people should look out for?

Female Science Professor said...

When I was choosing a grad school/lab group, there were so few female faculty members in my field, it wasn't an option for me. There was one woman scientist in my field, but she was a research scientist who wasn't allowed to advise grad students. If I'd had the option, it would have been one of many considerations, but not necessarily the ultimate one for making a decision.

Brad Levinson said...

Hi FemaleScienceProfessor,

I'm currently trying to reach you to see if you'd be interested in participating in a conference with fellow education and science bloggers. The call will be regarding the National Math and Science Initiative ( My e-mail address is blevinson(at)apcoworldwide(dot)com.

Hope to hear from you soon!
- Brad Levinson

Global Girl said...

I've decided long ago I'm going to industry after I finish my Ph. D., because of two things: 1) lack of support (I know I deserve better than this, and am only going to put up with it for so long) 2) inefficiency in academia. I'd rather work 40 efficient hours, so I can go "shoot the breeze" with whomever I like, wherever I like, than work 60 inefficient hours that are more relaxed. But most of all it's the environment in academia that I don't like. I don't feel appreciated nor supported by the people whose job it is to do so, whether they realize it or not. Part of this is that I find industrial organization very interesting, which I'm not going to get an outlet for in academia. I know trying to convince professors (no insult intended) to give up their erratic, inefficient, bohemic ways in favor of efficiency, policies and organization will be futile. Most professors I know are terrible managers and this behavior has been accepted, even glorified, and trying to change this is a duanting task. I'd rather do that in industry, where such thinking is better appreciated. But it's a shame, because I think the academic community could be so much more productive than it is now.

Female Science Professor said...

Laira, I think it's great that you know what you want to do (and not do). We need talented women scientists in industry and academia.

The scary thing is that my colleagues think of me as super-efficient because I am more organized and productive than they are. Compared to industry standards, though, I am not efficient at all.

Global Girl said...

You don't strike me as one of those professors that can't function unless they have their special pen and sit in a cave built out of old papers and past students' theses. For this, I thank you. Your colleagues could do well to learn from you ^^

Female Science Professor said...

Fortunately, I have lots of special pens, and if I scatter enough of them around my office, I can always find one, or 8.

My office is not a cave, but it is not organized or neat. It could be worse, though. I once had to clean out the office of a deceased (ancient) professor, and that was a very sobering experience, and not because I was sad that he was gone.

Field Notes said...

Thanks for this interesting post & comment exchange FSP. I hadn't thought about anti-mentors before, but I could immediately spot one in my life. Ironically, She! was my most valuable mentor early on but is now discouraging me from pursuing a T-T I think b/c she got fed up toward the end (she's now retired) and doesn't want to see me end up frustrated and unhappy like she is. She was the one who pushed me to go to grad school in the first place! Grrrr. I still want that dream position tho!