women in STEM

Notes from an Outreach Event

Gas is under $3/gallon! My heart sings.

Ahem…

Recently I went to an event aimed at very young female undergrads who planned to major in sciences or engineering. The girls were great, fun, and smart. The overwhelming majority of them had plans to go into biomedical fields.

There were several female professors there and each of us shared what we did for research; I was the only one whose work did not involve working with biological systems.

If the student cohort is interested in biomedical fields, it makes sense to bring faculty from those fields. But a few young women approached me afterwards and I learned they had interest in fields with a heavy emphasis on math, physics, or computing; they shared that they were starved for meeting people in their fields of interest.

I am in a field where it is quite common for me to teach to a classroom with no women. Zero. Not all fields are like that. And the few girls who do venture into those physical science fields apparently feel somewhat alienated from other young women with an interest in science, if this event is any indication, because their interests are not mainstream even among STEM-focused female students.

I don’t want to make a separation between fields, we are all scientists. But, I would say there is a pretty significant difference in the types of interests between the people who enjoy hands-on work in a lab or field and the people who enjoy largely mathematical and computational work. For example, I never had much interest in biology; while I had interest in chemistry, it was nowhere near as strong as my interest in math and physics, especially building mathematical models and later implementing physical reality on a computer. I see websites of people doing field work or  bench work and  I understand intellectually that there are many great problems to explore there, they just don’t rock my boat. I don’t get awfully excited about experimental physical sciences labs, either.

I wish we could do a better job of reaching out to young women who are interested in the math-heavy or computing-heavy portions of the physical sciences. It feels like they really are the outliers all around, among both the men in their classes and among other women in science. I know there are online resources, but it feels they don’t really reach the young college women demographics. Perhaps the best thing to do is exactly this, getting out there to meet them and trying to help them one at a time; ironically, this may work precisely because they are so few and far between.

Dislikable

I miss FSP. I wish she’d post more, and I am sure I am not alone in this sentiment. One question I remember her asking is:

Do you actually have to like your students? Or  is it at least important not to dislike them?

What if there is a student who really pushes your buttons? Perhaps they are not even doing it on purpose, maybe it’s cluelessness, or just a bad match. I certainly have experience with irritating people right off the bat, without actually having done anything. (I am sure some readers are going to come and tell me that this never happens to them and everybody who meets them loves them instantaneously; my DH is one of those people. Let’s just agree that some people are just universally lovable and some are universally irritating. I am not universally lovable. Kudos to you if you are.)

We professors are human, and I can attest that there are plenty of temperamental professors; also, there are plenty of even-keeled ones. While being calm and acting dispassionately can be learned, and with practice in advising you become better at dealing with common advising issues, if you have a temper you might get really irritated. Even if you don’t show it, you know it and you feel it.

I would say that I really like the vast majority of my students. I feel responsible for and protective of them. I make sure they are not just productive, but that they seem balanced, happy, and healthy. I guess (hope?) that most faculty feel the same about most of their advisees.

But, very rarely, there is a student who just pushes all your buttons. All the interactions are accompanied by friction, there is an underlying current of mismatch, of irritation. You start dreading meeting the student. You find that you scold the student in front of peers once or twice, which you don’t want to do. It’s particularly unsettling if the student is actually reasonably productive. Then you feel like a total douche for constantly butting heads with them over minutiae, but it is getting on your nerves that the student is the only one who insists on using a graphics software/presentation software/presentation templates/text processor/compiler/operating system  different from the rest of the group because that’s just what they are used to and don’t want to use anything else (I hate software snobs). You want to be permissive, accommodating, but it is in the way of actually doing work the way you want to in your group, it creates problems with sharing of material, it undermines your authority with the group because you are constantly butting heads, and it seems like the student just cannot pick up on the normal clues that things are wrong or to generalize from recent conflicting situations; you have to be unpleasantly explicit with stupid minutiae all the time, over and over again. The student seems to barely notice; your veins are about to pop.

Then you know that you really truly dislike the student.

The question is whether you should continue advising them. For you and for them. If the only one irritated is you and you have plenty of Tums on hand, while they seem to be happy in oblivion, does it matter? Are you really an effective advisor if they get on your nerves? If they switch advisors, there is no guarantee that they wouldn’t irritate the next person similarly, especially if the stubbornness and general social cluelessness are truly an issue.

