Wednesday, October 17, 2007


A male colleague at another university has told me numerous times that he uses me as Exhibit A when discussing life/career issues with students and postdocs (particularly women). For him, I am living proof that It Can Be Done: have a research/teaching career and a family and a happy life.

He recently told me that a postdoc (whom we both know) said she didn’t think I was a good example because my life is ‘unbalanced’. My colleague was disturbed by this because he felt that she was being irrational about rejecting me as a Role Model. I don’t have a problem with it – everyone has their own definition of balance, and what works for me doesn’t necessarily work for others.

What does bother me is that the postdoc who thinks I am ‘unbalanced’ made this characterization with inadequate data. For example, she assumed that I never take vacations with my family because I couldn’t possibly ever take time off and get as much done as I seem to do. News flash: I excel at taking vacations. I go somewhere interesting with my family several times each year. Some trips are with my daughter alone, and some involve my husband, daughter, and me. Some trips are related to professional travel (e.g., tacking on a family vacation to a conference trip) but some are entirely vacation. And sometimes we just lurk at home and have fun doing random things together.

Another example: this postdoc assumed that I must not spend much time with my daughter, who is in elementary school. Owing to the flexibility of an academic job, I spend as much (and possibly more) time with my daughter as parents with full-time non-academic jobs. My daughter is a happy, healthy, interesting person, and we have lots of fun together. If the postdoc doesn’t want to work full-time when her kids are young, that is her decision to make, but it doesn’t mean my life is ‘unbalanced’. It’s just not how she wants her life to be.

My colleague went to great effort to convince the postdoc that I am not just an insane working machine, but he says that she is unconvinced. It’s possible that she doesn’t want to be convinced, and that’s fine. It would be better if she would just say that she doesn’t want a career at a research university for her own reasons rather than using me as a negative example, but I know it can be hard to admit that in an environment that considers desiring a faculty position at a research university to be the ultimate goal, with anything else indicating failure or a lack of ambition.

So, I hope I get to keep my credentials as a Role Model, even if being living proof that It Can Be Done is not enough to convince everyone that this is the best possible life – because it isn’t the best possible life for everyone.


Anonymous said...

So when do you get your work done if you take all these long vacations and spend lots of time with your daughter? I may be guilty of the same thoughts as this postdoc, since when I see successful women scientists in R1 universities I do assume they work basically all the time... I don't think you should dismiss her concerns so easily - maybe you should try to talk to her instead... I know you're busy and it's not your job, but something she sees in your life (whether it's there or not) is making her think she doesn't want your job - which is after all part of the problem for women in science...

Female Science Professor said...

I work at night (after my daughter goes to bed or while she is doing her homework or practicing the piano) and I work some on weekends. I am very efficient.

I am not dismissing the postdoc's concerns, easily or at all. I'm not sure what I wrote that made you infer that. And I have talked with her -- and she has seen me 'in action' for years, so it is bizarre in a way that she thinks I never take time off etc. I think she has decided she doesn't want this kind of life/career, and I respect that.

Drugmonkey said...

karen, keep in mind that it is essential academic careerism to appear to be working every possible hour of the day and to never appear to take vacations or time out for children!

some people work pretty hard at keeping up the appearances...reality is another matter.

Anonymous said...

I am neither in the science or education field, but I would have to say that whether or not this other woman sees or doesn't see what you do shouldn't really matter. I have friends who work two jobs and go to school and always have time for things, and people who are part time workers who are always busy for some reason. Her opinion of your life isn't a right or wrong but just an opinion and her understanding of your life is always going to be based on what she sees not all of your understanding because its your own life, after all. It is okay if she think you overwork or don't have enough vacations. She is allowed to have that opinion and doesn't have to be right. If you try to talk to her about it, it may backfire, as in "me thinks she doth protest too much". Try to let it go and enjoy everything you do, even if other people think its too much or not enough....

Female Science Professor said...

Yes, I agree -- that's what I am doing.

Jay said...

I wrote a post about a similar phenomenon myself here

I am also very efficient, although the conclusion people usually jump to with me is that I'm cutting corners or not working hard enough, not that my life is unbalanced. When I was in residency my colleagues complained all the time that I left earlier than I did. Never that I left work undone - because I didn't - but that I wasn't suffering enough, apparently.


Anonymous said...

