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