A postdoc’s funding typically lasts 2-4 years: just enough time to start and finish a project and push it through to get published. In an ideal world, the postdoc who wants to become independent would then write a grant on what they have become an expert on. This, presumably, would be based on their most recent publication. However, it is rare that supervisors let postdocs take their projects with them, an issue which is most often not openly discussed before the start of the project. Here, a comment by Professor Ben A. Barres on what PIs, funding agencies, and young scientists should do to support a culture of good mentorship that enables young scientists to choose the right lab and to flourish in their chosen field.
In the UK, men hold 90% of senior positions in STEM. This means in a committee meeting of ten professors, at any given university in the UK, it is likely that only one female professor will be present in the room. Professor Arnold, who holds the Crum Brown chair of Chemistry at Edinburgh University, knows this tale too well. As recently highlighted by the BBC, to strike a balance, she has formed the Sci Sisters . Being part of this network, or ‘Scientific sisterhood’ means you can easily find nearby peers who are in similar positions and ready to talk about the issues you experience – even if it is just over coffee.
Reaching high academic ranks is difficult in science, given the scarcity of research funding and competitive pressure for high-impact publications. Some scientists however are born with a privilege that will make it relatively easier for them to reach those highest ranks.
Being a man in STEM means you are more likely to get an answer from your prospective PhD supervisor, to get this fellowship you applied for, and to be chosen based on a resume that is equally as good as that of your female peer. For women in STEM, as in many other fields, breaking the glass ceiling also means breaking into a male-dominated culture, in which the objectivity of even a scientist is blinded by gender.
This article describes how gender bias in STEM has manifested itself and is still rife in institutes and companies, as shown by two recent examples making the headlines.
For some, remaining in academia is the right choice. For Tiffany, the academic environment she found herself in was one which was stifling her growth, rather than encouraging it. Tiffany made the decision to leave academia; it was her decision to make, and hers only. Below are excerpts from a blog on her experiences as an autistic in academia, originally published on her blog:
Last month was mental health awareness month. Because of this, when our friends over at Chronically Academic asked me to write a blog for their site, I decided to send them this piece on my recent realizations after battling with my own mental health issues, and in the way that having a strong support network both at home and work helped me manage and overcome them. As someone who has gone through it, I understand how hard it can be to reach out and ask for help, and how isolating things can feel. Believe me, it does get better, but only if you seek help and reach out. If you don’t have a strong support network or don’t know where to start looking for resources, check out our resource page on this site.
In healing solidarity,
Juan Pablo Ruiz
There’s labels. For as long as you can remember, others have been sticking words onto you to make sense of what is in front of them. Those you make uncomfortable in school call you weird, strange. You can’t play with them because of these. Others realize very quickly that you will do and believe anything they say, so the labels accumulate in the whispers, the giggles, and the pranks. Those who love you and want to comfort you call you unique, special, and precious. Teachers will one day come to use these words as well, but to them they’ll add genius, talented, one of a kind. These will pepper recommendation letters, open doors.
But they will also pepper your ego, an ego that you now hide behind so that the other labels don’t matter. The ego comes at a price though, and the weight of the world’s problems starts to lean into you:
“You’re going to cure cancer someday, or AIDS!” they yell, again with the best of intentions. Your school parades you in front of parents as an example of what their own children can become: National Merit Scholars, perfect score on the SAT, admissions to MIT and Duke, full scholarships…labels. Peers you rarely interact with give you one last one before you leave, and it comes with an expectation: Most Likely to Succeed. No pressure. Continue reading
Thanks to Future of Research and some last-minute planning, I had the pleasure of leading a Teach-In at today’s March for Science DC, titled, “Challenges in Becoming a Scientist.” Despite the rain, the tent was packed with people ranging from the ages of around seven to seventy: some scientists, others not; all in support of science. While there will be an official write-up, I’d like to write some thoughts while the conversations of the day are fresh in my mind and the feeling of hope and solidarity awakened in my heart.
In what was a beautiful example of the marriage between the arts and sciences, banners with poems relating to science were placed in a tent for people to admire. I got permission to borrow the banner of this poem, “A Little Girl Tugs at the Tablecloth,” which I used to kickstart the session with the affirmation that anyone, including a one-year old curiously tugging at the tablecloth, can be considered a scientist and should be encouraged in that pursuit (perhaps to the chagrin of her poor mother, which I’m sure many of our own parents can remember well).
It seemed appropriate that the first question came from a small girl who expressed to me her concern over global warming and pollution, followed by another by a young boy who expressed his concern over the loss of wildlife due to hunting. Their bravery opened up the inquisitive, if somewhat shy or socially conscious minds, of the adults in the room, who quickly followed suit.
I mentioned a desire to hear everyone’s voices and concerns, and asked for a respect of the differing opinions shaped by our own limited and human experiences, for a recognition of the inherent human worth in everyone present.
