Part-time work in academia

(by peirama) Sep 22 2016

Having it all can be a bit controversial. You can have it, or you can’t have it, you should have it or you shouldn’t.

I’m pretty sure I don’t want it all, but I do want a little bit of everything. Which brings us to a recent development in my career, part time work.

I personally feel that the current standard for work, either 40 hours a week or work as much as you can fit in without completely losing it, is for the most part unnecessary, unhelpful, and unsustainable for a happy and productive life. In the 1930s John Maynard Keynes predicted that by now we would be working much shorter weeks, perhaps as low as 15 hour work weeks*. Studies have shown that a 6 hour work day increases health without decreasing productivity **. So why do we continue to do it? There are a number of practical reasons and a number of cultural reasons. Universal healthcare would go a long way toward changing the practical reasons, though of course there are other hurdles. What about the cultural reasons? How does one change a culture? What if we ignore the societal pressures and find a way to make it work for ourselves?

My interest in part time doesn’t mean that I am not interested in working. It just means that there are only so many hours in a day and in a week and I’d like to spend more of those with my children. They grow so fast and I am afraid I am going to regret having spent so much time at work when they’re older. I also need time to maintain my health and make sure I’m sane enough to enjoy my time with them and be patient with myself and my family.

So after talking myself out of it for over a year, I recently took the plunge. I realized (with some help from a University provided therapist – definitely something every school should have and promote) that nothing was ever going to feel like the perfect decision and sometimes you just have to treat life as an experiment and try things. So I ignored all of my doubts, summoned my courage, and walked into my PI’s office.

“I’d like to request to work 4 days a week 80% time,” I said. “Can I think about it?” he replied.

I waited anxiously from the morning until I saw him leave for the day at 5pm. All night I stressed. Is he going to fire me? Is he going to say yes? What will I do if he says no?

I got summoned to his office the next morning. “I’ve thought about this a lot,” he told me. He proceeded to explain how he knew many of the most prominent women-in-science thought leaders in the country. The thing they’d ask, he said, was what I want for my career. So before he would give me his answer he wanted me to answer this question.

“Why,” I asked, “have you not asked me this before? I have been a postdoc for over four years. Why is it important now when it hasn’t been before?” He said some things about how he’s talked about it with other people in the lab*** but did not answer the question. He told me he that he had an answer that he thought I’d like but he didn’t want to tell me until after we had the discussion about my future. He said not to tell him now but to think about it. So off I went. To think about my future. Because that’s something that had never occurred to me to do until he asked. Obviously.

The next day, despite my fears of him not taking me seriously, I admitted that I did not think that the amount of time I wanted to commit to my family was compatible with being a PI. To my relief, and my chagrin, he agreed. He commented that when he was a young father he spent no time with his children. He questioned how the only person in the lab still considering tenure track, a woman with a young child, does it.

My mind revolted and split in two. I am pro women in science! I am as passionate about that as I am about science! Mothers should be able to be successful professors! Am I living up to a terrible stereotype? What am I doing? But…thank goodness he isn’t rejecting me for not being on the path to tenure track.

Once we got this discussion out of the way he told me his plan, a 3 month trial of the 80% schedule. If everything goes well, if I am productive, we will continue that way. So that is where I am. Three weeks in I am loving the arrangement.

I want to have a positive impact on the next generation of scientists. I do not, however, want to be a successful principal investigator at the cost of my quality of life. I hope instead I can help to make part-time science more mainstream in my own little way. When the goal is not “freedom at any cost” but instead “reasonable flexibility” the gains are smaller and the precise definition of “a win” is more vague. If I can be productive at this level and go on to have a successful career in something, I hope I can provide a positive example of of a balance that works for me.

 

*https://www.theguardian.com/business/2008/sep/01/economics

**http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-05-10/the-six-hour-workday-works-in-europe-what-about-america

***How is this relevant to me?


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I get it now: Reflections of a seasonal stay at home mom

(by notarealteachers) Sep 12 2016

I used to balk at the prospect of staying at home with my child. My mother in-law has frequently and less than gently suggested and touted the benefits of staying home with her own small children. “I’m a busy body,” I would respond, and “I like to feel like I have value outside the home.” I frequently reposted articles to Facebook that touted the benefits of staying in the workforce, partially to reinforce my decision. (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/making-sense/how-much-does-it-cost-to-leave-the-workforce-to-care-for-a-child-a-lot-more-than-you-think/). I’d vehemently disagree when people argued that childcare is too expensive to allow them to work. (Here’s my math: 2 kids in daycare at an average of $1,000/month is $24,000 dollars a year: A lot of money, definitely, but certainly not more than the annual income of many of my colleagues.)

I work part time as a high school teacher. I love the work, but the pay (especially as a part-timer) is admittedly low. Many perks counterbalance my small paycheck. Among these are ample breaks; I get every holiday off, plus two weeks at Christmas, a week for spring break and 10 weeks off in the summer. I cherish these breaks, both for my own sanity and the precious time with my small daughter (and soon to arrive baby boy!).

