Friday, February 19, 2010

The Good, the Bad, and the Bizarre

If you are having a difficult time in your particular part of the academic ecosystem and are maybe even wondering if it is worth it to continue, do you seek out fellow sufferers (in the blogosphere or in real life) or do you look for those who have survived academia, or who at least think that academia is survivable?

Which is more useful to you: the disenchanted, unlucky, and beleaguered; or the it-can-be-done types?

The answer can, of course, be both, but I'm guessing that many people find one or the other more comforting and helpful.

I don't know which I would have preferred had blogs or other forms of e-networking existed when I was a grad student and postdoc. As I have described in various posts about my early years in academia, I had a difficult time with strange, unfair, and even abusive faculty, I had to work harder than many of my peers to get respect, and at various times I was close to quitting (or being ejected). Obviously I didn't (and wasn't), and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to develop a very satisfying career as a researcher and teacher and to find friendlier realms in the academic community.

During the darkest days, I didn't seek out others who were struggling, quitting, or failing, and I didn't find it comforting to commiserate with the bitter and paranoid. Neither did I enjoy being with the oblivious golden ones whose success seemed predetermined, whether deserved or not. Instead, I found a supportive community in friends and others who were passionate about Science and who had a good perspective on (and sense of humor about) some of the more bizarre aspects of academia. And I was lucky.

Even so, one of the reasons I started this blog was because I was feeling particularly dissatisfied with some aspects of academia, so I looked around online to see if there were other mid-career science professors (women in particular) writing about some of these issues. I didn't find what I was looking for, but I was certainly searching for fellow travelers.

This question of what kind of community you find most supportive or inspiring goes beyond blogs, of course. It also relates to what makes a person or a group of people be effective role models, as opposed to annoying outliers who, perhaps by mere luck, succeeded in a particular activity or career.

At various times in recent years, I have been told "You're not a good role model because.." (fill in the blank with something that emphasizes how lucky, carefree, or strange my life is, e.g.: You and your husband both got faculty positions in the same place. You only have one child. You like to work long hours. All your cats are extremely large.)

Similarly, as FSP, I get comments along the lines of "I hate your blog because you are so positive about academia* and it's just not like that."

To which I say: Whatever. It is and it isn't. Everyone should be able to find a community or role model or blog(s) that provide the needed or desired type of emotional support or practical advice, whether your preferred academic guru is a ruthless optimist, an erratic chronicler of academic antics, or a relentless raincloud of negativity.

* except the accounting system and men


Bagelsan said...

I find your blog very helpful; the style I find most valuable is a fair amount of "life is tough and I've been miserable before! Sometimes things are unfair and ridiculous" followed by all the success story stuff to show that you made it through. (I also like hearing that I'm not crazy to think that certain sexist things in science are really totally sexist, for example. I'm in a very second-guess-y stage of my life/education so reading that an actual tenured prof agrees with me on various things, or at least dislikes some of the things I dislike, is very reassuring!)

Cannibal Panda said...

I tend to avoid the "golden child" types, as well as the needy/negative types. While we all need to vent our frustrations now and again, if it is an all day everyday type of thing it gets old. Shoot,I even annoy myself if I find I am being overly negative for any length of time. Of late I haven't been able to establish a firm group of peers in which to relate to, but I enjoy reading realistic blogs. Nothing is all sunshine and roses 100% of the time, so a nice balance is what I prefer reading in blogs.
I really don't fit into any niche at all- pitfalls of taking my lifepath in reverse. (But then, I was always one who read the end of the book to see if it was worth reading it from the beginning, so..)
To sum it up, if I didn't constantly have a "I KNOW I can" attitude, I'd have given up after all the transfers I have endured. If anyone even suggests I quit, I usually make sure we don't cross paths again :)I prefer the "Failure is not an option" types.

Anonymous said...

In the early years of my struggle, I preferred to surround myself with those who had succeeded and/or were optimistic and cheerful. I saw them as role models to emulate and I felt inspired by them. As the years passed and I was (to put it in your words) ejected despite having achieved the things that my successful role models did, and yet still not being given the opportunites they were even though I was doing everything right, then I started to not enjoy or believe the optimistic ones anymore and instead found it more meaningful to commiserate with those who had gone through the same and shared my now-bitter and jaded attitude. Now I just don't care anymore, one way or the other.

