Thursday, July 02, 2009

She's Just Not That Into Her Job

Earlier this summer I spoke with a colleague who mentioned in passing that a technician who was helping him when he visited another institution seemed a bit resentful about helping him, or at least was not as cheerful as she could have been about helping him.

I said: Think about how she feels. She has a PhD, did a postdoc, wrote some high profile papers, but then took a technician job at the institution where her husband is a big professor. She's good enough to have been a professor in her own right, but instead she spends her days helping others do their research, with no hope of advancing in her career.

My colleague looked puzzled. He said: She has nothing to complain about. She has a job and she and her husband live in the same place.

Then I realized: My colleague and his wife live several hours apart owing to complicated job/family issues. His wife is not an academic, but it still has not been possible for them to live in the same place for the past few years. He was thinking of the situation from the point of view of 'how lucky this couple is to be together in the same location'.

But then I thought: He should understand the technician's unhappiness (if I am correct about the reason for her job dissatisfaction). The reason my colleague and his wife live apart is because each of them would be unhappy if they gave up their present job and look a less desirable job in their spouse's current city of residence.

Perhaps living apart is so difficult that his instinctive reaction involves his wish to live in the same place as his wife, rather than first considering the reality of what that would involve if his wife quit her job, moved to his city, and took a job she didn't like. I am sure he is well aware of that, but his longing to have his family together dominates his feelings and point of view.

My husband and I lived apart for years while we were trying to find jobs we both wanted in the same or proximal location(s). We are lucky that it worked out for us and we never had to face the long-term implications of one of us making a sacrifice in career aspirations. However, perhaps it is because I confronted, at least hypothetically, the wrenching possibility of having to take a job I didn't want while my husband pursued his dream job that I projected a particular explanation for the spouse/technician's job dissatisfaction. [Note: I know from personal experience and other reports that she is in fact dissatisfied with her job, so I am not jumping to conclusions about that, at least].

I hope things work out for my colleague, but I also hope he will have some sympathy for this smart and talented scientist who chose family over career. She may well have made the best decision for herself and her family, but it can't be an easy thing to do.


Anonymous said...

If your colleague feels that the technician has nothing to complain about because she lives with her husband, he should ask himself just why doesn't HE himself give up his own job to move to his wife's city?

His viewpoint seems very shortsighted and non-objective, for a scientist. Perhaps your colleague harbors some secret resentment that his wife did not give up her career goals to move to his city, the way the technician gave up her career for her husband's?

Jenn, PhD said...

Such decisions are so so tough, and unfortunately, faced by too many aspiring professional couples. It's the one thing Husband and I decided we did not want to compromise on (living apart), but the alternative is sometimes a bit hard to swallow.... I'm still hopeful it works out for us. I guess only time will tell

Alyssa said...

It's definitely not an easy thing to do. It seems there are always judgmental people - on both sides.

I hope this woman can find some happiness for herself, and that your colleague can do the same in his situation.

Anonymous said...

Your colleague does seem to be looking at it from the perspective of being apart from his family. But obviously, deep down, he must understand the need for a fulfilling career otherwise he would be giving up his (I presume) tenure track career to move closer to his spouse/family.

John said...

I'm more distressed that this (allegedly) unhappy, resentful, overqualified person is filling a technician spot when surely there are other people who would be delighted to have the job and happily enable research at their institution without any baggage. A bitter staff member (like a bitter graduate student) can poison every research effort they encounter.

Anonymous said...

The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, and there are a lot of fences in academia.

It seems like kids (already born or just hoped for) must really complicate the decision to live in different cities vs. accept crappy job.

Karen said...

If he thinks she should be so happy, why doesn't he quit and take a less-satisfying, less-prestigious, less-well paid job in his wife's city?

I, too, have chosen family over career, to some degree. I'm in a tenure-track position, but not at the type of school I might have sought if I were single. It's a good choice for me (I think) and it is still hard.

Kt said...

I wonder if women would feel more empathy for this situation b/c it seems more common for the female counterpart to make this sort of sacrifice.

