Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Why are female profs so mean?

Abel Pharmboy asks: "What do you feel were the barriers for The Big Hurt to feel the same way about you or other female grad students?"

Certainly the Big Hurt faced hurdles. As she was so fond of pointing out, she was (at the time, not sure about now) the only female prof in the engineering school with young children. She got her PhD from MIT, which had to be a real picnic.

Does facing and overcoming such hurdles give one the right to belittle others? Obviously not.

Does facing and overcoming such hurdles turn you into a monster? I hope not.

Does facing and overcoming such hurdles require the kind of personality that is domineering, perfectionist, and driven beyond rationality? Sometimes I think so. Our good friend Herman Melville said "all mortal greatness is but disease." I think things have gotten better though, which is why the second generation of female profs is now ... what's the word I'm looking for here? Sane?

A few entries ago I wrote about my Dad, and I included some info about my Mom. I just think she is so incredible that she got a PhD in chemistry, raised five kids, and worked full time. She taught chemistry at a nursing school and eventually became the director of the science division at her school. Did she face barriers? Oh yeah. Did they turn her into a monster? No. Did she have to be a bitch to succeed? No. But on the other hand, she told me once that she had no doubt that she had the ability to be a big-time professor at a research institution, but that she wasn't willing to make the sacrifices required. Her family was too important to her. (Incidentally, I think I was in high school when she told me this, and I gaped at her like she was insane because it felt to me that she had sacrified her family - i.e. me - greatly. Now I am older and wiser.) In addition to making the conscious choice to devote herself to her family, I'm sure two other factors prevented her from getting a job at, for example, Ohio State. One was the good old two-body problem. She went where my dad got a good job. The second was probably lack of opportunities. Not many schools would have even considered her. All these three issues are intertwined in complex ways, and they still are today. They resulted in my Mom working at a job she was probably overqualified for. And she did a great job at it and was at least partially responsible for the success and expansion of the school she worked for. One of the things I always admired about her was that her job involved educating people, predominantly women, so that they could get better jobs and be able to support their families. She taught and awful lot of recently divorced women who had thought they would be stay-at-home moms forever, and had suddenly realized that they needed an education to support themselves and their children. My mom gave those women better lives. She gave them the tools to live independantly.

But maybe my Mom was too nice to be a big-U prof. But even though she wasn't at a Big U, she was still a pioneer and she paved the way for me and my sisters, just as much as or maybe more so that the Big Hurt.

So are we supposed to be grateful to all the Big Hurts of the world for opening doors for us? Probably, yes. But does that make their demeaning behavior okay? I don't think so.

But let's cut to the heart of the issue--how does the mean behavior of those first generation female profs really affect us? If their behavior prevents some women from finishing their degrees, or if it scares women off from the profession, then that is bad. But maybe anyone who is scared off by such behavior isn't meant to be a prof anyway. I think one of the big morals of my Big Hurt story is that you can't let anything, especially not a difficult advisor, prevent you from reaching your goals. Remember, another good friend of ours said, "everybody takes a beating now and then." It is unrealistic to expect to get through grad school or get tenure with some humiliation. (and if no one is around to dish it out, I can usually be counted on to cook up something self-inflicted). To survive, we all have to learn to separate our personal feelings (of being belittled or humiliated) from the rational standards of our profession. In other words, if you are making good progress toward your goal, who cares what your advisor thinks? If you do excellent work, the world will notice, you will get a reputation for excellence, and there is nothing one psycho professor can do to stop you from attaining your goal. My point is that we can be grateful to the Big Hurts of the world without hating them if we learn not to give a shit what they think and not to let them stand in our way. I call this strategy "winning by losing". I let the Big Hurt win all the battles, even though it made me feel like dirt, because in the end I won the war - I graduated.

Of course, it is very easy for me to dispense this advice now, seven years later. At the time, I was wallowing in despair, and it is very difficult to put your personal feelings of humiliation aside and "take your beating and go" under those circumstances. That is why I actively sought out positive and helpful mentors. So another moral of the story is--seek out mentors, and be a good mentor because good mentors are so critical to success of both men and women.