The first few weeks of summer, I often feel antsy. I frantically clean the house during naptime and create projects for myself. I organize, weed the yard and bake healthy muffins. Within a few weeks, though, my toddler and I get into the groove. I read books, listen to podcasts and frequent the neighborhood park. I make regular trips to Target, and we never run out of diapers or paper towels. I make dinner every night, get the laundry done at a non-frantic pace, and get us packed and unpacked from a multitude of summer trips. When my husband gets home in the evening, instead of flitting around the house to finish our chores and prepare for the next day as we do during the school year, we spend quality time together. We reflect on our days and plan for our future. We pour over the unreasonable number of photos and videos of our daughter I’ve accumulated in a short 10 hours, and climb into bed content instead of exhausted. My husband recently commented, “I feel like I’m on break, too,” despite working 55+ hours per week.

As a result, this summer, I have for the first time really, truly understood why many families choose to have one parent stay home (and I don’t think it’s usually financial). With one of us home, our relationship is better and our life is less stressful. We have time to chat about our days and energy to go out to dinner occasionally just the two of us (without feeling like our daughter lives in childcare).

I’m certainly not ready to leave the workforce. A lifetime of internal dialogue regarding the benefits of working when combined with a deep love for my work in science education is not outweighed by my recent revelations. However, I vow to be relinquish my previously judgment over those who choose to do this life differently than I have and to be more open minded. Maybe one day I’ll be a full time stay at home mom. Or maybe I’ll work full time. But for now, I’m thankful for this season.


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The Interview Question I Was Completely Unprepared For

(by psywguest) Sep 06 2016

Today’s guest contributor is currently a postdoctoral fellow in New York City. She holds a PhD in Neuroscience, and her research interests include neuroanatomy and psychiatric disease. She has posted with us previously and is back in a two-part series to share her experiences with different job interviews around the time she became a new mother.

At 9 months pregnant, I had two promising phone interviews. One was for an academic job. The other was for a medical communications firm.

Given my advanced pregnancy, and how unpredictable babies’ arrivals can be, my contact at the medical communications firm decided not to attempt to schedule a formal interview, and instead she proposed we meet and talk at a coffee shop after work one evening.

She bought us both hot chocolates, and we found a quiet place to talk. I’d researched as much as I could about the firm, but was still surprised when she told me about the breadth of work that comprised medical communications. It was, as I was aware, communication of drug information in a comprehensive way to the public and prescribing physicians. But, as I learned, it also encompassed communication about science to clinicians to inform trial design, presenting clinical data to businessmen and women, and even branched into regulatory affairs. I found myself growing increasingly excited about the potential impact I could have in this career field, and how much I could learn.

But then she gently turned the questions to me, pressing for information about my own background and career thus far. All went well and fairly predictably until she asked me a question I never anticipated.

“What can we do to support you in your role as a new mother?”

“I’m sorry?” I responded, thinking, ‘This is a trick question!’

“Well, if we go forward with this, we’d want to make this position work for you. We want to provide the support necessary for you to be successful here. What do you think you would need from us?”

I think I opened and closed my mouth a few times. I just could not think of what to say.

“Do you think you would want to start part-time?” she prompted, “Or maybe work from home a few days a week?”

I was floored. Was this not a trick question? Was she seriously asking me? In all the discussions I’d had at work as a postdoc, despite having successfully obtained salary support for myself through a fellowship and obtained additional grants for my research, no one had ever asked what professional support I would need through my pregnancy and transition into motherhood. Even though my friends and colleagues congratulated me on a personal level, my pregnancy was largely framed as a liability– something that we could overcome if I were productive enough. Despite the massive changes to my personal life, life in lab rolled along the same as it ever had. If anything, I felt pressure to work harder to prove I was still dedicated and as capable as I ever was– and I honestly think my lab was better than most in terms of their treatment of a pregnant postdoc.

So I had never considered the question before. And I was still speechless.

She smiled, “Well, why don’t you think about it? I’m sure it’s hard to know now how your life will change over the next few months!”

We wrapped up our talk, and she proposed I get back in touch once I was ready and had taken some time to adjust to motherhood.

Reflecting on the interview afterwards, the way the question was framed was also intriguing to me. Essentially, she was saying that if I weren’t successful, her department wouldn’t be as successful as it could be either– so, if I needed certain minor accommodations to succeed, it was in her best interest to provide them. Once I thought about it, this seemed like Management 101.

But I’ve never come across this management style in my scientific training in academia thus far, and this interview experience contrasted strikingly with my academic interview.

In fairness, academia can lend itself towards working flexible hours, which has been invaluable to me over the last few years, and now, as a working mother of an infant. But I consider myself fortunate in this benefit: not every academic job is flexible, and most academic jobs that I’m aware of, especially at the faculty level, mandate working very long hours (even when there is some flexibility about which hours those are).

*********

At the moment, I’m still not sure what direction my career will head in. My husband just landed his dream job in another city, so a move is on the horizon.

But after these two interviews, I think I have a better idea of what I’d like to see in an employer.


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The Postpartum Interview

(by psywguest) Aug 29 2016

Today’s guest contributor is currently a postdoctoral fellow in New York City. She holds a PhD in Neuroscience, and her research interests include neuroanatomy and psychiatric disease. She has posted with us previously and is back in a two-part series to share her experiences with different job interviews around the time she became a new mother.

