Guest Post: On being productive and reproductive at the same time

Today’s guest post is by Megan Rivers-Moore, Assistant Professor at the Pauline Jewett Institute for Women’s and Gender Studies at Carleton University


  1. PhD, Post-doc, someone give me a job please

When I’m about to go start fieldwork for my PhD, my academic advisor says “why don’t you have a baby? Everyone trusts a pregnant woman.” Now, I’m not saying I know for sure, but this seems like pretty terrible advice.

When I’m in the field, the women I’m interviewing find it baffling that I am in a long-term, happy relationship but don’t have a baby yet. As we get to know each other, as the mutual trust develops, I am regularly asked if there is something “wrong” with me, if I can’t get pregnant. They cannot conceive of any other reason that I wouldn’t have a baby. I say something vague about trying to finish school first, get a job, and then we have many long conversations about the complexities of work-life balance in the Costa Rican sex industry.

I get a post-doc in Toronto, the point of which, I’m told by several people, is to have a baby and get a tenure track job. Well, ok then.

I’m pregnant. I actually eat soda biscuits while I’m lecturing so that I won’t retch. I’m pregnant, but I’m also bleeding. I use the bathroom before class and then I realize there is the possibility that I will actually have a miscarriage at the front of the room while my eight-five students watch. I get my first cell phone, because my partner insists that I need to be able to call someone if this happens. I think about what the order of the calls would be: first my partner (guess what, honey?), but who would be next? The department administrator (I’ll be ending class a little early today)? Maintenance (there’s a bit of a mess in my classroom, sorry! Do you have any of that sawdust, like when kids barf at school)?  This is not at all funny, but the only way I can face the possibility of my body coming apart while I teach Feminist Studies in Sexuality is by making myself laugh, imagining trying to make it into a teachable moment. I haven’t included a section in the course on reproduction, but I imagine announcing “one aspect of sexuality we haven’t discussed is pregnancy. Many, many, many pregnancies end in miscarriage, as you can see. We don’t tend to talk about it, it’s not supposed to be a big deal, so people often feel isolated. And deeply heartbroken. You know how important it is to relate our academic theorizing to the real world? Well, this is me unravelling before your very eyes! Don’t forget this when you fill out your course evaluations.”

As it turns out, this time around I don’t have a miscarriage. I am seven months pregnant and travelling to Texas to interview for a tenure-track job. Right after I arrive, I’m taken out for tacos by a lovely couple who spend the whole dinner trying to get me to drink. “This place is famous for its margaritas. Why don’t you try one? Are you sure you don’t want a cold beer to wash that down? Irish coffee for dessert?” Either they haven’t noticed I’m pregnant or else things are really relaxed in the south. As the epic marathon of a multi-day interview goes on, there seems to be an unspoken agreement not to mention my pregnancy. I am seriously out of breath during my job talk, gasping a few times as the fetus decides to push my internal organs up into my lungs. I avoid touching my belly at all, I watch people avoid looking at it. We all pretend it isn’t there, except for the head of department who says “I’ll put you on the waiting list for the campus daycare.” When I finally waddle back to the hotel room at night, my fetus and I spend a long time poking each other. Hello, you. Sorry I ignored you. How’s it going in there? Do you want to move to Texas? I’m killing this interview, I think I’m going to get this job.

I don’t get the job. I can’t help but notice that the guy who does get the job may well have triplets on the way, but he didn’t wear them under his sweater at the interview.

Six weeks after my daughter is born, I interview for a tenure-track job in Toronto. I have reached the point in the torture that is sleep deprivation that I would literally admit to anything, any crime, just to sleep for a few hours in a row. My partner sits in a special room and looks after the baby while I meet every single person at the university. I get a break every two hours to nurse, but every time I get to the special room my daughter has just fallen asleep. I jam my leaking breasts into a pump, trying not to get milk on my fancy interview clothes. Each time I am doing this, a different member of the committee decides to drop in to meet the baby and instead gets to watch me milk myself. I am epically inarticulate, deeply incoherent. My partner is flying to Ethiopia this same day for work and has brought a suitcase along to the interview. My parents take over in the afternoon, sitting with my daughter in the special room while the marathon continues, including a dinner (no, I am not making this shit up. I brought four family members to an academic interview). At the end of it all, back home, I snuggle my baby. Hello, you. Sorry I ignored you all day. Any chance you could sleep for maybe six to eight hours in a row? What about four? Two?

It takes a village to get a job. But not that one. When I ask for feedback, I’m told I could have done more research on the university website about strategic directions. I could have been more enthusiastic about precisely which university committees I am eager to sit on. I actually start laughing on the phone when I hear that. I can’t help but notice that the guy who got the job showed up alone and no one watched him milk himself.

I am on my way to a big conference in Denver to try to network my way into a job.[1] My postdoc has a tiny travel grant fund, which pays for my plane ticket. A dear colleague/mentor/friend is letting me crash in her hotel room.[2] My daughter is just shy of six months old and doesn’t eat solid food yet so the freezer is packed full of milk I have been pumping for months. My breasts are incredibly distracting at the conference. As I chit chat awkwardly (I mean, network), I’m looking over people’s shoulders to find someplace to pump. At one point I pump in the office of the manager of the hotel hosting the conference. In a public bathroom, I pour a full bottle of breast milk down the sink. A famous feminist sociologist who is washing her hands at the next sink says “liquid gold down the drain. That’s gotta suck.” In the ecstasy that is my first two nights of uninterrupted sleep in six months, I sleep in on the morning I need to leave, and I don’t have time to pump before I rush to the airport. The only “family” washroom with a plug in it in the entire terminal is closed for maintenance. My breasts are like rocks attached to the front of my body. I plug in my pump in the boarding area, sit myself down on the floor and try to act nonchalant while people line up to board the flight and pretend they aren’t looking at me. Talk about performance anxiety: exposing myself to a long line of strangers has come to naught. I board the plane, praying for an outlet in the bathroom but there isn’t one. I alternate between squeezing milk out by hand, directly into the tiny sink in the bathroom, and trying to avoid eye contact with the baby across the aisle from me in order to stop myself from yelling “just let that baby suck on me for a minute!” When I finally get home, my exhausted partner hands me our baby and when she nurses, the relief is almost orgasmic. As a result of the conference, I get two blocked milk ducts, blebs on my nipples, and no job.[3]