Occasionally there will be circumstances where it seems that one psycho professor really can scuttle your career. For example, let's say that BPT hadn't helped me and I had been forced to leave EPPU. But that would have been a failing of the entire institution, not just the Big Hurt. I like to think that I would have gone and found another good school with a better advisor and would still be in roughly the same position I am in now. But in reality we know that if you discourage and delay people, they will eventually give up. So it is this kind of institutional failure that I think is less common now and has made it possible for us, the second generation of female profs, to survive without the prerequisite of being psychotic.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

She Who Must Not Be Named

The time has come for me to tackle a difficult subject: my PhD advisor. She Who Must Not Be Named. Or as I liked to call her, "The Big Hurt." The joke of this appellation was (and is) that she is barely five feet tall (and I'm 5'10"). She is still there at my alma mater, only now with tenure.

It’s so hard to go back to remember grad school and what she put me through. But I just came back from the dept holiday party and have a couple of glasses of red wine in me, and I feel it is time to try…

I was her first student. Those of you who know about these things know that the first student always gets hit with a load of sh*t. So that was bad enough. When I arrived at my grad school (Extremely Prestigious Private University – EPPU), we had a room full of crap from a recently deceased professor emeritus that I had to clear out before we could buy new instruments and generally get the place up and running. I started research immediately. The first semester, she seemed okay. The problem was me—I had worked for two years after college and I wasn’t used to academic life. Those two years gave me a great deal of lab experience, which was invaluable, but still, doing research and taking three grad courses was a lot. In addition, my husband had stayed behind in our old state because he couldn’t find a job near EPPU, so we were apart for about 6 months and we had only been married for a year. It was ugly. Plus, the grad courses were so much tougher than what I was used to. I had a 4.0 in college, but grad school kicked my ass.

The hardest thing about being your advisor’s first student is not having older students to mentor you. I went to two female students in another PI’s lab for moral support. They were great. Their advisor, Beneficent Prof with Tenure (BPT), figures prominently in this story. He was/is a big famous guy, highly respected in his field. Extremely weird, though, and incapable of speaking plainly on any subject. He is the king of circumlocution.

So anyway, by my second semester, The Big Hurt started to ride me too hard. I just could not accomplish everything she wanted. She met with me one-on-one every week, and frequently I began to cry before I had even left her office. She acquired a couple of MS students and some undergrads, so at least I had some people to commiserate with. But she began almost from day one to get a reputation in the department as difficult, and incapable of admitting when she was wrong. To be fair, she also was having personal problems. I won’t describe those in detail out of respect for her privacy, but they were pretty serious. Anyway, she worked seven days a week. She traded evenings with her husband: one night she would get home by 5 to relieve the babysitter for their toddler son, the next night she would work late (like midnight), while he went home early. Even when she was home, she would be working on her laptop. I just was not and am not willing to do that. Once when I was not able to produce data that she wanted for a talk on Tuesday, she came right out and demanded to know why I didn’t come in on the weekend to get the data. As it turns out, I was having a huge, knock-down, drag-it-out fight with my husband that weekend. I looked her right in the eye and said, “I was having personal issues, and I’m not going to discuss them with you.”

Things grew intolerable. I was avoiding her, and I knew that wasn’t healthy. So I arranged to meet with her on neutral ground (not in her office, which we used to call “the box”). We met in the cafeteria over a cup of coffee. I wrote down a list of the things I wanted to say, and I went through it pretty thoroughly. She didn’t like it much, but she listened, and she even said, “thank you,” in a stiff way, and shook my hand when we were done. I guess because I was her first student I felt that in some way it was my job to help her to develop into a good professor in the same way that it was her job to help me develop into a better student. This was my mistake. I also generally operate in life with the basic assumption that every human is worthwhile and valuable and has something to teach you, from the university president to the janitor. She apparently did not share this view.

