Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Assumptions make an arse out of you and some guy named Mptions

  1. To strengthen with new evidence or facts
  2. To declare solemnly as true
  3. To support or encourage

I had no intention of posting today until I read several opinion pieces on Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. Rather than rehash everything in detail, I'll just say some people see the issue as:
  • "It's about time we had Latino representation on the Court. Sotomayor is an accomplished woman and will help set the stage for a fairer, more representative government."
  • "This is clearly an affirmative action hire, ie, reverse racism. If you look at her records and lawyers who have been in court with her, she does not have the same level of brilliance or ability as other Supreme Court judges. We are watering down our ideals of justice by making decisions rooted in the color of someone's skin."

I want to for a moment step back and look at similar comments about women in academia. Some men believe that anything good that comes a woman's way is because of her gender. I was told by a labmate of mine that Woman Y received an NSF grad fellowship "probably because she's black and female." I asked him whether he knew how well she did in school and whether her fellowship MIGHT be because of her academic performance, and he confessed that he didn't know about her background. Sooo... why the hell would he make such a stupid assumption?

Men I've worked with have made similar assumptions about me. Luckily I've never had to wonder whether I or the talented women I know were granted awards because we're women... we were too busy kicking butt in courses and intellectual ideas. It's amazing to me that a man who has a significantly lower GPA in undergrad can still think the reason a woman received the fellowship he didn't is because of her gender, rather than the fact that she graduated at the top of her class. (And people claim women are the illogical ones?)

There are awards out there geared towards encouraging women and minorities in underrepresented fields like science and engineering. Would I accept such an award / fellowship if it were offered me? For example to help with my lab start-up costs when I become a faculty member? Yes! Just as any man would. But I do sometimes wonder whether setting up these enablers will just lead to "those on the outside" assuming we couldn't have made it without the added help, or that somehow we're just not innately "good enough". I've heard African Americans voice similar concerns about affirmative action repercussions (and then take cover as every liberal minded academic accuses them of treason for voicing any such concerns). Thoughts?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

To teach or not to teach

During my time at illustrious (major research university) MRU 2, I began to think that I would love a teaching career at one of the top teaching colleges in the nation. This is not to say I don't enjoy and excel in research. But there is something about having the product of my labor being illuminated young minds that is many times more rewarding than simply seeing my name on yet another journal publication. I love that "ah hah!" moment students studying science get when their eyes light up and a subject they once feared is now exciting and rewarding-- and I love helping them get there.

A recent conversation with a young assistant professor in the physical sciences at a top liberal arts college put this to question. I asked him what aspects of his job he would change and his answer was "I would teach less, and I would want more resources to do my research." Needless to say, this made me think "That sounds a lot like an MRU faculty position... why did you come here?" The truth is, Professor X is not the first to make comments like these. Many colleges that were once teaching oriented now have significant research requirements for tenure (poorly communicated requirements I should add on the suggestion of Professor X). Without the financial support or the reduced teaching load of an MRU (eg, 3 courses versus 1 taught per semester... anyone who has taught knows how incredibly time-consuming a 3 course load would be), faculty scramble to teach, grade, meet with students, apply for grants, run research (more hands-on at teaching colleges), and do the various service activities required of them. Having spoken to several faculty members at top liberal arts colleges, I'm convinced this is a more time-consuming position with worse work-life balance than that at any MRU I've experienced. Thoughts?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Paula Cole and Pay Day

There is a lot of buzz about the stimulus funding and what it's going to mean for grant organizations like NSF and NIH. I can't tell you the number of eager scientists I've seen drooling over this rainfall after a recent, painful drought. One of the positive ramifications of increased scientific investment by the federal government is that universities will be able to once again open their doors and begin hiring (thank God! and Congress?). It's also a nice "change of pace" for orgs like NIH who haven't seen a budget increase since 2002 (AACR Cancer Policy Monitor - March 2009).

