Guest post: Scientific Networks

Today’s guest post was contributed by B Kiddo, a full professor at an R1 university


In a post by Dr. Isis not long ago, she discussed social time with colleagues (typically male) and their wives, and how she often ended up spending time with the wives, generally a great group of women. While it wasn’t her main point, something that struck me is how hard this makes creating a good network of scientists.

I’ve encountered that same type of social situation over the years, too. I’m often the only female career scientist in a social setting that includes partners and families. For example, at a recent event, all the other women were scientists that had moved away from their careers to take care of kids, or were stay-at-home moms just moving into the workforce. All had spent significant amounts of time raising their growing kids, and following their male partners around the country and world. We had a really fun conversation that ranged all over the map.

I eventually moved to join the other scientists. My husband switched to playing with kids, and then followed me. He gets a bit fed up always hearing about academia, so I changed the subject when he arrived to better include him.

Limited ability to hang out with scientists and talk about work happens on a larger scale at professional meetings of all sizes. I often bring my family with me, but when I do, I don’t get the social time out on the town that others get – as soon as talks or other duties are over, I give my husband a break from the kids. In contrast, it seems many women expect that their scientist partners will be busy day and night at meetings, and expect that even in the evenings, they will hang out with the kids and other partners and guests. My husband, as wonderfully generous with time and help as he is, absolutely expects that I will be sharing duties fully, and I share his expectations.

One of the women present the other evening described how she deals with her husband being busy over the summer with fieldwork. Three-week long car-trip vacations without her husband are completely normal for her, and she’s been doing them since her first of 3 children was an infant. Another female friend of mine, also a faculty spouse, is not pleased with her husband’s many trips, and many working weekends, but feels unable to change the situation, and is also thus used to most activities including her and her child, without her husband.

I can’t imagine either my husband, or me, allowing me to do my work and travel when and where I’d like. We both impose a standard on me for what is acceptable time away from family that seems quite different from what most couples appear to impose on male scientists.

For example, I recently flew across the country leaving on a Monday at 4:00 AM and returning Wednesday late (well actually Thursday at 1:00 AM), simply to minimize time away. In an ideal world, I’d get to spend an extra day or two away, socializing with scientists in the area as well as simply enjoying myself. That ideal world shouldn’t seem so far away in this day and age, but I seem to have ingrained the idea that on some fundamental level, I shouldn’t be away, period. If it is unavoidable, the time away must be as brief as possible.

The problem is thus partly, if not largely, self-imposed, but I’m still not certain how to change it. My own guilt and the price I’d need to pay to make up for more time away are daunting. To the extent that my experiences are general, it’s no wonder that the social networks in which science takes place are smaller lonelier places for women than for men. I’ve recently become aware of multiple collaborations started both at my home institution, and across other institutions, and wondered if I would have been invited to be included had I had more social connections with the scientists involved, since the scientific connections were obvious, to me at least. (Of course, I also wondered if I simply didn’t make the grade to be involved – good ole impostor syndrome.)

My approach so far has been to try to connect more with other scientists through social media (e.g. twitter) and to try to improve interactions at my home institution, starting with monthly lunches with women faculty. Strengthening those connections, even if few of the other women are people I’d collaborate with given our different research areas, will at least expand the social network in which I do my science.

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10 thoughts on “Guest post: Scientific Networks

  1. This really rung true to me. The words “my own guilt” practically leapt off the page at me. I struggle with this regularly – and because of reasons outlined have chosen to make my next conference trip solo. The only detriment will be my guilt first and foremost. I already anticipate my 5 day trip to be the end of the nursing relationship I have established with my youngest. However, as you also stated above, I’m not sure how to reconcile these feelings with what will truly benefit my career.

    • I know! Aspects of this would be easier if I and my own guilt weren’t so complicit. I hope you can enjoy your solo conference a huge amount, and benefit a lot, and I hope that you and your youngest are both ready (enough) to stop. For what it’s worth, I was once gone for 6 days while nursing and kept up production enough with pumping – my youngest went right back to it when I got home. She was ~10 months then. Later, when I was more ready to stop, and so was she, I stopped pumping and let a trip make it easier for both of us to let that go.

  2. “I’ve recently become aware of multiple collaborations started both at my home institution, and across other institutions, and wondered if I would have been invited to be included had I had more social connections with the scientists involved, since the scientific connections were obvious, to me at least. ”

    I often feel exactly the same. Ever since I started my faculty position I’ve had small kids, so I never really socialize much with the other faculty in my department. I don’t stick around and chat with “higher-ups” after talks or events, both my wife and I work full time, so there’s really no time for this. So I often feel invisible and overlooked for collaborations, funding opportunities, center grants, etc, even if my research fits perfectly and my lab is productive.

    • It is so hard to know with those collaborations. I just want my science to be enough! But we’re only human, and we think of who we know, and work with who we like. I’m definitely not ‘in’ with the social in crowd, nor with the higher-ups. I’m trying actively to change that, though, and it seems to be paying off a bit.

    • In no way justifying anything, just brainstorming as to non-malicious causes for being overlooked: could it be that in not socializing or sticking around to chat after a talk you are leaving the impression that you are over scheduled and therefore don’t have time for new collaborations? Your priorities can be completely in the right place regarding collaborations and advancing your research by doing the research and not cutting into research time for socializing. However, people often rely on heuristics and social cues rather than objectively analyzing the numbers to see that a lab is productive. Unfortunately, unconscious cues need to be managed as well as getting work done to succeed. It might be worth asking a colleague or mentor what their impression is to see if it’s something you should be working to address. If the collaborations and other opportunities would improve your research maybe it would be worth prioritizing some sort of socialization or other ways to make yourself and your lab more visible. Even just giving talks or having students give talks in the department could be enough if you don’t currently make it a priority. Or directly approaching potential collaborators letting them know you’d be interested if the right opportunity came along. It could be that you need to treat cultivating visibility like a part of the job needing as much attention as research, teaching, mentoring, service, etc.

  3. Thanks for this. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot. I’ve accepted a position at a SLAC, which is fine for a few years, but I’d really rather jump to an R1 just bc of facilitation of networks, mentorship of junior faculty, etc. However my husband is geographically limited to one area. So unless those 3 or 4 R1 universities in the area (give or take a few hours) are hiring in my specialty I am either staying put or my husband is taking a demotion/a job in another field, if I try to go somewhere. I feel stuck. I can’t ask my husband to leave his job, where he’s on a leadership track, for a “lesser” job. But I also feel it’s unfair to me that I am not able to pursue the kind of career I want…

  4. “My approach so far has been to try to connect more with other scientists through social media (e.g. twitter) and to try to improve interactions at my home institution, starting with monthly lunches with women faculty. Strengthening those connections, even if few of the other women are people I’d collaborate with given our different research areas, will at least expand the social network in which I do my science.”

    This makes no sense to me. Are you looking for new friends or potential collaborators? If the latter, then why not have monthly lunches with people (i.e., men and women) that you might end up collaborating with?

    “The problem is thus partly, if not largely, self-imposed….” Yes, for sure the problem is about finding a way to reconcile the demands of your career and family — no one can be in 2 places at once. Some people think that men have it easier in this respect, because in general, they might not feel as guilty spending time away from the family/kids. But those men are missing out — no one can have it all. And if you’re a man who does prioritize time with your family/kids, then your manliness is questioned….

  5. I would take a softer view – maybe, just sometimes, we feel left-out and lonely. No-one likes these feelings, so if there is some small way to compensate for not being able to socialise “a lot”, and arrange to socialise “a little” and choose wisely, then we feel better about ourselves.

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