  1. Two miracles:

First miracle: I get offered a two-year term position in Ottawa. The head of the department and the dean tell me it is very likely this will be converted into a tenure track job. The first year, I am teaching five courses I’ve never taught before. I set my alarm and wake up before my partner and our toddler so I can get a solid hour of work in. Then they wake up and the chaos of breakfast and getting dressed and out the door begins. Given my daughter’s daily reactions, the downstairs neighbours must think that we brush her teeth with barbed wire and then spread sunblock made of acid all over her face. There is so much crying. Seriously. Just so much crying to leave the house.  At the end of the day, we do another version of this. There are snacks while we desperately try to throw together something resembling dinner, and then dinner, and then a walk around the block while my partner cleans up, then bath and books and nursing and more books and maybe some crying and bed. We haven’t seen each other all day and I’m simultaneously soaking up her toddler joy, smelling her sweaty head, jamming my nose in her armpits to make her laugh, and thinking “oh fuck please just go to bed please just fall asleep oh fuck oh fuck go to sleep I’m so tired and I haven’t written my lecture for tomorrow.” And when she finally finishes singing  (“Gangle gangle little star!”) and drifts off to sleep, then I work for two more hours, marking, reading, responding to student crises, preparing lectures, until I crawl into bed beside my already sleeping partner. On the weekends, I work when my daughter naps. When the to-do list gets perilously long, I spend some weekend afternoons at coffee shops, trying to get through it.

I am a team player. I am dedicated to the job. When at work, I mostly pretend my daughter doesn’t exist. Well, not quite. They know I have a kid but I don’t talk about her much. I don’t have her picture in my office, I don’t paper the walls with her drawings. I don’t talk about feeling sad the two mornings a week that I teach so early that I don’t see her at all. My daughter is no longer inside my body, but has a way of showing herself all the same. One morning I’m lecturing to one hundred second year students when something catches my eye. I have a long trail of glistening snot across the front of my dress, from neck to shoulder.

Who would like to spearhead this lecture series? I would! I would! Who wants to organize the grad student end of term social? I do! I do! Who can represent the department at the Faculty board? I can! I can! I volunteer for everything, I say yes to undergraduate honours theses, supervised reading courses. I say yes, yes, yes, yes, please. Pick me. Pick me. Let me be the one.

Second miracle:[4] At the end of the first year, my position gets converted to tenure track. The head of department calls to tell me. I hang up the phone and I cry and I cry. A few weeks later, we all go together to Quebec City to celebrate my new status (also for a conference, because come on now). The celebrations get a bit out of hand. And now I’m pregnant.

  1. Pregnant on the tenure track

Teaching while pregnant is different this time. I am more secure. I am not bleeding. I am not apologizing for my growing gut, and no one else is either. Instead of pretending not to see it, students and colleagues openly comment on my body. “You’re pregnant!” “Look at you! You’re huge!” “Did it just move???” “Do you know the gender?”[5] “How are you feeling?” “When are you due?” “Great timing!”

Someone I barely know at work pats my belly and then asks me to lift up my shirt. And I do because suddenly I have no idea how to say no. I don’t want to offend her, I don’t want to hurt her feelings. What?? I am so horrified that this is happening that I think I disassociate a bit. I watch it play out from outside my body, like it’s happening to someone else. A close colleague watches in horror and then later says “that felt really intimate and not in a good way. That really didn’t feel ok.”

My daughter was born ten days late, so one week before my due date I’m assuming I still have lots of time to get through my long list of tasks before the new baby is born. The list includes things like: finish book manuscript, edit article on NGOs, outline new care chains article, read Ann’s MA proposal. Ha! I spend the morning at a meeting about online teaching and learning, feeling increasingly “crampy” and having more and more trouble caring about putting components of my courses online. I have lunch with a colleague who suggests I start timing my “cramps” (12:15, 12:37, 12:40; 1:00, 1:07, 1:20, 1:28)[6] and then offers to drive me home and tells me to call the midwife. My partner comes home to pick me up, we drive to the birth centre, our son is born forty-five minutes later.

  1. Parental leave, or, the definition of privilege

Here are the ways that sex work is often a good choice for parents: good pay, economic mobility, flexible schedule.

Here are the ways that the academy is often a good choice for parents: good pay, economic mobility, flexible schedule. Oh, and paid parental leave. That, too. None of the sex workers I know got that bit.

I spend fifty-two weeks at home with my kids. Well, actually fifty-four because my baby was born a week early and no one wanted to re-do the paper work.  So I get fifty-four weeks at 93% of my salary. My daughter could sing “Solidarity Forever” by the time she was two[7], because how lucky am I to work in a unionized environment where this is in our collective agreement? We talk about unions at home a lot, I encourage strikes amongst the toys. I promise myself that I will actually take the year that my union fought for. I will not cave and work, I will not give in to the subtle pressures (and they are subtle at this stage, truly) to publish or perish, I will ignore all the studies that demonstrate conclusively that male academic careers benefit from having children, while female academic careers suffer. A younger colleague comes over to gossip about what is happening at the office, and then scolds me about responding to emails. “Don’t even think about coming back early,” she says. “I might want to have a baby one day and you can’t set a precedent for coming back to work early or for working while on leave. Feminists fought for a full year of leave, you take every minute of it and don’t work at all.”

I don’t mean to let down the sisterhood, but here is a list of the work that I do while on parental leave:

  1. Participate in a hiring committee
  2. Supervise an MA student, read her thesis, attend her defence.
  3. Complete the final edit of my book manuscript.
  4. Re-do the index of the book after disagreeing with the approach taken by the person I paid to do it.
  5. Present a paper at a conference.
  6. Translate and re-work an article for publication in Spanish.

This is without significant pressure from the university, but it also demonstrates, as my buddy Jocelyn Thorpe points out to me, that there is a bit of a disconnect between the gifts of the union and realities of life. Sometimes we have to finish things we started, or do things we said we would do when we were more ambitious and better rested. I am deeply, profoundly sleep deprived, so I am certain that I do everything on that list very poorly.

Don’t get me wrong, I also go to the bookmobile and the park, I read stories and build towers with the toddler while holding the infant. It’s a sticky year: there are snotty noses that get wiped, frequent accidents from the toilet-training toddler that get mopped up, epic poopy diapers from the baby that are changed, milk that goes in and then is spit back up, food that gets thrown. There are cold winter days when I am exhausted and cranky and up to my elbows in shit (literally) and I seem to feel the need to remind myself “I have a PhD from a prestigious university. I wrote a book. I am a competent professional who will one day formulate a complete sentence again.” There are beautiful spring days when I push the baby in the stroller and my daughter walks on ahead and the sight of her little back walking up the street ahead of me makes my chest explode from the love.  The baby starts on solid food in August and so there are juicy peaches and joyful grins. There are days when I wish no one would touch me ever again, when I want to scream at them to stop pulling on my clothes, stop touching me stop touching me stop touching me. I dream of peeing alone. And then there are days when we are all stuck together and there aren’t enough hours for the snuggles, when I revel in their little bodies and marvel that they came out of mine. It’s just like that. It’s both things, it’s everything. It’s all the things.

