Thursday, February 27, 2014

I'm not dead

Work is a bit all-consuming at the moment. I don't think I've ever used the word "dread" to describe how I feel about work. I am sure it will pass.

In the meantime, Quintus has been blogging up a storm.

I found this photo by Vittorio to be deeply disturbing: "When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back into you."

This article by Frances Hocutt on her experiences in graduate school in chemistry is worth reading and thinking about; I am glad she wrote it.

Also, for your listening pleasure (?), Professor Paula Stephan (author of the book "How Economics Shapes Science") is on YouTube, presenting a lecture from her book. (It was filmed at an institute in France, which is fun.) Towards the end of her talk, she suggests rebalancing US R&D funding away from the health sciences towards the physical sciences. Yes!

An article that I wrote for Chemistry World has been published, incidentally. The illustration is fun, though I'm usually wearing safety glasses and carrying a much more quizzical look. 

33 comments:

  1. This is awesome: "When a pipeline breaks, we don't blame the water."

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  2. "Students were afraid to assert their rights under our union’s contract; our contract capped required work hours at 20 h/week..."

    Can you really get through a PhD in chemistry working 20h/week?

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    1. Only in your final year, really. Although, I bet I still put in a good 30 hours or maybe even 40 some weeks in my last year.

      But I think the complaint was more to do with getting paid only for 20 hours when in reality you work a lot more. I don't know what can be done about that though; the way the whole system is structured now students cost a shit ton of money to the university and only a smaller part of that is reflected in the stipends. Of course some of that is an internal accounting trick where the university 'pays' your tuition to get more secret overhead from grants and that could really be reduced if there was will, with more honest universities in other countries dispensing with that.

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    2. I don't think she was claiming she should only be expected to put in 20 hours per week to earn a degree. A full-time graduate student with ZERO financial support should be putting in at least 40 hours (not "credit hours," but real hours) per week toward his or her degree, just like any full-time undergraduate student. Perhaps her university was expecting more than 20 hours per week of teaching effort from her TA position. But if she really thinks she was also being paid to study then she's foolish. An assistantship is supposed to be support that enables you to also devote full-time effort toward your studies. A student on a TA should be thinking in terms of 60 hours per week as the MINIMUM effort: 20 paid hours for the teaching obligations and at least 40 hours of his or her own time working toward the degree. If you cannot devote that much effort toward your studies then you should not accept a full-time credit load (and in most places, you will not be offered an assistantship if you are a part time student). An assistantship is not really a job, it's support. And even the depressingly low TA stipends at my institution are well above the market rate (i.e., what we pay part-timers) for the same responsibilities.

      It's a little murkier for students on RA, but the principle is the same: the support is supposed to enable additional full-time effort toward the degree. Of course it's not easy. But neither is incurring a ton of debt.

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  3. I get really annoyed by some of this grad student whining. No one held a gun to your head and forced you to go to grad school.

    The world is not going to cater to you once you graduate. Suck it up and get on with it or find something else to do.

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    1. A whining former grad studentFebruary 28, 2014 at 8:03 AM

      In one way, you're right. More people probably should be walking away from bad situations that will probably only get worse. That goes for grad school and floundering careers.

      On the other hand, a Ph.D. in chemistry is not a Ph.D. in French literature. Persons holding terminal degrees in technical fields have a reasonable expectation to earn a living as practitioners. If not, then obtaining a Ph.D. in science is just an academic exercise...like winning a spelling bee. I don't think that would be a good thing for anyone.

      So (big news!) the world is complicated. Sorry if that annoys you.

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  4. Not really buying her assertion that what happened to her was due to her being female. Most of it sounds like it was due to the fact that grad school just really really sucks.

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  5. After reading that piece (and others), I would argue that rather than asking, "Why are there so few women in science?" the more intriguing question might be, "Why on earth are so many men in science?" Is a substantial amount of common sense encoded on the second X chromosome?

    I really like her broken pipeline analogy. What sort of plumber would deal with a broken pipe by blindly running more water through it? Yet that has been the strategy for how many federal administrations now?