NJA said...

I seek out "it can be done" blogs that acknowledge things are hard in academia but their writers nonetheless survive by battling through.

My real-life workplace has people I can hang out with if all I want is some commiseration or mutual bitching about the department / academia in general. I don't need this perspective again online. My department also contains golden children who remain blithely oblivious to problems because (for various political reasons) their position is protected. I don't spend time with them in real life and, likewise, don't seek them out online.

FSP - I think your blog is great because (1) your discussions of problems allows me to view my similar difficulties from a new perspective and helps me either spot a solution or realise I'm fretting too much over a minor issue, and (2) because I'm a few years behind you in career path, several of your postings allow me to anticipate and avoid / brace myself for new problems that come with increasing seniority.

All hail FSP!

Anne said...

When I found your blog, I was pretty actively searching for female figures to whom I could look up to in the academic realm. When I went through the process of grad school applications, I spent a lot of energy thinking about what it "meant" to be a Woman In Science. What it means in terms of family-building options, in terms of to what extent you have to put your career first, just in general how life is impacted by the fact that, oh hey, I also happen to be capable of producing babies and our system doesn't seem to really love to reconcile the two identities (scientist and mother) quite yet.

I like your blog because it is an example of how a woman keeps going, and enjoys, her work, while still having a family she loves and living a fulfilled personal life. It doesn't mean your model will work for me, but it just helps me see how your life has come out in a day to day sense, and give me some notion of what my future may look like. I'm pretty sure I don't want to be a university professor for lots of reasons, but liberal arts college is a possibility, as is industry (if we still have a biotech/pharma industry in a few years, ahem). Regardless, your honest, candid approach to life as a Woman In Science is exactly what the doctor ordered. Thank you for all you do!

Anonymous said...

I'm a female postdoc in physics, and have had to deal with more than my fair share of crap. I seek out both groups.
I seek out fellow sufferers because they reinforce that I'm not crazy, and I don't have to explain or justify how I feel to them, which is often a relief. But sometimes these people are trapped in bitterness, especially the senior ones, and it's better to stay clear of them.
I seek out happy, successful people because I want to know what keeps them going and if I could be like them or not. Sometimes this is frustrating because they can't understand my point of view. Sometimes I find out that I am not like them and that I won't ever enjoy their kind of success. Sometimes they give me great hope, which I desperately need.

Anonymous said...

I came across you blog in the last months of my PhD (which I now have, so YAY!) in biological sciences. I kept coming back because your perspective on mentoring seemed so rational and my interactions with my (female) advisor were far from supportive, helpful, or understanding. The support of fellow miserable grad students was only getting me so far (sympathy, but not perspective). I don't know how your own students feel about your mentoring style, but your perspective on your blog let me see that there were clearly more rational advisors out there. Now my post-doc advisor seems to fit my expectations of a mentor more closely. So anyway, thanks for discussing all the issues you do here!!!

Primordial Goo said...

How do you know when to quit? And then what do you do?

I think the problem with some of these blogs is a microcosm of the problem with academia in general: professors are the lucky ones, and so the question isn't so much: how do you keep going when your face is in the mud? but, when is it time to quit? And what comes next?

I find the academic infrastructure ill-equipped to handle this problem for a very obvious reason: all the people in charge are the ones who made it through. Associating with either the golden child or the disgruntled student might be a bad idea if you need a realistic assessment of where you stand.

Sure there are career fairs, Naturejobs, blogs, online comics, etc., but that's not the same as having a thesis committee's advice and mentoring.

Anonymous said...

i prefer to surround myself with positive influences, which is why i love your blog. i feel like you're the happy medium, optimistic without being oblivious or fake, which is extremely helpful and, like other people have said, reassuring!

that being said, i do like to commiserate occasionally as well, especially with my roommate, who is in a different science field than me and a department that seems way more determined to suck the life out of its students than mine... that always makes me feel better, although i feel bad for her.

John Vidale said...

My favorite blogs (and people to seek for advice)

1. explore issues that I also face,
2. sometimes explain them with clarity beyond my ability to figure it out myself, and
3. are entertaining.