  1. No sleep till tenure!

And now I find myself on the tenure track, with a four year old and a one year old. Getting out the door with two kids turns out to be as simple as overthrowing white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.[8] When I walk into my office and sit down at my desk, I feel like I’ve already expended an entire day’s worth of energy. Once a year, I report all of my activities to the university administration: publications, teaching, service.[9] This year I added a line that will remain there forever, and that I will include in my tenure file: “Other (re)productive work”. I’ve listed each child’s name and birth date.

I have a sign for my door that says “Do not disturb, breast pump in use (could be awkward)”. I keep my breast milk in the department’s fridge with a sign on it that says “breast milk is NOT delicious in coffee.” Pretty soon I’ll stop bothering with the pumping and my body will be mine again (as much as your body can ever be yours once you’ve created other small humans). Its fluids will intrude less into my work life, I am hopeful my reproductive capacities will no longer be discussed in the academy. And if anyone asks me to lift up my shirt so they can see my belly at work, it will be a firm no.

 

[1] Has anyone ever successfully done this?

[2] All love and respect to comrade Judy Taylor!

[3] If you don’t know what nipple blebs are, lucky you. Don’t look it up.

[4] I know that I should probably consider the birth of my precious, precious babies the miracles, but seriously, have you seen what the job market is like? I feel like some kind of magical unicorn, having gotten a job in this climate.

[5] That was a tough one for a gender studies professor. Possible answers, all of which I used: “we don’t know yet, but it has a penis”; “do you mean the sex?”; “nope.” At an ultrasound, the tech asks if we want to know the gender of the baby. “Well, actually I think you mean the sex” I say, as my partner mutters, head in hand “no one likes a gender studies nerd, Megan.”

[6] I’m in deep denial because I am, by nature, a rule follower (within reason. Like when the rules have been set by someone I like and/or the rules make sense): “The midwife said to call when the contractions were five minutes apart, lasting for a full minute, and going on for a hour. I’m just having irregular cramps! Everything’s fine!”

[7] Seriously, I have it on video, I can prove it.

[8] Which is to say brutal, heart rending, but necessary work for which one hopes to be rewarded in a not too distant utopian future.

[9] Not yet as bad as in the UK, but the trend toward quantification is definitely still indicative of neoliberal entrenchment.

Guest Post: Thoughts on “How to Get a Postdoc Position” Part II

This is the second part of a two-part post on How to Get a Postdoc Position, written by Amy Boddy, PhD, Arizona State University,  Michelle Kline, PhD, Arizona State University & Simon Fraser University, and Hillary Lenfesty, PhD, Arizona State University.


Part II. Tips for securing a postdoc 

In our previous post, we talked of the what, why, and where of  postdoc positions. As promised, we are now here to guide you in how to find yourself a postdoc, and a good one at that — because even once you’re convinced a postdoc is right for you, it can be challenging to find the right one. As we mentioned in Part I, many kinds of postdocs are not advertised, and postdocs that didn’t exist can sometimes be created (like other collaborations) through social networking. Frustratingly, someone may be planning to hire a postdoc that fits your description, one that would be downright ideal for you,  but if your name doesn’t pop into their head, you may never hear of the position. (We have on occasion heard of a position we would have applied to, after hearing that a co-sufferer on the job market was hired for it!) This is a truly flawed system, yes. But we want you here, and you want that postdoc. So how can you find one?

Our #1 piece of core advice is that you do not depend exclusively on your Phd supervisor, and that you take action as early as possible by doing the following. Keep in mind that while this can be terrifying for academic bookworms, it is also a great opportunity to grow your academic network. Conferences are a great way to do this, but we recognize that there are many, many reasons that you may not be able to make it to conferences. So we’re including here virtual networking tools as well, and would love to see more work-arounds in the comments.

On that note:

  1. Create a strong network. By this we mean get people to know your name and associate it with your work. Participate in department events, professional conferences, and be active on professional social media. You absolutely need a website, or at least up-to-date ResearchGate, Academia.edu, and/or GoogleScholar profiles. Connect with others in your field via Twitter. Self-promotion can be difficult especially for junior academics and women, but you must be your own best advocate. Online forms of networking and sharing your research are even more important if you are not able to travel for conferences. (Note: If you’re invited to speak but can’t travel, see if participation by Skype or by a coauthor is possible).
  1. Tell your network you are on the market and ask them to help you. You can also ask them to suggest prospective PIs. If you already know your prospective PI, tell them when you expect your degree and ask whether you can apply for a position in their lab, write a grant, etc.
  1. Contact recently hired postdocs. Ask them for guidance on possible postdocs and/or on potential advisors. Ask them for copies of their applications, and any advice on those that were successful or not. Application writing is an art, and this may give you a head start.
  1. Put yourself out there at conferences and by cold-contacting potential advisors via email. In both cases it is entirely appropriate to mention your advisor/collaborator’s name(s), in order to help them understand what sort of stuff you do. Be persistent. The worst that can happen is that they will not hire you, which is no worse than where you started.
  1. Recognize that you are asking a PI to invest in you, even though you are Totally Awesome and Highly Independent. A postdoc salary may be around $50k, but it costs around 1.5 times that much to cover your position. For this reason get your letter writers in order, offering to write a specific grant to fund your own position, and be very clear about what you can offer.
  1. Cast a wide net. Do you see a job posting about really interesting work, but isn’t exactly what you got your training in? Apply anyways. This transition to postdoctoral work can be an opportunity to change things up in your research. Likewise, subscribe to Society/Department/speaker series’ listservs, Facebook pages, and follow these groups on Twitter, too. When PIs want to advertise but don’t want to pay for an official listing, they’ll circulate job ads to their collaborators, who may send them out over a random assortment of listservs. (The old boys’ club lives on in this sense, but many listings will end up on generalized email lists).

All of this can feel embarrassing, and we can atest to the fact that it is no fun at all being rejected outright. However, it’s extremely difficult to gauge who may have funds and who may want to hire you – especially when subtle personal and systemic biases are at work.  Because of this, we encourage you to apply, apply, apply. There are many ways to go about finding a postdoc, but we guarantee that you cannot get a position for which you do not apply.