I think, as a female postdoc, there are two critical issues that may change the perspective of someone who's still "young" in their career (i.e. grad students/postdocs) vs. someone like yourself on their perception of what an academic career is like. The first being, if I am not mistaken, that you have a rather supportive significant other. That's certainly not always the case. Secondly, I think our perception always changes, depending on where you are in your career. I certainly had my fair share of complaining as a grad student, but once you're through it, it's all good. I even miss grad school sometimes, which I thought would never happen. The bottom line is, female science prof, I think you have already "made it" and perhaps it's always easier to say that it's not so hard once you're through it. Life's all good, which is almost always true, except when you're in the middle of the struggle. I wonder what you would have said regarding these comments before you got your tenure.

On a separate note, I love reading your blog and it's certainly very inspirational. Please keep it up!

Anonymous said...

One thing it would be interesting to know is whether this postdoc would say the same thing about a male professor with a child and the same number of work hours. Would she think his life was "unbalanced"? Last summer I was teaching a research ethics class for physics undergrads. At the end of the summer, we discussed everyone's plans for future studies and careers, and one of the smartest students in the class said "I've decided not to go to grad school or become a physicist because I want to be a mother." To her, motherhood was simply incompatible with a demanding, prestigious job. On the other hand, some people reject academic jobs for other reasons. A lot of people see the way academics work at all hours, on weekends, etc. Our work is not contained in a simple 9-5 schedule, so we might work 40 hours in a week, but spread those hours over all seven days and late into the night. Some people consider that kind of lifestyle to be "unbalanced." I agree that each of us has to find the right balance for ourselves, but it's really sad when people make these decisions on the basis of false data or unjustified assumptions.

Female Science Professor said...

That's an important point -- I do have a supportive significant other, but even so, I have not said at any time that this life/career has been (or is) easy. It is easier than it was when my daughter was a baby, but that's not the issue here. I just said that I enjoy my life and career. There's a difference between saying that and saying it is easy.

Mr. B. said...


I think the bottom line is that it is a personal matter.

One of my colleagues has four kids and spends plenty of time with them. She also has an NIH grant and is phenomenally productive. (I admire her, but could never do this). Another colleague has three kids and is in the same supermom category.

On the other hand there are plenty of super-female scientists who are unmarried or married with no kids. So you may be a fine role model for some, but not all, female scientists.



Anonymous said...

This is a hot buttom topic, FSP, so kudos to you for having the courage to take it on.

A couple points that resonated with me-

-(from drugmonkey and jay) The importance of at least *appearing* to work all hours, and be suffering. This was very definitely the case where I went to grad school. They rewarded activity, not accomplishment. Looking back, I'm sure that I got just as much done as the people who were in lab at odd hours. But I definitely got the impression, mistaken or not, that to succeed in academia you have to work a crazy number of hours per week. And live, sleep, eat and breathe your research.

-The attitude that if you're not interested in an academic career, you're not dedicated or ambitious enough.

After I got my PhD I went straight into industry and never looked back. I know academia offers more flexibility on working hours (at least theoretically) but personally I prefer the predictability of 9-5 and never working on weekends. That was my personal choice, and it's not for everyone.

All I can hope is that the postdoc you're talking about makes her choice- with good data- and then owns it.

Global Girl said...

Being a business brat, I can attest to that managers in business do not work 9-5 jobs either. My father takes business calls from different parts of the globe in the morning, during the day, at night, and on vacation. And I'll be honest - his life isn't "balanced" either. When it comes to time spent working, I don't see academia being that different from industry. My reasons for preferring one over the other have absolutely nothing to do with working hours or "balancing". The only way you can have a 9-5 job that you can walk away from when the hour dings 5PM is one where you have no leadership resonsibilities and simply do as someone tells you, no more, no less. That's okay for some people, and those jobs are needed, but if you want to make decisions (even just about what you want to research or think is worth doing), you will not work 40 hours a week between 9 and 5.

Anonymous said...

sounds like the postdoc has assumed her conclusion: you can't get a lot done and spend significant time with your family. You get a lot done, ergo you do not spend significant time with your family. Lousy science.

My advisor has two kids. While they were schoolage, she worked 7am to 2pm every day, spent the afternoon with her kids after school, and worked from bedtime to around midnight. She also did a lot of traveling with them, at least twice a year purely for fun. She is incredibly productive. When she works, she works; when she plays, she plays.

Obviously, not everyone *can* do that. But it is most definitely possible.

EcoGeoFemme said...

You are still a Role Model for me of It Can Be Done!

This point about appearing to work extensive hours is a pet issue for me. I see so many people who are so inefficient and then act like martyrs for working so much because they are "passionate". yes, they may be passionate, but they could focus a little and then go home earlier.

Anonymous said...

While the next 4 paragraphs were quite compelling, FSP, you had me at "I don’t have a problem with it – everyone has their own definition of balance, and what works for me doesn’t necessarily work for others."

