Wednesday, November 21, 2012


My partner and I flew in last night to his home town for Thanksgiving. We spent a chunk of the morning going to his favorite cheese store, bakery, and grocery store for our contributions for Thanksgiving dinner. I found myself longing to live again in a place with good food, where I can walk down the street and not be the only non-white face in sight for blocks. I found myself thinking about the job application due at the end of the month that would, if successful, land me in Large City, and give him a doable commute to His Town.

"I wonder why I didn't just take a job in the private sector years ago. I could live where I want," he says on the walk home.

"It's not too late," I reply, surprising myself. I confess to thinking similar thoughts and doubts about our 2-body problem during our shopping trip. "I think being back here has made me homesick. The US, in all its diversity, is my country, my politics, my issues. Its what I know."

We talk about places we've lived and loved, and where we'd like to get back to. As I'm starting to feel the futility and exhaustion of it all, he becomes more positive. "I think it's just that I really hate His Town. Its good for having a small kid, but eventually we will out grow it."

"Maybe I'll get a job in Large City."

"I could see us loving Large City." We talk about what we want to give our son, if we lived in a perfect world, fantasize about having jobs in the same University, where our commutes could become time we spent together as a couple, worry about having jobs we hate.

In the past, when I've thought about leaving academia have been periods when I've been frustrated with my job, or felt stuck or isolated academically, or been exhausted from single parenting. I've been so very happy with my new academic home. I've been busy with new projects. I've been telling everyone that only thing I hate about my new situation is the commute. Where did this sudden surge of misery come from?

Monday, November 19, 2012

No Responsibility

A stream of comments from a recent post has had spillover into Real Life. Whatever. Fallout like that happens. However, this made me think about the offending language in that post. Here's the scandal: One commenter said that a male colleague of her's, who she presumed not to be a parent, to have no responsibilities. This offended a male reader who vehemently believes that single male scientists work very hard.

I'm going to specifically ignore the gender aspect of this controversy. I want to address the parent dimension of this. I want to do this, because 5 years ago, before I had a child, I believed that I worked REALLY hard, and that I had no time for extra responsibility. If someone implied that I had it easy while in grad school, I would have been somewhere on the spectrum between confused and pissed, depending on how bad a day I was already having. So I sympathize, to a point.

There are a few experiences in my life that I had to have to understand. No amount of reading about, listening to testimonials, or watching movies could have (or did) prepare me for the shock of the event. These are, in chronological order, living for a few years on a food stamp budget, being the victim of a violent attack, becoming a parent. None of these three are comparable to each other, all of them have been life changing. Each of them have offered me a glimpse, or more, into the lives of a large swath of humanity I did not have any chance of understanding before the critical event.

I hang out a lot on blogs on academic lifestyle blogs. Many of the people I read are parents. The majority are female. There is tension in this tiny community surrounding the issue of having children, and how it fits into academic life. Saying that a non-parent has no responsibility is deep in the land of hyperbole. Saying that becoming a parent is a choice we undertook that we should accept responsibility for and stop whining about is deep in the land of oversimplification.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Bathroom humor

Kurt in the car
Gottlob at the zoo
Bertie at the pig-sty
Cantor on the loo
They are all doing maths
Mathsy mathsy poo.

Brought to you by a women's bathroom stall near me.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

An analogy

Walk with me, if you will, to an alternate reality.

You are still an undergraduate. You've decided that you want to go to graduate school. But there's a problem. In this world, none of your professors or academic advisers want to talk to you about graduate school, even though many (not all) of them have attended graduate school. They are happy to talk to you about jobs in industry, however. It is really hard to get advice about how to apply, or find out what it's like. And what information is out there either says that it the best thing ever, that anyone serious about their subject who doesn't go to grad school is somehow incomplete as a person, or tells you that it is hard, gruelling, bone crushing work that will eat your soul, your social life and your sanity. You suspect that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but very few people will talk to you without resorting to these hyperbole.

