Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Great, but who's taking my daughter to soccer practice

In this week's issue of Science, there is an article discussing the advancement of women in academia [requires subscription to read]. The article details how the number of women receiving PhD's in science and engineering fields has risen to ~ 25-50% depending on the discipline in question. The percentage of women faculty at the assistant and associate professor levels are only slightly off of the number of PhD's, but the number of senior faculty is between 5-10%. There are several possible reasons for this disparity, not the least of which is that it takes several years (10-15) to achieve senior faculty status, and therefore improvements are slow to filter through the system.

However, the rest of the article examines the commonly cited reasons for women not entering academia: low enrollment in PhD programs, lack of mentors and role models, overemphasis of commitments not valued in tenure decisions (i.e., community service, mentoring, teaching), unconscious bias, and difficulty balancing work and family. The standard list of solutions was presented: workshops to improve hiring and the work environment, extension of the tenure clock upon birth of a child, on campus childcare, and lactation rooms, etc.

Workshops to improve hiring and a hostile work environment are great ideas and will likely go a long way to improving unconscious bias, but these suggestions are unlikely to make an impact at the senior level, and the improvements suggested to improve work-life balance are completely insufficient. Extending the tenure clock, childcare, and lactation rooms are really only important when your child is under 3. Both of my children were born before I will start an academic position, so the tenure clock extension won't apply to me. My kids will be heading off to preschool and elementary school so childcare and lactation are not really issues. The question that I have is who is taking my daughter to soccer practice?

Although the first year is probably the most difficult in childrearing, once the kids get past the cradle, these improvements do little to help women faculty become engaged in family life. A far better solution would be extending the tenure clock altogether or reducing the emphasis on research and fund-raising in favor of service, mentoring, and teaching, activities that women are usually more involved in. What about offering part-time tenure track appointments? Say 75% with an equivalent reduction in workload and extension of the tenure clock. These are the improvements that will have the most impact on my ability to balance family and work. I want to be available for my children when they are younger, and need me the most. As they get older, more time will become available to channel into my work. Unfortunately, tenure decisions are entirely based on time in the here and now.

Although the article doesn't discuss it, I wonder how many female faculty leave the tenure track to pursue more flexible lecturer or instructor positions. Given the paucity of pay and respect in these positions, the numbers may be small. However, these positions, which are often defined by the number of classes taught, offer the kind of flexibility that would help many women. As the children get older and enter school, these women might transition into tenure track positions. They would have the benefit of knowing the bureaucratic ropes of the universities where they have been employed, and the departments would have a sense of their potential.

Tenure clock extensions and lactation rooms pay lip service to work-life balance initiatives, I on the other hand look forward to real change.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Just What IS the Bias Again Women in Science?

Recently CNN reported that women in science still face bias. Whenever a report like this comes up many of my male counterparts ask, exactly what is this bias? Have you ever felt this way?

A few years ago at an awards dinner where I was being honored, one of the members of the awards committee observed that far more women than men had received this award. He wondered whether the tables might be turning on the gender bias in science and engineering.

I did not feel any bias in my undergraduate education. My program had ~ 33% women. My first real experiences with bias occurred in graduate school, and these were modest at best. In my first experience, I won a prestigious fellowship. The response of the graduate coordinator was that he wished that we could do as well for our male students. I think that he meant its a shame that the fellowship agencies give preference to "underrepresented minorities" like women in science and engineering. However, this attitude underscores an important point. How many other people think that I won that award at least in part because of my gender? The impact of the award is overshadowed by that unspoken question.

My second experience occurred when I was interviewing for faculty positions. One of the interviewers informed me that one of my letters of recommendation suggested that I could have increased my publication record if I hadn't taken time out to have a baby. To be honest, this is probably true, my productivity was slowed after having children. However, the recommender made it sound like a took a year off or something. I was only gone for three months, most of them over a natural break in the year!

But these are trivial examples of spoken bias. Far more pervasive is the unspoken, ingrained bias that is hard to identify and harder to describe. I once walked into a seminar where the audience was only 1:10 women, and of the women I was possibly the only Caucasian one there! That is certainly enough to make one feel uncomfortable.

The best way to explain this unspoken bias is that the system for measuring success was created by men for men. If women were involved at the inception, a different system might have emerged. In theory tenure is evaluated based on a researcher's teaching, research, and service. However, in reality, research is the primary component by far. And research is measured based on number of publication, grants, and students. The implied goal is to start a large lab, pull in a lot of money, and start pushing out papers. Such a system misses one of the most rewarding goals of science: the joy of exploration, learning, and finding things out. Researchers are not encouraged to take risks, which after all may not result in a publication. Instead they are taught to stay the course, advancing only as far as will obviously be successful.