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  6. I agree with anon 10:27 and 9:22 - all this hand-wringing about the lack of women in STEM is really due to the fact that women are more apt to quit when they're miserable, while men are more apt to become the next Jason Altom. The majority of the women I knew in grad school quit, and are now happy 30-somethings with master's degrees and good jobs. The unhappy men who stuck it out and finished their PhD's generally didn't do well - unemployment, stuck in postdoc life well into 30s, etc.

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    1. Bull shit. Women have it worse in many situtations. The take away is not that it must be something wrong with the woman because she quit, it is that in many PI groups to get a PhD you must be skilled in penis jousting. If you don't have the right equipment, you don't have a shot.

      A woman professor on my committee told me a story about her days in graduate school when I was leaving with my MS. When she went to graduate school, men peed in her sink. In many situations in synthetic organic chemistry, women just are not welcome. But when women leave those situations, men are quick to attribute blame to the woman. It must be her inability to commit to the science or her inferior intellect. Anything to deflect the blame from those who are guilty from making it clear she is not welcome to the good ol' boys club. When life happens to work out reasonably well for those who leave with MS, the male PhDs want to play victim about how hard they have it that they get to finish graduate school.

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    2. Uh men pee in sinks. So what? I pee in my sink. Just because she cant handle it does not mean she gets to cry sexism.

      In the article she even brings up that the prof made a pee joke and was offended. Sounds like she has very thin skin, so no surprise she could not take it in grad school.

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  7. Another factor about women in science, especially at the Ph.D. level, is that women often have to choose between having a family and having a scientific career. While it's not impossible for a woman to have both (and men will face challenges too), sometimes it is just not practical. Both men and women can delay having children until graduate school is complete, but women's fertility decreases and the risks increase as we age. Older men can have some problems, but the effects aren't nearly as dramatic. Having children while in graduate school is hugely different for men and women. Not many graduate programs and advisers would support a woman cutting back hours or taking extended leave to have a child. And some areas of work should not be done by a pregnant woman due to specific risks.

    This doesn't explain the totality of the STEM/women situation, but it certainly contributes. When you combine this with an increasingly bleak employment outlook and the occasional sexism encountered, it's not surprising that a lot of smart women get out.

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  8. New study in PLOS One about current STEM students.

    Attracting STEM Talent: Do STEM Students Prefer Traditional or Work/Life-Interaction Labs?

    http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0089801

    Unfortunately mashes all of STEM into one basket, and in many ways examines all the wrong issues, but good to see some real data being collected!

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    1. "The U.S. faces a shortage of high-level STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) talent. There are not enough qualified college graduates to fill government STEM jobs [1], and an increasing number of students are bypassing academic jobs in STEM disciplines [2]. In addition, the rate of STEM degrees granted to domestic students is declining [3]. Overall, the demand for employees in STEM is increasing, yet the number of students pursuing STEM careers is not keeping pace."

      Um.

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    2. Please. Most government jobs could be filled by a diapered chimp without any noticeable drop in quality.

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    3. Huh. From the dried-out pipelines in the private sector, the same could be said where you sit, Zippy.

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  9. "This research was supported by a grant to the second author from the National Institutes of Health, 1 R01 NS069792-01."

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  10. Reading Hocutt's piece was like reading something out of the 1980s, back when I was in grad school. Of course, back then professors could openly say that they did not want any women in their groups (I know, I had one tell me that). Probably nowadays, they would hide this sentiment.

    I do recall someone telling me that the most important element of a grad school experience is that you and your advisor get along. If it was known to Ms. Hocutt that her advisor had never had a woman finish a Ph.D. in his group, then that is a red flag. It may not be fair, and may have curtailed her choices of research groups, but it's the reality. Graduate school is hard enough, without the added stress of an advisor who is prejudicial.

    My impression is that Hocutt is somewhat idealistic, and I do think that is a good thing. It just doesn't jive well with today's current chemistry landscape. It is probably best that she has made the decision to leave and go on to something else, rather than remain disenchanted. It's unfortunate, because she seems to have wanted to truly become a chemist, though perhaps her dreams clashed with the reality.

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    1. To which rules should women adhere?

      If women listen to men pushing "Lean In" mantra on them, they should seize any challenge. But according to your logic, if women friendly opportunities are not available in a certain field a woman should sit on the sidelines?

