Guest post: Acknowledging and overcoming self-hindrance

As a graduate student nearing the end of my degree, I have started thinking a lot about what I plan to do when I graduate. Thinking about the future inevitably leads me to think about confidence – am I confident in my abilities as a scientist? Do I think I have what it takes to “make it” in academia? Through conversations with female graduate students and postdocs, I’ve realized that this lack of self-confidence is pervasive (I’ve written about this more here), but in what ways does this materialize, particularly in early career stages?

There is a lot of discussion on gender biases and stereotype threat and how these (often implicit) biases hinder women from staying in academia. Some biases are commonly talked about (i.e. imposter syndrome – here and here), while others are rarely acknowledged.

One way implicit bias manifests is that we talk ourselves out of believing that academia is something we’ve wanted in the first place. If you listen to the way male and female graduate students talk about their work, men often describe how “they just came up with a really great idea that will advance the field” whereas women are more likely to harbor on “the uninteresting results of my experiments; the slow and unproductive work week.”

Take a friend of mine who is in her fifth year of her PhD. She says she likes her research, but does not love it. Her boyfriend on the other hand describes his relationship to his work with much more excitement, and recently moved to Europe for a postdoc because he felt limited about his research prospects in the US. When I talked to her about his move, she said she was not upset he wanted to go to Europe but she didn’t feel the same way about her own work. In her own words, she isn’t “as into her career as he is.” While he is actively looking at academic jobs only, she is less sure of what she wants to do. She says that if it is convenient for her to stay in academia, she will. Otherwise, she will find something else.

So are men simply more passionate about their work than women? I don’t think so. As I talked to my friend, I wondered if her description of her lack of passion is a defense mechanism she uses as a reason to leave academia. Given the rough academic climate we are all well aware of, if a woman describes her work as her passion, she immediately thinks of what she has to lose. The more we have at stake, the harder and more personally we take failure.

Psychologist Carol Dweck has shown that males and females typically react to setbacks differently. With studies of eighth-graders as well as college students, Dweck has argued that females typically have a fixed mindset, believing that their abilities are innate and unchangeable whereas males typically believe their abilities are permeable (see here and her great book: Mindset). The detrimental effects of a fixed mindset are exacerbated when there are stereotypes against a certain group (i.e. women in science, and particularly in very quantitative sciences). Therefore, if we doubt our passion or ability, women are more likely to give up while men believe they can overcome setbacks more easily.

So do we try to convince ourselves we are less invested in our work to protect ourselves from future disappointment? Is it easier to believe that we are simply not as passionate in our work rather than confront that fixed mindset of ours, that we simply don’t have the innate ability to do the work? And how do we truly decipher to what extent passion and to what extent self-defense mechanisms characterize our feelings toward our work?

Dweck suggests that a first step to combat fixed mindset is by acknowledging that these mindsets exist and emphasizing that these skills can be learned over time – persistence, effort and experience matter a lot. I think this approach is an important first step in acknowledging the root of the insecurity and vulnerability we feel about our work.

Another way I have noticed young female academics hinder themselves is by imposing guilt and restrictions for future decisions far on the horizon that should not (at least yet?) be cause for concern, and might even never materialize. I have caught myself thinking this way. My boyfriend is incredibly supportive of me and my career goals. Yet I find myself not even considering certain career options or postdoc moves because they may negatively impact his career or possibly affect when I have children – issues that rationally I know I do not need to be thinking about at 26. As women, we often are hesitant to advance our career in case it will negatively impact our partner or child that doesn’t even exist yet. And if we do prioritize our careers, we feel guilty.

The difficulty in balancing career and relationships seems pervasive regardless of a woman’s relationship status. When women decide to make their academic career their most important priority, they feel a sense of guilt that I think many men do not feel. A colleague, who is now a postdoc, and is single, has currently chosen to prioritize her career over the importance of a partner. Yet, she describes this prioritization negatively, as selfishness. I think this is a distinctly female response. Men have fewer qualms about devoting all their time to their career because it is more socially acceptable to do so. This may be because women tend to define themselves in terms of relationships and other people in their lives more so than men, says Alysson Light, a Duke postdoc in social psychology, who studies self uncertainty. Or, it could be that women feel a need to constantly justify their actions more so than men, according to psychologist Lindsey Copeland says.