Mary said...

My husband and I have taken turns with making job compromises over the course of our careers in order to stay together. We've had a considerable measure of good luck and success over the past 30 years, but both of us have spent time in some job situations which were objectively pretty undesirable and/or for which we were quite overqualified.

However, I still don't think a spouse who takes an apparently dead-end job for which s/he is overqualified is justified in bringing an uncooperative, or unhelpful attitude to that job. As someone currently in such a job, I still feel an obligation to do the best I can for the people with whom I work, with a cheerful smile on my face. It's not THEIR fault that I'm overqualified for my job.

In the current economic climate, I do think that any couple who both have jobs in the same place, with enough income to live on and family medical benefits stemming from at least one spouse's job, has a lot to be grateful for.

Tara said...

Ah, the famous two-body problem!
All I know is that these kinds of decisions are incredibly difficult to make.

John, a person can express some regret and unhappiness without it necessarily hindering their ability to do their job. She's entitled to feel any way she likes about the situation once it doesn't affect her ability to do her job and being "a bit resentful about helping" doesn't equate to being incapable.

I'm sure that you approach everything about your job in a chirpy and upbeat manner and that you've never had even the slightest feeling of regret about anything, if this is the case then please tell me the secret?

Ms.PhD said...

Funny how no one commented that the husband's institution should have made more of an effort to create an appropriate (say, Staff Scientist or Research Track?) position for this person, instead of putting a PhD and postdoc-qualified person into a technician slot.

This seems very early 1900s to me. Aren't we past the whole "women technician" phase yet??

Anonymous said...

It's hard not to be judgemental when the trailing spouse is almost always the woman. I bet your colleague thinks a lot about his wife moving to be with him, but him doing that for her is not even on his radar.

The following scenario is also pretty common:
Him: We both have job offers. I'm willing to live apart.
Her: I'm not. I think we should decide to take one or the other.
Him: Well I'm not willing to give up my job offer. If you want to take your job offer, we can live apart.
Him: Yes, my wife gave up her career for me, but it was her choice.

ScientistMother said...

Hmmm - she should be happy because she lives with her husband? Fair enough, but why wasn't he willing to make the same sacrifice? Its just not simple of a situation.

John said...

Tara: I do try to be upbeat to the undergrads I supervise and the professor I work for. The inevitable griping goes laterally, to a wonderful officemate at the same level as I (4th-year grad student). (And to my very patient wife.) I'm fortunate, though, to not be at the beck and call of many research "customers," and I applaud the technicians who can stay good-natured about it.

Sam said...

I think there are other options here...

Maybe she was just having a bad day (or week)? Possible reasons: fight with husband, argument with boss, uncooperative or grumpy child, unexpected expense discovered, sick family member, disagreement with friend, possible illness herself....

There are many reasons why one is moody or resentful on any given day. To assume she has a bad attitude all day every day because she has 'sacrificed' and now resents it is an unfair assumption with the only small bit of information you have told us.

Maybe your colleague said or did something that rubbed her the wrong way? Maybe he reminded her of someone with whom she had a bad experience? Maybe he unknowingly said something that seemed condescending or patronizing to her?

I just think there could be too many things going on here for us to really judge this woman.

But... I do agree that he needs to check is assumptions and re-think his situation - would he sacrifice without holding a bit of resentment? Somehow I doubt it.

Anonymous said...

I have been in the position of this "technician" as my husband and I tried to work out our two careers. Most of the people who needed help with the instrument were pompous prigs who treated me as a "lesser being" - including graduate students. When I was treated with respect, I was very helpful (actually I was helpful even when I wasn't treated with respect, but that was perhaps a mistake.) Universities should try harder to find appropriate positions for qualified spouses.
And to John - the university I worked for could not possibly have found someone with my expertise to accept the paltry salary they paid me.

Nick said...

My colleague looked puzzled. He said: She has nothing to complain about. She has a job and she and her husband live in the same place.

So I assume your colleague does feel some bitterness that he and his wife live apart. But, living with his wife is well within his reach - if he follows the tchnician's example of taking a technician job in order to live in the same place as his spouse. So, your colleague should have nothing to complain about.