Bonuses are

4. fellow commenters of like mindset and
5. material is posted regularly and in digestible (i.e., brief) chunks.

Despite wide browsing, I only re-visit FSP, CPP, CC Dean regularly.

Bitter or bucolic attitudes matter less than having perceptive thoughts and a realistic POV. Way too many people think they are wittier and wiser than they are, including me.

amy said...

Yours is one of only a few blogs I read regularly, and I read it because it's funny, intelligent, and balanced (including the comments). I'm not even in the sciences, but the discussion here has helped me a lot, especially in maintaining perspective - acknowledging the true difficulties in our profession, but thinking about real solutions to them.

I used to read Rate Your Students a lot and found it very funny and cathartic when I was annoyed about classroom issues, but after a year or so I realized I was starting to get really bitter and negative towards my students, so I stopped.

I honestly don't know why anyone would tell someone else they're a bad role model. What exactly do they want you to do? Stop working long hours so they can relate to you more easily? Send your husband across the country? If a blog isn't working for someone, they can just stop reading it -- it's easy to do!

Anonymous said...

I look for: neither golden children, nor negative nellies, but fellow pragmatists. I'm still in a precarious career stage, and I still feel like I haven't basically figured The System out (most of all, publishing); so I look for empathy in the practical, useful, figure-it-out types.

In your blog, I particularly appreciate the sense of perspective, the humor, and the cats. I also like yours and DrugMonkey's blogs for the various insights into How Things Work. I think you and DM have genuinely helped to mentor a number of us readers, and I feel that you should somehow get a service credit for your work!

ME said...

I love your blog and find it inspiring and refreshing. It reminds me that many of my own experiences are common and that academia is a quirky place.

Sometimes when the other women in science/engineering seem few and far between it is wonderful to read your latest post and feel a little less along in my daily struggles. Please keep it up and don't change. We each must find the way that works for us. And respecting those choices make life better for everyone.

another young FSP said...

I look for those who have had similar experiences to me - and how they have worked through the issues to move on. So not pollyanna, but also not someone who wallows in the suffering.

"I have a horrible advisor and my life sucks and the system is keeping me down" is not helpful. "I had a horrible experience with my advisor/lab and here is how I managed to get through it and here is how I am avoiding perpetuating it" is useful.

"My grant proposal/paper was turned down, the entire review system is corrupt and I'll never get it! NEVER! (bangs head into keyboard)" is not useful. "My proposal/paper was turned down - here is how I responded to feedback/etc to fix it" is helpful.

We live in the real world - I find those bloggers who work within the context of that real world to be the most helpful to me. I don't have to agree with everything they say, as long as some element of their blog or readership resonates.

Patchi said...

I experimented with both kinds, but then gave up on the despondent bitching. Maybe I should prefer the Alice in Wonderland scenario... but what I read nowadays is the "life is tough, you gotta toughen up" - push you forward crowd. Realism is good, but it does need to have a sense of humor!

Anonymous said...

When I was having a really tough time in grad school (in the pre-blog era) I benefited from both the "you can do it" perspective and the "disenchanted" perspectives.

The best advice I ever heard came from a junior faculty member (from outside my grad school institution) who actually combined these perspectives, saying (in essence), "Life as a grad student and academic can be brutal. You probably can do it, but only you can decide if you SHOULD do it. If you do it, know what you're getting into. If you get out, it doesn't mean you're a failure. And get out as a conscious decision for a different option rather than running away."

I got out, and it was the right choice for me. I'm now working in a university in a non-faculty capacity that's a great fit for me.

Cloud said...

I keep coming and reading (and occasionally commenting) here, even though I left academia more than 10 years ago. I find your posts interesting and inspiring, even though you're on a very different career path than I am. I think that in general, I like realism without too much self-pity/whining. Yeah, things suck sometimes, and there is often great unfairness in that suckiness. What I like here, and on other blogs I read regularly, is an attitude of "what can I do to overcome these problems and get on with my life" as opposed to "woe is me, it is so unfair that I'm facing these problems". Don't get me wrong- I think some well-placed anger is valuable sometimes. But I don't find it helpful to wallow in angst.