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    2. I’m anonymous 8:36 from above, and in case it’s not clear, I am female and got my Ph.D. in 1990.

      What rules should a woman follow? The same one that I stated above – choose an advisor that you will get along with, or whom it at least seems that you would get along with. I believe men should follow this advice as well.

      If that professor that she chose at U. of Washington was the only one there in that particular area of organic chemistry, and she knew beforehand that he’d never graduated a female Ph.D., then she had several options. She could join his group, but with the awareness that it was likely to be a bumpier road than average for someone in his group (though I bet he’s the sort who has myriad ways of mistreating his students, not just the female ones). Going into this realistically, and not idealistically, would be absolutely essential. She could have chosen another professor at the school, though perhaps there weren’t any there who worked in an area that she was interested in. Or if she was certain that this particular area of chemistry was the only one she wanted, then she could have transferred to a different school that had a strong program in that area. [BTW, is there something special about the U. of Washington?]

      Is this fair? No, it isn’t. However, if the U. of Washington is not concerned about why one of their professors has never had a woman graduate from his group, then his behavior is unlikely to change. Being a woman in his group is unlikely to change his behavior, either.

      I would say that the professor I worked for wasn’t necessarily woman-friendly, just woman-neutral. I didn’t run into any problems with him, one way or another, no more than other graduate students. I did once have a coworker who did her Ph.D. for a professor at Penn State in the 1980s, who openly said that he did not believe women should get doctorates. She did persevere and get her degree, but it sounded like it was an uphill battle all the way. And in the end, I don’t think she learned very much in grad school because of the tension with her professor; she got out of research and into management at our company as quickly as possible.

      Now, I don’t want to sound like a Pollyanna, who has had lollipops and sunshine her entire career as a chemist. Though grad school was decent, my early years in industry were pretty tough due to gender issues, though I decided to stay at my company and work things through, and things did get better. Nowadays, it’s not gender that’s my problem, it’s age-related issues, but that’s another kettle of fish.

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    3. I'm anon 4:00pm...

      I am female and entered a PI's group based on interest the science going on in his group. I left with a MS. Bad PI aside, I have been working successfully in my speciality in industry since. In my area of chemistry there are very few groups in the country which successfully graduate women with PhDs. I do not feel comfortable conceding an entire speciality of chemistry because in most schools PIs in that field aren't 'women-neutral.'

      Would you feel comfortable with someone telling you to choose somewhere else to work if you do not like that your age is a factor where you are currently working? To be realistic?

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    4. Anon8:36, would you be interested in writing more on your thoughts on these issues? E-mail me at chemjobber -at- gmail/dot/com

      Confidentiality guaranteed.

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    5. It didn't fit in the article, but I did research that group coming in. My former adviser's lab seemed the best option for me when I considered factors like funding, research interests, and preferred work style. I'd been burned before, so I did ask around the student network. This series at A Natural Scientist was very helpful: http://naturalscientist.blogspot.com/search/label/Choosing%20a%20Lab. I didn't think to explicitly ask "Has this PI ever graduated a woman?" because it was the 2010's, not the 1980's!

      After I'd worked in the lab for 9 months, one of the senior students (who I had talked with at length before I decided to join the lab) told me that he wasn't aware of any female students who'd graduated from our lab with their PhD. Things were going well at that time and I had my adviser's respect (and I didn't want to switch labs again) and so I figured I could probably beat the odds. Apparently, I figured wrong.

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    6. Hard core synthetic organic chemistry of small molecules. In retrospect, it would have been better to chose more multidisciplinary research the way industry has changed. There were two professors to choose from when I started at my graduate school. Both had sizable groups (20+). When I was chosing groups, one PI had one female graduate student, the other PI had zero.

      I am sorry you are dealing with age discrimination, and possible layoff. Another of the harsh realties of working in chemistry. Wouldn't it be nice if we could tell our younger selves about the challenges we will face in life? The next best option is commenting on this blog to help others get through the same issues.

      You are doing the right thing weighing your options and planning ahead. I have experienced a layoff. Although employed by a relatively stable company now, I have learned from my own and others' past experiences and have made multiple back up plans. (I am approaching that age from which escaping MS unemployment is bleak.) If your employer offers tuition reimbursement you might consider additional training. Several folks I know were anticipating layoffs and finished degrees (computer science) or certifications (project management, analytical) prior to their layoff. Others used retraining allowances to get certificates. These helped them land particularily quickly. Others used severance packages as start up funds.