Do you notice that you are tentative to describe your research passionately, or hinder/have hindered your career goals unnecessarily because of potential future relational conflicts? How have you overcome these feelings of guilt?

Today’s guest post is by Rotem Ben-Shachar, a 4th year PhD student in Computational Biology and Bioinformatics at Duke University

12 thoughts on “Guest post: Acknowledging and overcoming self-hindrance

  1. Thanks for the post, Rotem. It is extremely important for female scientists, especially at the beginning of their carriers, to become aware of this invisible cage that we often build to protect our dreams and ambitions from hostile environment. Unfortunately the price of opening the cage in many cases is higher for female scientists than for their male colleagues. Apart from the emotional toll that you’ve mentioned (guilt and fear of failure), there are practical worries: When is the best time to have kids (and the clock is ticking…)? How will I support myself during maternity leave? Will I be able to balance between work and kids? In my opinion, as long as the burden of these problems lies predominantly on women’s shoulders, we will continue to feel that we escape our “real” responsibilities while chasing our dreams.

  2. I have been lucky to have had mentors who have really built up my confidence. I gave a job talk for an Ivy postdoc and my 45 minute talk ended up being 2 hours, 1 of which was a very intense technical discussion/debate. Some of the more hardball questions threw me for a bit of a loop. I literally repeated my advisor’s words in my head: “You are the expert on your work. You know more about it than anyone else in any room.” And when I opened my mouth, lo and behold, I guess I sounded like an expert because I got the job. It’s at the top Uni in my sub-field. It will require my husband and I to move 3000 miles and in all likelihood delay family planning decisions. Sometimes I wonder how all of this opportunity has come my way, but then I think, why NOT me? And I don’t have a good answer so I’m left to conclude that I’ve earned it and I deserve it.

  3. Thanks for the piece, Rotem. I will say that a big part of the picture relates to childcare policies. In today’s neo-liberal climate. concerns about childcare are placed entirely on the individual, and more particularly women. I believe that this latent notion of personal responsibility (as supposed to communitarian responsibility) becomes manifest in decision-making processes for female professionals. Self-hindrance the way I would conceptualize it is not an individual shortcoming, but something that is brought about by the larger structures of hyper-individualism in free-market societies, sadly.

  4. “How have you overcome these feelings of guilt?” — I haven’t. This post is very timely for me, as I’m struggling with a lack of passion and considering leaving academia because of it. I don’t even think I *like* my research any more, and yet I’m worried that it’s a defense mechanism against future disappointment, as you say.

    But in my case, the partner and child are not hypothetical, and so I’m left wondering if there is any place in academia for those who don’t prioritize work above all else.

    • I sympathize and I think you’re right – the crazy work schedules of academia are disheatening. But I think there is a place for those in academia who like to balance work and life. I was similarly pessimistic about having any kind of life outside of work were I to go on the tenure-track. But I work in a research center at a large public university right now as a postdoc, and I have noticed that most of the research associates and professors have children and partners and leave at 5 on the dot. Now, I’m not saying that they don’t ever work at home or on the weekends or stay late sometimes, but it’s actually really positive to go upstairs at 5:05 on any given day and see that everyone has cut out completely to go home and be with their families. My advisors also adorably talk about their children in ways that make it clear that they spend a lot of time with them AND that bringing them up in the workplace is not taboo but welcomed. It’s actually really nice.

