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.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Top 10 vs everyone else

I had a chat with a friend from grad school a few days ago. He is a professor a few years ahead of me, but not yet tenured. He is at a top 10 institution and I am not. It was really amazing the difference between these two. I called him to pitch a project idea that I have and think is good. He liked the idea, but kept talking about the dangers of working in this field. There is a lot of competition and in many ways our small community is challenging the larger paradigm of big fish types. We can get a lot of unfounded criticism from people because they just can't imagine that what we propose would work even though we have data to back it up.

Talking to him was really quite depressing. I realize that there is a lot of competition and that some people may not see the novelity of my work or even agree with my ideas, but I don't see this as a huge pressure point. There are enough people who *do* like what I am doing that I can get funding and publish. Slowly, as data accumulates, we will be able to bring the other guys around. I don't feel that these issues limit my career. Yet it seemed that my friend does. I think this is because at a top 10 university there is a lot of pressure not just to raise money and publish, but to raise the most money and publish in the best journals. That's a lot to think about for anyone. Meanwhile, I would love to do these things, but I don't feel that they are required. And, I truly believe that the release from this kind of stress makes me a better scientist. I can focus on my work and not worry about getting scooped. It would be unfortunate, but we will still be able to publish somewhere and that is enough. I wonder if any of you have seen this kind of dichotomy? Why do people go to top 10 schools if there is going to be this much pressure? How does that contribute to work life balance? I'm pretty happy here, but I could see how all that added pressure would impact my family life. When it comes down to it I feel pretty lucky to be where I am.

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I've worked in a Top 10 university and simply couldn't handle anymore the pressure and moved away after 2 years. My boss often yelled me harassing we should work as much as 24/7 and he was always emphasizing what the competition was doing, not my results - which in fact didn't matter, since the main goal was to beat competitors. It was just insane and I'm glad I am not living on that russian roulette anymore.

 
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Just out of curiosity, is the department as well a top ten department, or just part of a top university but a lower ranked department? I am wondering how much the department rank vs. the university rank matters.

 
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