How to Court a Postdoc Supervisor

You should pursue any and all options for finding a postdoc. One of these is to email people you’d like to work with (aim high! contact your idols!). There aren’t strict rules on this, but there are issues of etiquette that can feel daunting and discourage students from reaching out. We, collectively, have spent many hours staring blankly, drafting-deleting-redrafting and editing initial emails so that they sound right. Frankly, some of this “professional” knowledge is inherently class-based.  Many advisors will assume that all of their students know how to write a business-like letter in application for a research position, when this just isn’t true. So, here are some highly specific tips we’ve found useful:

  • DO: contact multiple potential advisors at once. Many options will not work out, and a reasonable PI will not hold your choice against you, as long as you are straightforward with them and don’t violate a signed contract. Having multiple options may even allow you to negotiate your salary and/or other conditions. This can be particularly important if you anticipate needing special accommodations, for example: flexible location in order to live with an academic spouse, relocation funds, and so on.
  • DO NOT: simply ask “Can I have a postdoc?
  • DO: Introduce yourself, drop names when relevant, highlight your skills and common interest with the PI’s research. Finally, offer to co-write a grant. Bonus points if you name the funding agency and specific grant you have in mind to show that you are serious and capable. Be ready to pitch a project or focus if the PI seems interested initially
  • DO: Be persistent and willing to email the same person more than once if you don’t get a response; a missed email is not a sufficient reason to give up an opportunity for a postdoc. The worst they can do is ignore the email again.
  • DO: Be willing to ask your network to do some introductory emailing/phone calls on your behalf. Any potential PI gets a barrage of emails every day. Even as grad students, we started to receive spam “request for a postdoc” emails from people unknown to us, from abroad, and in totally unrelated fields. Your email may go into the trash along with those, even though it’s not spam. If you get no replies, ask a more established person (i.e. your advisor or other colleague of your future PI) to email an introduction to your prospective PI on your behalf, and cc you. This can facilitate a conversation that otherwise wouldn’t take place — but again relies on your existing connections.
  • DO: Plan ahead as to whether or not you will mention a partner or dependents, especially if you are seeking a second position or want to work remotely. There is no single best approach to this question (and there is lots of advice out there), but know that you are not obligated to disclose your personal information until you choose to do so. The prevailing advice we have followed is not to mention a spouse until a job offer is made, on the assumption that even pro-family and pro-woman departments or PIs are likely subject to implicit bias. The exception to this rule is if you already have a position, and are being recruited for another position that you will only accept if you are given specific accommodations (a position for your spouse, location flexibility, particular working hours, etc.). In any case, seek advice from those who know you and who have dealt with similar problems in the current job market. If you don’t know anyone that falls into this category personally, we suggest, once again, online networking through Twitter and resources like this blog.

As for your initial email, keep it brief, professional, and offer something of use to your prospective PI. Sample email:

Dear Dr. Romanoff,

My name is Diana Prince and I expect to earn my PhD in Bad-Assery from Awesome State University in Spring of 2017. I work with Dr. Barbara Gordon on the topic of Bat Flight. My focus has been on [Idea X]. I’ve attached my CV for further background.

I am contacting you because I am interested in your work on [P] and [Q], and would like to pursue a postdoctoral research project on [Big Question].  Does your lab currently have any postdoctoral research positions open? Alternatively, are you interested in co-writing a [Funding Organization & Name of Grant] grant that would fund an X-year postdoc for me to work in your lab? This application is due [date], and would fund [salary/research funds, etc.]

I hope to hear from you soon, please let me know if you are interested and we can follow up via email or through a Skype meeting. [Or, at relevant big conference.]

Best,

Diana Prince, PhD Candidate

Department of BadAssery, Awesome State University

*[link to your webpage]

* The webpage link is great to include, because it means the Prof you are emailing can easily click on your official webpage and poke around your CV and publications as needed. It also makes a haphazard Google search less likely, which matters because it might lead them to your less-professional social media sites (or someone else’s by the same name), instead.

Apply early

As with all things in academia, this is a process that takes awhile. It is not uncommon to start the job app process up to a year before you actually defend and graduate. If you’re writing a research-based proposal to fund your own postdoc, you can’t simply apply on your own, and you may need to start the process even earlier. You’ll need to work with a new PI to sketch the plan and draft the proposal together. Once you know the deadline, contact potential PIs as early as 6 months to a year before you will actually apply.

It’s who you know

We all agree:  let faculty/committee members and colleagues know when you are “on the market.” They may be able to contact individuals or send you postings they see. They can also suggest you as a guest speaker, which will raise your profile and potentially scrounge up some job opportunities. All of us have found that we — and our graduate school friends — have been more likely to get postdoc offers from people who already know us professionally. Yes, this is incredibly unfair. It puts those of us who went to smaller institutions, can’t travel to conferences for financial, personal, or health reasons, and who don’t look like the prototypical scientist, at a disadvantage. We cannot change that reality with this post, but there is some power in sharing this knowledge.

There is no shame in needing a job, and in letting people know it. There is no shame in asking for help. On the other hand, it is a good idea to avoid treating these same helpers as your sounding board for job-market misery.  When you’re recruiting help from advisors or courting prospective PIs, avoid making negative comments, or indicating that you are “desperate” and would “take anything” (even when this is true). This may make prospective employers doubt your interest in their work, or they may misattribute this to you as having a “bad attitude” (even though this is a realistic way to feel in the present job market). Instead, turn to your grad student or other early career friends for solace. Turn to the academic Twitter community, blogs, and online commentaries for ways to think about your job market struggle. And know that while it would be wonderful to get an ideal postdoc leading to that coveted tenure track position, the selection process is far from fair — so it cannot in any way be a judgement of the value of your researcher or of your potential as an academic.

Do your homework on the lab and PI

You may be desperate for a job, especially if the opportunities seem bleak.  But don’t accept any offer without first doing your homework.  You want to avoid toxic supervisors, which can be worse for your mental health and career progress than a period of un- or under-employment. (Note: we know the latter two may not be feasible, especially for those with families or with ongoing healthcare needs. In this case, form coping strategies for your mental health and career, as well as an exit plan).