Primordial goo- if you're looking for advice/mentoring on non-academic career paths, networking is your best bet. Work your network until you find someone who knows someone who might be able to answer some questions, and ask for an email introduction. Then send an email with a couple of questions about that person's career path. Personally, I make it a point to answer all such emails. If the person is local, I even offer to meet for lunch. If the person is a student or a postdoc, I pay for lunch. I am far from alone in this practice.

Anonymous said...

I have mostly found my academic experience positive. I am extraordinarily lucky in that there was a job at the Uni I wanted to work at in the city my wife and I wanted to live in the year I started looking. I am even luckier to have got it. I never forget these facts.

After that even pointless committee work is gravy.

I started reading this blog for a different perspective about academia on issues that I do or may face and on those I want my grad students and PDFs (almost exclusively female) (and, maybe someday, daughters) to be able to avoid.

I keep reading because it is entertaining and informative and there are several sensible regular posters (CPP, John V.) whose opinions/attitudes I don't always agree with but have greatly respect.

Reading this blog has made me a better colleague.

Ms.PhD said...

I always enjoy your blog because you strike just the right balance between being positive and sharing your funny, constructive insight into how things could be improved.

Having said that, I started blogging both to give back, intending to focus on the positive. And then, after a while, I hoped to gain more insight into how to handle my problems.

What I learned was that nobody could help me, and especially not you. And that was disappointing. I learned a lot from your blog, but ultimately your experience was so different from mine. There were extreme generational differences and field differences. There's no way you or anyone else could have known what to tell me I should do.

So then my blog just became the diary of a sinking ship.

And then I came to realize I was one of the few people who was willing to speak out about the atrocities, so I figured the least I could do was document them, because there are far too many people who are oblivious to what is going on in other parts of science. Yourself included.

Did any of that make me feel better? No. It only made me feel more alone, especially when other golden children (from my perspective) bloggers wrote about how I was being overly negative, saying that I was exaggerating, calling me crazy, saying I needed medication or that I was making this stuff up.

All I can say to that is, truth is worse than fiction.

I would have much preferred to write about all the great and wonderful things a life in science has to offer. But I never did find my supportive community, here or elsewhere. People on the blog told me not to give up, etc. and sometimes that was enough to keep me going. But it wasn't the kind of mentoring that most successful people would say I needed.

Finally, I get it that scientists are very self-absorbed because they don't have time to help anyone other than themselves, and there are not enough resources to go around. It's love in the time of famine- you grab onto what you need to stay alive, and you assume everyone else gets a fair chance to do the same.

Anonymous said...

I went through a few phases like that where I wanted to leave science all together. However, science was the thing I loved and it is the only thing that I could do, as I have a lot of trouble interacting with people. It is also the only place that I have a chance of fitting in...with the majority of other science-y eccentrics, or known as geeks.

So, despite all the troubles I had with sexual discriminations and such I worked much harder than everyone else, not just because I need to but also because I actually do love it. Unless I could get to a stage where I am not dependent on coaxing my boss (my most recent supervisors excluded) in whatever way there is no other alternative to fight for my place to exist in academia. Despite its downfalls it is still better than industry in my view.

As for how I'm surviving emotionally, I have my mother's shoulders and FSP's blog to prepare myself for the unpredictable future.

Drugmonkey said...

I feel that you should somehow get a service credit for your work!

I just did. thank you.

Jessica said...

I tend to choose blogs that make me think. Whether that's thinking "I'm glad I'm not them" "yeah, that totally sucks and the same thing happened to me" or "I'm glad I'm prepared for some of the craziness, maybe I CAN do this job, because so and so can"... all are helpful depending on the day (or time of day). I find having lots of perspectives helps me achieve balance and stay sane.

a physicist said...

Does nobody else but me read this just for the occasional discussions about cats?

Other than that, I'm pretty much reading it for the same reasons as John V. In real life, I like giving people advice, and it's great to read well-written advice from a different perspective.

I also like that occasionally you ask the audience questions or polls... always fun to hear what other people think!

Anonymous said...

I find your blog incredibly helpful. It's honest but generally reminds me that what I get to do is pretty cool. There is a lot of negativity out there and while that's the experience for some folks I'm in a decent if not perfect place in life. This blog validates some of my positive feelings while not sugar-coating the experiences of women in science. Thank you, you're a virtual mentor for many.