I think working with a student who really pushes your buttons is different than having a coworker who does so, because of the power differential. I don’t know that one can be a good advisor to a student they don’t like, just like I can’t believe you can be a good parent to a child you don’t like (plenty of examples say the latter is an awful predicament for the child).

But isn’t it shallow and frivolous to sever an advising relationship with a student basically saying “This is not working out. I think you might be happier elsewhere,” which is the advising version of “It’s not you, it’s me,” the ultimate bullshit. What you really mean is “You get on my freakin’ nerves, all the time. Why do I constantly have to fight with you about every single little thing about how things are done in this group? Why can’t you get it through your head that not everything is up for debate, not everything is up for negotiation, and you don’t know everything better than everyone else. Learn some respect and show some deference, because you think once you start working in industry anyone’s going to give a $hit about your personal software preferences? You think you will be able to install anything on your work computer? Get a home computer and install whatever the hell you want on it, I don’t care. Why is it that you are the only one everything has to be spelled out for, while everyone else seems to take it in stride? Why is it that you are the only one whose figures I have to ask be corrected 10 times, while everyone else just does it after I ask the first time? YOU. DON’T. KNOW. EVERYTHING. ALREADY. Shut up and try to learn.”

Phew.

Anyways…

Advisors are human. If you think they are infallible and immovable, that’s only because  they are pretending, to a degree, and some are better than others at it. Some let unbelievable shit slide. Others do too, then write irritated posts on the web under a pseudonym. But if you are a douche, they notice. If you think they are looking like they are fuming around you, that’s because they are. Listen to what they are saying. Their blood pressure may be dangerously high as a result of your stubborn-a$$ cluelessness. YOU. DON’T. KNOW. EVERYTHING. Shut up. Listen.

I wonder if professorial dudes ever experience these annoying examples of disrespect, of do just us professorial womenfolk have such precious gift bestowed upon us?

(N.B. This is usually a cue for CPP to come tell me that I am an awful human being and an even worse advisor, because he never has any problems with any of his awesome students at his elite institution, so don’t be alarmed.)

Professorial Bits, the Somewhat Goofy and Girly Edition

— Blogging has been slow as I am busy beyond all reason. Not that I am complaining, though. Busy is good. Not busy makes me bored and restless, and I become a giant pain in the butt. Time-consuming are professorial duties such as teaching and, this semester, being my own TA (Why? Because reasons, as my kids would say; we don’t get TAs for electives, but students want and need discussions); I have two really meaty service assignments, one of which kicked in the minute the semester started.

What’t most important is that I am working on two NSF proposals simultaneously (note how much coffee that means I drink per day; for some reason, the coffee post seems to have resonated with a number of Twitter folks); worry not, the two proposals are on very different topics and will be submitted to two different directorates, so I am perfectly NSF-compliant. However, the bifurcation is kicking my butt a little (okay, a lot).

I feel good about past summer, it was very productive as I have managed to submit all the papers I had planned to before the proposal writing crunch (I didn’t really get to rest and relax, though, but perhaps it’s for the best). Grad students have their marching orders; they know we will be meeting less frequently than usual until the proposals are done. They also know what the paper writing timeline is and we have a first-draft schedule for a number of manuscripts starting early November, as I emerge from the proposal-writing hole. I usually do the “Here are the papers I plan on us submitting in the next six months” talks in group meetings about twice a year, and then the list also goes out via email, so everyone knows where they are in terms of priority, when I would have time to look at their stuff, and how much time they have to produce the first draft. Once a student’s up, I turn the manuscript around quickly; my rule is three drafts by the student (i.e. two rounds of my detailed comments which the student incorporates)  and then I take over and edit/rewrite/finalize with the student’s input. This way the student gets feedback and can revise in response, so they get a chance to write and edit and learn, but I don’t wait forever and papers get out in a timely fashion. This practice generally means that I spend a lot of time writing and editing papers, and the final edits by me can sometimes take a while to complete if they are still extensive or if we are going for a really high-profile journal, where things have to be written ‘just so’. We sometimes end up needing to get more data to illustrate a specific point that didn’t emerge until after the student and I had both been thinking about the text for a while, which delays things a little bit, but such is life. I go on to the next student draft in the pipeline whenever I am waiting for the first one to get more data or incorporate the edits.

