women in STEM

Notes from the Road 4

(I am unusually grouchy today, so calibrate accordingly.)

Many speakers are really not very good. Most, in fact.

No matter how cool your slides are, nothing helps if you are an anemic speaker, boring as hell and unable to make a point.

This one guy was speaking very, very slowly, ending every sentence with lowered intonation, even when asking a rhetorical question. And every time he’d open his mouth, there was this annoying “plyah” lip smacking sound.

I know people get colds and coughs, dry mouths, allergies, and whatnot. I don’t even understand why this ticks me off, but it does: why do people have to stop to drink water during a 20-30 min talk? Seriously, you have to take a sip 10 min into a talk? Don’t you ever teach? Do you stop to drink water throughout a lecture? Sheesh.

It’s interesting to note how former young rising stars have become considerably fatter and middle-aged. And perhaps not quite the stars they were rising to be.

The green laser pointer is a dangerous weapon of mass distraction. Many people have unsteady hands, owing to age or nervousness; pointing at something on the screen usually results in a crazy dance of a bright green dot. It’s good there are no cats in the audience.

———

I am amazed at some of the work my European colleagues do. It is technically good work, don’t get me wrong, but there is no way they would be able to keep working on such esoteric stuff for so long anywhere in the US; there simply would not be any funding for them. I know that in some (perhaps many) European countries the professors don’t have to pay for PhD students or any of their own salary, but can apply for grants to cover postdocs and travel. Having baseline institutional support for students without fearing you’d completely go studentless due to the boom-bust nature of funding in the US definitely has a bearing on the type of projects you can embark on. Whenever I have a new idea, something I would like to do, the first question is “How am going to get money to do that?” Often the answer is “There is no way I will ever get that funded,” which means I don’t pursue it despite interest.

As much as I hate the idea that I don’t get to work on some interesting topics because the current funding climate is not conducive to supporting them,  there is something to be said for the exercise of grant writing: having to pull your thought together, think longer term, and convince other people that what you do is correct, important, and novel (dare I say “transformative”?) is not necessarily a bad thing. Proposal writing definitely forces you to clarify your thinking. Some ideas are not very important and should not be pursued. If the funding rates were 30% or so, then I believe the fundability would have a strong correlation with importance. These days, the 10% or less funding rates at the NSF are simply too low and too much good science doesn’t get done.

I resent the fact that I continuously have to think about (read: scout for) new funding opportunities. There is no time to just think and do science, because you blink and the 3-year-grant has expired.

———

At the workshop last week, I made a comment on how next time I hope there would be at least another woman present. A student said “I thought you’d be used to it by now.” I didn’t want to tear him a new a$$hole or come off as an unhinged harpy, so I didn’t press on the ridiculousness of his claim: the fact that someone is used to something, i.e., no longer surprised by it, doesn’t make whatever they are used to right. Just because something is routine doesn’t mean that it should not be fixed.

I am definitely used to being the only or one of very few women around in technical meetings. Sure, people usually notice me, and I hear that getting noticed is important. However, they usually start by assuming I am someone’s significant other or someone’s student or postdoc (getting older helps with the latter). The fact that someone notices me doesn’t mean they think I am a worthwhile scientist, and there is a big jump from being noticed to being remembered for the right reasons and then to being extended an invitation to present your work.

Dudes, dudes, everywhere.

Dudes1

Dudes2

Question from Reader: Difficult Relationship with PhD Advisor

A reader — PhD Student — has recently written to me, asking for advice about the situation with her PhD advisor, which has become very difficult:

I’ll start off with some background about myself.  I’m a 25 year old female PhD student.  I left just shy of my master’s degree at another university so that I could switch fields and accept an offer for a research assistantship elsewhere.  The new school is a tech school, so is mostly engineers and has an overall (including undergrads and business majors) boy to girl ratio of 3:1. I am technically a transfer student as I transferred a couple of my classes over so that I could take less classes here.  From the very beginning, I have felt intimidated and nervous around my advisor.  I feel like he doesn’t listen to me.  He will ask me a question in front of people, and then cut me off mid sentence.  I’ve had him call me “high maintenance”, simply for asking what time a luncheon will be held.  I’ve also had to deal with him being bros with the guys, but calling me “unprofessional” anytime I try to join the conversation.  He’s constantly critiquing my personality and telling me I need to read professional etiquette books.  Well, what is my personality?  I’m very friendly and can be quite talkative.  I’m easily excitable and I love pure academic research.