Anonymous said...

How about "she's just not that into how she's crapped on for her job"?
"she's just not that into how much academia sucks"
"she's just not that into how much she is taken for granted"

Anonymous said...

I'm appalled that the lady obviously is qualified enough to be a professor (as per FSP's judgment, which I trust), yet she is now working as a technician. What a waste of all that training and potential and talent. It would be one thing if she had been a mediocre postdoc with no realistic chance of ever getting an academic job but it sounds like that's not the case since she had published high impact papers.

Why do so many people (such as FSP's male colleague) assume that women should be automatically "fulfilled" by the choice of giving up their careers for their family? And when I say 'give up' I really mean give up a LOT, not just a little. Why is this female-career-sacrifice thing glorified so much to the point that you are considered abnormal if you are then unhappy after doing it? When will people or society at large finally admit that "family" does not in and of itself fulfill everyone's needs? That yes there are some people who are very "family-oriented" and would sincerely want nothing more in life than to be completely focused on raising their families with everything else being peripheral, but that's not how everyone feels??

Maybe for the technician in question, her job is only a temporary stint. Perhaps she is on the job market for a higher-level position in industry and the technician position is just to tie her over until then. I would hope so, for her sake. Maybe she is a brilliant scientist but has little political savvy or people skills and thus doesn't know how to negotiate a better job for herself such as a research faculty position? If so, I hope someone will 'mentor' her and help her to at least get a research faculty or administrative position, even if it's only part time if funding is the constraint. It just really pains me to think that this talented high-level scientist is now working in a job in which other people who are equally or even less qualified than her probably treat her with disrespect.

Kevin said...

The overqualifed technician/underemployed PhD problem seems to me to be most prevalent in biology, which has been producing far more PhDs than there are real research jobs for decades. I guess it amounts to a strong belief in negative selection---produce a lot of progeny, but only let a few survive.

Other fields do not have this problem (or at least not nearly as badly). The engineering fields seem to handle things fairly well, with the MS degree being the main working degree, decent jobs available even with a BS, and only a few going on to a PhD.

I think the difference is in when the selection occurs---engineering schools tend to lose a lot of students in the first two years of an undergrad program, when the students are still young enough to change fields easily, rather than relying on a decade of postdoc work to weed out the less-dedicated researchers.

Perhaps if the undergrad programs in biology were as rigorous as the undergrad programs in engineering, it wouldn't be necessary to have so many overqualified technicians and unemployable PhDs.

Social Scientist said...

Regarding the comment from Anonymous 7/02/2009 10:50:00 PM,

I agree about what society loses when this happens.


If or when she does get a tenure-track faculty job, even then, she may find herself at a place with very little support for faculty work. She may be typing her own exams, photocopying chapters for herself, hunting down her own lost reimbursement paperwork, returning her own books to the campus library, walking her express mail items to the PO, pestering the telephone office for a phone book, hassling facilities to fix the thermostat.

Being her own secretary, being her own grad assistant, being her own teaching assistant... actually I think this fits a lot of us.

Sadly there are many ways to waste scholarly talent. Universities and colleges invent more ways all the time.

Danielle said...

You say that your colleague and his wife live "several hours apart."

If it is 3 hours, why not live halfway between and *gasp* commute 1.5 h each way? Sure, no one would do that in an ideal world, but people do it. It just depends on your priorities.

Kris said...

Well it shows how ingrained the attitudes are!

"Perhaps living apart is so difficult that his instinctive reaction involves his wish to live in the same place as his wife, rather than first considering the reality of what that would involve if his wife quit her job, moved to his city, and took a job she didn't like. "

Hang on - as an FSP, I would have said "rather than first considering the reality of what that would involve if he had quit his job ..."

Just a little surprised! :)

Anonymous said...

Oh my god, Social Scientist, you get a phone book? What are you complaining about?

Seriously, you are right. I do all of those things (but have given up on the phone book), and I'm at a top research university. And, hate to say this, I do many things much more menial that what is on your list.

butterflywings said...