You can’t just walk into a lab and ask if the PI is a baddie. Here are some alternative strategies:

  • Find out who past students or postdocs are and whether their careers have advanced. Did they publish while at this person’s lab? Do they still work with this person? You can ask the PI some of this directly, but you can also snoop online. This also applies to the inclusivity of lab membership: for instance, of women and people of color in a prospective lab. Have women graduated from this lab and succeeded?
  • Ask current (or past) postdocs or students if they are happy. This is an easier question for them to answer honestly than whether their PI is good to work for; it can also shed light on the broader workplace climate and livability of the area. If you are particularly concerned about, for example, gender, arrange a coffee or skype meeting with only those members of the lab. If there are no women in the lab at all  — and depending on the discipline — this may be a red flag in itself.
  • Ask colleagues and advisors whether this new person would be a good supervisor for you. (And know what kind of supervision you work well under). They can answer this without tearing into the prospective PI, so long as you frame it as a question of “fit.” And it may really be the case that you work better with a particular mentoring style, so you can consider fit in earnest. At least one of us has been told directly not to pursue a collaboration with a very relevant male PI, because he has a horrible reputation for harassing women. Ideally, this person would lose his position and wouldn’t be a possible PI. Until that is the case, we still need the “whisper network,” and sometimes you have to ask directly to get that information. This is yet another way in which connections can matter, in this case not just for your career health but for your personal safety.
  • Remember your meetings with the PI are also an interview for them (even if you need them more than they need you). Ask the PI for specifics about working hours, opportunity to be first author, whether there is funding for conference travel, and opportunities to gains specific skill sets you want in your next career phase. Even if your new PI is pure awesomesauce, it is still best to start with a clear idea of what you each expect from each other.
  • Finally, if the PI is pre-tenure and just starting a lab, you may be taking a risk. Every new PI is bound to make mistakes, and like you as a new postdoc, is trying to figure out how the heck to even do this. This isn’t necessarily bad. As we see it, new PIs may have super exciting ideas and will want to move quickly because they are on the tenure clock; that is good because you are on the job market and also need to move quickly! The flip side of this is that they may have to put their own careers advancement first and may still be building social capital; senior PIs may be able to prioritize your career advancement. It will also be harder to get an idea of a new PI’s track record as a supervisor and advisor. In contrast to a new PI, more senior PIs may be out of touch with how to get a tenure track job in the current market.

On this note, wherever you end up, cultivate multiple advisors and seek out different kinds of guidance from different colleagues. Being a postdoc is one step closer to being a truly independent researcher–being your own PI–so think of it as a chance to stretch out, build new skills, professional networks, and communities of support.

Bottom Line

In the end, what matters is that a postdoc can keep you moving toward your career goals, with minimal sacrifices in other areas of life. We’ve focused on a tenure-track trajectory here, but postdocs can also facilitate the transition into a non-academic or alternative-academic career. In our pooled experience, post-docs can range from ugh, to meh, to woo hoo! We want for this process to be more equitable, and we can each work toward that in our own careers: for example, by circulating postdoc positions widely and by not asking about marital status; by not conducting interviews at conferences; by budgeting for moving costs so that accepting a position is not financially prohibitive for some applicants, and more. However, this post deals with the world as it is now. In that light, our advice is to aim for an ideal postdoc, but also consider what it will take to find a postdoc that simply fulfills some basic needs on your career path. And don’t accept anything less than that.

Guest Post: Thoughts on “How to Get a Postdoc Position” Part I

Today’s guest post is brought to you by three post-docs:  Amy Boddy, PhD, Arizona State University,  Michelle Kline, PhD, Arizona State University & Simon Fraser University, and Hillary Lenfesty, PhD, Arizona State University


Part I. The what, why, and where’s of a postdoc position.

When we first spotted graduation on the horizon and realized, “OMG. I need a job!”, the realm of the postdoc was mysterious and opaque. What exactly is a postdoc? (Answer: Many things). Where are postdoc positions advertised? (Answer: Many places. Or sometimes nowhere.  Or sometimes they only exist if you create them). Can I just ask someone for a postdoc? (Answer: Yep…kinda.) When we each finally scored satisfying postdocs, we met women graduate students with all those same questions, had a chat about it, and decided that our answers could be useful more broadly. So, here they are.

Why you may want a postdoc

Postdocs are pretty standard in the physical sciences where it’s viewed as a necessary extension of Phd training, but postdocs are also becoming more common in the social sciences and the humanities. Why? It’s a little bit about the carrot and a little bit about the stick.

  • Postdocs are a way to get a paycheck for academic work while riding it out for another year on the job market.
  • Postdocs pay better (around $50k in 2015), and look better on your CV than another year in graduate school, or a year of adjunct teaching.
  • Postdocs can provide training in new skills (research, teaching and mentoring).
  • Postdocs can help you build research collaborations with a new lab or school.

A postdoc will also often allow you to do new stuff. You might have a much different research focus than what you studied during your Phd. You will likely live in a new town and meet new people who have thoughts and know things about academia that differ from what those in your grad school niche thought and knew. This can be fantastic even if you absolutely LOVED your graduate school. And, you get to do this while being gainfully employed. (YAY!) But without much job security. (BOO!) And, as in graduate school, your quality of life may very much depend on your PI’s expectations. (Yikes.)

As you may have already inferred, this is a system that is very difficult to navigate and succeed in, and even more so if your current situation does not match the assumed ‘ideal’ of being a single cis white male in good health, with no dependents, with a  glam paper or glam PI. Most of us humans have partners, children, or other dependents. We may have disabilities, debt (or at least not piles of extra money for moving expenses), or concerns that we are not safe living in some part of the country because of our identities – including gender, sexual orientation, race, and religion.

In choosing a postdoc, real life factors like this matter.  The often exceedingly casual, network-based modes of finding a postdoc, combined with the ever-tightening job market for tenure track and postdoc positions can result in only those with all possible advantages–those who are playing on ‘easy’–may be able to find employment that suits them.

We loathe that this is the case, and we want to change this. But in all likelihood this will not change before you need that postdoc to keep you employed on your venture to a tenure track job. So for now, we’re dealing with the world as it is and giving the best advice we can. And — when we are PI’s — we plan to push back against the inequities of the system. Giving advice on how to work within the existing system is a starting point for future change. In the next post, we hope to provide some tips for securing a postdoc that you feel safe in within a difficult and often biased system, and shed some light onto alternative options when you may be at a disadvantage.

Shop around for different kinds of postdocs

We keep saying that word postdoc. But it may not mean what you think it means. There’s quite a lot of variety even within academic postdoctoral positions, and much of it depends on – wait for it – where the money comes from.

