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.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Answering the question: What do you do?

Oh, what an interesting weekend I had. My husband and I flew out to R1U [Research 1 University] only this time it wasn't for me. My husband, who will be attending business school next year, was there for the prospectives weekend. I attend the 'spouse' events. This situation raised a problem that I have faced more and more over the last few years and I would love to hear how you guys handle it. Invariably, conversation will turn to what each of us does. And frankly, I am always at a loss how to answer this question.

First perhaps a little background. We are sitting at a 'spouses' lunch (which did include some husbands, but they were glued to the Final Four tourney on TV). We started talking about babies because two of the women were obviously pregnant and happily discussed our children, pregnancies, and childbirth for about 20 minutes. Then, the conversation turns to 'what do you do.' One woman was a nurse, another a physical therapist, one taught aerobics, another was a forensic scientist (lots of CSI questions). Then it comes to me. I say that I am going to be a Professor. This is usually followed by 'oh, in what area?' And I respond with my area of engineering. Most people, as was the case here, make this face, which I really wish I could duplicate that is a combination of amazement, disgust, and awe. I actually had one person refer to me from there on out as the wicked smart engineer.

The thing is I am so embarrassed by these encounters. It is like high school all over again, where I feel compelled to pretend that I am less intelligent than I am because I don't want people to hate me. I just need a better way to handle this. I am proud of my accomplishments, but I am not a braggart and don't want to draw undue attention to them. And it doesn't help that the average lay person has no idea what a college professor does all day (yet alone a postdoc). People assume that Professors actually teach all the time. The research component is not usually known. When I explain that I will actually spend only a small time teaching and most of my time writing grants, they are perplexed. [Of course I don't usually go on about the intracacies of being a Professor without being asked, but it frequently comes up.] So how do you guys handle this? Is it as embarrassing for you as it is for me?


At 12:37 PM , Blogger ScienceWoman said...

I too have struggled with the "what do you do?" question. But I wonder if you couldn't just answer that you are an engineer...then when probed, tell them what type of engineer you are...then when asked where you work, tell them that you will be a professor. That way you've established up front that you do science (or engineering as the case may be) not just "profess" it. Would that work?

At 11:25 AM , Anonymous DrClau said...

Interesting to read your dilemma... I have also had such encounters. I am a postdoc, and I usually don't dwell on the title. Instead, I say "I do research in parthenogenesis and sex-ratio distortion in parasitoid wasps, that is, I work for an institute that researches alternatives to pesticide use, and one of the alternatives is these little bitty wasps that lay eggs inside the larvae of fruit flies and kill them. Only the female wasps lay eggs, so only the female wasps are of use as biocontrol agents. Therefore, we are researching ways in which to make an all-female strain of the wasps, so that production costs can be cut for farmers who want to use these methods." Then, if they are interested, I can go on (& on, & on!) about sex-ratio distoring endosymbionts, phylogenetics, etc. But, the point is, by talking about what I actually DO, rather than getting caught up in "what is a postdoc", it's interesting, a conversation opener (not shut-down-er!), and gives some idea of the rich complexity behind "I do research for a living". It takes a bit of practice, or forethought, to figure out a way to distill very complex research into a few sentences that lay people will understand, but if I can do it with molecular entomology, I'm sure you can do it with engineering!

At 3:06 AM , Anonymous FL Scholar said...

I can empathize with your plight. Most people in my family don't understand what I'm studying. :) When I tell people I'm going for my PhD they automatically ask "in what area?". I usually just say "Education" in the hope the person won't ask further, but occasionally the person will ask "Oh yeah? You are a teacher! What grade you teach?". A question which prompts me to totally confuse her by saying: "College. I study Higher Education". That usually gets me a blank stare and a change of subject. Rarely the inquirer follows up with more questions, for that I have this little story on improving university instruction.

At 3:55 AM , Anonymous tenurestressed said...

Ah yes, this is a good one. I find that I have reverted to saying I am a teacher because the "P" word has not been received well, especially by other moms (for example, at birthday parties). I've actually had people walk away from me without saying a word after telling them I'm a professor. I guess they didn't know what to say or maybe they were stay at home moms who were aghast!? In any case, I think I'll start using the professor word again. After all, I worked long and hard to earn the title. Now, if I can just get to associate!


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