Justifying your time

In assessing my mental state over the 8 months that I have been in this new postdoc position, I have observed a trend. It’s not good.
I spend a great deal of mental energy — from the time I drop off my kid at daycare to the time I pick him up — thinking about whether my time is being well spent. Primarily, imagining how frequently my boss entertains the idea that I am not worth the 15% of my salary that she pays for.
The goals of a postdoc position are not well defined. How you spend your time is pretty open ended. We are categorized as “exempt” under the Federal Standards of Labor Act. The singular unifying benchmark we have to assess our efforts is publication. So… there is a lot of wiggle room as to how work hours are spent, and what kind of work is done “after hours”.
I spend about 60% of my time in lab (over 8 months of failed or delayed experiments), 40% time in the fellowship training that pays my salary, and only work 40-45 hours a week. I find it challenging to justify how I juggle my time to a boss who expects people to be in the lab 110% of the work day and use extracurricular hours to fulfill professional development training.
Maybe it’s a desire to have a more professional framework to my work life, maybe it’s having started a family a year ago, or impostor syndrome, or maybe I’m just not cut out for this work environment anymore. But either my perspective or my work needs to change, because I now have enough data for an evidence-based conclusion: this trend is unhealthy.
How much energy do you use justifying how you spend your working hours? Do you ever even feel like your work hours are being wasted? Is this just me?
Advertisements
Posted in academia, bosses, busy moms, early career scientist, having it all, motherhood, postdoc, women in science, Women in STEM | Leave a comment

How the heck are you guys doing it all?

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Book Reviews: Girls in STEM

As my older daughter graduates from pictures books and is delving into chapter books, my skewed search (any STEM books for girls?) produced three series with a young girl as the protagonist immersing herself in STEM.  Those are:

 

Lucy’s Lab (3 books in the series)

Ada Lace (5 books)

Zoey and Sassafras (5 books, 6th on its way)

 

The first books of each series were all published within the last year (2017).  I was curious, so I read the first books of each series after my daughter finished. I am giving my reviews here…

 

Lucy’s Lab: Nuts about Science by Michelle Houts (publisher recommended age: 7-9)

LucysLab(Amazon link)

Plot:  Lucy, a freshly minted second grader, discovers on her first day of school that a giant oak tree in front of the school was gone. She wonders where the squirrels that used to keep busy on the tree went. She also finds out on the same day that her new second grade classroom contains a science lab and is very excited.  When coming home, she sets up her own science lab in her old playhouse.

By talking with her school principal Lucy discovers that the oak tree had to be pulled out because of oak wilt.  Lucy goes to the library and finds out what it is. In her science class  Lucy learns about “habitat,” and she worries about the squirrels’ habitat. Lucy’s parents encourage that if she cares about it so much, she should attempt “convincing” school officials that they need to plant another tree in place…can she?

 

Review:  Perhaps because this is a first book in the series there are lots of descriptions of characters and settings, it seemed not much actually happened in the story. However, the book still provides a great introduction into “scientific process”: what a laboratory looks like;  what a scientist might look like (lab coat and goggles!); use of specific words (i.e. “specimen” instead of “stuff”); making observations; and writing up a report. It also touches on mobilizing social activism — once scientists know something, we better distribute information and work to fix it if needed — that is a responsibility of scientists!  The book is brimming of Lucy’s contagious enthusiasm for science. 

 

Ada Lace, on the case by Emily Calandrelli with Tamson Weston (publisher recommended age: 6-10)

AdaLace  (Amazon link)

Plot:  Ada, a precocious third grader who recently moved to a new city, broke her leg and was limited to keeping field notes (a la Charles Darwin in Galapagos) of happenings outside of her window. One day she notices that her neighbor’s dog went missing. Assuming it was “dognapped,” she sets out to find the dognapper.

