Archive for the 'bosses' category

When Your Postdoc Mentor Switches Institutions, or The Amazing Community of Women in Science

I am 9 months into my first postdoc. I am 6 months pregnant. I will be unemployed two days after my son is due to be born.

One month ago, my postdoc mentor announced that he has accepted an incredible promotion at a university on the other side of the United States. For several reasons — including having just relocated my family, the strain on my husband’s career and the expectation of a neonate at the time of the Great Move – I will not be translocating with the lab.

My “mentor” made clear to me last week that he will not be renewing my contract two days after I give birth even though he will remain at my institution for another 1-3 months. Even though he will renew current university contracts with at least one other postdoc for several months and lied to my face about doing so. My Postdoctoral Union, the Academic Resource Center and the university Business Office have nothing to say about this. I have no protections in this situation; it is my “mentor’s” choice.

I have spent three quarters of the last month in debilitating pain because my dentist managed to kill a perfectly healthy tooth and pregnancy hormones exacerbated the effects of necrosis, inflammation and infection (lack of effective painkillers did not help either). The other quarter of the month I spent frantically scouring my current institution for potential academic postdoc opportunities in a sea of unknown or inadvisable labs. Labs that are very unlikely to be willing to contract a woman who would just entered maternity leave at the time of ideal onboarding. By this time, I may or may not have transferable salary from any of the three fellowships I’ve just finished applying for. Likely the latter, which prevents me from sweetening the deal.

‘Just find a new postdoc position by next month,’ my “mentor” advises. ‘That way you can spend a month or two in the new lab before going on maternity leave. No one would refuse you a position because of the pregnancy, that would be outrageous.’ He proceeded at my overly laudatory request to recommend potential employers who were strikingly ill-suited to my career goals or experience.

“Mentorship”.

Given the timing of my imminent unemployment and my need for not only neonatal care but regular treatments for my autoimmune disorder, avoiding a lapse in health coverage is – for the first time in my life – a priority over my career aspirations. In a time when COBRA and biologic therapy are unaffordable, my husband and I must re-budget dramatically to pay our mortgage and loans and keep our neonate (and ideally, myself) alive. I have therefore stretched my feelers into a world I was not prepared to join for several years if (and only if) I could tell with more certainty that professorship was not in the cards: non-academic science.

Mid-pregnancy does not feel like the right time to be making a career-altering decision that could mean closing the door to academia for good. Then again, if my choice is between sacrificing my family’s well-being for a sliver of a chance at a reasonable academic postdoc or sacrificing my pipe dream for a potentially happier and more rewarding life, the latter is my clear choice. This is not what everyone should or would choose in these circumstances. This is likely not what I would have chosen 5 years ago. But I love what my life is becoming and am prepared to shift gears if it means being able to do rigorous, ethical and productive science in a healthy way.

Despite the extraordinarily strenuous timing, this transition is somewhat of a blessing as I have had a miserable 9 months with my current absence of any form of mentorship, the embarrassing dysfunction of this world-renowned lab and the excruciating oppression of both my “mentor” and a male adjunct faculty. This is my way out without being the one to set fire to any bridges.

While most days I feel lost and hopeless, I am grateful to no longer be in debilitating pain and I strive to protect my active little belly parasite from my own distress. I am fueled now more by adrenaline and awe of the circumstances than by fear and depression. And I have benefited from some wonderful advice.

You know who has advised me? Not my male “mentor” who has all but thrown me into the gutter. Women. Women who are senior post docs in my lab. Women who write for this blog. Women who have agreed to interview me for positions in their labs at my current institution. Women who have talked through the circumstances of my potential unemployment and financial crisis with me. Women who have helped me identify solutions. The woman who I interviewed with today.

The ball is rolling in a sluggish but mostly forward direction. Today I have hope because of the women I have met in science.


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Do the same rules apply to all genders as mentors?

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.


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Why I stopped faking it

When I was in grad school I felt like I wasn’t good enough and at the same time that I deserved to have it all – perfect grades, grants, awards, fantastic publications, a great social life and a happy family. My way of trying to achieve this was by acting tough, and it actually kind of worked.

Early on my PI told me that if I needed something from him I should keep “nagging” him (his words) if I wanted it done. He was right, he was a very busy man and I learned to do what I needed to do to get things done and I had a successful and happy grad career. At the intro to my defense he proudly told a story about the lengths to which I went to make sure that he signed paperwork in time for submission (I followed him to the restroom and waited outside until he came out). But acting all the time took its toll. By the time I was looking for a postdoc position I was burnt out (I know, almost everyone is burnt out by the time they defend), and I was so tried of trying to “fake it ’til I make it.”