This little intervention did no good. It changed nothing. Toward the end of my second year, she forced me to give a presentation at an ACS meeting. I didn’t feel ready, but I did my best. (I gave a practice seminar in front of our department at which she publicly humiliated me.) Things were getting worse and worse, so I devised a strategy. I would go to ACS and give a kick-ass presentation, then I would come back to EPPU and demand some concessions. Part of my plan was to have a evacuation route: I was going to ask BPT if he would be my advisor in the event that the Big Hurt wouldn’t listen to me (I had my own funding from an NSF graduate student fellowship—Thank You, NSF!). So I went to talk to BPT before the conference and described, in detail, my grievances. He understood; after all, he had to work with her pretty closely and could see what a nightmare she could be. He never came right out and offered to be my advisor, but at the very start of the conversation, he said, “you are a good student and you are making good progress toward your degree.” That meant a lot to me. The Big Hurt had never said anything like that to me. At the end of our conversation, he asked me to try one more time to talk to her, and if it didn’t work, he would talk to her.

So I made an appointment with her on a Friday after my hugely successful talk at ACS. Again, I had a written list of points to talk over. I told her things weren’t working and I couldn’t go on like this. She replied that everything was my fault—I wasn’t a good enough student, I wasn’t trying hard enough, I expected everything to be handed to me and wasn’t willing to work hard. I was pretty upset, but it was okay, because I had a plan. After we finished talking, I went to my desk and debriefed myself. I wrote down everything that I could remember her saying. Then I went straight to BPT and told him that I had tried to talk to her, but it didn’t work. I described our conversation in detail. By then it was about 5 pm on a Friday afternoon. He said he would talk to her.

Monday I went to our regular lab group meeting and the Big Hurt said she wanted to meet with me that afternoon. I thought, “great! She’s going to apologize!” I went to BPT and told him of the meeting and he thought she wanted to apologize, too. HAH!!!!!

Whereas I had spent the weekend calming down, she apparently had spent the weekend getting MORE upset. She had written a multi-page single-spaced rant about what a horrible student I was, and when I entered her office, she proceeded to read it to me, word for word. I was blindsided. I had expected some contrition, or at least some attempt to smooth things over. Instead I got my head handed to me. When she first started in on me, I said, “before you go any farther, I just want to say that it is clear that you have a lot to say, so I’m just going to sit here and listen, I’m not going to try to respond to any of this.” She went on for about half an hour. At the end of it, she said that I should (and this is a direct quote) “go find a second-tier school with lower standards” because I wasn’t living up the standards set by her and EPPU. I had a 4.0 GPA in college, I had taken about 12 grad courses and had gotten 10 A’s and 2 B’s, and I had an NSF graduate student fellowship. And she was ready to kick me out of the school. I always knew that she was mentally unbalanced, because she did things that were obviously not in her own self-interest. Now that I am trying to get tenure, I realize how utterly insane this was. I would be overjoyed right now to find a student with his or her own funding, especially an NSF fellowship! But here she was, kicking me out! At the end of the conversation she gave me an ultimatum. “Are you going to get with the program and improve your attitude, or are you going to leave?” (Obviously it hadn’t occurred to her that I might be able to get another professor in our department to take me on as a student.) I stammered something about needing some time to think about it, and fled. Of course I went straight to BPT and reported the whole traumatic incident to him.

To this day I do not know what BPT said to her. Basically I think he told her that she was being an idiot, but in his own circuitous way, so that somehow he got the message across without offending her. One of the many things about her that drove me crazy was her assumption that no one on earth had a harder life than her, and therefore no one could give her advice. She wouldn’t listen to the older professors in our dept because she felt that since they were men, they didn’t understand how hard her life was, raising kids and trying to get tenure. She frequently pointed out that she was the only female professor in the engineering school with young children. She was taking on three new students that fall, so I think BPT also told her that she was going to need me to help train them, and that even if I produced nothing publishable, I was still worth keeping around for that reason alone.

Two days later, BPT came to me and said that the Big Hurt would like to see me. I was so terrified that I refused to see her alone and insisted that BPT come with me. I expected her to apologize, but that day I learned a life lesson. There are some people who simply cannot say the words, “I’m Sorry”. They just cannot do it. She was one. She told me that she valued me and my contribution to the lab and said that she wanted me to stay, but she did not say she was sorry. She never did and never will.

I stayed as her student and three years later, I graduated. Not without pain. But I made it. I think the only reason I graduated was because I got a job. My post-doc institution required that I defend before starting my post-doc position, so I scheduled my defense for Nov 16 so that I could start Dec 1. Two weeks before I was supposed to defend, she cancelled my defense, saying I wasn’t ready. My parents and my husband’s parents had to cancel their flights and travel plans and everything. She postponed my defense by all of two weeks. I defended Nov 30, 1998. When I started to work with my post-doc advisor, it was like I had died and gone to heaven. He was so…rational!

