Archive for the 'trying to please others' category

Uncovering the Past

Jul 31 2018 Published by under female scientist, sexism, trying to please others

I took a trip recently to help my dad move. He has lived in the same house for 23 years, during which I went to middle school and high school, then moved away for college and slowly began to visit less frequently for shorter stints.  There are lots of memories in that house. There are the ones that live in my head and the ones that live in boxes. Boxes that I haven’t looked at in over a decade. During my stay, I went through photo albums, journals, yearbooks, trinkets, and transcripts. It is an interesting thing to look back on yourself with that much distance. To read your own words that feel at once familiar and like words of a stranger. It was difficult because I was an awkward and insecure teen. Looking at the photos and reading my own words, I kept wanting to give my former self advice. Don’t get that haircut! Teen boys are not worth that much mental space! Be kinder to your parents! Relax! And perhaps most importantly, don’t be afraid!

suffragette

I am a shy person, which I think is a just fine personality trait in moderation. However, being timid is a little different than being shy, and I have often found myself timid as well. I have lived much of my life trying not to be disruptive, trying not to hurt anyone’s feelings, trying not to take up too much of anyone’s time. My mother often told me “don’t be mousy,” which of course only made it worse at the time but was honestly good advice.

At the time of each little action of shrinking myself, it seems to make sense, it just fits. Oh, I don’t want to be a bother. In the rearview mirror, though, it is clear that it is not right thing to do. It is often not the kindness to others I imagine it to be. It does not make the world a better place or make those around me happier. It certainly doesn’t make me happier. Most importantly, it comes from a place of not valuing myself enough.

While this feels very personal to my situation, taking up less space is actually, a common problem among women in girls. The ideal feminine woman in many cultures is one that does not talk out of turn or stand up for herself. This cultural insistence that women take up less space manifests in the ways women take up physical space. Women are told to be smaller by losing weight and by body language. As opposed to feeling free to take up space as men do, women often take up less space and there is backlash when they do not. It is related to rape culture and anti-abortion fanaticism, where even women’s bodies are not their own.

It also manifests in how the world views women’s ideas, with a culture where a man’s ideas are more valued than a woman’s, mansplaining is rampant, and gaslighting a common concern. It takes a lot of internal strength the value one’s own ideas when it feels like the world does not. The physical and the mental collide in the classroom, where girls raise their hands less, a phenomenon reinforced by society. Luckily, some girls are becoming aware and pushing for girls to raise their hands more.

These influences, some small, some huge, all affect how we move through this world as women. They affect how we influence the world, as it is not a stretch to imagine that taking up space relates to whether women take on positions of power. It affects women’s careers, in science and otherwise, where their ideas are taken less seriously.

So for now, while this reminder is fresh on my mind, my mantra for myself is “take up space” a call to action to be confident, to value my own opinions highly, and to not be afraid. And for all the girls I interact with, I must instill that in them as well.

 

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Unpaid Work

It’s summer! I can hardly believe it – for the first time in 20 years I have an actual summer vacation with no job to do, until I teach again this fall! Only… that’s not really true at all. I am practically working full-time, doing work I’m not technically paid to do. There are two sides of this that I have different degrees of tolerance for.

 

workoutside httpwww.mediamoxye.comhow-to-take-your-work-on-the-road-this-summer

Totally not how I work in the summer… source: httpwww.mediamoxye.comhow-to-take-your-work-on-the-road-this-summer

 

First, I am in the place that virtually every scientist finds themselves after a recent (and often not-so-recent) job change. I have unfinished business from my last job, i.e. manuscripts to write. I will not get paid for that job again, but I am obligated to do these tasks. The common reasons we find ourselves in this position are:

  • I put a lot of work into this project that didn’t get quite completed/written before I started my new job, and I want to maintain my ownership/get top authorship – it will benefit me and my career to do this, and/or I want to do it.

OR

  • I promised my old boss I would do this.

In this case, I am fully in the last category – I didn’t even conduct the original research experiments, just did some analysis and started writing the papers, I have very little feeling of ownership or desire to participate, and there is no real way that these papers could make a difference in my career. But I promised. As you can imagine, that makes the unpaid aspect all the more irksome. But this is the culture of research that is unlikely to change because of the way we jump from job to job quickly, relative to the pace of research, early in our careers.

I’m trying to devote about 8 hours per week this summer to finishing up those projects from my last job. And If I can finish them up, then I think I will be truly done with research at that point.