— For one of the proposals, I have a title that’s a rhyme. Obviously I am not going to tell you the title, but its rhythm is similar to the following:

An awesome haircutting technique to make you look so stylish and chic

I kind of really, really want to leave the rhyming title, even though people might think it frivolous, that I am not a serious scientist. I want to get funding, and having a boring title is easy enough, but I wonder… I am really compelled to leave the goofy title, against my own better judgement.

What say you, blogosphere? Should I leave a seriously technical but rhyming proposal title?

— Which brings me to why I love teaching undergrads. I am not a cool person. A lot of people think I am stern, reserved, unpleasant, scary, or simply boring, all of which are probably true if I am not relaxed around you. But when I am relaxed, I am nerdy and goofy and I looove puns. Word play makes me giddy with delight, in any language I understand; the stupider, the better. Undergrads seem to be quite responsive to my general goofiness and puns, perhaps because they are so young and also because the silliness adds some levity to all the math that I routinely shove down their throats.

The goofiness doesn’t play quite as well with grad students, partly because they are older and more serious, and partly because so few of them are Americans. They expect respectable serious instruction from the luminaries in the field, and there I am, the anti-prof. It doesn’t help that the puns and culture-specific jokes are lost on many non-native speakers of English (as I am sure they were on me when I was in grad school and new to the US) who make up most of the graduate student cohort, in contrast to the largely domestic undergrads.

I often teach undergrads because I seem to be very effective at it — students like me and they get well-prepared for the follow-on courses, the department is aware of it, and I don’t mind.

Ironically, teaching undergrads so much means that this is now really my MO, and if you think graduate students are unamused by goofiness, you should see the grown-up bespectacled dudes who are my colleagues. I feel I am considerably more goofy when giving talks than the average talk-giving scientist in my area or related ones. This worries me somewhat, because I am a non-bespectacled, non-ancient, long-haired woman (see Figure), so I am sure I am,  at baseline, not considered as competent as a similarly-experienced dude. But I can’t turn it off now! I see a crowd and I put on a show! Everyone is engaged and smiling, because I presume people love clowns, or perhaps they feel sorry for me. Nobody is asleep. But I wonder how much it’s hurting my chances of getting elected a fellow of a professional society or getting into the National Academies.

ComicSept20_2014_SeriousFemaleScientist

(The poor lady on the left of the picture is probably still too young and pretty to be taken 100% seriously, despite the impeccable appearance exuding scientific respectability. My avatar is younger and prettier than me, so to counter the hair and the shunning of blazers, I have the ever diminishing attractiveness going for me professionally.)

Sometimes, it gets to me, being among dudes all the time and being so visibly different, in appearance and demeanor, both from them and from the occasional woman scientist who looks and acts as expected. I actually totally understand this post by PhDinindustry. And this one by Alyssa.

I love doing science and teaching. But being a female scientist and a female professor can sure be exhausting.

“The Oatmeal” on Having Kids

Why haven't you had kids yet?

“The Oatmeal” on having kids

I love  The Oatmeal comics, I think he’s really funny and insightful. But this one pissed me off, enough to write a post when I really should be doing work and have adequately pre-caffeinated for it.

Kidless people, it’s cool, really. No judgement regarding the kidlessness, I promise. Don’t want kids, don’t have kids, end of story.

But I actually hate you a little bit, in a very transient way, when you utter (or put up a web comic with) bullshit like “Forget about traveling the world, or pursuing your dreams,” as we all know that one cannot procreate and chew gum at the same time, let alone procreate and either travel or have dreams. (Also, I think travel as a means of self-actualization is…. curious. )

And the thing with pooping and vomiting. I see these “Eww, diapers!” brought up all the time as the worst part of parenting.