There are three basic types of research-focused postdocs, all of which will vary a bit based on the funding agency and discipline:

  • Fellowships funded by a grant you’ve written (often in collaboration with your future PI). The NSF has Postdoctoral Fellowships which vary by Directorate. In the social sciences for example, these are focused on interdisciplinary and/or underrepresented minority applicants. The NIH also has Individual Fellowships at the graduate level. Some larger universities also have fellowships available, check out UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship (which emphasizes public service to women and other underrepresented minorities) or the Society of Fellows at the University of Michigan for examples. Often for this kind of “fellowship” postdoc, you must work closely with a faculty PI to write the grant. This kind of postdoc is most amenable to pursuing semi-independent research, since you’re writing it yourself. This is a really good option for individuals that may not have the opportunity to move. You may be able to approach current faculty at your University to work with. Of course, this will be easier for applicants who have strong academic networks, or high prestige advisors or degrees. In the humanities, there are also similar 1-2 year “writing fellowships,” where the expectation is that you will transform your dissertation into a book. Most fellowship postdocs are recurring, established programs — you should search online, scope out others’ CVs, and ask around for which agencies or schools fund them in your field or topical focus.
  • Funded by someone else’s grant or start-up. These jobs are often for a particular role on a project that already exists, so there may be less room for your own independent research in comparison to a fellowship. Additionally, these typically have a time limit — somewhere from 1-5 years. It may include fieldwork, lab work, statistical analysis, etc. The common theme is that you’re hired to work on the PI’s projects, rather than your own work. These tend to be advertised from late winter through spring, because of the funding cycle; they also tend to circulate only on professional listservs or on social media, rather than through paid job ad sites where you’ll find most tenure track job ads. Seek out and join those listservs, and let advisors and colleagues know if you’re looking for a postdoc like this. Beware: these can be “workhorse” postdocs where your own career is sidelined and you become your PI’s statistician. Before accepting a position like this, it is a good idea to ask your prospective PI about the possibility for first authorship on a particular set of papers and/or how much freedom you will have to pursue your own work; even if these discussions are not binding.
  • Written into someone else’s grant. This is somewhere in-between the previous two: it’s funded by a grant, but it’s earmarked for you. You might have contributed ideas to the grant but are not a PI, and you may have some intellectual ownership over the projects you’re on. These aren’t advertised, but if you contact prospective PIs, you might get a chance to give early input on project and be brought on board without applying to an existing postdoc position. In any case, this operates on the same yearly funding cycle as most big grants, so if you want to pursue this option, keep in mind it’ll take months to write a grant, and at least a year for the funding to come through. Again, this kind of position will never be advertised. We have heard of people with this kind of postdoc funded via their grad school advisor, or after a lunch with a visiting speaker, or after chatting with their future PI at a conference bar. Email can’t take the place of in-person networking, but if you don’t have access to such opportunities, we suggest being extra-assertive about making email and skype contact. These positions won’t find you — you need to search them out in any way you can.

In addition to these fairly typical research postdocs, there are also teaching postdocs and postdocs that aren’t funded through universities. Again, the funding source matters because it changes the expectations and goals of your postdoc, which affects your career trajectory. Here’s a quick summary:

  • Teaching postdocs require teaching. Simple, right? Big nope. These can range from highly prestigious with a light course load and small class sizes, to more or less adjuncting by another name. Make sure to evaluate teaching postdocs carefully and make sure their expectations for teaching and research are in line with your career goals. If you ultimately want a career at a small liberal arts college or other teaching-focused institution, these can be a great option. They’re often advertised on job sites alongside tenure track jobs, or can be advertised on university webpages in the same way fellowship postdocs are. We have heard misguided graduate students refer to these as backups as if they are easy jobs to get, but with the current job market that is just not true. Pretty much every postdoc is going to be competitive, and less focus on research does not necessarily mean the job will be less competitive.
  • Think-tanks, industry, and other postdocs function to hire academics into public or private institutions. These may be associated with a university, and may even receive funding from some of the same agencies who fund university research. SESYNC, an NSF-funded center connected to the University of Maryland is a good example of this. In addition to “think-tanks”, postdoc positions may be available in industry or non-profit research (e.g., Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle), directed at scientific advances or public policy-making.  Some of these positions still allow you to pursue publications and would not be considered “getting out of the academic game,” while others might serve as good transitions out of academia.

So, perhaps you need or want to do a postdoc, and you’ve now got an idea of which type–or more likely, types!–you’ll apply for. The next step is to search out positions or funding sources, and go about securing a postdoc for yourself. We recommend doing this 1-2 years prior to graduation, especially if you have a flexible graduation timeline (talk to your advisors about speeding up or slowing down depending on job prospects). For that next step, stay tuned for Part II: Tips for securing a postdoc.

One kid? Fine. 2? 3?! Well, maybe not.

Care work of all kinds (self care, elder care, child care) is often not valued by academic institutions –at least in terms of letting students, staff, and faculty use time, money, energy for those tasks while having the resources to continue excelling at their jobs). And that’s unfortunate, because care work (+ other kinds of unpaid labor – emotional, organizational, and physical) is still highly gendered and stigmatized.   Recognizing the common threads between these kinds of care work that women do can help workers better organize together and institutions create policies that recognize all the forms of care demanded of women, not just childcare of babies + infants and not just for tenure track faculty.

[And having no kids (or elders or pets) to care for can still be held against women in the workplace, as managers can expect them to be workaholics (“put their career first”) or potentially even cover for folks who have care responsibilities. The 1-body problem is real, in multiple ways.]

But today I want to specifically talk about the penalties women in the academy occur for having multiple children.

It’s like the patriarchy up and decided “fine, ladies, you can have a kid and still be considered a working professional – but just this once” — as if choosing to have a kid again is abusing the supposed privileges that come with it.

 

Financial punishment

“There’s about a 5% reduction in pay for each child a woman has,” Gault said. “It works in the other direction for men, around 4 or 5% [additional for each child].”

For. Each. Child. (In the workplace broadly, not just the academy.) Is there anything else to say?

The  pay gap between women and men in the academy is real and worse for mothers. It’s harder to prove at schools where salaries aren’t publicly released. The extent to which it exists and whether schools are doing anything about it is just starting to be explored. 

Shamed for “pausing the clock” again

Pausing the tenure clock is now a relatively common (yet currently hotly debated) parental accommodation that, not surprisingly, only exists for tenure-track faculty. Many institutions allow a pause of pre-determined length per child. Sounds reasonable (although even more reasonable is creating policies that give similar timeline extensions to graduate students!).  The pause is designed to acknowledge the real (and perhaps unknowable ahead of time) impact that recovery, sleep deprivation, and care work have on the very high productivity bar for TT faculty.

Yet that doesn’t stop lots of male and childless faculty from complaining when women pause the tenure clock more than once. A TT history professor friend at a small liberal arts college recently shared the following:

One of the biggest barriers to my college deciding on a parental leave policy (just implemented a year ago) was that several older men on the committee protested: now women will have 5 kids so they can push back their tenure review for 5 years!

Of course, they had no evidence for that claim. But that assumption is definitely held by some in positions of power (including those who volunteered for a parental leave policy committee!).