    • I’m with you crazygradmama, I too have a real husband and 2 young children and have questioned my ability to perform in academia, despite having been a post-grad/assistant professor since 2007, winning numerous grants and being informed by others that I’ve been “very lucky” in my career to date. I was told recently by a female head of school that you need 3 things to be female, an academic and have children; 1. live close to work, 2. have a very supportive husband/partner and 3. good childcare.
      And the other thing that really gets me now, is that although you think you have plenty of time at 26 to have kids, you actually don’t. I put off having children for my career, but once I started having kids, decided that I wanted 3 and was very very lucky that I managed to get 2 because at 38 yrs old could no longer manage to get pregnancies to full term (and that was very stressful at home and disrupted work for a number of years). I think you are very wise to be forward thinking at 26 Rotem, wish I had of been!

  5. Pingback: Defense mechanism | crazy grad mama

  6. “Another way I have noticed young female academics hinder themselves is by imposing guilt and restrictions for future decisions far on the horizon that should not (at least yet?) be cause for concern, and might even never materialize… As women, we often are hesitant to advance our career in case it will negatively impact our partner or child that doesn’t even exist yet. And if we do prioritize our careers, we feel guilty.”

    Yes. YES! I remember when I first started feeling like I might want to pursue the tenure track, I unconsciously resisted because of the lore I heard about how difficult it was to balance family and work on the tenure track and decided preemptively that I didn’t want to deal with it. The corollary was that a few weeks ago, my husband and I were chatting and we both revealed that we didn’t want to have kids any time soon if at all, and I felt like a huge weight had been taken off my shoulders – I can work! I can travel! That made me reflect on why the weight was there in the first place. Why was I making decisions about my lifestyle and work options based upon kids I didn’t even have yet? And women make these choices far more often than men do. I often seen women encourage other women to join X field because it’s flexible enough for children and families; I rarely here men giving that kind of advice to other men.

    I was recently in a discussion about why women don’t choose STEM careers and of course several people brought up the old canard that maybe women just aren’t as interested in STEM. I rather think it has to do a lot with this. Superficially, a woman might say she’s not interested in a STEM career (or an academic career, or a business carer, or a BigLaw career – anything that takes lots of time and money). The problem is that a lot of people stop after this step and don’t probe into *why* she doesn’t want one. A lot of times if you ask, women will say they don’t want that high-powered career because they feel like they can’t balance work and family with that particular career.

  7. Pingback: Slow, slow, quick quick slow (needs, radical love, and thoughts framed as advice) | Sarah w Polsce

  8. This post really has me thinking. Another explanation for lack of passion is that (1) research is really hard, and (2) we’re not unreasonable to be humble. Maybe it’s the self-confident optimists who should explain themselves. Disjoint rambling below.

    I’ve never been especially passionate about my research–it can be cool, but it’s usually work–and I’ve *never* been confident about my abilities or prospects. I somehow ended up at a supportive top R1 with my own lab. Sometimes I feel immensely guilty for not being happier, more excited, more gung-ho, more optimistic, and monomaniacal. People tell me all the time how lucky and I am. People expect me to go all-out to get tenure because this is supposed to be my dream coming true. I smile and nod…

    This job is nice, but I am not and will never be an incredibly inspiring, confident, hypomanic assistant prof. My dream doesn’t involve 60-hour work weeks or no interests outside research. It’s awkward to feel so at odds with cultural norms and expectations, and I dare not tell the truth at work. I’ve always felt that science is one of many potential callings.

    But even if I’m not super excited about research (or confident in my ability to do it), I still want to keep at it. On my own terms. Research always seems hard. It’s hard not to wonder if you’re being scooped or doing it the wrong way. It always feels like a challenge that I’m potentially not up for. It’s definitely not the only thing I enjoy. But it’s a worthy way to spend my working hours.

    I might not impress my colleagues enough to get tenure, and I will probably never have the Young [Male] Genius allure that some of my collaborators do (neither is, of course, entirely under my control!). I can feel really guilty when I see super smart friends of mine unable to get tenure-track jobs, and I can feel guilty for not having contagious enthusiasm in every meeting with my trainees. But I’m also trying to remember that whatever, part of promoting diversity is encouraging people who don’t fit the “mold” to do science. If I get tenure, I’ll be more public about it.

  9. Pingback: Self confidence and the publication cycle | Tenure, She Wrote

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