But the Big Hurt wasn’t done with me. When I submitted my dissertation to the library in January, she objected to my acknowledgements. She made me re-write them, because she felt that they cast her in a negative light. She made me re-write my acknowledgements.

Seven years later, only two of my five dissertation chapters are published, because she is such a perfectionist. I have given up on them. Luckily I don’t need them, since I came here to do my post-doc with Big Famous Guy.

Not long ago I went to a conference in the same city as EPPU. I dreaded seeing her there. But she didn’t come. Apparently the two miles to the convention center was too far for her to travel. I was relieved. My friend and fellow Mom Seeking Tenure, Donna, was there. She had heard me tell stories about the Big Hurt, but she thought they must be exaggerations. At the conference she heard me talking to a string of other students and post-docs who have worked with the Big Hurt over the last few years, and we all say the same thing. She is mentally ill. She did things that were detrimental to her own efforts to get tenure, because she could not help herself. She is such a perfectionist, and so deeply, deeply insecure that she shoots herself in the foot.

But the good news is that I am FREE. I am free of her. Now that I have given up on ever publishing the rest of my dissertation, I never have to deal with her again.

Now I am a professor and advisor. I am trying hard not to be like her. But on some level I don’t think I have to worry about it. Because I will never be like her. She obviously has some serious issues that go way beyond science. I learned many things about life and about people from her. One is: usually you get to know someone intimately by being their friend or lover. But you can also get to know someone intimately by being their enemy. And when you learn about someone from that perspective, you see them in some ways more intimately that any of their friends. I know her and I understand her on a level that few people ever will. And once you know someone that intimately, it is hard to hate them. So mostly what I feel for her is pity. She got tenure all right. But her kids are totally screwed up, and I sense that her life is pretty miserable. For all her insight into the issues of her research, she is unable to see her own self in an objective way.

Once, toward the end of my 5 years at EPPU, one of the other professor in our department came to me and said, “I just cannot get along with the Big Hurt, and I see that you have a pretty good relationship with her. Can you help me understand how I can get along with her better?” My answer was, “I don’t have a good relationship with her. I just take my beating and go.”

Monday, December 12, 2005

My Dad (and Mom)

Two weeks ago I went to a funeral for my husband's Uncle Rich. Funerals do make you think. I watched Rich's kids get up and talk about him, and I thought about what I would say when my father passes away (which, god willing, won't be for a long, long time).

Some wise person once said, "the older I get, the smarter my parents are". As a teenager I thought my parents were disastrous. But now that I have kids of my own, and now that I've learned so much about my husband's alcoholic father, my parents seem like saints. My dad grew up in a small town in Iowa. His father had multiple sclerosis. He was bedridden for most of my dad's life, and died when my dad was about 20. My dad had a much older sister and a much younger brother, so in a lot of ways he was an only child. I think he was incredibly lonely, which explains why he married my mom, who is the 6th of 7 children. Anyway, he didn't want to be a farmer so he decided he should get an education. He had a cousin who was going to college across the river in Nebraska, so on the first day of classes my dad packed up his car and drove over there to see if he could enroll. They took him.

My mom, by contrast, had already watched her five older siblings go through college. Two of them already had PhDs and were teaching at the college when my mom went there. So my mom was already planning on getting a PhD when she met my dad. She is a year older, so when she graduated from college, they got married and went straight to the University of Nebraska, where my dad finished his degree, and my mom started her PhD in chemistry. This is Nebraska, people. In 1961. My mom got pregnant instantaneously and had three children by the time she finished her degree. (Incidentally, on their two graduate student stipends they rented a house and employed a live-in au pair to help with the kids.) Back when there was no powdered formula or disposable diapers or microwave ovens or Barney videos, my mom got a PhD in chemistry in five years while raising three kids. Not that I feel inadequate or anything.

When it was time to go looking for jobs, everyone wanted to hire my dad and no one had much interest in my mom. They found a place that would take them both, but my mom didn't last there long because of all the male chauvanist bullshit. She got a teaching job at a nursing college and did that for the next 20 or so years. She had me shortly after starting her teaching job. My little sister was a huge surprise to everyone 15 years later (when my mom was 45!).