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

Another friend, a tenured sociologist at one of the top 3 programs in the country (so a school that considers itself elite), recently shared this story:

I was meeting with other faculty in the department to discuss changes to the graduate student curriculum. A male colleague used the opportunity to say that I had to teach my graduate students to use birth control, as 2 of them were women who had 2 kids while in graduate school.

That horrifying story is coming from a female graduate advisor who prides herself on mentoring academic women whether or not they are mothers and regardless of how many children they have. Yet it makes clear that other advisors don’t share this attitude (and alludes to the idea that 1 kid might have been okay, but multiple kids crosses some kind of line).

Unfortunately, policing women’s reproductive choices is nothing new, in or out of the academy. And there seems to be no acceptable number of kids for women to have. Women who choose not to are questioned about their fertility or perceived as less nurturing.  Women who choose to have 1 kid are often questioned about why they want their kid to be an only child. And women who choose to have multiple kids are seen as taking advantage of the system (whether that’s academic programs like pausing the tenure clock or government assistance programs like WIC) – especially if they are WOC.

Side but very related note – the majority of abortions in the US currently each year are chosen by women who are already mothers. That decision is also highly stigmatized. There is no winning.

 

The wrong kind of busy

Academics in general pride themselves on being people who can and do juggle a lot – projects, teaching, service, and life outside of work.  Yet academic women with multiple kids have shared that colleagues make comments to them implying that they are the wrong kind of busy (regardless of how those women actually manage their time).

For example, a faculty friend recently shared:

A collaborator shared a manuscript with me for friendly feedback (I wasn’t a coauthor on this particular paper). I wrote back enthusiastically and mentioned that it’d take me 2 weeks to get back to them. They responded: ‘Oh well with your 18 kids, I’m sure you don’t have time.’ I don’t have 18 kids (I have 3), and they have nothing to do with when I wanted to review this person’s paper.

Similar stories have been shared with me repeatedly by women who have kids with disabilities. Their colleagues (wrongly!) make assumptions about their parenting and work, often resulting in them being left out of collaborations or decision-making.

 

What else?   Sadly this is just the tip of the iceberg. If you have experience as a academic woman with multiple kids (positive, negative, or otherwise) or ideas on how to improve academic culture for folks with all number of kids (including 0), please comment below.

It’s not you, it’s your environment

I recently had a conversation with a male friend at another institution. While he is successfully advising graduate students of all genders, he was concerned because two women students had quit after their first year and he’s not had a man quit. My friend told me that they had good reasons for quitting, unrelated to his advising, but he just didn’t like that pattern and feared that maybe he was also doing something wrong that made it harder for women to succeed in his lab.

Having watched my friend in professional settings and knowing that he’s pretty plugged and conscientious about issues of women in science, I don’t think my friend isn’t doing anything egregious. In fact, I’d like to believe that he’s one of the men exemplifying how our society is changing for the better. Nonetheless, it probably wouldn’t hurt my friend to review Acclimatrix’s “Don’t be that dude: Handy tips for the male academic” to up his game.

But knowing my friend and knowing his institution (having spent a few years there myself), my response to my friend’s fears was “It’s probably not you, but it might be your environment. Look around at the climate for women in your department and university.”  Even if my friend is running a great, supportive research group and doing a superb job mentoring students of all genders, that won’t completely counteract a male-dominated, sexist broader environment. Of course, my friend, in possession of a male gender identity, might not be able to completely diagnose how sexist his environment is, but there are some easy things he can consider.

Where are the women?

If your graduate students don’t see people who look like them amongst their fellow students, they may feel isolated. That can be fixed over a relatively short time by considering a more holistic admissions policy, combined with seeking outside help in mentoring these more diverse student cohorts.

If your students don’t see women successful as post-docs and professors, they may feel like there are no role models. This is also fixable over time, but the timescales at play are probably longer. In the meantime, I encouraged my friend to connect his students with female faculty in allied departments, through coursework, committee membership, or just  socially. I think it’s important for the advisor to take an active role in fostering these connections, because the students may not even realize who and where the women are on campus. If there aren’t enough women in allied disciplines on your campus, then connect your students with women in your field at other universities.

If your students don’t see women as invited seminar speakers or on course reading lists, they may be questioning their place in the field in general. There are women who give great talks and write superb papers, this can be fixed if the faculty just put in some additional effort.

Who are the men?

This may be harder to figure out, for a guy with male privilege, but if he listens closely, he may discover that there are one or a few bad apples among his colleagues or in the department’s postdoc and student ranks. These are the men who harass or even assault women, usually serially, and usually preying on power dynamics. The women who stay usually figure out who those men are and learn to avoid them as much as possible, while other women may choose to simply leave, whether they’ve been the first-hand subject of harassment or assault or just want to get away before it happens to them.

What is the departmental culture like?

There are plenty of aspects of departmental culture that may be overtly sexist: inappropriate conversation and “jokes”; men talking over women in the classroom, seminars, and meetings; travel policies and field work situations that put women in unsafe or uncomfortable positions; and many more.  My friend should be watching and listening for those overt and subtle forms of sexism and doing what he can to squash them.

There’s another aspect of departmental culture, that while not overtly sexist may be having the effect of disproportionately affecting women. That’s a culture of overwork – and it’s rampant among leading departments.

I once spent time in a department where every faculty member, postdoc and graduate student had a couch in their office, and there was an expectation that people slept in their offices at least part of the time. This was a place that saw no problem scheduling a seminar at 4:30 pm on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and advertised an hourly undergraduate research assistant position that required being available to respond to the professor’s requests by email within 2 hours, 24/7/365. Frankly, students of every gender should be turned off by such an always on culture of overwork, because its not only anathema to work-life balance or any life at all, but not even very productive to be working all the time.  For women, who disproportionately shoulder care-giving and domestic responsibilities, or can see themselves as future caregivers, finding themselves in a place where its expected that students sleep in the office could be a sign to run screaming for the exits.

The department in the previous paragraph, by the way, is the most overwhelmingly male dominated place I have ever been. My friend’s department is almost surely not that bad, but he should look around at when and what sort of academic and social events are held after business hours and whether students are informally competing for who can work the longest (and whether professors are reinforcing that competition). Is the department emphasizing quantity of time or quality of work?

What’s your graduate student orientation like?