Second, I am doing work that is technically unpaid for my current job, which is a 9-month contract position. I have a complicated situation involving planned but unofficial family leave this fall (since I haven’t worked there long enough to have ‘earned’ it), during my regular working year. My current work is an attempt to prepare for this leave ahead of time, working with Teaching Assistants, testing out labs, and revising course syllabi, assignments, and schedules to work with my absences. But I am certain that other instructors who are unpaid for the summers do plenty of prep work for their courses as well – I know I would: how could one, especially with new course preps, really only start 1 week before the start of the term as specified in our contract? And that leads to my reasons for doing work for this job off the clock:

  • I want to put in the time to develop quality teaching plans, and to make it easier for myself in the fall.

AND

  • I like doing it!

So in a sense, whether I’m getting paid doesn’t really factor in at this point. In addition, not getting paid for this doesn’t sting as much since I’m kind of making up time I’ll be out on leave. But it is still on my mind, especially since this is following my first year, where I had so much initial work to put into teaching courses for the first time that I was working every minute I wasn’t with my kid or sleeping (okay, I did have one date night in that year, but…!). This isn’t unique to science, or even academia, but aspects of the culture here are relatively unique.

One of the perks of academic work is that most of us don’t have to account for our hours or whereabouts or sometimes even vacations. The flexibility to make daytime appointments or go pick up a sick kid or not have to schedule time off is fantastic. But it’s all dependent on being able to get the work done – whether that’s specific projects in the lab, article publications, grants funded, lectures given, or classes taught, the ‘product’, not the time, is what matters to keep the lights turned on. And that’s what I signed up for – I agreed to teach 4 classes per term, for a certain salary and that’s what I have to do, regardless of any assumptions of a 40 hour work week. But I am confident my hours will be much closer to that 40 hour mark after this first year, and I will not get myself into so much unpaid summer work again. But I also agreed to write these manuscripts for my previous lab, so that’s what I’m going to do. Unless the new person in lab wants to write them, since they could actually help her, while she gets paid to do it!

Wish me luck, and you’ll hear from me this fall about how smoothly things go for my leave time based on this preparation!

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Your boss can’t always be your mentor

“You shouldn’t be afraid to tell your boss exactly what you want to do for your next step – it’s their job to mentor you,” is the advice I have given many people, particularly grad students and postdocs who decide they want to pursue careers other than strictly academic research but are afraid to tell their bosses. And now under similar circumstances myself, I have become very hesitant about what information to give my boss about my career plans. I see all the reasons that people would not want to be upfront with their bosses.

  1. I don’t want to get fired. If my boss thinks that I’m no longer right for this job, or the kind of person they want to train, they could just let me go.
  2. As far as I can tell, my boss is not interested in mentoring me for a career outside of academic research.
  3. I don’t want to appear flaky or uncertain. Mostly for reason #1, but also because I still want to be able to count on good letters of recommendation if needed.

At the same time though, there are reasons I should talk to my boss about this.

  1. I could use some advice, mentoring, and maybe even connections or referrals, and I still believe it is part of a boss’ job to provide those things.
  2. I don’t want to waste any more of our time or energy applying for research and training grants, if that is not a direction that will help my career.
  3. Doing so may actually push me to move out into the career I want – even if it was because I got fired.

Plus, I just prefer to be open and honest and I’m sure my boss would prefer that as well. So I will try to first get some mentoring outside of my boss, come up with a game plan for my next career steps, ideally a plan that includes a clear reason why my current position is valuable for my future, and then open up to my boss about it.

With this new perspective, I completely understand why people would not want to be completely open with their bosses, and I apologize for acting like it was so clear cut. That said, as many before me have noted, I do think that most PIs need to be more aware that the majority of trainees are not going to end up as PIs like them, and be open to the many career possibilities that appeal to PhDs. And let’s be honest, your PI probably can’t be a great mentor to you when you’re pursuing a career outside of academia, the only path they’ve traveled, an you’ll want to find another more helpful mentor anyway.


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“I do it for all the little girls”

So we didn’t shatter that highest glass ceiling yet. Like many people, since last week I’ve been trying to stay positive and think of things I/we can do to promote a better, supportive society. A recent article in the New York Times shares stories from women who were told they couldn’t do something because of their gender, but they did it anyway.

I wanted to be inspired by this, but was totally depressed by all the times women have been suppressed or just not recognized as the capable people we are. One particular story that got me was of a young woman majoring in computer information systems who said, “It has been hard to stay motivated, but I do it for all the little girls who are told what they can and cannot do.” If I read that the week before the election I may have found it inspiring. But today, I just think of this poor woman trapped in something she doesn’t love (or worse, maybe she used to love it but has been worn down by all the negative reactions people have given her), ultimately doing it for someone else.

I want to be a good example. I love that Hillary Clinton was (is!) an amazing role model for girls everywhere. I want more women in STEM so that girls who are interested can see themselves in those fields. But is it a good decision for someone to devote their career to something because of a sense of duty? I really don’t know.


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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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