This past spring, I landed two phone interviews– one in academia, and one at a medical communications firm. The complication: I was 9 months pregnant at the time.

The phone interviews went well. When I was asked to come in person, I told both interviewers I was pregnant, due in a matter of weeks. The folks at the academic job said they were eager to fill the position, that there was some urgency, and asked me to get in touch as soon as I had given birth so we could schedule an interview then.

My beautiful baby came screaming into the world three days after his due date. We had some complications, but, while still in the hospital, I emailed the academic job to tell them my baby had arrived. They responded with a few potential dates I could come in to interview. The first date was only days away; the latest date was exactly 3 weeks after I had given birth. I agreed to come at that date. I didn’t get the impression that it would be acceptable to ask for a later date.

A few days passed before my baby was discharged from the hospital, and, thankfully (so thankfully), was pronounced healthy. Over the next few weeks, my husband and I passed through the typical but brutal hazing ritual that is early parenthood. Sleepless days and nights blurred together and were equal parts both immense gratitude for our precious child and immense fear we were going to accidentally do something to harm his impossibly tiny body.

Our sleep deprivation was unprecedented. Our newborn son wasn’t able to sleep on his own and cried continuously unless he was being rocked in our arms, walked around outside, or being driven in the car, so it wasn’t possible to ‘sleep when the baby sleeps’. I had no idea I could actually survive on so little rest– instead of my normal 7 hours a night, I was getting around 7 hours of sleep in a week as my son alternated between crying and breastfeeding.

The interview date crept closer. Four days before its scheduled date, the director contacted me with a request that I prepare a talk on work I’d done years prior. So, in 20 minute intervals while my son napped or my husband rocked him, I pieced together Powerpoint slides from old talks I’d given, annoyed that this request hadn’t come in sooner.

The night before the interview, I discovered I still couldn’t fit into any of my pre-pregnancy professional clothes but my maternity clothes hung off me like overstretched Lycra bags. In a brain-fogged panic, I managed to get to a Banana Republic before it closed and handed a saleswoman my credit card in exchange for a grey sweater-dress.

The morning of the interview, my husband took my son out of the house for a walk at 6AM. I practiced my talk for an hour and slept for two, until my husband had to bring him back to be fed at 9AM. Those two hours were the longest uninterrupted stretch of sleep I had gotten since he was born.

My husband drove me to my interview with our newborn in the back seat and a bottle containing a few ounces of breastmilk I’d managed to pump. I hadn’t been given an itinerary so I wasn’t sure how long the day would be. My husband planned to drive the baby around while I was interviewing and I promised to text him with updates as often as I could.

The day started with my presentation. I didn’t have the energy to be nervous, and I surprised myself at how sensible I sounded. Feedback was very positive, and the questions were intelligent. I was then given the itinerary and discovered the rest of the day would proceed in a series of 5 one-hour interviews with various members of the department, followed by a meeting with an HR rep.

A department administrator toured me around the sprawling building. I trailed slowly behind her, finding it difficult to keep up. Between interviews, I went into the bathroom, where I texted my husband for updates on our son, changed the hospital-grade pads I was wearing as I was still bleeding profusely from the birth, attempted to relieve my painfully engorged breasts, and checked that none of my bodily fluids had soaked through my clothes.

Outside the building, my husband drove in circles around the parking lot for hours in the rain while our son cried and slept in his carseat.

The interviews were fairly standard and I think, if I weren’t so exhausted, I would have enjoyed talking science with the group. The only thing that caught me slightly unprepared was an interviewer who grilled me about brands and comparative prices of equipment and reagents I’d used in the past, but I diffused his line of questioning by telling him about cost-saving modifications to a protocol, which I later sent in a follow-up email.

Before I left, I met with the director, who thanked me for coming in so soon after giving birth, reiterated the urgency to fill the position, and told me they would let me know their hiring decision in the upcoming weeks.

Weeks, however, turned into months and spring warmed into summer. My son learned, blessedly, to sleep independently, outgrew his newborn clothes, and gave me his first unforgettable smile. I healed.

I sent emails with gentle enquiries as to the status of the hiring process. Various reasons for the delay were given: the director was on vacation, there was a grant deadline… as of this writing, no one has yet been hired although the job advertisement has been taken down. Clearly, the urgency to fill the position that mandated a candidate interview 3 weeks postpartum has evaporated.

A number of unanswerable questions lurk in my thoughts: Did I not do as well as I could have? Would it have gone better if I had asked to come in at a later date, when I was physically and mentally closer to my normal self? Did my status as a new mother influence the hiring decision (or lack thereof)? Was the hiring committee (all males) unaware of the endurance test they were putting me through, or was it a purposeful test of my dedication to my career?

And: Is academia, where it’s acceptable to expect a candidate to go through a grueling interview process 3 weeks postpartum, really a viable choice for my/our future?

Still, I’m glad I interviewed– even though the process tested my physical, intellectual, and emotional limits, I learned just how far my limits extend, and I know I would have regretted it if I hadn’t given it all I had for the professional opportunity this job presented. However, the experience left me with doubts about committing to a career in a field where such an ordeal would be asked for and expected of an applicant. Certainly, given the oversupply of PhDs and demand for academic jobs, this is par for the course. In this economic climate, department heads could probably line up flaming hoops for aspirational candidates to jump through on the lawns of their institutions, and we’d do it (and it would likely be the easiest part of the interview).