Maybe the problem for friend’s department starts right when students arrive on campus. Does graduate student orientation at both the campus and departmental level help to connect students to places like the women’s center, the LBGTQ student group, associations for minority students, etc.? Does the orientation suggest that forming social networks outside the department is encouraged, and demonstrate that point by having active members of various organizations already within the department? Does the orientation point out that physical and mental health services are available, confidential, and free?  That grad school can be tough on both mental and physical health, even tougher for those already dealing with illness, and that seeking help is a sign of strength? Does the orientation provide students with information on campus resources like emergency food banks, sexual assault survivor services, student legal services, the campus ombudsman, and other things we’d like to think graduate students will never need, but that some undoubtedly will? Are the points above made just once at some university-wide assembly for new graduate students, or are they made again at the departmental level, and preferably periodically reinforced over the first semester and beyond? One of the most rewarding exercises I have ever done as a professor was assigning a group of first semester graduate students to identify campus and town services that they thought they might use at some point or that they wished they had known about before they arrived. I was astounded by the diversity of what they came up with, and we created a tip sheet for subsequent cohorts of incoming students. Letting students know that you and your department care about their overall well-being and that there are people and services beyond the department that can support them is absolutely critical to recruiting and maintaining a diverse student population.

What else?

In the conversation with my friend, I told him to keep taking data on his own advising success, while critically examining the environment around him, and I offered to be a sounding board for both him and his students if needed. I encouraged him to think about the questions above, but I’m sure there’s more I could have said. What did I miss?

 

The dreaded question period

The Q&A – arguably the most angst inducing part of one’s entire talk. Inevitably someone will raise their hand and ask a question which the speaker did not anticipate and which they are not prepared for. But who is that someone? On occasion, it is a young scholar, itching to make him or herself known by asking a smart question. Often, it is the senior (male) academic who is sitting in the front row and raises his hand after each talk. Where are the women?

At two recent conferences, I kept track of who was in the room: who were the presenters, what was the proportion of men to women in the audience, and who was asking the questions. The first, a small conference of about 50 participants, had a roughly equal proportion of men and women in the audience with only a handful more men than women. There were 12 male speakers and 12 female speakers. Across the different Q&As, there were a total of 66 questions asked by men and 25 questions asked by women. The second conference was larger, with roughly 150 participants, with a more skewed audience with only 35-40% women. The talk distribution similarly reflected this makeup of the audience, with 14 male speakers and 9 female speakers. The Q&A then featured 73 questions by men and only 13 by women. In both cases, the majority of questions were asked by senior scholars, the majority of whom are men. When young scholars raised their hands, roughly a third of the time, they were overwhelmingly men, as well.

While anecdotal, these numbers speak to a current trend in my field. Conference organizers are generally aware of gender biases and do a decent job of accepting both male and female speakers at encouraging numbers. They also almost always make sure to have both male and female invited speakers.* And yet clearly there is still a problem. To my dismay, it was not only among the senior scholars that men were overrepresented; that in itself would stem from the fact that senior scholars in my field more generally tend to be men. But among the more junior scholars and certainly among the students, women represent nearly half of our field. And yet very few young women raised their hands.

One obvious step that organizers can take to begin fixing this problem is to ensure that session moderators, and not the presenters themselves, field the question period. This takes the responsibility away from the anxious speaker, who may focus on the senior (often white, male) scholars in the front rows, and place it in the hands of the calmer moderators, who could be asked to be more aware of the entire room and of who has been given time to speak in previous sessions.

But a more pressing issue is how to get women to raise their hands in the first place. While there are certainly cases of women being ignored by a speaker, more often than not few or no women even attempt to ask a question. How do we address that?

As a young female scholar who is among those not currently being represented, I have tried to give this issue some thought. I must admit to being part of the problem: I rarely ask questions at conferences. Sometimes because I am unsure my questions are smart enough**, sometimes because I just need a moment to think and digest what I have heard, and often because I am simply uncomfortable with the entire situation. I try to challenge myself to ask at least one question at each conference***, but that doesn’t quite seem sufficient. Why am I so uncomfortable? More importantly, what would make me more comfortable?

I think I am uncomfortable raising my hand because people like me just generally don’t. I know that doing it myself would set an example for others, but often I am not that brave. Several colleagues have raised the option of having standing microphones at the sides of the stage as a possible solution****, as it would take away the prominence of the senior men in the front rows and leave it up to the order in which people get up to the mic. I agree that this might solve part of the problem, but it probably won’t make it go away. I can already imagine certain men queuing up after each and every talk, before they even have a question in mind. I can also imagine that the need to physically get up, walk over to the stage, and stand in line, may deter some women from putting themselves so visibly out there.

Another thought that I find appealing is the option of giving the audience a short break before the Q&A, to allow audience members to digest the talk and briefly discuss their thoughts with other colleagues, before returning to the room and asking questions of the speaker. I am unsure how this would be implemented at conferences, where there are often several talk+Q&A sequences before each break, but it could be a something to try at colloquia and other events with more flexible schedules. Yet another strategy that I have seen implemented at some venues, and again may be more appropriate to those occasions with more flexible schedules, is allowing the students and junior scholars in the room to ask their questions first, and only later turning to questions from the more senior audience members.

Finally, something else that I wonder about is using an electronic, written, system to collect questions and convey them to the speaker. Many talks at conferences in my field are already live-tweeted – why not also collect questions in much the same way? These days practically everyone in the audience has an internet enabled device with them, and internet is almost always provided by the venue (for those with no data plans). Could we use a dedicated platform to collect questions, to be read by the moderator, perhaps in conjunction with some questions delivered directly by audience members? I am sure that there are some logistical issues to be resolved, but I can certainly see underrepresented groups feeling more secure in submitting questions in writing, to be read by the moderator, than raising their hands or standing up and asking the questions themselves.

Have you encountered similar trends in your field? If you are a woman, are you comfortable asking questions at conferences and other talks? How would you go about encouraging more women, especially younger women, to participate more?

 

*Although a relevant issue that I will not discuss here is who gets invited: while the proportion of invited talks given by men and women is encouraging, the number of different women giving talks is still smaller than the number of men; some women get invited very often, and quite a few not at all.

** And more often than not I then feel like an idiot when someone else asks the exact same question!

***And to introduce myself to one new person, as well.

****Curiously enough, they are all men.

More than a scientist

Less than a month into grad school, I had my first potential-PI meeting.  The professor was a Nobel laureate, I’d spoken with him in writing a fellowship proposal, and I’d spent most of my summer envisioning myself in his lab.  He was interested in the fact that I’d left industry to do my PhD, and wanted to know why.

I explained that I wanted to see the culture of science change.  I wanted to work my way up and gain a position from which I could influence policy and make the scientific community more welcoming to folks from different backgrounds—more welcoming to people who looked like me, like my (Latin@) family, like my (queer, trans, low income) communities.  And under all of this, of course, because I wanted to do science!  But when I described my passion for change, the man looked at me across the table with disbelief and said, “That’s why you came to grad school?” Continue reading