PUI prof said...

Like heavy people who read exercise magazines, I read the blogs of scientists who seem to be succeeding at research-intensive universities as sort of an inspiration and motivation to do what's hard for me to do in my current situation: get the data collected and the papers written.

I cringe at the vitriolic blogs, they make me want to shower after I read them. Besides, I keep thinking: then CHANGE SOMETHING, WILLYA?!?!

On the other hand, the blogs that have been "outed" are the ones I enjoy the least: those that start off honest and suddenly become whitewashed or spend too much time talking about recipes or knitting. I guess a happy medium, like your blog, fits the bill.

I didn't find a lot of people like me blogging, there are a few, but not enough. That's why I started mine. Mine is not really to vent, but to educate. I am happy professionally so mine is a bit sunshine-y, but the purpose is to help people know what life at an institution like mine is like.

Anonymous said...

I am in my third year as an assistant professor in the social sciences, and I am so glad I found your blog, which is the only one I read. I started searching for blogs because of some unpleasant experience (that happened after other unpleasant experiences). I don't even remember what it was about now (probably because I figured out how to deal with it after reading your blog). As a relatively new female professor, I find that I experience a lot of ambiguity -- did this happen to me because I'm female? Or because I'm young? Or is it my department/institution/colleague? On most days, though, I try not to think about my gender or age -- I just want to be a good researcher not a good female researcher. I like your blog because it consistently offers great advice. I like positive role models who are sympathetic but also offer solutions. So thank you! I hope I can mentor younger academics as well as you do some day.

DrDoyenne said...

I began reading your blog to see what another senior scientist had to say about her past and current experiences. I was contemplating starting a blog (as part of a scientific society) for women in my particular field and wanted some ideas as to approaches others were using. I also wanted to see what other women were struggling with. A blog seemed a good way to connect with others interested in exploring solutions.

Because I'm semi-anonymous (many readers know who I am) and am also representing a scientific society, I've chosen not to be too personal in my posts and instead to try to emphasize useful or interesting information, skills, and solutions for women in science.

I recognize that my approach is not as compelling as blogs that talk about more personal aspects of our experiences as women in science, but it hopefully provides a useful and somewhat different perspective for both female and male readers.

Anonymous said...

I have never hung out with Golden Childs in real life. I don't think they write blogs. I think they are too busy and preoccupied doing what they're doing, i.e. being Golden Childs.
I have some peers to moan about stuff that sucks, so online I'd like to hear the truth: yeah, it's hard, but you can make it through to the other end. My current mentor isn't really, well, mentoring at all right now. And you seem to have your head on straight- which is why I appreciate your blog, life's stories and advice. On the other hand, I've been reading YFS for a few years and I have also found it liberating that someone else was feeling worse than me. In times of ultimate lows that can also help (that sounds horrible, sorry YFS).

lauren said...

I'm a novelist. Another highly competitive field with few rewards besides the work itself and boundless opportunities for failure. I read your blog and a few similar ones because I'm heartily sick of the bitter, self-pitying, axe-grinding 'struggling writer' blogs out there. I wish instead to see how pragmatic, committed people go about succeeding.

inBetween said...

there are pros and cons to the bitching and the bravado. whether it suits someone or not just depends on the day or the number of martinis needed to counter the day.

i really enjoy your blog, the happy spin and the negatives. thank you!

Hope said...

I’m with Jessica on this. I read blogs to be exposed to a variety of ideas and opinions. The ones where it’s always the same people crying on someone’s shoulder or blowing kisses at one another bore me and I quickly lose interest.

Doctor Pion said...

I know what community I don't like: the bitter "nabobs of negativism" that can always be found somewhere around the campus. One in particular poisoned an entire unit I was in at one time and might have ruined the careers of several people who listened to him.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

I read this blog because FSP always gives 110%, although the blog definitely could benefit from more sports analogies.

Anonymous said...

Can on be both a beleaguered and a it-can-be-done type? I reckon that's me.


Anonymous said...

Hah! Great to know I'm not alone with some of the issues, great to get practical advice too, preception and insight, and beonging to a community of regular commenters (hello antipodean). Both and all. Kiwi