I argue that the mission of academic research should be neither to raise money for the university nor even to produce high quality science. Those should be by-products of the primary goal: education. Education does not simply mean lecturing to a class of 500 freshman, but rather teaching graduate students one at a time, to perform thoughtful research. The greatest service that we can do is to create future generations of talented, motivated scientists. A system with this goal as a core value would likely evaluate tenure based on evaluations from graduate students and undergrads, then on service to the community and university, and finally on the amount and quality of research. Such a system would value the whole and balanced person, as the Greeks did. For what kind of researcher cannot see beyond his own work to its impact in the wider world? Connections with community, family, and others in the university are vital for anticipating the problems that will have the greatest impact when solved and create the greatest sense of wonder for the world.

Until such a time, I will have to succumb to a hyper-competitive system that defines success based on the amount of money and papers that I can create. On top of all of that, people will always wonder whether I have accomplished all this because of my gender. I believe that progress is being made, but the truest test of equality is when I can walk into a room and it never occurs to anyone there that I am a woman.

Monday, August 15, 2005

H Numbers: Can you boil down my career to a number?

Recently a physict, has suggested that the success of a research can be measured by a single number, the h factor. [Science Magizine on the H factor] The number is derived by determining the number of articles that the author has published and the number of citations each article has received. Then find the largest number of papers n, with c citations, where n <= c. I have several papers, but most of them have no citations because they are too recent. So the c = 0 and they do not contribute to my h factor. I have 1 paper with 31 citations, so my h number is 1. [1 paper with 1 or more citations].

The idea is that some faculty publish many papers that are not read, while others publish only a few papers that everyone reads. In the middle, are faculty who publish several, well-read papers. While I agree that publishing many papers with no value is not good, I don't think that the people who publish only a few well-read papers are not good scientists. There are many who think carefully about each piece of work exiting their lab. They publish thoughtful accounts, but may not be as prolific as other labs, particularly the postdoc factories that may have 20 members or more.

I am sure that this will be a subject of debate over the coming months. It is extremely difficult to validate the succes of a scientist. It is easy to see who is the best, but much harder to determine the difference between the middle and medioctry. In many ways, this system will be difficult for new faculty who by nature have only a few publications. Even if the papers out are high quality, it will take time to get the number of publications to approach the citations. I would hate to think that I have been reduced to the number 1.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Writing, writing, writing...

Who knew that engineers (well at least academic ones) spend so much time writing? It really is fascintaing how little exposure we get in undergrad to tasks that become of critical importance in our careers. I spent most of my undergrad learning how to solve big fancy-schmancy equations. I distinctly remember arriving at my first engineering job (an internship). I was handed a tool belt and told to build a bench scale pilot plant. Boy was that a shock! I didn't know the difference between NPT or Swagelok fittings or anything. By the end of the summer, I think I could have easily qualified as a junior plumber. But I digress:

The most interesting part of that job and my subsequent ones was the amount of time that I spent writing proposals, reports, and research papers. I easily spend about 1/4 of my time writing. And it comes in spurts. There are months were it is all I do and months were I am in the lab solid. In undergrad, I did not take nor was I required to take any classes in writing. It was a skill learned entirely on the job. What a tragedy!

Well, this is a little respite to writing and editing. Got to get this paper out today...

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Living in Limbo: The life of a post-doc

Currently, I am a postdoc. I am one of the fortunate ones with a faculty position at exciting U waiting for me (starting Fall 2006). Being a post-doc is one of the most interesting job situations out there. On the one hand, I receive much more respect and freedom than I did while pursuing my Ph.D. On the other hand, I am paid 1/3 to 1/2 of what I could make in industry. In my field (engineering), people pretty much only do a post-doc if they are planning on heading into academics, but in several other fields this is not true. In biology, for example, it is not uncommon to do several back-to-back multi-year postdocs lasting 2-3 years each! It is really demeaning to spend 4-7 years getting a Ph.D. and then another 4-7 years as a postdoc not making that much more than many students with a BS.

The actual nature of the postdoc depends on the advisor. I have very good advisors who give me freedom to explore scientific goals within the general scope of our project. They do not ask me to work crazy hours, but expect a standard commitment from me. This is a little different from grad school, where working fewer hours seems to just delay your graduation. [Of course faculty members with funding and publishing concerns may not see it this way!]. The upshot is that you may not get to take off a day because you just don't feel like it, or come in a little late, or leave a little early...it is much more 9 to 5.