I can tell you, changing diapers, cleaning vomit or poop — they do not phase faze me at all. Maybe I am just not easily disgusted (my husband is much more squeamish).
When I think about what is hard about parenting, poop and vomit do not come to mind, ever; they do not register as difficult or in any way remarkable parts of parenting. I am considerably more pissed when the kids spill a glass of juice so I have to clean it up; I am exponentially more pissed when a grownup spills a glass of juice and I have to clean it up.

Poop and vomit are, to me, completely unimportant. While nothing grosses me out regarding my own kids, I don’t care for the bodily excretions of other people’s kids, so I think all daycare and preschool teachers are saints and should be constantly showered with money and gifts and all forms of gratitude one can think of.

The hardest parts of parenting, for me, are the constraints on my time (because occasionally I want or need to work non-stop) and, when the kids were very little, recurrent ear infections. These days, I don’t care for playing with plastic toys or watching certain cartoons, because many things that were magical with kid No 1 are not so much any more by kid No 3.

Hugs and kisses, however, never get old. And neither does the general awesomeness of watching someone grow up.

Notes from the Road

* Travel sucks. Sucks balls, sucks a$$. Sometimes it also sucks scabs, nose hair, warts, and bunions. I got a grand total of 3.25 hrs of sleep last night, got up early to catch a flight; I would not be this comatose even after jet-lag, and I am still in the US.

* Being at conferences is always an exercise in perpetual physical discomfort for me. Often there is not enough leg room; luckily that’s not an issue this time. I am always freezing in conference rooms, and today was worse than I’ve felt in a long time. It’s really hot outside and unbelievably cold inside. Why do they have to blast the A/C down to 60 degrees? I had long sleeves and a light sweater and was still thinking of going back to the room for a serious sweatshirt. Some people should be stripped of their thermostat-fiddling privileges.

* I heard three plenary talks today. Two were of the historical-perspective kind and one of the looking-into-the-future kind. All were nice.  They also featured, in a completely unexpected turn of events (not),  reasonably famous old white dudes, some of whom reminisced of their life and times  next door to even more famous and perhaps even older (and whiter?) and possibly deceased dudes, to whom they referred as “Bill” or “Tom” to emphasize familiarity and thus self-aggrandize by proxy. I used to be intimidated by such schenanigans, by how I would never find myself in the thick of things like these people had done, stirring the direction of a whole field; now I am just lightly miffed. One of the big revelations that came to me in recent years, and it didn’t take me even a decade of professordom to grasp it (maybe I am really not that smart), is that the vast majority of  scientists — no matter how accomplished and how well recognized — are painfully insecure; some readily show it, some mask it by extreme aggression. This also means that some people on whose support you count will not support because they are too busy feeling unrecognized and ignored themselves, which makes them self-absorbed.

* A luminary of the field died last month, I’d just heard. He did so much for the field and was so important and so well recognized. And now he’s dead, just as dead as any Joe Schmoe the bacon-burger enthusiast. Sometimes I think I should spend all of my days devouring bacon burgers. With beer.

* A question for the blogosphere: How much time should one (the  professor/group leader/PI) spend with own group members when at conferences? When I was a grad student, there were usually several grad students from the group at every conference, and we hung out together. I would see my advisor occasionally. My advisor was a big important dude, and would sometimes introduce us to some of his buddies (not sure that it helped, but he did do it). When we went to dinner together, he’d always be the life of the party and we his captive audience. I always thought he was fascinating but at some point, after I’d grown up, I just saw him as tiring and not all that interesting.

I am at a conference with several of my students. It’s a big conference and not one we usually go to, so there aren’t many of my friends around to whom I could introduce the younglings. There are enough of my students for them to happily hang out together (I see they met other students already) and I don’t want to cramp their style, but I don’t think I should avoid them altogether (and I don’t). Recently, when two students and I were at another conference, we did go to dinner once with several other folks (profs and students), that was nice and not too taxing on anyone; we did catch up with each other briefly at coffee breaks, but I left them to do their thing for the most part.  But I do wonder what the right amount of socializing or interacting in general is common. Because of the power differential there is always a danger that I’ll just start monologuing and nobody will stop me, as happened with my advisor, even if I am boring the hell out of them. Also, socializing is socializing, and my students are young guys while I am a middle-aged woman, so we don’t have natural conversational topics outside of work; also, I like the professional relationship and don’t want to get into any personal topics that could make either party uncomfortable. I might be curious to know more about my students as people, I don’t want to be intrusive; again, the power differential.