Yeah, strange how it often (90% of the time) seems to be the woman sacrificing her career. And yet it's her 'choice'.

There is so much waste of potential when talented women are dismissed, marginalised as 'mum track' or 'not leadership material' (for which read, not a white middle-class straight man, so, most incomprehensibly, perhaps having some differences in personal style. Gasp.)

Sam and Anon 04.06 have good points. Maybe she was just having a crappy day. Maybe the colleague did something to annoy her. Yes, odd how people tend to respond pleasantly when treated with respect. (I used to work in a shop, and soooo many customers would be rude to me and then complain that *I* was rude because I didn't smile, or bow and scrape and fall over myself to serve them, or something.)

Social Scientist said...

@ Anonymous 07/03/09,


Maybe I'll take your lead and give up on the phone book.

Doctor Pion said...

What an oddly sexist example to use regarding your colleague, he muses, thinking about the discussion of "The Gender Knot" elsewhere in the blog world.

Why not suppose that he leaves his professorship and takes a job as an adjunct teaching labs at a community college so he can live in the same town as his wife? Would that affect how he approached grading lab reports?

That is how he should be thinking about that situation.

Dr. T said...

Actually I have seen it happen a variety of ways. A female chemistry scientist offered a tenured position in the department and her husband (also a chemistry PhD) taking the technician opening. Both working at the same university - each in a different department.
Both working in the same town at separate universities. And one of my best friends is a professor of biology at one university while her husband is a professor of geology at another university 3 hours away. They take turns driving to see each other on the weekends. I have seen dozens of work variations for scientist couples.
In the end it comes down to we are all responsible for our own happiness and decisions - to find what works best for our families.

gradresearcher said...

I came across your blog because I really wanted to see how other female scholars are making these hard decisions. I am currently at that crossroad. My husband and I have been living separately (2 hr drive) as he starts his first year of postdoc and I'm finishing up my PhD here. Yesterday I got a job offer for a postdoc at an institution, a job that would put a 4 hour flight between us. It is a good position, but it is not the best location and truly not my ideal job. My husband, who's trying hard to be supportive, has tried searching for jobs in that area... Unfortunately, given the remote nature of the location, we're really unsure if he'll be able to find a job there. He said that he'll give up his job if it is *the* job that I really want, but I honestly can't even say it with a straight face "ooh yay, I'm going to city X!" But it IS a job, and given this current economy climate, it may be the only job offer I will ever get. It is potentially the worst double-edged sword I have ever encountered.

I am guessing others have experienced this similar situation as well, and I know each family and relationship is different. We have no children yet but we are trying, and that adds to the layer of complexities on this issue (like one other poster has said). But really, how far is too far before you set your foot down and say this isn't going to work out? And being a feminist, I don't want to have the feeling of being the one who backs down, even if this isn't the most ideal job for me.

Let me close by saying how much I truly respect people who choose one way or the other, because this is truly one of the hardest decisions academians (male or female) will ever make.

Anonymous said...

From my perspective - obtained PhD in engineering and had first child the same year. I was older so it wasn't realistic to wait and husband "wanted his turn". Found great part-time work at first, research. Laid off at time of second child's birth. Ended up teaching part-time at local (high quality) university. Obviously this was dead end. Quit in frustration. Now, husband makes big bucks, three children at home (school). Have not been able to find job locally, and don't really want to move (spouse's job, uproot children). I am stuck! "But you wanted to be at home with the children". This has brought all kinds of resentment into the family, and husband is "tired of hearing about it". Please learn from my experience. Those of you without children cannot imagine how much time and emotional effort they require, and it is very difficult for those of us who are (over?) educated to leave our children with people who do things like give them so much juice they get diarrhea, even though they have been cautioned, or don't believe in vaccinations, etc. Most child-care workers here are not all that swift. Good luck, as there are no easy answers.

Anonymous said...

The sense of entitlement and ego saturating this entire comment thread is astounding to me. With a couple of exceptions, of course.