This has resulted in a bit of a squeeze for my family. In grad school, I was the one responsible for most of the doctor's appts, school meetings, etc. for the kids. Now that I have two weeks vacation and two weeks sick leave, it is much more difficult for me to do these things. My daughter's school starts at 8:45, and I have to be at work by 8:30 (to leave before my kids are in bed). I don't think the teachers there would know me if I wore a shirt saying Hi, I'm ---'s Mom. I do regret my loss of interaction with my kids lives. It is a tradeoff that is always being made, the benefits and consequences always being measured, and I never know if I have made the right decision.

Because a postdoc is not meant to be a permanent position, it is not clear that unhappiness now will equal unhappiness in a faculty position. It is one of things where we will just have to wait and see. But while I'm waiting, how much are my children missing out on. What if it really is the wrong decision and I have wasted a few years of my and THEIR lives pursuing a butterfly, a lark. I guess we can only hope that the carrot at the end of the stick is worth the race to get it.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Running with the Big Dogs- Work/Life Balance

Work-life balance is always an important issue, but perhaps more so in academia. It is a world that is primarily self-driven, where success is not assured no matter how many hours you put in. It is a world that prides itself on insane hours and long days. You will find many different paradigms of work-life balance in faculty members. Many faculty members are married with families, but each seems to respond differently to this pressure. I have seen faculty that put a great deal of time into their work, leaving very little time for family; and I have seen faculty that are home every day by 5 or that always take Fridays off. The most unusual arrangement is the split family, where one member works at the university and the spouse and/or children live in a different city (or even state). This is more common than you might think, as it is very difficult for two Ph.D.'s to find employment near each other.

It seems that most faculty with families have stay-at-home spouses. This may largely be a result of the times, a product of male-dominated field. However, now it is not uncommon at all to see women professors with stay-at-home husbands. Where does that leave the rest of us? My husband works and I like to work too. I guess technically I could stay home. We have the money for this, but I would not be happy solely at home. I love my children, but I need more intellectual interaction than Wiggles and Dragon Tales. I thrive on my interactions with colleagues and students. On the other hand, I do love my family. I want to spend time with them. I enjoy cooking dinner, tucking into bed etc. I don't want to work 60 hour weeks and never see my husband and children.

I am looking for a middle ground. Most of the "adjustments" to the tenure track have not yet addressed this issue. Sure you can get an extra year if you stop to have a baby, but what if you don't want to stop, you just want to slow down. Why do women have to go a mile a minute at a time when many of them have young children and are starting families. I would be happy to work long hours later in my career, when my children are older. Unfortunately, the present academic system was designed by men for men. Don't get me wrong, I'm not some radical feminist or anything. I am just stating a point. The system was designed for men, particularly unmarried men or men with a stay-at-home spouse. Now that the ranks of faculty are changing, how can this system accomidate the goals of its new members?

This problem applies to men as well. I recall a colleague who had to cut a conference short because he had three young children at home. Obviously he could have benefitted by remaining at the conference (where he received an award!), but he felt compelled by family demands. The system needs to change to meet these demands. The ideal I think would be to have the option for a reduced work week (30-40 hours), but still remain on the tenure track. Perhaps percentage credit could be given for the percentage of time worked based on a forty hour week? Teaching loads (for both classes and grad students) could be reduced accordingly.

For a system like this to work, it is imperative that the university not stigmatize members who choose this plan. It will certainly not be popular with the academy. When a chair hires a new professor, they expect 100% delivery. It may be difficult to get funding for a 75% appointment. The reduced teaching loads may require additional hires, and there is time and effort required in that process. At face value, it appears that such a plan would not be in the academy's interest.

However, I argue that a number of bright women AND men are turned away from the academic profession because of its demanding nature. If family friendly options were offered, surely universities could expand their appeal and attract a new class of applicants. People with balance, with lives. Their fresh approach might extend into the classroom. I know that my parenting has certainly made me a better teacher. I am more understanding of the perspective of a student. I can better communicate my ideas by breaking them into smaller more digestible chunks. Perhaps we might have fewer professors that keep their students as "slaves" for years, requiring them to work long hours, weekends and holidays. [Don't laugh I am sure that if you talk to 5-10 grad students at least one and an advisor like this.]

I don't think that having a commitment to family makes me any less of a scientist. In fact, I think it makes me a better one. Richard Feynman was once asked if physicist should have outside lives. He said that someone who dedicates all of his time to physics may be a good physicist, but he isn't much of a person.

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