So what say you, blogosphere PIs, how much do you hang out with your students at conferences? Students and postdocs, do you want to spend any time with the prof?

Ride It Like You Stole It

I have had a very productive summer so far. Also, two very long papers, where I was dreading protracted battles with referees, came back with glowing reviews and requests for minor revisions, so I am feeling very positive about my job these days. For a change, I thought it might write about work when I am actually upbeat about it, as opposed to in my usual grouchy mood.

In a comment to one of my earlier posts,  Anonymous PI discussed his/her battle with the impostor syndrome:

As a new PI, I’m feeling really sunk. I managed to land two grants this year but had only one pub, and I can’t get myself to move on my two really exciting projects because I’m paralyzed by fear that others are beating me to the results and that I’m not good enough to tackle the problems anyway. I don’t think I have the intellectual chops to be here. Where oh where can I get the courage? I’ve read Valerie Young, I’ve been trying in vain to get therapy, and meanwhile every day feels like an awkward performance where I pretend things are fine to my colleagues. I wish I could do research in a vacuum. Or be a confident guy.

My response, on which this post is based, is here.

Gasstationwithoutpumps also has a post on the same topic today, with links to some good posts from Medium and Slate, as well as some of my old posts (from Academic Jungle: Underachieving; Beer, Fries, and Impostors; The Sucky and Awesome of Academia; from Xykademiqz: Potential and Ambition; Tenure Denials; You Got Tenure, Now What?; The Tenure Track, Illustrated).

Briefly, the impostor syndrome refers to feeling like a fraud (despite objective evidence to the contrary), felling like you have no idea what you are doing and don’t deserve the job/award/promotion/congratulations/cookie, that you instead lucked out and stumbled/dropped/slipped on a banana peel then fell into the undeserved coveted “it”, that any minute now someone is going to discover your true “shouldn’t-be-there-anyway” colors and and take it all away.

The impostor syndrome seems to be quite common in highly competitive fields; in fields with drastic overrepresentation of a certain race and/or gender,  people from underrepresented groups suffer from it virtually by default. I believe (based largely on blogosphere anecdata) that the impostor syndrome it is quite common among academics, and you can pretty much count on women and minority academics in STEM fields to suffer from it. This is not to say that white dudes (and, in some fields, also Asian dudes) are not susceptible to it, it just means that if there’s anyone who does not suffer from the impostor syndrome, or suffers from the opposite Dunning-Kruger effect (grossly overestimating own competence largely due to actual incompetence), your chances of finding those specimens are highest in the dominant cohort.

The point of today’s post is: You have impostor syndrome. It may lessen but it’s probably never going away, so instead of wishing you didn’t have it, it’s best to focus on finding ways to be productive nonetheless. How to go about it differs with career stage.

I have been a professor for a decade now. I feel less like an impostor now than I did while I was on the tenure track. The feeling was initially sort of justified, in that I really didn’t know how to do the job; nobody really does when they first start out. But that’s not being an impostor, that’s just  being a baby academic. The tenure track at research institutions is brutal (I’m not saying it’s not at other types of institutions, I just have no first-hand experience) and the learning curve is pretty steep.

At some point I realized that I would never be rid of feeling like an impostor, but along  the way I have learned to muffle the nagging voice and not let it block me, not let it prevent me from doing what I wanted to do for extended periods of time; I still have very down-in-the-dumps days, which are best dealt with by going home early. The impostor syndrome likely impedes my achievement somewhat; without it I’d likely do more or do better work or whatever, but the point is I don’t think it will ever go away, and I have accepted that. I think we spend a lot of time online discussing how it’s unfair that some people feel it and all the ways in which it hinders them. But I realized there is no point in lamenting what would happen if I didn’t feel like an impostor. I do feel like one, and that’s that, but with experience I have found ways to work around it and just get stuff done. We get hung up on this romantic ideal that a person should feel free and unencumbered by doubts while doing their academic work, otherwise they are doing it all wrong and should be doing something else instead. Yet, most adults do boring and uninspiring jobs for a living, and I would take my academic job, with big dollops of self-doubt, over pretty much any other job in the world any day of the week. So I just focus on getting stuff done, really hard. Feeling happy about myself is not a requirement for getting stuff done. I know how to do this job, so I can do it  even when doubting myself. Doing leads to accomplishments, and then I feel good for a millisecond, or three. Then it’s on to the next thing anyway.