What I want to focus on is the buzz about tripling the number of prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowships granted. This is huge. Having a big fellowship opens a lot of doors. You can essentially work for whoever and on whatever project you want (assuming you also have an ounce of drive and another ounce of smooth-talking to go with your fellowship). Lovely stuff free labor is. So. More cheap graduate students means the potential for a department to accept more students in the first place. Which means more PhDs potentially graduating in ~5+ years. Which means more PhDs on the labor market.

Hmmm.... where will all the PhDs go? Academic jobs are getting increasingly competitive and hard to come by. As faculty at top tier places retire (and are replaced by overzealous, freakily energetic assistant professors), more and more of the talent is getting pushed into the lower ranked universities. Somewhere along the line all the top tier grads will fill these positions too, funding will be easier to come by as a result of the even distribution of talent, and we'll all equalize so that the same 5 universities aren't the only ones who play musical chairs for the top ranked spots. (My high school english teacher just rolled over in her grave because of that sentence.) Okay, this is all waaaay down the line. Regardless, outside of academia, industry isn't hiring PhDs at the same rate they were a couple decades ago. R&D is too big of an investment and everyone is cutting back (the relationship is inversely proportional to the change in America's average waistline... someone should investigate. NIH Challenge Grant anyone?). So again I'm left to wonder... where will all the PhDs gooooo? (cue Paula Cole music)

Friday, May 15, 2009

Stalled academic

I'm reading a book right now called "Challenges of the Faculty Career for Women" by Philipsen (I was just thinking how interesting it would be if the author was a man instead of a woman... would that be perceived as kosher? Do you have to be part of a minority / underrepresented group to "safely" make comments?)

The author interviewed female faculty at various stages of their careers across various academic settings (from community college to major research universities). One particular late-career academic, speaking on the topic of attaining "balance," said 'I have accepted, although it still hurts, that I will not be promoted, and that I will retire as an associate professor.' I guess something had to give and she decided to sacrifice some career aspirations for fulfillment in other aspects of her life.

This reminded me of a recent conversation I had on this same topic with an assistant professor. She said that a faculty member in her department had decided, after receiving tenure, to focus on teaching and give up research altogether. This "ensured that she will never advance beyond associate professor." Unlike another professor I know, whose department ostracized him after a similar decision (yes, he's at an MRU), this woman's department was happy to have someone take on more of the "unwanted teaching burden."

I don't want to open a whole can of worms here, but I do remember at my previous MRU that there was a lot of (inconclusive) talk about starting 2 separate tenure tracks in each department - teaching and research. The idea is everone gets to do what they love, and you don't have bad teachers teaching or bad researchers researching. A topic worth revisiting later...

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Intro to femgineering

So I recently came across Female Science Professor's blog, and as a mentor-starved femgineer, I sat there for a couple hours reading about the wonders that (hopefully) lie ahead of me in academic life (yes, I started reading at the 1st blog entry). I then thought to myself, hey, maybe someone would care about the early career travails and successes of a female scientist. I know I question other women every chance I get about their choices and paths. And even if no one ends up reading my blog other than my husband, at least it'll encourage me to keep journaling (which is a surprisingly useful tool for staying sane in stressful times).

Then came the question of anonymity. My new electronic mentor, FSP's blog, is anonymous. That makes sense considering some of the departmental politics she posts about (plus it would be weird to have all your students have instant access to your personal life / thoughts). But I thought, why should I be? Hmmm.... maybe because I'd actually like to be hired by a university some day? Maybe because some engineering departments would hesitate to have their 1st female hire (yes, many departments are still 100% mengineering) be an outspoken, opinionated, blog-happy assistant professor?

My partial bio:
  • B.S. in Engineering from Major Research University 1 (MRU 1)
  • Ph.D. in Engineering from MRU 2
  • Postdoctoral studies (in progress) from MRU 3
  • Faculty member at MRU 4 (this one is the dream)
<removed>. (The language is borrowed from Mason & Ekman's book "Mothers on the Fast Track". <removed>) Suffice it to say that money is not everything, and that is one of >20 reasons I think academia is the perfect fit for many femgineers. This is a crazy statement and I'll have to defend it, but that will wait for another post.