Its rare for people, in any field, to go straight through. Most people wait a while. They go into industry first, make a few bucks, then decided to go into graduate school for a midlife promotion, or because they want to enter academia. For various reasons, you don't want to wait. Or at least, you want to think about the possibility of not waiting. Your peers all want to go into industry first. Some of them may see graduate school in their future, but certainly not now, and probably not to go into academia.

At the same time, outside of academia, graduate school is seen as a plus. Your family wants you to go to graduate school. Your family is encouraging you in this direction. Many of your family members (and those of your peers) have gone to grad school. Those that haven't seem to regret it. But none of them are academics, which is really what you want to do. They have advice about applying to and surviving graduate school. But they have no idea of how to go to graduate school and become a professor. The process of postdocs, tenure track and tenure is completely foreign to them.

Come to think of it, none of your female relatives survived graduate school. In fact, very few of your female professors went to grad school either. As you start looking into it, it seems that many women who go to graduate school drop out of their field entirely. If you are female, this is disheartening, especially since you love your field. Although, this may explain why, if you are female, people seemed to grow uncomfortable talking to you about graduate school.

You can get some advice on the internet, but who knows who these psuedo anonymous people who write academic blogs are? The other place you find any help is the National Honors Society conference. It has a panel on career prospects after college which spends some time on some issues surrounding graduate school, even on going on to become a professor. It's not the most useful panel at the conference. Much of the discussion is in vague generalities and the same useless advice you've heard before, but there are some thought provoking comments. You leave with a few friends to grab lunch. There is general displeasure with how the panel was conducted, but not for the reasons you think.

"I hate these discussions about going on to academia. There's so much more to one's career than that!"
"I liked the discussion about dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace. Though I wish they'd done more than tell us what legal rights we have"
"Seriously. That's an issue that effects so many women, why don't people talk about that more, instead of discussing grad school?! I mean, is the issue of grad school just so big that it eclipses the other ones we could be having?


To all those who complain about the women in science events that focus on babies, I posit that for some, the search for trying to find a context in which one can talk about children and career is much like the scenario described above. Few role models, and the women with children don't want to talk about it because they want to be perceived as scientists, not mothers. Men of a certain generation have kids, but also have wives who have borne 51-100% of the cost of having them. I am not saying that it isn't important to talk about the other things that face women (sexist comments, sexual harassment, letters of rec that describe women's personality before their academic achievements  glass ceilings, two body problems without children, to name a few). I'm saying that, in my experience, it has been much easier to talk about many of these problems (sexual harassment being the obvious exception) with other colleagues than to talk about pregnancy or having kids, or pathways to stay in academia after having kids. If someone has a different experience, do share. I am generalizing from a sample of one.

Forums for women need to have a space for discussing children, even if it is not applicable to everyone, because it is a discussion that is nearly impossible to have outside of these forums.

Monday, November 12, 2012

US Foreign policy in a nutshell

This occurred at the airport while coming home last week. I arrived to the airport early, so I treated myself to a cup of ice cream. Walking by a fast food counter with no counters, I hear:

Vendor: [Foreign words] helado [Foreign words]?
Me: I'm sorry, I don't speak the language.
Vendors colleague: Is the icecream good?
Me: Yes it is. Thanks.
Vendor (translated by his colleague): Where are you from?
Me: Originally? The US.
Vendor: US! OBAMA! (big smile as he pats his heart.)
Me: Yes, Obama.
Vendor (Realizing a possible faux pas): Is Obama good?
Me: Yes, I am very relieved.
Vendor's colleague: Iran just took down one of your planes.
Me: Oh?!
Vendor's colleague: It was on the TV five minutes ago. It wasn't manned. It was a ....
Me: A drone?

Well, that just about sums up the highs and lows of US foreign policy, doesn't it?

Friday, November 9, 2012

Be the change you want

This has nothing to do with the US election.