But is this a healthy field to continue to work in?

Next in the series: The interview question I was completely unprepared for


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Now what?

(by psywguest) Aug 23 2016

Todays guest post is by Ragamuffin, who is enjoying the new title of Dr. Ragamuffin. As she writes this she is on a several month break between defending her dissertation and starting her new shiny postdoc fellowship, leaving some time for reflection, dinner with friends, and relocating.

Screenshot 2016-08-22 20.57.04

I did it. I buffed my writing and pipetting calluses. I landed a postdoctoral fellowship from a surprisingly prestigious lab. I defended my dissertation. I moved to New-Job City. Now what?

There once was a girl who lived for scientific observation and inquiry, and devoured the history of science and the scholars who built the foundations of modern biology and medicine. She crafted from piles of biographies the ideal career path to be able to do what these almost mythical icons had done. Ramon y Cajal. Curie. Levi-Montalchini. Franklin. My shy and introverted soul wanted to spend her days at a lab bench and a microscope. Discovering new things about the physiological landscape through observation and methodical inquiry. Asking the big questions, and making the keenest observations that would contribute to understanding of our world. I thought this meant that I wanted to be a primary investigator (PI).

Nostalgically and fantastically motivated, a slightly older dreamer traversed her predoctoral training hardly straying from the pursuit of an academic research position. The path and its benchmarks were clear. Even in the most tumultuous year of candidacy, enough mentors had told me that I COULD do this that it enforced the belief that I MUST. For myself, for women in STEM, to impress my future children. I must become a PI. Even as the rest of my cohort prepared for careers in teaching and biotechnology, I stood my ground feeling strongly that I neither could nor should do anything else.

There were several periods during my PhD that things did not sit right with my original personal or professional goals, but I usually acknowledged them only as expressions of stress and anxiety. I learned that in order to fully embody the spirit of my scientist icons in a modern landscape meant an entirely different kind of regulation, financial restriction, productivity and politics. As an avid sponge of historical science, I knew that these types of challenges were similar at face value. Scientists have always needed to publish their work and receive funding to see it continue. But Science is a vastly evolved creature from 15 years ago, let alone a century. These two basic requirements in modern scientific research are much more competitive, complex and convoluted than they once were. To be adept at either one requires a different set of skills.

A solid neurobiological experiment, for instance, can hardly be conducted in one’s kitchen anymore. Today in order for a publication to reach a substantial audience [in my field], publications almost always include multiple extensive experiments repeated several times with overwhelmingly high statistical power and at least one highly advanced technology. The kitchen is almost guaranteed to be useless.

At first, I wanted to be a PI because I thought that is what it would take for me to access the resources necessary to produce valuable scientific contributions. A flawed premise, and at odds with my appreciation for what it means to be a scientist. I knew — and spoke openly about — the evolution of scientific inquiry, the rising influence of research institute teams, and the profound talents of the numerous staff scientists who otherwise receive little to no credit for their contributions. In spite of the regard with which I held others in my field, I maintained that my PERSONAL value could only come from a senior academic title. That because I “COULD” do this, I MUST. That despite some hard times and poor luck during my predoctorate, I was born for it. That I would continue to enjoy writing research manuscripts. That I wouldn’t mind perpetual grant writing. That I would develop the time-honored thick skin necessary to respond positively to rejection. These were my mantras through graduate school.  But upon receiving my PhD, I feel a rush of freedom to question all my motivations.

  • My pipetting and mental calluses could use a break.
  • Although I enjoy writing manuscripts, I loathe editing and reformatting them.
  • I do not mind grant writing, but patience for it waned substantially toward the end of my degree.

Experience has not left me thick-skinned, but for now annoyed and easily exhausted.

On the other side of my degree, I have achieved a level of self-appreciation and confidence that allows a more honest reflection on my career dreams. One does not need to be a PI to support and represent women in STEM. My future children will have plenty to be impressed with. I very well COULD tire of this phase and once again work passionately toward professorship, but I no longer feel that I MUST.

Now what? The dreamer begins her postdoctoral fellowship a month from now. She intends to use this new beginning to examine all of the personal and career possibilities that she ignored or did not bother to explore as a predoctorate. For the first time, she does not clearly see what the next step should be. And that is both terrifying and exulting.


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On grant funding

(by torschlusspanik) Aug 18 2016

One of determining points in my leaving academia was grant funding.  I was not confident enough, or motivated enough to sustain continuous funding for however long I was willing to be a PI .