With her wealth of gadgets (binoculars, walkie-talkies, cameras) and an assistance by her brand new friend in the neighborhood, she sets up surveillance on suspects. At times her operation backfires: surveillance blown up; the camera stolen; and interrogating a wrong suspect. Despite setbacks, Ada closes in on solving on the mystery…

 

Review:  The story moved quickly, at times thrilling but other times questionable. What’s the legality of a young girl setting a surveillance camera on a neighbor’s window?  Sneaking into a neighbor’s house? The ending was anticlimactic, too; the story behind “dognapping” was disappointing especially after so much development. Ada, as the protagonist, is very fun. She is curious, full of ideas, and interested in technology (she can fix a surveillance camera!).  I would want my daughter to be friends with her, although she may get both of them in trouble. I also liked introduction of concepts, like Occam’s razor, weaved into the story. 

 

Zoey and Sassafras, Dragons and Marshmallows by Asia Citro (publisher recommended grades: K-5)

Print(Amazon link)

Plot:  Nature-, animal-, and science- loving Zoey discovers one day that she has special powers to see mythical animals just like her mom. It turns out, her family’s barn has been a convalescing center for injured mythical animals. Her mom, who has been a caretaker all this time, had to go out of town, and Zoey takes on the responsibility of rescuing creatures with her pet cat Sassafras as a sidekick. Right away, Zoey is visited by a famished baby dragon.  Using the scientific method, Zoey tries to figure out how to rescue the dragon…

 

Review: Whereas the first two books attempted to contrast science from superstitions (Ada), princesses, castles, fairies, and pink-loving girls (Lucy), this book does a fine job of somehow meshing science and magic. It teaches readers how to identify a question to be tested, form a hypothesis, conduct an experiment, and come up with conclusions.  Zoey also experiences setbacks and makes mistakes, but she learns how to improve and to fix them.  This book is more story-centered, because I have a less grasp of who Zoey is, other than she likes science and is very caring (she is probably more revealed in later books).

 

Overall Reviews

 

It was intriguing that in all three books, each protagonist’s mom works, and all the moms go out on business trips in the beginning.  Each girl wishes her mom was there when encountering problems, but solves them on her own. Dads are around, but only assert minor supportive roles (they all cook meals!)  

 

Each book promotes independence, creativity, originality, problem-solving skills, resilience, and love for STEM. I’m thankful that these books exist, making it more “normal” for girls to be interested in and pursuing STEM.  

 

Each book is fun and adorable, but the final word of this review belongs my daughter, who preferred Zoey and Sassafras over the other two. When asked why she said, “because the book has magic, and I like magic.” She has now finished all 5 books in the series. At her age, or perhaps at any age, magic and fantasy can coexist with science…imagination is as important as rational thinking. Asia Citro (the author) better hurry with her writing, and J.K. Rowling better get started on a book in which Hermione becomes a Nobel-prize receiving scientist (I never finished the Harry Potter series. Hermione isn’t, is she?)!

Posted in Book Club, books, education, female scientist, scientist mom | 4 Comments

Uncovering the Past

I took a trip recently to help my dad move. He has lived in the same house for 23 years, during which I went to middle school and high school, then moved away for college and slowly began to visit less frequently for shorter stints.  There are lots of memories in that house. There are the ones that live in my head and the ones that live in boxes. Boxes that I haven’t looked at in over a decade. During my stay, I went through photo albums, journals, yearbooks, trinkets, and transcripts. It is an interesting thing to look back on yourself with that much distance. To read your own words that feel at once familiar and like words of a stranger. It was difficult because I was an awkward and insecure teen. Looking at the photos and reading my own words, I kept wanting to give my former self advice. Don’t get that haircut! Teen boys are not worth that much mental space! Be kinder to your parents! Relax! And perhaps most importantly, don’t be afraid!

suffragette

I am a shy person, which I think is a just fine personality trait in moderation. However, being timid is a little different than being shy, and I have often found myself timid as well. I have lived much of my life trying not to be disruptive, trying not to hurt anyone’s feelings, trying not to take up too much of anyone’s time. My mother often told me “don’t be mousy,” which of course only made it worse at the time but was honestly good advice.

At the time of each little action of shrinking myself, it seems to make sense, it just fits. Oh, I don’t want to be a bother. In the rearview mirror, though, it is clear that it is not right thing to do. It is often not the kindness to others I imagine it to be. It does not make the world a better place or make those around me happier. It certainly doesn’t make me happier. Most importantly, it comes from a place of not valuing myself enough.