Last year, when on the job market, and looking up random people's websites at schools interesting looking department, I noticed that when a department had lots of pictures of young fathers with pictures of their children on their website, it made me feel like that might be a department I would be comfortable in, were I to work there. Then I noticed that there were no women, in any departments who had pictures of their children on their front page, and I wondered whether I should put up a picture of myself with Epsilon on my webpage.

I'm still on the job market. I'm at a new place, so my webpage needed to be brought over. I've decided to come out as a parent.

Yes, I know, in some ways, this is a stupid move. But moving here has made me mad. These last few months, I find myself living in possibly the most sexists environment that I have encountered in the developed world*. For the first time in my career, I feel like I have no role models near me, and I hear much more about the paucity of role models from the grad students down the hall than I ever did in the US. So, yeah. I'm mad. And anger leads me to do stupid things. Maybe this will effect me poorly. Maybe it won't. I'll probably never know. But I feel like someone has to step up to the plate.

*Visits to my family, who, as all diaspora do, still think they are living in the old county of 45 years ago, is not being counted for this analysis. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Women's dinner

"So what did that have to do with discrimination against women?" someone asked after half the table excused themselves from dinner to get work done. The remaining women looked at each other awkwardly, until someone said "Not much."

I hemmed and hawed my reasons for not bringing up any of the issues I so easily talk about in private. But the truth is, if the permanent faculty member at the dinner wasn't introducing the fact that this was a dinner for women in the department, and a safe forum to discuss any issues one may have, I didn't feel comfortable doing it at all. This is a startling and disturbing realization.

Once we realized that there were, in fact, several women at the dinner who wanted to talk to other women about sexism they face in life and work, the conversation quickly turned to swapping stories, and giving advice.

"How you deal with non-academic discrimination, such as the neighbor who says that women's brains are scientifically proven to be less capable of mathematical thinking?"

"How do you tell your adviser that you are pregnant?" Unfortunately, I could not remember this series of three posts off  the top of my head.

"I've decided to publicly start warning women against men I've had bad experiences with." I venture.
"We should make lists like this public," someone says. After a while, someone else points out that it is very hard to talk about this. "I don't want to spread rumors, and it is hard to tell if it is just me, or if the person really is a problem." If I had a dollar for every time I've heard that last sentiment.

"How do you get out from under the influence of a scientist who is biased against you?"

"How do you deal with the nepotism of academia?" Move to a country that is less nepotistic, unfortunately. 

Walking home, I ask "why women in Europe seem to leave the workforce more than their American counterparts?" Someone asks "If having children is so hard, why did you do it?" Damned if I could tell you now.

This is why we have women's only events. Once a safe space is established, there is too often so much to say. Can I name a few men who would contribute to and benefit from these dinners as much as the women? Sure. Do I want to be a gate keeper? No. Do I want to ruin the feeling of a safe space by having to pause and explain to someone who hasn't faced a certain behavior, why that behavior is harmful? No.

For now, I've made piece with this exclusionary policy. Yes, we are diminished when we exclude half of humanity from any event. But we are not excluding them from the discussion. We talk to them every single day. If they are not as keenly aware of how few female colleagues they have, then that is not my problem. This dinner was a chance to put my guard down. It is sad that in the 21rst century, I still need such a place.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

You know you live in a surveillance society when...

Epsilon started sing the other day

The cameras on the bus go
Camera, camera, camera (with flashing hands)
Camera, camera, camera
Camera, camera, camera .....

Big brother? Of course he's watching. Why wouldn't he be? 
What a different world.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Say it like a man

A little over a month ago, I sat down to dinner the night before a conference at the other end of the table  from a colleague. I have a lot of respect for this man as a scientist, he's done a lot for my personal career. I don't think I'd ever suggest to a female student of mine that she work with him, at least not unforewarned.