In a way, my years as a postdoc and project scientist traumatized me for applying for grants.  In my former lab, my PI’s grant (NIH RO1) application preparation was a group effort.  Our PI assigned advanced graduate students and postdocs two or three sections of his grant application, and we had multiple meetings prior to deadline to flush out ideas, revise sections, and integrate them into his master draft. It was a great practice for me, until the deadline came.  Whether it was paralysis, procrastination, or waiting until we were under extreme duress to come up with brilliant ideas, finalizing an application as a lab came always at the last minute or never.  For one submission, graduate student and I took turns pulling all-nighters for one week prior to a deadline, to come up with preliminary data for experiments proposed in a grant.  In another or the same submission cycle, on the date it was due with 6-7 hours left, all members of the lab sat around a conference table as if in the Situation Room.  Each person stared at his/her laptop screen, worked on different sections of different versions of a draft, sweated grease, pulled hairs, and waited to be called by our PI so that our sections can be integrated.  The time of submission brutally approached, and we were nowhere near being done.  My PI was on the phone with a departmental grant officer pleading for more time and understanding.  The time of submission came and passed, and we kept on working.  About 20 minutes later my PI finally called it, “ we are not submitting the grant.”  We did this at least TWICE, for two consecutive application deadlines.  As you can tell by italics and capital letters, it still raises strong emotions for me, even years later.

In my tenure at the lab, getting an NIH RO1 grant for my PI remained elusive. He did however receive other grants to keep the lab thriving and afforded me.  But we needed a RO1. What imprinted in me from the experience was how difficult it is to obtain a RO1 funding.  Without RO1, one is less likely to get tenured and maintain a lab.  If my PI, whom I deemed a brilliant scientist, had this much trouble getting a RO1, what an audacity to assume that I would get one?  I felt I had no chance.  Or more honestly I did not want to work that hard.  I did not want to make my graduate students and postdocs work that hard only to fire them when the funding did not come.

So I was scared and chickened out.  The shrinking funding rate did not help either.

It turns out I would have faced obstacles if I stayed in academia, not just my own demons (I am as bad, if not worse, procrastinator as my former PI)  but external ones.  Not to be consistently pessimistic but if I had stayed in academia more than likely I would have become a part of statistics in this recent article.  The study analyzed gender and race differences in the likelihood of receiving NIH RO1 in years 2000-2006.  The authors found that race, and not gender, was a key determinant in RO1 award. While white women did not differ from white men, Asian and black women received significantly less funding than white women.  Although this study did not find disadvantages of being a female applicant, many other studies do (like this one).  As a woman of color (Asian), I would have faced an uphill battle, a double bind. If only I was more ambitious, this type of studies would have made me energized and strive to reverse the current status.  At this point, I can only ask for those who are still in it to try…


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Postdoc pay disparities

(by peirama) Aug 06 2016

The scientist I work for pays some of his postdocs below the NIH pay scale. This is despite our institute’s website saying that it “sets the salary scale following the current NIH Kirschstein-NRSA stipend levels,” and despite that he has bragged about how much grant money he has.

After all of the recent stories about abusive misbehaving scientists, my complaint feels small. However, the outrageous among us should not drag down the baseline of normalcy and acceptable behavior.

I have been lucky in that I have always been paid on the NIH pay scale without having to ask for it. This probably has to do with me being on and off training grants rather than his respect for me or my hard work. This means, however, when I found out recently that a postdoc who has been here longer than I have is making significantly less than me left me surprised and horrified.

I am left with some questions. If these postdocs asked for more, how would my PI respond? If these postdocs were men would he pay them more?

I know there are many discussions on the blogosphere and Twitter about whether or not postdocs in general should complain about their pay. I think that it is at least reasonable to agree on a pay scale and then stick to it.

Do you know PIs who don’t pay their postdocs on the scale? Does your university do anything to enforce the scale?


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Stepping through the week of returning to work

(by strongerthanfiction) Jul 31 2016

Sunday

I wake, laying quietly in bed, thinking of how interesting the last three months have been… That first month of a new baby – whoa. Did the world start spinning at a different speed? A few months ago, I could barely figure out how to physically get out of bed and get food into me, let alone this crying newborn. Now, we have a nice little routine going. In fact, my days have started to feel like they are missing something. Immersion in the outside world, perhaps. It does feel a little repetitive if I don’t get out and do something with baby. Wake, feed baby. Play a bit, feed baby, try to convince baby to nap – ahhh! Stress – baby, please nap. Repeat eat, play, nap. But I like predictable. I like routine for this growing little synapse machine. When things are predictable, I know whether or not I have a good handle on things, and know how to make them better the next day. I feel a little proud – I got her to a good place. But underneath that pride is a little worry. Me going back to work won’t undo that, right?

Monday

Little munchkin is so sweet playing there in the crib when I walk in at the (lately) usual time to get a smile before I pick happy baby up. Oh, the smell of baby. Intoxicatingly relaxing. I go about my routine, now acutely aware that the luxury of these slightly repetitive daily activities is about to come to an end. Mental note –enjoy every second of this day. It takes a lot to remind myself not to stress. We didn’t get munchkin accepting bottles yet. Despite weeks of trying and many different types of bottles. To me, there is a lot to stress about. To future me, this stress is probably laughably tiny. But, I am not future me.

Deep breath – enjoy everything about today.

Ahhh! Baby will starve!

Deep breath – oh, that baby is so cute.

Tuesday

Today is supposed to be overlap day with dad– the next caretaker. One of the ideas was to have it be Dad-led day. But there are so many chores and tasks and a yard project to work on. Dad ends up working outside most of the day. He has been around, knows the routine, and knows the tired/hungry signs, I think. All the sudden the day is over. There wasn’t actually much overlap today, but everything will be fine, right?