The way this feeling manifested for me was in my choice not to pursue invitations to interview at top tier labs, and instead to join a good, but not a stretch, lab at a good, but comfortable University. I just wanted to go somewhere where I could do good work, be a good lab-mate and collaborator and be supported in turn, and I thought I had found just the place. It nearly broke my heart when I learned that my new PI had hired another postdoc at the same time as me and had given her the same project as me. I still don’t know if this was the result of a brain fart or if it was a may-the-best-researcher-win type thing, but it sucked! She was a very nice person and once we realized what was going on we were totally open with each other about what we wanted to do with the funding and the project and we made the best of the situation… but it broke me down. I stopped pretending I was strong and acting tough. I let the fact that I was sad about the situation show and completely shifted my research topic (for multiple reasons) – we were already competing with the rest of the research community, I didn’t want to have to compete with my lab-mates.

When my husband and I got the opportunities to move to California I was thrilled. It was a chance to move on! I’d decided that I wanted to leave academia and see if biotech was a better fit, but I’ve still not put back on that mantel of toughness. I’m a lot truer to myself and my feelings now, I’m not sure if that is a good thing or not. It means that my insecurities are more pronounced; I’m suddenly a lot more visibly nervous giving talks. I also push myself less, I’m less focused and for better or worse I’m not trying as hard to have everything right now. I feel like I lost my edge when I gave up pretending that I was perfect and stopped grabbing for “all the things.” On the other hand I’m happier and less tired all the time. I get to prioritize my personal life along with my career. And now that I’m less concerned about credit and what I deserve, I think I’m a better collaborator and team-mate. Things that used to drive me crazy, like when people would co-opt my ideas without credit, don’t affect me the same way. When I realized this change I initially felt terrible, giving up my (righteous?) entitlement seemed so sad, but most of the time now, I don’t see it that way. I think there is a healthy line that I’m still learning to walk between wanting everything and accepting anything. I hope as I become more honestly confident that I’ll find my middle ground.


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Working Through: Fertility issues in the workplace

My husband and I stopped trying not to get pregnant 6 years ago. About 3 years ago we started trying to get pregnant and just over a year and a half ago I had my first miscarriage. We found out that there was no heart beat at 9weeks, confirmed it at 10weeks and had a D&C at 11weeks. One of the reasons why it took us so long to actively try to conceive was my fear of losing the pregnancy. I remember thinking that it would be an unsurvivable experience for me. Now I’m at a point where I can say that I appreciate the extra time before starting my family and the strength I found in myself and my relationship with my husband. That being said, miscarrying is horrible. Each time I lost a pregnancy I obsessed about all of the things I might have done wrong to cause the loss. Was I too stressed out, did I eat the wrong thing, was my shampoo poisoning the baby, did I touch the wrong thing at work?

A number of my closest friends and my sister were pregnant right around the time of my first pregnancy and it felt like my miscarriages made things awkward for us. They were worried that talking about their pregnancies/babies would hurt me, (and maybe they were a little right, I swore off of facebook for a while because it seemed like everyone was pregnant except me) but when they stopped complaining to me about swollen feet and colicky babies or telling me about the little joys like feeling the fist kicks and seeing first steps I felt even more isolated. I worried about talking to them too much about my miscarriages, I didn’t want to worry them about the viability of their own pregnancies. I knew it was irrational, but I felt that by talking with them about what happened my dark cloud would contaminate their happiness, which was the last thing I wanted. Friends asked me if I was seeing a fertility specialist (I’ve learned I shouldn’t call them infertility specialists because that sounds negative) which is a totally reasonable suggestion, but one that I was reluctant to follow up on for a long time. For me, this whole process has been confusing. On one hand, I want to be a strong feminist and be outspoken about the fact that I have had miscarriages to help other women feel less alone. On the other hand, I want to curl up in a ball and cry while telling myself/everyone that everything is fine and the next time will work out.

It has been almost a year since my last pregnancy. 4 months ago we finally started seeing a specialist. We did all the tests our Dr. recommended and everything is normal. There are little things that the Dr. points to and says this or that maybe on the low or high end of normal, but nothing that we can point to and say, yup that’s why it’s been so long or that’s why I’ve lost all of our prior pregnancies. The one good thing about all of this waiting, is somehow in the last few months I feel like I’ve come closer to a kind of acceptance in regards to this process. I am cautiously optimistic each month and each month I am disappointed, but it doesn’t devastate me each time.

All the while I have been struggling with these miscarriages and fertility issues I’ve been working, and it has not always been easy. At my last job I told my boss that I had miscarried and that I would need a D&C because I needed to take the following day off. She is a great boss and mentor and was as supportive as I could possibly have hoped for. About a year ago I changed jobs, and while I like my bosses, I chose to try to be more professional and less open about my struggle. It might be misplaced, but I worry that they will be mad/frustrated/disappointed/concerned-about-how-the-work-will-get-done if they find out that I am pregnant, and since I have had so many false starts I don’t want to have that negative interaction before I have to. Industry jobs are very volatile and I always want to put my best foot forward. Reasonable or not, I worry that people would consider (consciously or not) my future maternity leave against me if there was a restructuring of my department. While I stand by my decision to maintain my privacy in my professional life, it does pose some problems. Infertility testing and treatments are time consuming. There are a lot of timed tests that I/we have to go into the lab or clinic for. At first I would let people know that I had a doctors appointment, but then my boss started asking if I was ok and I got paranoid that he either thought I was really sick or he would assume that I was already pregnant or he would think I was interviewing for other jobs. So I now I’m trying to be more vague or slip out without saying anything, but that also feels very obvious and slightly disrespectful especially when I am missing meetings.   I worry that people will think that I am just shirking my work. I don’t know what the right thing to do is. It would be great if more of the appointments could happen before/after work hours or of the weekends… but that’s just wishful thinking as far as I can tell.

