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.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Behind the scences at the advisor selection process

Matching advisers with students may seem like a nebulous process, and in many ways it is, but after my second year going through it in 2 departments, it is beginning to become more transparent. I'm sure there are more methods than those I will outline, but these are the ones I know of:

1)The Rat Race
In this method of adviser selection students are admitted without guaranteed funding. They are encouraged to find their own adviser by talking to faculty. If you are a student this is the most difficult method. You are not guaranteed funding and are typically expected to support yourself on TAs if a suitable adviser is not found or if the adviser has no money. This is the case for Dept #1. If you are a student entering this kind of department, my best advice is to start emailing faculty the moment you find out you are admitted to look for a match, and to be extremely persistent.

2) Hey, Come Work for Me
A second method of recruitment is where advisers recruit their own students. There may still be general applications to the department, but the majority of recruitment occurs by the adviser directly to students during the application process. In this model, you would already know who you were working for before you arrived, unless you were a general applicant, in which case you would probably get matched with a newer, less well known faculty (like me, not necessarily a bad thing). If this is how the department works, as a student you would want to start contacting faculty at the time of your application (generally you should be doing this anyway). This is the process that Dept #2 used to use, but no longer uses, as it vastly favors more established faculty.

3) Roulette
In this method, students are admitted without an adviser and some type of support is provided initially. Students are encouraged to meet with all the faculty and then rank their top 3-5 advisers and then are matched by some opaque process. This is the process that Dept #2 uses. The matching process is designed to ensure that there is an even distribution of students between senior and junior faculty and to ensure that each student finds a "home," which as closely as possible matches their interests. This process can be difficult because there are many faculty personalities to contend with (such as the I only want students who rank me #1 type to the I know I said I wanted/didn't want students but I changed my mind). Again, a student's best bet is to be persistent and follow up with faculty often.

We are currently going through our "roulette" and it is crazy. It is so hard to predict how many students you will need six months from now. Last year we underestimated and were fighting for students. This year I think we may have over estimated and are fighting to give everyone a good home. This will all make for an exciting faculty meeting I think.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Burn Out

I realize now that I made a bit of a mistake this quarter. Since I have teaching release, I have really focused on writing proposals (6 since July and counting!). I feel that these proposals are good and that I had adequate time to write them, but this has come at the expense of my students. In the summer, I only worked on one proposal (of course this was my CAREER proposal, an important one). I spent a lot more time in the lab mentoring students and we really produced data. I had hoped that the lab would continue on its own momentum in fall, but that didn't really happen.

Obviously students have class and that is a limiting factor in productivity. But I noticed a decline in the productivity of my postdocs as well. It has been especially hard for the undergraduates (we have 7 now) who really require oversight. To be honest, virtually nothing has been accomplished since mid-Sept. So I am resolving to get back on the horse and push out some data and papers. We have three projects that are reasonably close to publication and with some oversight I think we can get them out the door in the next 6 months. These will be our first "lab" publications that don't contain any of my postdoc work so they are important. And above all I am going to take a break (maybe get my nails done).

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Conference Blogging

I am at big important meeting in my field right now and every year it gets better. Basically, this meeting is a lot about networking and a little bit about science. I organized a young women faculty (~1-4 year) networking event where we all met for drinks after talks yesterday. It was really fantastic and also amazing how the word started to spread. I only knew a few of the new faculty primarily in my field, but word just kept getting passed along and along until we probably had 15 people. When you think about it, 15 young 1-4 year female faculty is a pretty big number.

This is also the first year that I have felt like a "real" faculty member. Last year, even though I had started my position, I hadn't taught yet, I hadn't had a grant rejected yet, and I was really just settling in. This year I have been around the block a little and can talk about more of these issues.

I've had a full lunch and dinner card, with many events being impromptu get togethers with people in my field and I am starting to make connections with more senior faculty that may be important later in the tenure process. It has been great. My DH even sent me a package of brownies. Aside from the fact that DH is now interviewing somewhere and my nanny is with the kids tonight, and my daughter has bronchitis, a good trip.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Where are all the geek chicks?

I saw this excellent article in a redirect from the NSF newsletter (also some interesting comments on the NSF Advance program to increase women in science and engineering).

Basically, it is another look at the low numbers of women entering STEM professions, followed by a few inspiring stories. [At least the stories are inspiring, but for inspiring stories I would really recommend "She's such a geek" which I think some of you contributed to :)]

I am getting really tired of the sad stories about how women don't want to go into STEM, and how the environment is really unsupportive, and the calls for change that never comes. Last week I represented R1U at the Society for Women Engineers national meeting. One of the good things about this meeting was that I attended with two other young women faculty. Unfortunately, one of them has struggled and the tales of her difficulties were a little disheartening to me. I am in a field which has good (well, relatively) historical #s of women. She is not. My department could not be more supportive. I am included in large multi-PI proposals, my outgoing proposals are read by at least 2-3 faculty in the department, I have established collaborations with my colleagues, my department is quick to nominate me for young investigator awards, and my chair is flexible and fair. I have had great mentorship. She, on the other hand, has not, and has been left to float in a sea of uncertainty. I think mentorship does go a long way toward solving some of the problems. But, there is no easy answer here.

I think that the problem with women and STEM is really one of culture, and until we get more women involved in the upper echelons it will persist. I've said before that it can be unnerving to walk into a seminar and realize that you are one of maybe a handful of women out of say a hundred people in a room. I think that it is also in the way that we talk to each other. One of the problems that my friend cited and that I have also experienced is that sometimes men (and yes I am generalizing here) seem to be motivated by negative feedback, whereas women can be devastated by it. I remember many afternoons spent in male advisors office where I regaled him with tales of how poorly our experiments were working. Rather than a reassuring pat on the back, I got sort of griped out about how I needed to spend more time in the lab, definitely not a motivating moment.

But most importantly in all this discussion, is that I am tired of hearing about it, and instead want to see some change. Maybe we could have a month of inspiring, how things have gone really well for me as a women in STEM stories? Perhaps an inspiring women in STEM carnival?

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