Mental checklist – did I get everything I need into my purse from my other purse (formerly known as diaper bag)? Did I make enough food for the next few days? What is lunchtime, again? Did I get the A/C adapter and all the other parts and pieces for the breast pump? Did I pack enough ice for the milk to sit on? How am I going to carry all these bags around tomorrow?!? Uhhhh, crap, I have to wear normal clothes again – crap, none of these pants fit me! Hmmm, where did I put those stretchy waistband maternity slacks, again? Ahh, that is much more comfortable. Eww. I have to wear a bra again – these nursing tank tops are waaay more comfortable.

Ahhh! Baby is not taking a bottle!

Deep breath.

Wednesday

Wake up, feed and walk the dog, make breakfast and get dressed. I am leaving a little later than I did pre-baby to try and breastfeed her well before heading off to work – without early wakeup. So far, so good. I will hit a little traffic, but, oh well. I filed the paperwork to switch from 9 hr workdays back to 8 so that I don’t have to be gone so long. I will miss bi-weekly day off, but maybe I can get back to it, eventually.

As my car rolls up to work, I have these very strange emotions. I am excited, nervous, anxious, and second guessing myself, all in one flash. It is a little surreal, because I have not gone through these motions in months. I feel the same as the familiarity floods back, but it is weird. Everything is different. I have a kid. But I am still me. I guess I am still figuring out what being a mom means.

It is very strange to bring this extra giant bag with me full of pumping stuff. Thankful for pinterest in its suggestions about what to put in a pumping bag, but man, this thing is huge.

Whoa – emails galore. I did occasionally sift through work emails, but there is a lot to catch up on at my computer for the next few days.

It is very strange to take the elevator down to the pumping room when the time comes. I am so thankful for my other recent mommy coworker who shows me the ropes and offers me advice for my very frequent questions.

Ahhh! Is my baby eating? Check the baby tracking app. AHHH! She hasn’t eaten anything yet and it is 2pm! She will starve! Ahh!

Get home – awwwwww! Baby is soooo cute! Mmm, I missed that baby smell. Oh, wow, she is really hungry.

Thursday

Back at it. Ok, I know what to expect in the morning now. Tank up, baby, ’cause you did not eat enough yesterday.

Hmm. I should probably go get a few things that fit better. Wardrobe still feels very limited.

My coworkers are very understanding, for the most part. Some ask questions about how it has been for me and relate with their own experiences. Some are so sweet and just want to see pics of baby. Oooookkkaaaayyyy, I guess I can show you some of the 20 bazillion on my phone.

Ahh! Is baby eating today? No bottle, still! Time to call the doctor. What other mom friends do I have that I can ask about this?

It is really nice to ease back into work. There are not a lot of expectations placed on my to get anything done immediately. I find a way to make myself useful today, but still just playing catch-up and reorienting myself to lab.

Get home – oh dear, baby is really, really hungry, but I pumped all day. Not good.

Whoever gave me the advice to return on a Wednesday instead of Monday, I want to hug you.

Friday

New game plan. Tank baby up, still continue to get her used to a bottle, but husband brings baby to me at lunch. Oh man, I am tired today – the several addition nighttime wake-ups last night were unwelcome and exhausting.

Pump and watch adorable videos of baby.

Start getting organized for the thing I want to do next week at work. Read through a lot of the old work I did before I left to remind myself of the small details.

Oh man.

Survived the week. And so did baby, despite her drastically different eating habits. While in some ways, my stress persists about baby regressing from a nice healthy schedule, all in all, we are all still good. Next week is a new week. We can attack with a new strategy.

The saga continues…

I am so thankful for my other mamma friends who have given me such solid advice, on this blog, and elsewhere about not having high expectations about jumping back into work. I would normally expect myself to jump right back into the deep end, but hearing other people talk about it has helped me wade in more slowly from the shallow end. It is ok to take my time.


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Book Club – Lab Girl

(by sweetscience) Jul 20 2016

We recently read Lab Girl, the nationally bestselling memoir by Hope Jahren, PhD. Dr. Jahren is a Professor at the University of Hawai’i Manoa where she runs a Geobiology Laboratory. She also blogs about interactions between women and men in academia at https://hopejahrensurecanwrite.com. The book is mostly about her life and career path, but it also weaves in interesting vignettes about plant life that appear as metaphors related to aspects of her experiences.

