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, December 21, 2007

More on Work/Life Balance

So continuing the discussion from my last post...Amazingly and without provocation the discussion at my departmental holiday lunch party consisted almost entirely of evaluation of the work-life balance issue and trying to get more women in STEM. (There were 3 men and 2 women at the table, all were married with kids.) It was a pleasant surprise.

One of the things that we discussed, and that also came up in some of the comments on my last post, is what do you do when you want balance and everyone around you is willing to sacrifice everything for career? I have struggled with this issue for some time, which you probably know if you have been following my posts. I love my job, but I love my family too, and I try to keep things pretty separate. So how can I compete against someone who is willing to work until 3 AM everyday to get more data, more papers, etc.?

I asked this question of our group and there was general acknowledgment that these types do exist (and that they usually end up divorced). But also there was discussion of how time away from work gives you a different perspective that these types won't necessarily have. There have been many times for me when I take a break from a difficult problem and am able to find a solution only after taking time to do something else. The clarity that comes from looking at a problem fresh really makes a difference. It is also true that many of my grad school classmates worked long hours, but were not very productive because they didn't take the time to plan and think through their experiments. Having some time away and also just the act of balancing work and family force this planning to some extent. So I guess the message that I got is that there is hope, and that we don't have to give up everything to do well, and that was reassuring.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Discrimination Against Women in Science (Redux)

I have spoken several times about the discrimination against women in science, but recently several reports have come out which prompted comment on my part again (AAAS, and a members only story in PRISM COVER STORY: Why Won’t She Listen? JUST WHEN WOMEN START TO MAKE THEIR MARK AS ENGINEERING EDUCATORS, YOUNG FEMALE STUDENTS ARE TUNING THEM OUT. - BY MARGARET LOFTUS).

So once again we are asked what is the bias against women in STEM, and why don't women want to study in STEM areas?

From my personal experience I can offer these insights.
  • My guidance counselor didn't want me to take two science classes my senior year because it was considered too "hard."
  • She also didn't want me to apply to MIT, because my chances of getting in were low.
  • About 75% of the time I win a research award, at least one person congratulating me mentions that it is because I am a woman.
  • As a caucasian woman, I am always a minority at a conference, seminar, etc.
  • Colleagues/peers have commented on my attractiveness and intelligence in the same sentence more than once. (Does this happen to men?)
  • I could make at least 1.5 times as much money in industry for shorter, more regular hours with less travel.
So the bias is subtle, but there. What are your thoughts about women in STEM? Bias/no bias? Why don't more women want to pursue STEM careers? Is it bias? or inability to adequately balance work and life?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Work-Life Balance (An Elusive Butterfly?)

So I am traveling, again, and this gives me time to reflect on exactly what I think work-life balance means. As I do this I realize that the "correct" balance may be different for each person. A great example is what happens when I discuss this with my husband.

I feel bad when I travel. Even if I really need to go for my job, I always feel some nagging remorse at leaving my children behind. When I return, I feel it is important to make up for this lost time by spending extra time with my family.

My husband really doesn't see things this way. When he needs to go, he goes. He doesn't feel bad about it, and he has no problem being gone for several days, returning, and immediately hiring a sitter so that he and I can have a date. I could never do that. (I always talk him out of this when he proposes it.)

But looking to the wider world, I know many faculty with children who travel all the time. I know faculty who don't even live in the same city as their children (or spouses for that matter). I know faculty who drag their children half-way round the world for a sabbatical year (which can also be seen as an opportunity for the kids, don't get me wrong).

It's hard. I want to have a successful career. I know that getting out there and publicizing myself and what we are doing is important to that success. I know that others are willing to put everything aside and concentrate on their labs (usually these folks have stay at home spouses, but not always). Yet, for me, I would not be complete if I was defined by my career alone. Beyond the time that I spend with my children and husband, I need time to develop other facets of my personality. The things that make me an interesting person, rather than an interesting scientist. This is the balance that I have chosen and it seems to work for me.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Gender, Childrearing, and Travel

So the last few weeks have involved a lot of travel for me as you may know from my posts. I had couple of experiences I wanted to share with you.

Setting: Major national meeting
Background: I am at a mingling session with drinks and light hor d'oerves with several people I know from my Ph.D.
So I am talking with a group of young faculty that I know when a senior faculty member approaches. We chat a few sentences about the meeting and then he asks me, "Where are your kids." I was a little taken aback by the question since it had nothing do with what we were discussing, but responded, "We have a nanny. They are home with the nanny. My daughter is in school so I couldn't really bring her." [Note haven't brought kids to conference since they were babies and I was nursing.] Then we said pleasantries and senior faculty moved on.

Setting: Airport
Background: Returning from different major national meeting
I am at the food court getting breakfast when I see a Sr. Faculty that I know in line. I approach ask what he's doing there, was he there for meeting? He replies, "no, not here for meeting, here for --, how was meeting?." I respond, "meeting was really great, at least for me." He responds along the lines of "where are your kids, it must be hard to leave them." Me, "yeah, they are home with the nanny, although it is nice to get away once in a while."

So here is the deal. In both cases, the question was not "how are your kids," which implies a subtle interest in my family and how I am doing, but "where are your kids," which sounds like a rebuke for me not being with them. I kept wanting to say things like "where should they be?" or "where are your kids?" But then maybe I'm, overreacting. So I asked one of the Sr. faculty in my department if he had ever experienced something like this. He said that it was rare for someone to ask about his kids and it was always how are they never where are they. What are your thoughts?

Monday, December 03, 2007

Motivating Students

Thanks for all your comments on my last post. I agree that pondering fools method is the best method of adviser selection, with support for students for the first few years. Unfortunately, Center grants that support students like that are hard to come by and unlikely to be sufficient to accommodate our entering class of ~ 20 students. Thus, we are forced to explore other options. I'm not sure what the answer is (a department endowment?), but I can say this year I got one, very enthusiastic student, and I think I'm happy with that.

Next, I have a question for you. I have a postdoc who has been working for me for about a year. She came to me primarily because her husband is in the department and she wanted to stay with him. She liked my research and had worked in a tangential, but not closely related field to my own. She has been doing good work, but the project has not been working well. I think that what we have been getting is interesting because if we can describe why it doesn't work it could be a nice, influential paper. A lot of people are trying to make the same thing, and everybody except one group seems to be having the same problems, but no one has studied it in detail. However, she is beginning to lose heart. I think she sees that it is not working and wants to radically switch directions to something else with more promise. I want her to investigate the failure more thoroughly and publish what we have so it is not lost. I recently got back from two conferences where we presented this work and it was very well received by the audience. I really think we should publish.

My question is how do I keep this student motivated? I know that it can be difficult when things don't work and I want her to appreciate the beauty and possibilities of the project. I feel that she has lost interest and am not sure how to get it back. Any suggestions?

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