For me, working with students really helps with the impostor syndrome. Sometimes I get a really nasty paper or proposal review, then feel down and ask what the point is and who cares and whether I am really stupid or uninspired. And I feel like shit for a few days. But then I have students and I cannot be too down for them. They expect me to have my shit together and to know what we will do next and to tell them that we will revise and resubmit and that things will work out really well. And for them I act as if I have my shit together, I go through the motions, imitating someone who does have their shit together, and in going through the motions, in faking it, I actually do get things done and things do eventually work out.

However, this is me after years of experience. How do you fight feeling like a fraud while you are still new and relatively inexperienced, while you are on the tenure track?

So you fear you don’t have what it takes, that you shouldn’t be in your tenure-track position, that you have somehow managed to fool numerous astute people over many years about your abilities. (Of course, in reality, all the people who have been writing recommendation letters for you, and all the people who interviewed and hired you are not stupid. Nobody is into charitable hiring. If you don’t believe yourself, believe in their judgement. They would not have hired you if they didn’t think you had what it took.) But let’s say you did fool everyone, what’s the worst that could happen? What is it that you fear? That somebody, everybody, will discover you are a fraud? Well then, since you are headed for certain ruin and disrepute, you could curl up into a ball and not do any work and ensure that the doubt becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, or you could make the time before they inevitably find you out count, right?

Let’s say you don’t really deserve to be here. So what? That’s life, people get things they don’t deserve, good and bad, all the time. Are you going to give your job back? Of course not, don’t be stupid. You don’t actually owe it to anybody supposedly more meritorious to give up your position, no matter how many schmucks on the internet say that women or minorities have is soooo easy because they only have jobs owing to quotas and affirmative action. Even if what the schmucks are saying were true,  that still doesn’t mean that any of them are in fact entitled to or even worthy of your job, no matter what they think and what they want you to think. This is your tenure track job now, you got it, end of story.

You have this amazing opportunity to be your own boss and do science with smart young people, pursuing any direction you like (for the definition of “like” being “can get extramural funding for”). Yet you feel unworthy, apparently believing that the job belongs to someone else, someone more worthy? So then ride that tenure track job like you stole it, because you sure feel like you did;  hold onto it with both hands, scream loudly so everyone can hear you about how fuckin’ ecstatic you are to have it, and work as hard as you possibly can because it is such an amazing gift. Work with wild abandon, because if it’s true that you are not meant to be there, they will come and kick you out, so you might as well make what little time you have count.

And in working like there’s no tomorrow, you will accomplish things, and the accomplishments will slowly but surely loosen the grip that the little voice has on you, even if it never goes away.

Ride2

 

The Life and Times of TT Academics: A Stream-of-Consciousness Post

Psycgirl had a couple of posts on mentoring that made me think about my own experiences.

A while ago, I wrote a book review of Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In”. There are several things I still remember about the book, and one is her view of mentorship: Mentors are problem solvers, give them a problem to solve. Don’t use them to vent your frustration, use their time wisely. People mentor those in whom they see something; unfortunately, the last one, more often than not, translates into people mentoring the likes of themselves; we all know how well that works out for underrepresented minorities.

There are many people who do very good, solid work. However, most of them don’t get much recognition; instead, only a select few get all the recognition. You could argue that it’s because they are the best of the best, but in my opinion that’s not true. I have met a number of people who are young superstars in their fields, and for the most part they are not all that better than many others who are not equally recognized. However, while people are comparable at 30 or 40, by 60 or 70 that means the select few are National Academy members, while most others are not. What really makes a difference is being networked with the people who have the willingness and ability to champion you, who recognize the importance of having junior colleagues nominated for stuff early and often, and who will do it for you either on their own or without much prodding. Getting recognition early is a prerequisite for getting it often, because awards beget awards.