Lab Girl image

What was the most relatable part of the story for you?

fishprint: I read this book, in part, to find a relatable female scientist. I probably wouldn’t have admitted this at the time, but I like her writing, I love her Twitter presence, and I really wanted to relate to her. So, I spent the first half of the book hating it. Until finally I recognized I’d brought all these expectations to the book. Then I could let all that go and read it.  Do not read this book if you want a relatable female scientist role model to compare yourself to. Read this book for a well written, complicated personal story. You may relate more to the grad student who quits, “sneering on her way out that she didn’t want a life like mine”, but that’s OK. No one, probably not even that student, was really being asked to have a life like Jahren’s. But the proximity of the book (and worse if you work for her, I imagine) makes you compare and question.

peírama: One thing the book relies on and yet only briefly touches on directly is how Jahren’s relationship with Bill is important to her success in science. There are the straightforward ways, that he works for almost nothing yet works harder than most employees would and that he is a consistent presence in her lab from before she even starts her lab throughout her career (a trait which can make someone invaluable if they are competent, which Bill seems more than). Then there is the personal aspect of it. As Jahren readily admits, doing science is hard. There are setbacks from the natural world and from the world of people. Having someone interested in the same things as you, thinking about the same questions as you, who you get along with, who is there to support you when things get tough, makes things so much easier. I think the way our scientific society is set up to put people out on their own without a built in network and constantly ripping scientists away from people they know is counterproductive. Jahren lucked into a situation that should be more common in science – scientists with common interests working closely together, supporting each other, and working toward the same scientific goals.

Curiouser&Curiouser: Unlike fishprint, I had not heard of Dr. Jahren before reading this book, but I think I initially expected to find a role model in Lab Girl.  I did not.  I found very few specifics in her story relatable, but these 3 themes resonated with me.  

  1. In science you do not act alone.  I felt like the second half of the story was basically a platonic love letter to her best friend/lab manager.  While at times I felt awkward when it seemed to me that she was writing for/to Bill, (even though he said he would never read the book) I appreciated the sentiment that led her to want to say thank you and make sure credit is appropriately shared.   
  2. Being a scientist is hard work. ‘Nuf said
  3. Your personal struggles impact your career both positively and negatively.  It’s not always possible to check your personal baggage at the door.  

SweetScience: Dr. Jahren has clearly worked hard throughout her education and career, but it seemed like many major elements (i.e. certain jobs, her work partner Bill) just fell into place for her. This is not to say that she didn’t earn and work to keep those things, but I can relate to feeling like some things just come to you, even while things you try so hard for remain elusive.

 

Here are a few quotes that resonated with us. (Pages refer to original hard-cover edition)

  • “…my true potential had more to do with my willingness to struggle than with my past and present circumstances.” P. 18
  • “As much as I have loved being a scientist, I am ready to admit that I am tired of all the hard things that should be easy by now.” P. 25 (stated in the context of funding, but widely applicable)
    • C&C: This was one of my favorite quotes from the book.  I feel discouraged at least weekly by how much of a struggle it can, and will continue to be.  
  • “…there are only two kinds of people in the world: the sick and the not sick. If you are not sick, shut up and help.” P. 44
  • “On some deep level, the realization that I could do good science was accompanied by the knowledge that I had formally and terminally missed my chance to become like any of the women that I had ever known.” P 71
  • “…because I am a female scientist, nobody knows what the hell I am, and it has given me the delicious freedom to make it up as I go along.” P 277
    • SS: I can’t directly relate to this because I feel that female scientists are common in my field/generation, but I do think it’s interesting and important to understand that someone has felt this way in very recent history. Further, I can relate to the idea of ‘making it up as I go along’ as it feels like everyone is struggling through the decisions that need to be made early in one’s career in a way that is probably different than previous decades, given the overabundance of PhDs, lower relative number of traditional academic research jobs, and wide array of other science-related careers open to us. There’s no clear path, and no history of scientists having to navigate these conditions.

 

What surprised you about the book?

SS: I was surprised that there was virtually nothing relating to the interactions between women and men in academia that are the focus of Dr. Jahren’s blog, and a talk I saw her give to a Women In Science group. Given that she’s had plenty of experiences relevant for the subject and is clearly passionate about the topic and changing the state of academia’s treatment of women, I wonder why she didn’t draw attention to those issues in this book. Maybe it will be the focus of book number two?

f: She still doesn’t sleep. She still goes to the lab every night.

P: I was also surprised about how she talked about working all night like it was normal and how her family seems like afterthought.

C&C: I didn’t pick up on her struggle with mental health issues early on in the book, and so I found her description of her interactions and environment unnerving and often depressing.  Once she made it clear that there was more going on than a selectively empathetic, extremely driven person I was able to let go of the idea that an “ideal scientist” should follow her model, and I was surprised to find that I enjoyed the second half of the book.  

I also was shocked by Bill’s living conditions until they get to hawaii, what a loyal friend to stick it through!

 

Are there any messages in the book you disagree with for yourself or as a role model for young scientists?

SS: I don’t love the propagation of ‘the absent-minded professor’ stereotype, particularly the scientist who is so passionate and caught up in their work that they are up all night excited about a potential discovery at the expense of their personal lives; it is possible and indeed common for a career in research to be ‘just a job’ and that’s something I feel is a valuable message for young scientists.

f: Many of the pronouncements in this book are things that have worked for Jahren, and are not broadly true (or good) for other people. She is in lab all day and then hits the lab again every night starting around 10:30pm. I doubt she sleeps more than a few hours a night. And that’s OK for her, it makes her happy, and it works for her team (Bill). But seen as a message, it is a damaging one. My first PI bragged about sleeping 3 hours a night. In fact, every boss I’ve ever had has tedious glory days stories about being in the lab all night. They are not all successful, but they all want to cast themselves as passionate, committed night owls. Why? Is that really when they do their best work? That’s when I start breaking things and deleting files. Not sleeping and not caring for your health can look like a thing that interesting and successful people do, but it’s not going to work for everyone. In defense of Jahren, she’s just telling her story. It’s messy, it’s literally manic, and her life would only work for her.

