Sitting in Glass Houses

By Peter Dearden 25/03/2011 3


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

by SM Morgan.

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?


3 Responses to “Sitting in Glass Houses”

  • Personally, I don’t think it’s that hard to get into, at least for the first steps: unless things have changed dramatically, post-docs aren’t that hard to get. Staying in science and progressing in science is another matter. (I’m not writing about glass ceilings, gender-related or otherwise, but the overall nature of the beast.)

    If what you mean are “tenured” jobs and the long-term thing, rather than entry-level posts, then I’m more with you.

    Not drop out

    I know you mean well with it (at least most likely—I can’t read your mind!), but I personally I would like to see people not use this phrase to refer to people who chose to do something else. It’s not ‘dropping out’ if you actively choose something else. It’s just choosing something else.

    You have to be so much more than any other job calls for

    While jobs in science are hard (some less so than others, some more so), I’d reserve judgement saying science calls for more than literally every other job! Just sayin’ 😉 Just as one example, founding and running a (small) company can require the founder to wear a lot of hats, too. Beyond whatever the itself work is, there are accounting and legal aspects, understanding both the client and business motivations, recruiting, managing staff; the list goes on. If you think living off the back of grants can be fragile, living off the back of market whims that change from year to year isn’t always easy either!

    And scientists/academics are not considered a valuable factor of society.

    I’m under the impression that outside of Western society academics are highly regarded, if even more poorly paid! (Only a surface impression from travelling.)

  • I agree with Grant in many ways but having said that, I remember when I was writing up my PhD, I would be grasped by exactly the same dilemmas about which you write and being so gripped by them that I felt that I’d stopped breathing (usually at 4 am when I sat bolt upright in bed and realised I’d mislabelled Figure 2.4). It’s making that step from the safe world of academic PhD student (some responsibility and respect but none of the really demanding stuff) to the big world where you are on your own. There are so many things to consider but at least you have had the foresight to look ahead and see them coming! Forewarned is forearmed, and all that.
    Life as an academic is hard in many ways but academics are often reasonably autonomous, there isn’t necessarily a pressure to conform to clothing policies or arrival and departure times. You get to thrash out ideas with the freshest minds on the block. You get good holidays, the chance for a year or so off (under the guise of “sabbatical”) and you don’t have to worry (very much at all) about where your pension is coming from. You get given offices and computers, unrivalled library and resource access, notifications to the top conferences and no grief about taking time off to attend them (unlike the real world where conference attendance is taking the employee away from earning money for the bottom line).
    Running your own business is a cold, harsh, fast route to reality and a hard path to take. Having said that, I tried academia, it didn’t suit me and I chose my path along the terrifying route that is a scientific-based business. I had no desire to spend my time writing grant proposals. So I now write grant requests to Legal Aid instead (an irony there).
    Academia has, however, helped me along in my career path in ways that I might never find out and in many ways that I have. In fact, I still hold an honorary position so that I can keep my hand in with the research side of things, which is what I enjoyed the most.
    I feel privileged to have been allowed a peek at a future in academia; not many people get that and if you choose to do it, bloody good luck to you. It will, I’m sure, be frustrating and political along the way but if you do it right, an excellent life.

  • I think attitudes like this scare me away from continuing on the academic path. Who wants to work with a bunch of people with a chip on their shoulder like that, or people that believe they are superior and martyring themselves for the good of society because they ‘stuck it out’ to be academics.

    And how should society reward scientists? We get to do a cool job with the excitement of discovery, we sometimes get world travel, we are part of a somewhat exclusive club of people that I think are well respected, we get to teach and learn and if everything turns bad we can go and have a coffee break and not have the time taken out of our wages. We never have to toil (though sometimes we get bored, tired and/or frustrated – something we share with nearly every occupation) and we get to tell people about our work (and not bore them to tears) if we want.

    So cheer up, don’t look down your nose at people that choose something else – just do what makes you happy. Science is a service and discovery is our reward.