When I first met him, he seemed friendly but he definitely made me nervous.  I didn’t think twice about it as I was there for an interview, so it was natural for me to be nervous…but I didn’t get the same feeling with anyone else I met during that visit.  He seemed very upset when I asked him for some kind of informal email of my offer so I could have something in writing.
I’ve dealt with some severe anxiety, partially due to my interactions with him. In terms of research, the two of us never seem to be on the same page.  I always seem to misunderstand him, and have to do things over and over and over again.  I’ve also had moments where he specifically tells me to do something…I do it…and then he asks me why I did it, as if I did the wrong thing.
Last October he chewed me out (no warning) and told me that the door was open if I wanted to go. I didn’t. He kept saying that I needed to trust him.  He was upset that I was still nervous that I was going to regret leaving my other university without finishing my master’s degree.  I love what I do and I want to work on this project. I started seeing a counselor, who has helped with my anxiety.

I had an important conference (my university was hosting) that I needed to present at, and I couldn’t seem to get my advisor to give me feedback at my presenations (x2) and poster that I wrote. I ended up having to submit the presentation with him only taking a glance at it, and the poster without him seeing at all due to the deadline for the printing. Well, I finally went into his office to ask for feedback directly, rather than just through email. “Did you see my poster?” I asked. “No,” he shrugged. “I hope it’s good.” I literally then specifically asked him to pull it up on his computer. He was in a very weird sing songy mood and kept insisting that I listen to music with him, telling me it was important, rather than looking at my poster for a conference taking place the following week. I found it quite odd, but tried to brush it off.

I asked another professor to come to our group meeting that Friday… flash forward…that Friday during our group meeting where I scheduled myself to present for a practice run…I was so excited and it a great mood because I finally got some feedback about my project. I’m very passionate about my project and I love presenting, so anything to learn more about the project and improving presenting made me very happy. I took careful notes and was sure to thank those who critiqued me: my lab mates, advisor, and other professor that I invited.

Flash forward again. Tuesday, day of my presentation. During a break from all the presentations, I walked up and started talking to my advisor. Right away, big mistake…I’m a first year student and didn’t realize that he doesn’t like to talk to his students (only network with others) at conferences. He started giving me advice about my presentation, that was at 2 p.m. “Just tell a good story,” he said.  It was currently 10 a.m. I was afraid I looked nervous…pale, shaking, sweating…or something…and so I said, “I’m not worried; do I like worried?” He replied, “I don’t want to talk about this right now.” And he walked off. I tried to shake it off. I figured maybe he was just upset that I had interrupted his networking. Or maybe that he had somehow misunderstood what I had said.

Well, my presentation went very well and ended up being one of the top ranked presentations. People were very responsive and I felt like things were going great. I had a lot of people come up to me and tell me how much they enjoyed my presentation….with exception of my advisor, who seemed to be avoiding me. It felt odd, but at the same time I just figured he was….networking. He can talk to me anytime, why talk to me at a conference when there are people there he can only see twice a year?

Things seemed good. That night, after dinner, my advisor suggested we go to the local bar. So conference participants went to the bar. After having had a few drinks at the conference, my advisor drove a university vehicle over to the bar, where he proceeded to have a few more drinks and seem quite buzzed.  I had a couple of drinks as well, but was  driving my own vehicle and have always been quite the heavy weight when it comes to liquor.  He joked around with the male students, going so far as to make a joke with one about the student picking his female officemate’s dirty underwear. I tried to fit into the conversation, and I awkwardly mentioned that one of my labmates had initially thought I had a different sexual orientation than I do. Conversation seemed to flow, and everything seemed fine.

The next morning was when I found out that something really was wrong. I volunteered to swing by the hotel were conference participants were staying to make sure there was enough room in the university vehicles for all of them and their luggage.  If needed, I could take some of the guests or luggage up to the airport.  My advisor almost backed into me, so I honked at him. My car was backed into recently, and I definitely wanted to make sure that didn’t happen again. That being said, it was a school vehicle he was driving so I didn’t even know he was driving it. I jokingly told my labmate that he almost backed into me…trying to make light out of the situation….when he actually got out of his vehicle and started yelling at me and cussing. He swore that he had seen me and that he was backing up to make room for my car (makes so much sense right?) and that honking was disrespectful. At first I apologized, not wanting to upset my boss. But the more I thought about it, I’m glad I honked. I did the right thing.

There were several awkward encounters the next day, and I just tried to avoid him. After the conference was over, I thought that I would be able to avoid him and just let things die, but he scheduled a one-on-one meeting for the next day.

At this meeting, he proceeded to tell me how horrible I am at networking, because I scare people and that I talk too much. (I know I talk a lot, but I figure that some people don’t so it balances out). My talkative, excitable nature has been a life long battle, and I feel like we all have our quirks.  He did apologize for yelling at me after I honked at him, but maintains that I shouldn’t have honked, as honking is “disrespectful” and he saw my vehicle. He told me that my interactions with people are inappropriate (despite his comment about picking up female’s dirty underwear). (And I should just mention I was just trying to follow his lead). He told me that during my practice run of my presentation, I had seemed unreceptive and ungrateful to his feedback (despite my constant begging for feedback) and that the other professor who had come had felt the same way (despite me specifically inviting him for that reason…his feedback). He told me he feels like he can’t mentor me, and that he avoids me because he feels I cause drama in the workplace.