So my parents have four daughters and one son. My brother is a little ... different. He was never the typical boy. He never played sports or excelled at school. So maybe it was because he didn't have a typical son that my dad treated us girls the way he did. I think the biggest gift my parents ever gave me is that they never once, not for a fraction of a second, not overtly, covertly, subliminally or otherwise, led us to believe that there were things we couldn't do or shouldn't do because we were female. It wasn't that they were big cheerleaders. They never said stuff like, "go on, you can do it, go for it!" They just assumed that we could do whatever we set our minds to. If I went to them to ask for permission, they would just give me blank looks and say, "of course you can do it. why wouldn't you be able to?" Once, when I was about 10, my dad bought a lawn spreader which required "some assembly". Looking back I think he must have had a bet with my mom that I could put it together. But whatever the motivation, he just said to me, "put this thing together. Your mom and I are going out for a cup of coffee. Try to have it done by the time we come back." And I did.

When I was in college I told them I wanted to go visit some of my friends who were studying abroad in Europe. They bought me a Eurail pass and let me go to Europe for three weeks alone. At the funeral two weeks ago, my husband's cousin, who is 40, was told by her father to hit the road early because of the threat of snow. And she did. That episode reminded me of the song by No Doubt, "I'm just a girl in the world, that's all that they'll let me be. They won't let me drive late at night." Once my husband and I were going to dinner at another relative's house, and their daughter, who was in her 20's and sharing an apartment with a friend, came over for dinner, too. When she showed up she apologized for being late but said that something odd had happened to the electricity in their apartment. Some of the outlets worked and some didn't and their were no lights in the bathroom. Her dad said, don't worry, punkin, I'll go back there with you after dinner and find the fuse box and fix it for you. Rrrrrrr. Is it so much to ask that fathers treat their daughters like adults? My dad showed me how to flip the switch in the fuse box when I was tall enough to reach it. He showed my how to use a volt meter and wire an outlet and fix a toilet and anything else that had to be done as a normal part of life. And my mom taught me to cook and bake and sew and convert grams to moles. Nothing was off limits. Nothing was "a man's job" or "women's work". My mom often taught evening classes, so my dad did a lot of cooking. My mom even sewed him a frilly pink apron to wear that said "Dad's the cook". My dad changed dirty diapers and got up to feed the babies at night. I have often asked my mom how she was able to raise five children and get a PhD and have a career, and she always says the same thing: "Your dad helped and made it possible."

The other thing my dad did which I think has helped me be successful in life is that he never punished failure. He never punished us for stupid mistakes. Bad behavior, yes. But not accidents or stupidity. Once I was backing "my" car out of the driveway and I sideswiped my mother's car. He came out and looked at it and said "Oh well. It's only money." And that was it. He knew I already felt very stupid. He didn't need to punish me or belittle me by asking pointless questions like "what were you thinking!" Whenever I made mistakes he would say that same things, like "now you know why we don't let you kids do X." Or "that's one mistake you'll never make again." He never yelled. I was probably 12 or so when I first heard him cuss (he said "damn").

I'm a mom now and I know how hard it can be to judge when your kids are ready to take on different responsibilities. I think, having 5 kids, my parents just couldn't do everything for us, so they made sure we learned how to take care of ourselves. Plus I think the fact that they both grew up on the farm gave them a decidedly UNromantic view of childhood. Children on the farm work, and we were expected to work too. I did my own laundry by the time I was 13. When I started highschool I signed my dad's name to all my notes from home (with his permission), so that I could take care of that bit of business by myself. That way the people at school didn't know what my dad's signature looked like. My signature was his signature as far as they knew. My parents raised me to take care of myself. I was a straight-A student, and if I wanted to take a day off from school once in a while I was free to do it. And I did, because I hated high school.

I think these days we really infantalize kids and teach them to be dependent and to feel entitled. I think that if I had had one of those overprotective fathers, I probably wouldn't be a professor now, or even a scientist. I would probably be a real estate agent or a CPA or something. I might still be successful on a lot of levels. But I'm not sure that I would feel that I had the right or ability to choose whatever I wanted. I think I would feel more as though I did what society expected me to do, and I might always wonder if I could have been something different or something more. I don't wonder about that now, and I think I owe a lot of that to my dad.