I’m writing this post on the eve of my first IUI (intrauterine insemination… basically they collect the sperm spin it down and stick it into my uterus through a catheter, woo hoo!). This morning we went for the ultrasound and unfortunately my follicles were a little more ready than we expected… so I had to run out to the pharmacy and take my (injectable) ovulation stimulating medicine immediately. I had a meeting at 9:30am so I got the drug and injected myself in my car in the parking lot (there are no sharps containers in my work bathrooms, I didn’t feel right injecting myself in the lab where there are tons of sharps containers, and I didn’t want to wander around work with my needle and medicine so I decided my car was my best option). I know to people who have to give themselves injections all the time it probably doesn’t sound like a big deal but it was my first time injecting myself ever and it took a little bit to convince myself to stick the needle in, maybe it was a good thing I was running late for my meeting. It makes me wonder what things other than having a pumping room would make fertility struggles, pregnancy and having kids easier to balance with work? Does how hard it can be to get pregnant (especially for those of us no longer in our 20’s) have anything to do with the high attrition rate of women in science? I know it has impacted how much of a go-getter I am at work and how much I “lean in” since I don’t want to have to back out if I have an appointment/have a crappy pregnancy/go on maternity leave (and yes, I know this is exactly what Sandberg says not to do).

Overall, I’m excited and a little nervous about the IUI but I also appreciate that for the moment my life is beautiful as it is. My partnership with my husband is stronger now than ever and I have hope that our family will grow one way or another. In the mean time I’m trying to learn to be more chill/sneaky? about this personal process at work and I’m having an amazing time being an aunty to my niece and all my friends’ adorable babies.

One last thought for the moment. I really appreciated what Mark Zuckerberg did by posting his fertility struggles along with his pregnancy announcement. One thing that makes me extra thankful for the opportunity to share my experience anonymously is the ability to talk about the process before we have the safety of having a successful pregnancy. Thanks!


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I told my boss I’m pregnant and it was weird and awesome

Aug 10 2015 Published by under academia, bosses, communication styles, empathy, motherhood

I was really nervous about telling my boss I’m pregnant. I have a great boss, and I was pretty sure it was going to be fine, but I still dreaded the moment. First, it’s just a difficult thing to bring up, as conversation (especially at work) never really leads into the topic. Second, as I’ve mentioned before, I was afraid that I would be representing women in an unflattering light, confirming sexist beliefs that we are more likely to ask for leave time, or put life outside of lab before work, and that that’s a bad thing. I was afraid of changing in my boss’s eyes from ‘promising scientist I’m training’ to ‘postdoc who’s going to stop producing data’ (though hopefully that would at least become ‘promising scientist I’m training who’s going to stop producing data for a short time due to normal life events’).

I read a little bit of advice on talking to your boss about this announcement. I originally planned on following some of it, such as knowing your rights/contract, and going in with a plan about how you could manage your projects and transitions. And even though I prepared those things, in the moment, I ended up taking a different route. I think it was because I was feeling so defensive, like I had to prove I was still a worthwhile trainee. I chose the tactic I’ll call ‘I really am still the person you hired and I’m going to pursue everything we’ve discussed for research and career planning and I’m going to make all this my priority‘. Which is ridiculous for a number of reasons. But that’s what I did – I basically word-vomited my plan for the next 6+ months regarding timing, grant writing and planning my career.

Aside from congratulating me, my boss did two awesome things in response to my weird need to prove I still cared about my future career. First, he followed my lead and talked about the things that I (apparently) wanted to talk about. He didn’t bring up leave time or money or replacing me on projects. He responded to my proposed timing for submitting a transitional grant application and we discussed my career goals. And it actually felt good. I at least convinced myself that I was driven to push forward on my career transition goals, and it made me feel better and in a less vulnerable position to have that be the center of the conversation.

Second, he said (I’m paraphrasing), “I will be happy to talk with you about whatever you want during this time, but I won’t bring anything up or push you to share. I know that a parent’s mindset and priorities can change a lot, in unexpected ways during this life-changing transition, and you can always discuss that with me.” [I’m actually tearing up as I type this, but I think it’s mostly the hormones.] I mean… you couldn’t ask for better or more appropriate emotional support than that from a boss, right?

I know that I’m lucky. Even though I still have to have that other difficult conversation about leave time and money, I know it’s going to be amiable and most likely turn out the way I hope. I wish that everyone could have as considerate a boss as mine, but perhaps the best we can do is spread the word on good stories of support like this and shape the minds and reactions of bosses now and in the future.


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