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    7. I would say that the problem was not really my relationship with my adviser. I did my work and did it well; he appreciated that and valued my ideas and my expertise. He didn't shoot me down when I spoke up in lab meetings. He gave me space, and I got things done.

      The problems that eventually let me to leave were more systematic. It's bad that my former adviser has not, to my knowledge, graduated a female PhD student. It's much worse that the department either has not noticed this or has not (apparently; I obviously don't know this for fact) asked what factors might influence this and tried to change them. And yes, he has had other female PhD students in the past.

      If you haven't experienced it, don't discount the impact of people in authority mistreating other people like you as you look on. Look up "chilly climate", if you haven't heard of it already. Like any grad student, I chatted with other women in the department, inside and outside of my lab group. As I said in the article--I knew that if I'd made different choices or was a slightly different person, their stories could have been mine. That's not something that can be fixed by choosing the right adviser.

      Ashe Dryden is an advocate for diversity in tech, and much of her article "The Risk In Speaking Up" applies here, too: http://www.ashedryden.com/the-risk-in-speaking-up. At the time I spoke up for my peers as much as I felt like I could, but I could only go so far.

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    8. anon@8:36

      Idealistic, absolutely, guilty as charged! But I worked in pharma for a few years after I got my BS and loved the work and the science. I *was* a chemist when I entered grad school and when I left. I still love the rhythm of researching, trying things, saying "huh, that looks weird", optimizing, scaling up. It was a matter of me vs. the reality of organic chemistry culture, not me vs. the reality of research.

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    9. The above comment by Anon at 9:21 PM is being reposted by me, after being contacted by the author:

      "That’s a fair comment. Here are my options to deal with the age-related issues at my company –

      1. Go work at another company: I’m highly likely to face the same problems. And frankly, at my age (50+) it is difficult to get a mid-level job at another employer. It’s really a non-option.
      2. Try and change the opinion of the [redacted] managers in my department who make age-related decisions: I would have to expend a lot of energy to do this, and I’m not certain it would be all that successful. I’ve seen others try and ingratiate themselves with [them], and they’re no better off than me.
      3. Complain to HR – a no brainer. They don’t take these issues seriously. And they or the two managers might retaliate.
      4. Look for other assignments with related departments – this has worked out the best so far for me. I’ve been periodically able to get on projects that need someone with my expertise. It certainly has given me some breathing room.
      5. Anticipate my next moves if I get laid off: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and planning for this, since there’s a likelihood of it happening sooner or later. I’ve been identifying people who work as independent consultants in my field, and studying them quite closely. Fortunately, my current job has provided me with skills that can carry over decently for consulting work, though I have no illusions about how much effort this will take.

      So, those are the options. Wouldn’t it be nice if age-related discrimination didn’t exist? But it does. I prefer to deal with it in a realistic manner and face the facts, as un-pretty as they are.

      BTW, what field of chemistry is it that graduates so few women with doctorates?"

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    10. (I should note the original was deleted from the blog.)

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  11. "When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back into you." the picture is really disturbing.

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  12. Interesting article, CJ! It's always neat to see the process end of things.

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    1. These articles by women who have left science or regret still being in it always remind of Greenspun's essay on why women are not going into science:

      "Women in Science" - http://philip.greenspun.com/careers/women-in-science

      This essay was written back in 2006 and has been generally available. People have a great amount of reading available to really gauge whether science is a going to allow them to have the life they want. I especially like this article about Identical Twins, where one has a PhD (in chemistry) and the other an MD and they compare their lives:

      http://theorganicsolution.wordpress.com/2013/05/30/identical-twins-but-not-identical-income/

      All the information is available to make better decisions about careers, especially when it comes to science, so there are less excuses now for dropping out of the pipeline.

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  13. I just want to mention that I stumbled upon your blog, and am so happy to find some outlet for exploring the professional field of chemistry. I'll definitely be digging through your blog for answers and keeping up with some science now that I'm out of college and pigeonholed as a lab tech for the foreseeable future.

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