While this feels very personal to my situation, taking up less space is actually, a common problem among women in girls. The ideal feminine woman in many cultures is one that does not talk out of turn or stand up for herself. This cultural insistence that women take up less space manifests in the ways women take up physical space. Women are told to be smaller by losing weight and by body language. As opposed to feeling free to take up space as men do, women often take up less space and there is backlash when they do not. It is related to rape culture and anti-abortion fanaticism, where even women’s bodies are not their own.

It also manifests in how the world views women’s ideas, with a culture where a man’s ideas are more valued than a woman’s, mansplaining is rampant, and gaslighting a common concern. It takes a lot of internal strength the value one’s own ideas when it feels like the world does not. The physical and the mental collide in the classroom, where girls raise their hands less, a phenomenon reinforced by society. Luckily, some girls are becoming aware and pushing for girls to raise their hands more.

These influences, some small, some huge, all affect how we move through this world as women. They affect how we influence the world, as it is not a stretch to imagine that taking up space relates to whether women take on positions of power. It affects women’s careers, in science and otherwise, where their ideas are taken less seriously.

So for now, while this reminder is fresh on my mind, my mantra for myself is “take up space” a call to action to be confident, to value my own opinions highly, and to not be afraid. And for all the girls I interact with, I must instill that in them as well.

 

Posted in female scientist, sexism, trying to please others | 2 Comments

What could be happening behind the scenes on the hiring committee?

I recently heard an interesting story from a colleague about the hiring process for my position – and how I almost didn’t get an interview! Have you ever heard the behind the scenes story of how you got hired? It can be enlightening, both from a personal perspective and regarding the general hiring process as well.

Here at A Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman we’ve posted a number of stories about the struggles of job searches and the difficulty of not understanding why we sometimes don’t get an offer, or even an interview at a job it seems like we’re perfect for. And we’ve posted on some of the things that go on behind the scenes from a hiring committee‘s perspective. One major theme here is that as an applicant there are so many things big and small that go on in a search that you can never know that may influence your placement regardless of how well matched you are.

My colleague and I were chatting about how when I was offered my position they hoped the wouldn’t lose me because of my two-body problem. And that reminded her of the funny-not-funny story of how I almost didn’t even get an interview. She told me that she came to the search committee meeting with her ranked list of candidates with me at the top. She compared her list to the other members of the committee, who had the same top candidates – except that I was completely missing from their lists! She said, “Did you miss this application? I think you need to go back and look at this one.” They had no idea that my application even existed! Through some electronic system formatting issue or later application date, my files ended up separated from the main pack of applicants, and so the others on the search committee had not even viewed my application! Thank goodness one person on the committee was thorough enough to find me, and a strong enough advocate to notice and insist that the others consider me.

While I’ve always tried to share the message with others that you just don’t know what kinds of things are influencing your search that aren’t evident in the job description or communication, I never thought something this logistically simple could have meant a totally different life for me!

Posted in academia, advice, Interview, job search, new job, uncertainty, vulnerability | 1 Comment

Part Time Work

As I’ve documented in painful detail here, I’ve been on the job hunt. I love my job teaching high school, but it’s extremely demanding. My children are young, and its hard for to be away from them so much and juggle everything else in my life. Additionally, my salary is not high enough that I’m able to throw money at the problems (gosh, wouldn’t a house cleaner and weekly meal service be great!). The summers off are a wonderful bonus, but they remind me of all the moments I am missing during the school year.

I’ve been looking for a reasonable part time option, and I’ve been offered a position teaching a few classes at the local community college. I’m tempted to take it for the hours, as I’d be able to spend much more time with my family; but the pay is so poor and there are no benefits, making it a challenge for me to walk away from my full time position.

As I’ve been navigating this, I read this article. It’s a great, short read, but here was the most poignant part for me: “the ‘gap between the number of children that women say they want to have (2.7) and the number of children they will probably actually have (1.8) has risen to the highest level in 40 years.”’ Well, isn’t that just depressing? Women are having way fewer children than they want to (or at least wanted to, before experiencing the chaos of life with children). The author speculates on a bunch of possible reasons, but here’s the one that I’m feeling the most right now.