Lastly, he told me that I need to make an effort to cover up more, and pointed to his chest. I was wearing a shirt that’s collar line went up to my collar bone. He told me he had a hard time looking at me in the face because of the way I dress. Despite the fact we have no dress code, and that I wasn’t dressed badly anyway.

I didn’t know what to do. I just took everything he said and apologized for him feeling that way about me and told him I would work on things. I was shaken that day, but fine until I cried myself to sleep that night. I have felt worked up and intimidated by this man since I started last year. I love what I do, and I’m not going to change projects on his account.  Right now, I’m seeing an intern as my counselor is out of town. She recently found out about a support group in the diversity office for grad students with issues with their advisors. She hinted that I should make formal complaint against him, but I definitely fear retaliation and I know that no good will come of the complaint. He’s tenured, and things haven’t gotten bad enough that anybody would do anything. And, as it’s a small department that I’m in, he would even know an anonymous complaint was me.  I also feel like any complain that I make would burn the “bridge” (if there is one) between the two of us, and it would mean that I would have to switch advisors and projects.  I am also tired of trying to talk to my labmates, who at one second seem to support me, but the next tell me that I’ll find his advice will help me in the long run, even if it’s hard to hear.

I spoke with the other professor who I invited to our group meeting and specifically told him thank you for taking an hour out of his day to listen to my presentation.  I told him his feedback meant a lot to me, and that I was glad that he gave me some good advice for the presentation.  He didn’t seem to think I was unresponsive to his feedback or anything.

It’s now been a month since this all broke out.  I’ve tried to push it aside.  I’ve tried to make a lot of changes so that I could work with this man.  I’ve started wearing turtlenecks on days that I know that I am going to see him.  I avoid him as much as possible because I don’t feel like being intimidated and chewed out further.  Because he finds me unmentorable, unreceptive, and ungrateful despite me trying to get his feedback and communicate with him, I’m so nervous to talk to him at all.

I was gone for the past couple of weeks at a workshop at another university, 600 miles away.  My time at the workshop was really what showed me that I need to come up with some way to report this situation.  I had the opportunity for networking and was able to get close to another couple of girls within my field.  At first I noticed how different their experiences seemed with their advisors than mine.  I barely even mentioned mine, and right away these two girls told me that what was going on wasn’t right.  I hadn’t even mentioned anything close to everything that was going on, nor specific details.  I was shocked at how they reacted knowing so little of what was going on.  I was really careful not to bad talk him as everyone seems to think he’s such a great guy…and I don’t want to be gossiping.

My breaking point started coming when I needed to compose a couple of emails to my advisor.  I realize I was so shaken that I kept having to ask friends to proofread my emails to him.  I was going to bed, sick to my stomach because I figured I was probably going to get chewed out.  I had an abstract due only two weeks in the future.  As I wasn’t on campus, I had to take care of things via email.  I started to realize that I felt like I was playing a cat and mouse game.  I was trying so hard to every little thing my advisor wanted.  Since he chewed me out and called me unreceptive to his feedback…I’ve felt like he’s wanted me to blindly do everything he asks…make every single change to my abstract without even questioning it…I’m trying to get my PhD…doctor of philosophy…not blindly do everything this man says.  Then, to make matters worse, some of the changes he finally made to my abstract involved lying about the research we’ve done.  It wasn’t a huge lie, but one I wasn’t comfortable with.

I understand that he has a PhD in my field.  I understand that he knows (or should) more than me about the research.  But I’m trying to learn.  I’m not trying to dispute him.

And now that I’m back from the workshop, I realize I can’t do this anymore.  This anxiety I’m dealing with is gonna break me.  I can’t do this for four years.  So, I need to figure out what I can do about the situation.

… any advice you can give me is much appreciated.

A PhD Student (PS)

In a nutshell, my advice (given to PS over email) is to get out of there (I will chime in more later, in the comments). The dynamics between PS and her advisor has elements ranging from poor communication and personal incompatibility, to downright sexism and inappropriate behavior, including verbal abuse.  (N.B. Honestly, when someone throws a fit because you want them to provide some sort of tangible proof that they indeed gave you an offer, that’s a huge reg flag and you should run away as fast as you can.) The situation is damaging her health and well-being, and she needs to get out.

What say you, blogosphere? Please give advice to PS. 

