Sunday, March 13, 2011

Sitting in Glass Houses; drinking tea and planning World Domination (aka Thesis Completion).

I wrote this piece in response to several articles in major journals in the last couple of weeks. When our Blog Mistress gets back from holiday, it will eventually make its way here. Keep an eye out.


I am at that stage of the PhD. Contemplating completion and what the heck comes after.

There is always talk about the glass ceiling still present in industry for women and the issues surrounding women and science, especially during post-doctoral positions. (1, 2, 3). It is at this point where they, as a group, seem to fall off the scientific academic bandwagon. That being the age of child bearing and marriage, the impending desire for houses, families and stability. As a young woman, aiming for scientific academia as a career, these things naturally both scare and annoy me.

I thought we had gotten past all of that?

And yet – the inequality still remains. I want to be a postdoc, I want to be a lecturer. I want to be an AP then full Prof. And eventually I want to be Vice Chancellor of my current illustrious Te Whare Wananga. I don’t want my non-attainment of any goals to be due to sexism or inequality – my own mistakes are sufficient cause.

I am female, and scientist: hear me roar.

So what’s the problem? Obviously it’s not the men standing at the Uni doors theatrically intoning “You shall not pass”. That just doesn’t happen.

The problem is societal, and deep – and not likely to go away in this generation. There are teams working on it and the rich parts of the world have noble goals for eradication of the difference.

So what good can I do?

Not drop out, I think, is a brilliant start. I am part of a (relatively) large group of acquaintances’ gearing up to finish their theses and the pressure is building. Is the stress, pressure, unrealistic expectations and lack of financial security in our academic futures worth it?

I am also quite firm in the conviction that I am unwilling to choose career over family, nor will I agree that the best way to tackle this issue is to pay someone to do the housework, or to *shockhorror* let it go undone.

“Science is a marathon, so it helps to shed every little thing that might bog you down. Think hard about what aspects of science and life you enjoy most and prioritize and preserve them”

I don’t want to miss things, nor cut things out of my life because they don’t polish the path to academic sainthood. I also don’t want a husband who sits at home and does the dishes while I write grant proposals.

Why does a career in Science have to be so hard? The scarcity of funding is one unfortunate answer and there is nothing I can do about that. So I face in the immediate future, completion of experiments and writing of thesis without any future job-security-pot-of-gold to spur me on. The incentive is theoretical and yet – there is nothing else I want to do more.

I love science – I love the research aspect of University. I love the community and prestige and cutting edge excitement. I can’t wait to be a fully fledged, paper published, lab running, minion toting, and too-busy-for-reality member.

So being currently surrounded by a cohort of soon-to-be doctoral graduates brainstorming about alternate careers, ‘cause this one is just not worth it; is very, very hard. The prospect of completion alone induces night terrors – how did 3 years pass so quickly? How did I think that first literature review was anything other than a pile of scrap paper and printer scat? Am I really good enough for a life of academia? How could it possibly be that I could repeat all of my research in a month – and do it to a higher standard? How can I concentrate on writing The Beast when I have to apply for jobs at the same time? How can I concentrate on writing The Beast and applying for jobs when I need to publish precious papers to be anywhere near successful at either?!

And yet – I have never met a scientist who thought they had made a career mistake – and still stayed in the job. That says something for their dedication, and the commitment and drive of the successful few. A Career in Science is obviously not a decision you take lightly, or a future you just fall in to.

There are so many facets to my prospective Job – so many areas in which you need to excel. You have to be able to write for scientific journals, you have to have the good sense to select a research area which attracts funding, you have to write grants and undergraduate lectures/lab books/courses, you need to be able to teach to both a room of hundreds and only a few, you need to inspire undergraduates and cajole grad students, you need to be able to present your work to international crowds of potential thousands and sound absolutely brilliant while doing so. You have to have community involvement and wider interests to gain tenure and be top of your field (or at least highly respected). You have to be both man and machine, creative and rigidly strict. It is expected that you will give up portions of a ‘normal’ life and that you will toil for far more than the expected number of work hours. You have to be so much more than any other job calls for, and be willing to be perpetually unrewarded. At least in this wee country, where our own milk is cheaper overseas.

And scientists/academics are not considered a valuable factor of society. (On a side note - is it any wonder they have such barriers to explaining their work to the masses?).

Perhaps this is the test – the one you have to pass before you can attain academic professionalism. It being so hard to get through the door, that once through, you will forge hell and high water to remain, and make the best of it whilst there. It being so hard to join the damn club you never ever, consider leaving.

Would you join?


  1. I don't know. I'm submitting in 37 days (not that I'm counting or anything) and am seriously considering going back to the clinical work I was trained in all those many years ago. I already have the marriage and the kid, and I can tell you, it's crazy, crazy, crazy hard. The idea of a 70 hour a week postdoc earning 40g and never seeing my daughter makes me want to hurl. I think you do have to choose between the scientific career and family, that is unless you want someone else to raise your kids. I simply don't see any other way, how it would even be remotely possible to be a decent parent and a decent academic. Both of those scenarios require 27-hour days.
    I am lucky because I have a stay-at-home partner, so I've been able to get close to finishing. But this has taken 7 years. Right now I see my daughter for about 45 minutes a day - and I'm still breastfeeding! The whole family is putting everything into this last push to get the thesis done. Then maybe it'll be time to sit and think about the future. Right now I'm writing on four hours sleep a night.
    I guess I am just worried you are setting yourself up to fail, because what you want to do is impossible, unless you perhaps start the marriage and family thing as an undergrad and have kids in school by the start of your second PhD year. And I'm thinking that, while still nice and young, you're older than that.

  2. 37 days - Brilliant! Good luck.

    I do not think it is impossible at all - difficult, yes. Very, very difficult at times, absolutely; but not impossible.

    Organisation skills for Africa, plus epic support networks - totally do-able! As well as the abolition of traditional family roles in the home.

    I find myself inspired by the challenge, rather than put off by the difficulties.

    Guess only time will tell eh?