There are so few viable part time positions.  I have felt this so deeply. I want to work, and I want to do satisfying work. But given the choice between spending time with my family and working, I will choose to stay home (full time, if I have to). The statistics seem to show that many women are likely making the opposite decision, and I totally understand that decision, especially from the financial perspective. But I find it disheartening, both on a global level and a personal one.

Posted in busy moms, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The Six Month Postdoc Evaluation

I started an academic postdoc position 6 months ago, as a new mom reeling partly from maternity leave and partly from the conditions of leaving my previous postdoc. When I started this position, I wrote about how terrified and isolated it felt. I even elaborated on why conditions seemed like they may never improve and that I may need to find a way out sooner than I thought. But in lieu of jumping ship immediately, I planned to evaluate at 6 months and 1 year*.

Here I am at 6 months. In brief, I am still here. To expound somewhat, I am sitting at my desk having just finished lining up ducks for the next several weeks of experiments, counting cells while listening to the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast, and not fearing that my boss will inevitably burst in at some point to interrogate me. Today is a particularly good day, but I am okay with letting today be empowering.

What has changed, you ask? A few major, major things. And the minor thing that my science may actually begin to move forward.

  • Meetings with my PI have shown me not to fear her, but to let her passive aggressive undertone pass over me and continue to push for direct communication outcomes. In recent lab meetings, I have gleaned things about her expectations with which I thoroughly disagree. Instead of being cowed and terrified into working harder and longer, as I would have done a few months ago, I decided that it was okay for me to disagree and conduct my business and science in the way that I think is ethical and most productive.

 

  • I have accepted that I do not want to be a PI at an R1 institution. I may not even want to be one at an R2. The pathway toward academic primary investigator, for me, has never been driven by the science per se. I have always loved science, and love bench work, designing projects, writing grants… all that jazz that comes with being a PI. I am also pretty good at these things. But I have never burned with the desire to address a specific scientific question; neither do I burn with the desire for the lifestyle that often comes with the title. I find that I become enthusiastic about many different lines of investigation, and that the projects I favor tend to not be of career-launching caliber. But I digress. The pathway toward academic PI has always been about reaching a position of power from which to engage and promote the next generation of scientific minds. To make science and scientific research accessible to anyone. To foster scientific thinking, and to manage an equitable laboratory space that fosters healthy and ethically responsible scientists. I know this sounds like a pipe-dream, but I also started my career in the laboratory of a PI who inspired me by creating that exact environment, which is why I have so blindly forged ahead. So in response to the road blocks, bad luck, and bad mentorship I have experienced in the last several years, I have decided to shift my career dream over to teaching in the community college or public university setting. These venues are far more fitted to my dreams of engaging young minds and making science and scientific thinking accessible. When I finally realized — in not just my brain but my soul — that this was the platform from which I (with my personality and interests) could best realize the actual impetus of my career goals, it was a major breakthrough. And I have held onto it for several weeks now…

 

  • I have a teaching project. Through my pedagogical fellowship, I have found an opportunity to help redesign an introductory course in molecular biology for a local state university. I am terrified and excited for this project, especially since I have advocated for adding a writing component to the course (instead of just expecting that freshman will know how to write a full lab report…), for which I am solely responsible.

 

  • Finally, I have proven to myself that I can still be a productive and creative scientist working 40-45 hours per week. A growing number of successful scientists have written about this topic, but I have discovered that this could also be me. At least during my postdoc. For now.

So after 6 months, I have brought purpose and direction to my postdoc both at and beyond the bench. I have ceased to be cowed by my PI, I have accepted that my changing career direction is a desire and not a failure, and I have fiercely protected my time with my family. For the time being, this is working. Onward, to the 1 year evaluation!

 

*This is a personal self-evaluation, not to be confused with a formal evaluation with my mentor that might include an IDP.

Posted in academia, busy moms, early career scientist, female scientist, mentoring, postdoc, scientist mom, transitions, Women in STEM, work-life balance | 1 Comment