The point is that you have to be meritorious, but you also have to have someone who will be happy to nominate you, proactive about doing it, and who knows how these nominations are written. And it needs to start early, as early as possible. Before the PhD, actually (so yes, foreigners are a bit screwed right there.)

I work with a woman who is considered a superstar, so I am closely familiar with how she does things. I can tell you that she most definitely keeps an eye on her CV and makes sure that she gets nominated for something every year, and has a great network of intra- and extra-departmental supporters who are very happy to write these nominations for her.

I work with a young  male superstar with very high energy. Recently, I watched his PhD advisor give a plenary talk. The man showed the pictures of all his students, and specifically highlighted my collaborator and a couple of others who are professors, mentioned their recent achievements, and for my collaborator used the words “high-impact assistant professor”. You cannot buy type of promotion. The collaborator’s PhD advisor is a really big name, and gives many talks, everywhere, which means that my collaborator gets this type of lip service in a lot of places, including at federal funding agencies.

I got my TT position straight out of grad school, so my PhD advisor remains someone who I presume is the person most invested in my success. Unfortunately, he is of the mind that going after awards is in poor taste, and that you do good work and the recognition will come (this is a man who really should have been in the National Academies, but is not because of personal conflicts). So when I ask him to nominate me for stuff, he does it, but he never thinks about doing it on his own. (Cue: Feel free to think I don’t deserve it; I think that all the time.)

I have various colleagues and collaborators who are happy to contribute letters of evaluation for me, but they are not invested in my career. People are too busy taking care of their own careers, and hopefully the careers of their own academic progeny, to worry about mine. Another aspect is that my immediate scientific community is truly international, with more than 50% of people in Europe. The importance of a steady trickle of recognition is probably less important, or differently important, outside of the United States.

I am now at a  position in my career where I am no longer junior, which is fine. But, I feel like I am entirely alone, that I really don’t have a community or a support network in my field.  I can see how people turn into the jackasses we know from conferences, who seem to be in your shit because you didn’t cite their paper from 30 years ago and who put down your work. It comes from realizing that they are isolated, that nobody cares about them or their work, and their options are to either get demoralized and quit working (hence deadwoodification) or they realize that the only way to keep going is to emotionally distance themselves from everything and everyone about their work, rely on their own devices, put their head down, and plow. The deadwood/jackass are two possible outcomes for smart, passionate people, who invest a lot of energy into their work but who keep getting overlooked. Sometimes they quit or retire early.

According to my unscientific observation, most men on the tenure track seem confident about what they do, most but not all women seem fraught with doubts about every aspect of their work.  For instance the first few years on my TT were really stressful for me, probably because I started out right of grad school and quickly realized the job was very different than what I had envisioned. I have no idea what I had envisioned, really, perhaps what astonished me was the sheer amount of work, the unrelenting demands on faculty time. It was a very steep learning curve, but one of my redeeming qualities is that I generally know when I am in over my head and I seek advice. In other words, I have never had the problem of being overconfident about something, and I always look for ways to improve, and then I do.  (In contrast, a supremely confident guy who started the same time as me didn’t get his contract renewed after 3 years. Some men don’t ask for help or take advice even when they really, really should. )

Unless I have a great track record doing something, I generally assume I don’t know squat, then I ask and I learn. But, a side effect is that the people I asked for help now think I don’t know squat and they will take it into account when evaluating me in the future. And this is the double-bind (or is it triple?) of asking for help, especially while female, where the default assumption is “incompetent until proven otherwise”: if you need help and ask for it, you will get it but be held in low regard for asking, which will then lead to reduced support, and could result in failure due to this second-order effect. If you need help but don’t ask for it, you will either figure it out on your own, which will generally take more time and energy than necessary but then you will succeed, or you won’t figure it out and you will fail due to incompetence.  When you objectively don’t know what you are doing, there is a small chance you will do fine by persevering on your own, but a high chance that you will either ask for help and be resented for it, or that you will downright fail.