Sexist Logorrhea

Apparently, a septuagenarian Nobel laureate thinks women are a distraction in the lab and cry a lot; calls for gender-segregated labs. The Internet erupts.

Whatever. I am actually relieved every time something like this happens. I am relieved that occasionally someone is actually stupid enough to say out loud what many think and act according to anyway.

Over the past several years, I have been a witness of pretty serious discrimination of other women by people considerably younger than Hunt. These men would fight you to the death if you even hinted that they were sexist because of course they don’t think they are; yet, their actions speak differently.

  • We have enough women,” said in earnest by a colleague in a faculty meeting discussing hiring. Women make <20% of faculty.
  • L is not a real candidate,” said by a colleague about a female candidate. The colleague and I were on the recruitment  committee together, I know we ranked all candidates, top 20 were all stellar, L was ranked 3, and we interviewed 5. She is not a diversity candidate, she’s a highly qualified candidate who also happens to be female.
  • A few years back, some colleagues and I went through serious diversity training in preparation for serving on the faculty recruitment committee. I remember finding the training illuminating. That’s where I first found out about how women are expected to act communal and men agentic, and how women are penalized if they act insufficiently communal. I saw the examples of recommendation letters and the difference in the language people use for men and women, how letters for women always veer towards too personal, with comparatively less focus on achievement, excellence, competence, and with different adjectives used for women and men. The male colleagues went through the motions and, when it was all done, said it was all pointless bullshit and a waste of time. We all saw examples of those letters of recommendation; they completely shook my world, but apparently did nothing for my male colleagues. You truly can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.
  • At the university level, we reviewed three candidates from the same general field (different subfields) coming up for tenure. If you just looked at the number of publications and quality of journals where they appeared, the number of  citations, the number of grants, the woman was the best of the lot. But if you looked at external evaluation letters, you’d be appalled by the language. According to the letters, the two men were superstars in the making (not made yet, with writers bending over backwards to attribute lack of citations to the fact that the candidate is a visionary), while the woman’s achievement were downplayed, with statements to the effect that she must have come up with some of her most heavily cited findings by accident! It was disgusting. I read about these instances happening, but it was blatant and real and clear as day. These letters then led to the committee dissecting the woman’s record with a scalpel and a fair bit of skepticism; everything worthwhile she did had to be qualified, while the men were fine just on potential and the letters.  (You bet I was vocal about it.)
  • Being a member of the program committee for a conference in my field, it routinely happens that there are no women suggested for invited talks unless I suggest some. It’s amazing how I can think of 3-4 women easily, and the other 15 dudes together cannot think of single one.

That is not to say that there aren’t men who really and truly are the champions of women. They exist (thank you, guys!), but are definitely a minority. For instance, I have the good fortune that some of my department colleagues, including the chair, are really genuinely supportive of women,  really put their money where their mouth is: they advise female students and actively support female colleagues. However, I would say that less than 20% of men in my department are true diversity champions, who believe a diverse workplace is a better place for everyone. The rest, a vast majority, make allowances for exceptional specific women (“Of course, you are awesome! You are much better than other women!”) but do not see why there is a need for diversity; science is fine just the way it is! They consider all our “hysteria” about women in science to be tiresome political bullshit that has to be catered to when writing about broader impacts in NSF proposals. They will often say things such as “We hire the best candidate, not an affirmative action candidate!” To everyone who ever said that I want to say the following: it sounds like you have no freakin’ clue how it is to objectively evaluate candidates for anything very competitive. There are always MANY highly qualified candidates, any one of them would be a good choice. Now the question is how to pick 1 or some other small number from among these uniformly excellent men and women. I am disgusted to see that people think all of these few spots belong (!) to “real candidates,” i.e., men. The fact a woman is just as good as any of them still does not make her a real candidate in the eyes of some, even fairly junior colleagues with professional wives and daughters.

So I don’t understand the outrage that another sexist a$$hole suffers from the foot-in-mouth disease. Because, really, it’s not a big surprise. It’s just how things are.

In my experience, many men in the physical sciences, even among those who think very highly of their own enlightenment, don’t really think that science needs more diversity, but rather that’s it’s simply something women want and are very loud and annoying about and should be accommodated on occasion to stop the whining (or to snatch the rarely seen unicorn-female-superstar-real-candidate).  They consider all efforts to promote women as a nuisance that gets in the way of doing science as they are used to. My European colleagues can be a special brand of offender here, as they often see (and speak of) the quest for promotion of women as an American problem and not something relevant to where they live and work (this from a colleague who works on a large team of about 50, with a single woman, a student). It is very hard to change people’s minds when they think they are blind to sexism and that all they see is merit. Trying to convince them that much of the merit is really in the eye of the beholder would be positively quixotic.

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.