Oh, and that part about trying to weed out the students who value their time. Sigh.

P: She paints a picture of a world where a certain type of man is what the world sees as a scientist, and thus she and her best friend/lab tech who is a man but doesn’t fit that description are science outsiders who have to work twice as hard as everyone else to gain scientific acceptance.

I do not argue with that, as that is clearly true. However, she paints an alternate picture of a stereotypical scientist. The scientist that can’t stop until they’ve answered all the questions. The scientist who works until their knuckles bleed and needs no other sustenance but a good question. I think a lot of people, including myself and my fellow bloggers, love science and consider ourselves scientists but also do not fit that stereotype of a scientist.

One sentence that caught my eye in the very first chapter was “I glanced at the clock and noted that my son had gone to bed several hours ago.” She makes clear that her priority is science over everything else. That is not how I want to live my life. Yes, my husband is perfectly capable of putting my children to bed and does on many occasions, but I like to put my children to bed. My children and my husband bring me joy and I knew a life with a husband and children was something I wanted as surely as I knew I loved science. Hope Jahren has written a memoir, so perhaps it is unfair to criticize what is only her own story. Her way is one way to be a scientist. Perhaps the problem is not that she has told her story without any acknowledgment of other alternative ways to be a scientist but that there are not more stories that make it to the mainstream of those other alternative ways to be a scientist.

C&C: From the description in the book I don’t think Jahren can be considered a viable role model for most young scientists.  She has a unique set of challenges and gifts (she has found the most loyal employee ever and neither of the seem to need to sleep?!) that make her career and life choices reasonable to her, but I can not see them leading to happiness or scientific success for most people.  

 

Who would you recommend this book to?

SS: I would recommend this book to anyone interested in learning about what it means to be an academic scientist, or who likes different memoirs.

f: People who enjoy memoirs and science. I would not pitch it as an “inspirational female scientist”.

P: On the whole, I enjoyed this book as a book. That is to say, I enjoyed reading it when not thinking critically about what message it was sending and whether I agreed with that. I think it tells a compelling story of a woman finding her way in the world. It flows well and drew me in.

I also think this book is good for anyone interested in the natural world. I learned a lot about seeds and trees.

C&C: I think people who feel marginalized and/or struggle with mental health issues may enjoy the book.

 

All in all, most of us enjoyed reading most of the book, and we’d love to hear what you think too – tell us in the comments!


6 responses so far

Do the same rules apply to all genders as mentors?

(by sweetscience) Jul 12 2016

parks-and-rec-nbc
Image source: http://zap2it.com/2015/01/parks-and-recreation-leslie-knope-feminist-goddess/

I have great summer student. She was a student of mine at my previous institution and came to do research in my current lab for her summer internship. On her first day I was really busy and sorry I didn’t have time to do much more than set her up with her training, so I said, “Why don’t I take you out to lunch tomorrow?” I thought it would be a good chance to catch up and get to know her better. So we went out and got to chat about what was going on in her life and she asked me a lot more about my career history. It was great, and exactly what I would hope for from a mentor-mentee relationship.

And then, because I always love over-analyzing things as a gender-based thought experiment, I wondered how this would be different if our genders were different. Could taking a student out to lunch to get to know them better be perceived as inappropriate if my student was male? Probably not, but it would almost certainly be less comfortable for me and probably for the student. What if I was male and my student was female? That gave me pause. Of course this one event was within the bounds of normal mentoring, but I could see the potential for something like this to make a student uncomfortable or to be the beginning of a series of problematic events where the power differential* makes it difficult for the student to say no to increasingly line-crossing interactions.

Should I be okay with behavior that I don’t see a problem with in one gender combination, if I do see it as a potential problem with a different gender? The image above is an extreme example (since everything Leslie Knope does is extreme and awesome), but there are many things that can seem not noteworthy coming from women that would never be acceptable from men.

On the one hand, I think it is even more important for women to get close and mentor other women to help them overcome the obstacles we continue to face. However, when I think about a man mentoring another man [preferentially], it makes me feel like the old boys club is being perpetuated. Is it fair to think that one is essential and the other should be avoided, as long as there is an imbalance in the field?

Further, why should the line be drawn in a different place for me as a female mentor than for a male mentor? Should I hold myself to the same standards and distance that I would expect from a man?

There are certainly ways male and female mentors may have different benefits, for either female or male mentees, and for this among many reasons, it is advisable for a student to try to have several mentors. But what should a mentor take into consideration for his or her interactions with different trainees? How does one give each student the mentoring they need or deserve without favoritism, and is it possible to support stronger relationships between more similar people without perpetuating the existing hierarchy?

I’m really asking! What do you think?

*I’m not factoring sexual orientation into the equation here, mostly because the focus is on gender-based power differentials, and I’m trying not to consider sexual or romantic circumstances; I do recognize that people who are not heterosexual or cisgender may have even greater cause for worry or discomfort when presented with unclear lines in social situations related to the workplace.


6 responses so far

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