Colleague: Hey Barefoot, how are you liking University F?
Me: Um, I just got there, but its been good so far.
C: Have you checked out [foreign word] yet?
Me: What's that?
C: Its an interesting place.
At this point, since the conversation is being shouted across the table, everyone else who doesn't live in My City is curious what is being talked about.
Me: Could you tell me more?
C: It's like Disney Land.
Different colleague: You mean it has rides?
C: Well, yes, for adults. To me. You wouldn't like it.
The danger wave function that is present in so many non-scientific conversations with C collapses, and  I think "How do you know I wouldn't like it?" But any (more) discussion of sex and sexuality was not appropriate.
Me: Is this the red light district?
The woman across the table from me,  also from University F, nods, embarrassed.
Me: Why couldn't you just say that?

Weeks pass. It is late at night, and my computer is doubling as a radio. I follow a series of links to a show about prostitution. All of a sudden, I realize what I should have ended that conversation with.

Me: So C, you can't say "red light district" like a man? You call it Disney Land like a pubescent boy?

Friday, November 2, 2012

News of deaths come in groups

How do I grieve for you
When I knew you just as Uncle,
and not by your given name.
When the sum total of our interactions
amount to small talk,
often with Daniel,
on days I came to visit other members of your family,
conversations in your perfect English
between two men left out
of the women's talk,
and an awkward kiss, long forgiven,
the day your brother came out of surgery.
There is not enough fabric there
to stitch a mourner's shroud.

Your family has given me so much
love and nourishment.
Your part in that must be acknowledged.
You, the strong, quiet, sometimes overbearing patriarch,
who knew to keep his distance
from the firy naive feminist
with strange beliefs and weird customs
transplanted from a curious land.
In that space, and I imagine wisdom,
something improbable grew.
Now its roots are struggling
to find something to cling to.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Grad school application advice

I got the following question in an email from an undergrad who is interested in research problems similar to what I am interested in.
if you had to be a graduate student in the US again where would you most want to go?
Part of her question is asking where the best research on my particular small set of research interest happen is going on. However, given that very few people in my field write a thesis on what they they say they want to write a thesis on in their application, there are other considerations to take into account. Here's some advice I wish I'd been give about selecting grad schools that my undergrad adviser neglected to mention.

If you have a topic in mind, then that's wonderful. However, be willing to be flexible. Imagine this scenario: You are admitted to a graduate school with a professor/lab you want to work with/in. This professor works alone, he/she is not part of a larger group at the university. There are other people who do similar things, but not what you have your heart set on, or even, there are people who don't do very similar things at all. In September, you go to your new school, and find that for various reasons you can't work with this person: there are lots of people applying to work with this person but he/she has a limited ability to take people on or  you find out reasons that this person is not an ideal adviser. Know this risk ahead of time. You probably didn't just apply to one graduate program. Once in the door, don't just plan to work with one adviser. You can always change research areas after grad school if you hate what you are doing. With this in mind, apply to schools where there are groups of people working in your topic of interest, if at all possible.

Then there are non-academic considerations to take into account. If you are female, how important is it to you to be in a department with lots of women grad students? Post docs? Faculty? For me, I didn't apply to schools with 0 female faculty. Nor did I apply to schools with bad reputations about how they treat women. I had done my undergrad at a school where I saw 2 females stand up in front of a lecture or lead a lab, one of them a post doc. Women were under represented in classes and lab, with all the problematic gendered interactions that ensue in that situation. There was no way I was going to put myself through that again. What surprised me in grad school, however, that it wasn't the female faculty who were my best support. It was one of the male faculty members who fought to make sure they were hired.

There are other locational considerations. Your social life in grad school is not handed to you in the same way that it is in college. You have a lab, or a cohort, but that probably is much smaller than the group of people in your college dorm or the number people in your major with whom you did labs, or met with for study groups. Few universities have clubs for extra curricular activities for grad students, even in those that do, it is often slim pickings. If you want to have a life outside your lab, (and you do, no matter what you say on you application) you should keep in mind what types of things you want to be able to do. Don't ignore these factors. Gradschool is a long time, 4-7 or more years, depending on your field. It is worth not applying to the university with the best professor in your field, if you know that university would make you miserable, especially if there are top professors in places that would make you happier.

Do you have any advice on choosing grad schools that you wish you were told?