Many young women in academia lament the lack of support (emotional and practical) for the struggles they are facing. Here is my attitude. Your department colleagues, those who evaluate you, are not your friends. They are your colleagues. They should not know your innermost dark secrets and doubts. THEY WILL EVALUATE YOU. So be prudent about what you discuss with them. I am not saying that there are no exceptions, that you can’t have real friends in the department, but it’s probably safest to do it after you are both tenured.

Who do you vent to? People who really love you, even if they don’t understand what you are going through. Then, people who really care about your success, even for selfish reasons [e.g. your former advisor(s) or non-departmental collaborators]. Then, a peer, ideally from another department or discipline, or another university; someone who is in the same boat, but with whom you are not in direct competition.

I think the key to a good peer relationship in which you can vent is that there is no power differential and that you both need each other for venting, at least at times. For instance, there is a relationship I have with a so-called peer mentor (a person a few years ahead of me career-wise), and the person never wanted to break the facade of infallibility with me, I think because it was important to them to remain superior (or just because it’s WASP thing, who knows). Since I have a deep belief that we are all human, and that we all have flaws and fears and doubts, and that everyone’s $hit stinks, I decided I wasn’t going to keep pursuing an honest relationship with someone who insisted on keeping their guard up. End of story. We now have a nice arms-length relationship, where my shell communicates with their shell, exchanging content-free sugary pleasantries. The relationship is so warm, there are icicles on my sleeves after every interaction.

I have a good mentoring relationship with a couple of senior faculty, who are so senior and so well-established that there is no way in hell they would ever consider me as an equal. But that’s fine, as I get good honest advice from them as they would give to a daughter. One is my PhD advisor, another a very senior collaborator. They are the only ones with whom I don’t mind sharing doubts and insecurities; they enjoy dispensing wisdom, and I take what makes sense and discard the rest. With everyone else, I assume they would judge or dismiss me for showing weakness, or I had already made the mistake of oversharing, which resulted in uncomfortable squirming, followed by them indeed judging and dismissing me.

(Of course, I am talking about colleagues. My DH is very supportive and listens to 100% of my whiny $hit, on repeat. He is as clued in about the life of women in academia as any man on Earth. Thank you for putting up with me, DH!)

So what’s my advice on getting mentored and championed? Based on my own experiences, this is what would say:

Get as much help and advice and learn as much as you can about being a TT professor before becoming one. Afterwards, seek help at your own risk — past the first year or two on the TT,  people will take it against you if you ask for advice about doing your job. Your colleagues will take your insecurities to mean that  you don’t have what it takes. Separate asking for specific problem-solving advice  from asking for moral support. I have found that the long-term acceptable questions have to do with personnel or university politics, because everyone assumes all scientists and engineers are clueless about dealing with other people.

Go for advice only to people you trust to really have your back or be invested in your success. For instance, your grant got trashed in review. I know how disheartening and disorienting it may be; my heart still sinks every time I get a rejection even though you’d think I’d be used to it by now. And I am, on an intellectual level, but not emotionally. So I bitch and whine and moan to my husband, but to absolutely nobody else any more. Whining about grant rejection is, as one of my colleagues says, ‘loser talk.’  Most people think the same thing, they just don’t say it. Just like most people think men are the default in STEM and women are not “real” candidates, but can be considered if exceptional, they just no longer say it. (Yes, I am disillusioned  after spending too much time serving on the recruitment committee.) So whine about grant rejection to department colleagues at your own risk; I assure you most will think it’s your fault.

What if you crave external validation, someone to give you thumbs up that you are doing a good job? I certainly do. Here’s the deal — it’s just not coming, definitely not with the frequency or the intensity that you need. People are too busy worrying about themselves, and it is assumed that, as a grownup scientist, you are confident (hahahaha). Unless you have the right network of accolade-nominating champions around you, pretty much all you have to go on are published papers, invited talks, awarded grants. They do mean that you are doing well, or at least not doing poorly. (This is me taking myself up as much as spewing advice into the ether.)

As for me, I find that focusing on my academic kids is really fulfilling. I make a point of supporting the people who are mine to support  — my students and postdocs — in the strongest possible terms, in the way I wish I had been supported by my elders, making sure they get the recognition and opportunities they deserve. So at least my scientific progeny will be able to say there is  someone out there who looks out for their careers.