Friday, December 02, 2005

The Shocking True Story of How I Became a Mom...Seeking Tenure

My mother and father are both PhD chemists. This explains much about me. When we blew a fuse I got a lecture on electricity. When my mom made gravy she talked about starches polymerizing. My dad measured crisco by water displacement and explained the concept of specific gravity as he helped my mom make apple pies. I am the fourth of five children.
Three of us are scientists.

Yes, my mother has a PhD and raised five children. Not that I feel inadequate or anything.

I went to a small liberal arts college because I had so little confidence in myself in high school that I couldn't face a large school. I went there because my English teacher recommended it (I had an enormous crush on him). I was always little miss straight A's. Quite annoying. In college I wanted to major in English, then psychology, then Russian, then, finally, Chemistry. I switched my major at the end of my junior year and therefore took nothing but chemistry my senior year. I squeeked out a 4.0 anyway. My senior year I also started dating my husband. When I graduated all I wanted was to be with him, so I moved to his state and got a job with a pharmaceutical company. We got married and I decided I wanted to go to grad school to do "something environmental". You must recall that this was in the days before the internet made finding and applying to grad school really easy. I ended up at my grad school at Extremely Prestigious Private University (EPPU) quite by accident. I was my advisor's first graduate student. She turned out to be possessed by the devil, but that is a whole other story. I am also leaving out the mess that our move to EPPU wreaked (wrought?) on my marriage.

After the standard 5 years, I was very near to graduating. My husband was offered a chance to transfer within his company to the land of his birth. I looked for a job there and was extremely lucky to find the ideal post-doc at Fatherland State University (FSU), working for a big, famous, guy (BFG). By the time I defended (Nov 30, 1998, I remember it well), I was 2 months pregnant.

First day of post-doc:
BFG: "I'm going on sabbatical."
Me: "I'm pregnant."

The first two years at FSU were mostly spent falling asleep in various seminars. I wrote only one paper. But a funny thing happened in year 3. BFG took a job on another continent in order to be near his family (who had for years been living on said continent, thousands of miles away). BFG left behind a fully-equipped lab, several students in various stages of their studies, about $1 million in grants, and contacts with various people who control the purse strings of local funding agencies. I pretended that I knew what the hell I was doing and took it all over. I figured as long as I paid for the pizza at the lab meetings, they would believe that I was in charge and take orders from me. And they did! FSU made me a "Laboratory Researcher" and then a Research Professor (about 60% of my salary was "soft money"). I got grants. I published. My department chair loved me, especially because my department started to lose all the people in my specialty and had no one to teach classes. I taught two classes per year and my course evaluations were good. The Dean knew who I was because I analyzed samples for some of his research. My dept chair played an astute political game and got me hired onto the tenure track despite a FSU-wide hiring freeze.

So here I am. When BFG left, I wasn't sure if I could handle being a professor. Especially when I got pregnant about 3 days after he jetted into the sunset. I promised myself that I would give it 40 hours a week. If I couldn't get tenure on that, then I would quit and go into consulting (thereby tripling my salary, by the way). I never really wanted to be a professor, especially after watching my PhD advisor work seven days a week for five years. But when they drop an opportunity like mine in your lap, you'd be an idiot not to at least give it your best shot, right? and so far I am doing pretty good.

There were many times that first year when child #2 got 7 ear infections and had four bouts of the flu that I thought about quitting. But when I seriously started to consider what I would do if I quit, I realized that I couldn't afford to stay home, and there was no other job I could think of that would give me the flexibility of schedule and the first-class medical benefits of the one I've got. So I decided to stick with it until they fired me because my performance was so bad or because I didn't get tenure. I figured by then my kids would be older and life would be easier.

My friend Donna was telling me that every time she complains to her mom about how tough it is to be a professor, her mother just laughs, because her mom worked factory jobs and night shifts and stuff. We forget sometimes how easy our jobs are. In college I worked in the meat department of a grocery store. This job is much easier. I come and go as I please and I can wear jeans to work. What more can a girl ask for?