Although we look to external sources to approve of and reward our efforts in almost every other part of our career and life - balance is the one aspect which is assessed and rewarded from within.

If the postdoc is looking for a role model, though, you would do her a favor to encourage her to ramp up the data collection efforts. She's missing out on you, and others, if she dismisses you so readily.

Jay said...

On the appear-to-be-working-a-lot issue: I was reminded of an unpleasant episode early in my marriage. When I was an intern I had one day off a month, usually a Sunday, and on the days I was off my husband stayed home. One day A MONTH. He was in a PhD program in the physical sciences. After about six months, his adviser told him she was concerned about his commitment because he was taking more days off.

She (yes, his adviser was a she) also questioned his commitment when he started working at home in the evenings - we'd moved further from campus to be closer to my job. All in all, she decided he wasn't serious enough to work in a major research university.

I was the only doc I knew with a non-medical spouse who worked harder and longer than I did, and got more crap for it.

Anonymous said...

Sorry if my comment was accusational. I think your post just hit home a bit too close for me. You may be right that it is strange that this postdoc has an incorrect impression that you're a work-a-holic. What's wierd I think is how many of use always seem to think others are working more/doing better than ourselves (the imposter syndrome for women in science?).

I like the comment about how looking back makes everything seem better. I too now see that grad school in many ways was really great. I hope I can reach the point when I look back and think that being a postdoc was easy (or maybe I don't if being faculty is really so much harder!).

I am a bad example (I have a nearly 8 month old so haven't slept through the night in almost a year probably), but the standard working Mom solution of working early and late just seems completely exhausting to me! Mind you I have gotten much more efficient and now get as much done in 3 9-5pm days and 2 9-1pm days (plus working while napping etc) as I did before in 5 9-7pm days! So I guess that's postive.

Love your blog by the way. Congratulations on your success. :)

Ms.PhD said...

I think your friend's well-meant attempt to convince Ms.Postdoc that your life is balanced might have had the unintended effect of making you seem like Superwoman, and therefore living a life that would be impossible for any mere moral to attain. In that light, it's actually somewhat discouraging. Just because Superwoman makes it look fun and easy doesn't mean we can do it at all.

You are very efficient, that much is clear, or you wouldn't blog so well and so often (not that she knows that).

Some of us are inspired by your kind of role modeling (like me). Others (like some of my friends) are downright intimidated by it, because they look at someone like you and say "I am not like that, I will never be like that."

Oh, and in response to other comments- I don't miss grad school. I don't think I ever will. But I've noticed an odd phenomenon, kind of like Stockholm Syndrome, where I feel somewhat comforted when I visit there. Like I spent so many years of my life in that place that it's a little like visiting home, even if it was also a lot like being in jail. I certainly felt like in order to get out of there, I had to get a PhD with both hands tied behind my back!

Anonymous said...

Some of us are inspired by your kind of role modeling (like me). Others (like some of my friends) are downright intimidated by it, because they look at someone like you and say "I am not like that, I will never be like that."

AMEN. Thank you so much for pointing this out.

Count me as one of "Others".

A full time job (40 hours per week) with evenings and weekends free is what I want, and it does not exist in academics. That's just how it is, and as mentioned in the original post, this life is not for everyone.

I love science but I may not continue to work as a scientist because of this constraint.

To me, working evenings and weekends means leading an unbalanced life, whether one enjoys this work or not. If it is a happy life, then the lack of balance seems a non-issue. If the high hours are spent on chores rather then research (my experience) then the lack of balance becomes a problem.

Anonymous said...

Re: "A full time job (40 hours per week) with evenings and weekends free is what I want, and it does not exist in academics."

Yes it does. Maybe not at an R1, but it does exist. I've got one. With tenure.

I teach at a prestigious undergrad institution. I worked hard to get tenure, and had my kids right about that time.

I work roughly 9-4:30 and I rarely take work home. I take the summers off to be with my kids.

My publication record is a bit thin at the moment, but I'm doing the bare minimum necessary to keep the promotion committee happy.

I will admit that I'm completly exhausted by the time I get the 2 & 4 year old in bed. I'm always in awe of those who work at night. All I want to do at night is watch Survivor or something equally mindless.

I think it's important to remember that there's not just one "right" way to be a mommy or an academic or whatever. It's an open-ended problem with multiple solutions.

Anonymous said...

"I will admit that I'm completly exhausted by the time I get the 2 & 4 year old in bed. I'm always in awe of those who work at night. All I want to do at night is watch Survivor or something equally mindless."

Wow! Makes me feel so much better to hear you say that! I'm glad I'm not the only one.

EcoGeoFemme said...

female engineering professor, thanks for letting us know that that kind academic life does exist!