I was incredibly grateful for the older man who bravely asked, “If I get two identical resumes, should I go with the diversity pick, just for diversity’s sake.” I say he was brave because we unfortunately live in a world that might have labeled him as ignorant or angrily responded YES! without considering his concerns and engaging. He was being a true scientist, asking a question that challenged his worldview, open to the data that might contradict him.
I challenged him to invite both candidates in for an interview, to recognize that rarely are two people as identical as their resumes might make them seem. I challenged him to take an implicit bias test online; to be aware of the quick, unconscious decisions his brain might be making to make two non-identical resumes seem identical. Another young man, a POC and recruiter at an engineering firm, challenged this man to ask what the stories behind the resumes were:
Did one person, regardless of race, gender, sexual preference, disability, or religion, take out student loans, work part-time, or finish his degree in ten years instead of the traditional four due to circumstances outside their control? Does their struggle show a strong resilience to succeed where others would not, a perseverance to pass on to mentees through example?
Finally, I challenged the man to recognize that a diversity choice is not “just a diversity choice.” I asked him to look at the faculty in his university or place of work. If there is a prevalence of one gender, race, religion, ethnicity…etc, then bringing diversity inherently challenges outdated forms of thinking, brings innovation and creativity, and provides a real example of success and mentorship to those who might have a hard time finding those who will understand their own struggles.
When a sophomore in high school asked me what he should do to become a scientist, I didn’t tell him to pile on more AP’s, join more clubs, or rack up service hours. I told him to find people who he wanted to be like and ask them for mentorship and guidance. I told him he wouldn’t have the high school phase in his life again, and he should enjoy that, to do what he loves and love what he does.
We heard from people concerned about open access, and from graduate students concerned about a lack of mentorship in careers outside of academia. We heard from a graduate student worried she wasn’t involved enough in activism as a first-year. I encouraged her to focus on her project and her own health and mental well-being; to perhaps find one issue she was passionate about and get involved only to the extent it relaxed her, not stressed her more.
Among the voices, some expressed concern about bullying and harassment, this time not in academia or higher-ed, but at the K-12 level, remembering all too clearly curiosity and enthusiasm snuffed out or closeted by taunting peers and frustrated teachers. Another young girl confirmed there was a lack of encouragement in STEM at her school.
I reminded those in the audience, especially the young ones, that enthusiasm and curiosity did not make them weird, strange, or different. It made them unique, beautiful, and a gift to a human race that so desperately needs of that very enthusiasm and curiosity.
If you are the parent to one of these children, and they are in need of encouragement, role-models, or just a friend who will listen attentively to their monologues about citrus trees or grizzly bears and answer their questions patiently, I am more than happy to help with that, be it by Twitter, Facebook, or even Skype, and am sure others would too.
It was fitting too, that the young girl who opened the questions closed them by stating:
“I’m interested in all types of science. But when I grow up, I wanna be in science with the earth…animals…and humans! And I want to make sure we are all healthy, and strong, and all feel good.”
If that’s what the future looks like, you can certainly count me in.
In science solidarity,
Juan Pablo Ruiz
The pace of life in today’s world and a cultural focus on productivity and outcomes leave little time for self-care. Taking time for mental hygiene is not embedded in our culture in the way physical hygiene is; I would argue that both are equally important. You’ve probably heard or even used the phrase, “I thrive on stress.” In our scientific culture, long days and nights in the lab or in front of the computer are worn as a badge of honor, of dedication to the cause, or simply what must be done. And while low levels of temporary stress do lead to increases in some measures of performance and productivity, our bodies did not evolve to “thrive” on high levels of chronic stress. This leads to decreases in output and creativity, but is also correlated to long-term risks to your cardiovascular and immune health. Functioning on low levels of emotional energy and high levels of stress for long periods of time can feel like we’re treading water: we’re still breathing, but it’s not sustainable.
Unfortunately, it sometimes takes us sinking to notice that something is wrong and feel required to take action. And while some of us notice the issues while we’re treading water, there’s a fear that putting in more energy to fix things followed by failure will only make things worse. Many things have been said about the PhD (and academic science in general) and whether or not continuing is worth it, including this recent blog in Science and this one on the “Valley of Sh*t.” As someone who was recently in that place, and has hit rock bottom at other points in my life, I’ve developed a three point strategy for turning discomfort and stress into personal growth, ultimately leading to what one of my past counselors has called “Radical Self-Care”, and a recognition of what my needs are in a situation. Though these three points are listed in the order that makes sense for me, sometimes there is a clear need for one over another. Care must be taken however, to not get stuck on one solution if it fails to get us where we want it to: Continue reading
Here is yet another article pointing to the larger issue in academia of increasing competitiveness and a focus and glorification of an unhealthy lifestyle. While social scientists continue to correlate mental well-being and balanced time spent with loved ones with creativity and productivity, our culture continues to push us away from these things. How long before we realize that this is going to have repercussions at the systemic level?