Thursday, March 21, 2013

So Proud

In spite all my best intentions, since becoming a parent who can't live in one place for more than a few years at a time, my activism has gone to the wayside. The Barefoot Doctoral has not done much to help those without access to education gain access since this blog has existed. My field is abstract enough, that having any sort of real world impact via my work is very unlikely. I live thoroughly within the walls of the ivory tower.

Not so for my partner. His work can potentially have policy implications. He is now in the initial stages of a project that addresses issues of inequality that both he and I care about. We came to Europe, saw things being done differently here than in the US, and wondered why. He realized that he and his colleagues have the knowledge and access to actually study the issue.

I have no delusion that one paper, or set of papers, or even a multi-year grant/research program will have strong policy implications. But it will have more impact than him adding his voice to a crowd marching down a street.

We have both always wondered whether we were making the right decision by entering academia rather than do something "useful" in the world. Watching my partner decide to apply his skills to
issues we would otherwise be simply signing petitions on makes me very proud.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A family friendly career

Walking into work today, my partner mentioned one of this colleagues is trying to figure out how to make it clearer to students earlier in their careers that academia is not as family friendly as it seemed.
"WHAT?! Who thinks academia is family friendly? No one I know thinks that."
"Well, the question is, how many people you knew at 21 thought that."
So I paused and thought about it. My incoming college class had  a 55/45 M/F ratio, the most equal class to date. My university had a reputation for gender discrimination. It also had a reputation for working to get past that. So the students who entered with me were all aware of this issue, if even as a point of trivia about our incoming class to be forgotten about later. I think for many women, this colored our view of our future.

I did not see a female professor until my junior year. In total, I had 6 female professors and 3 female TAs. Two of the 6 were not in full time employment by my university. This made me, and all my female friends, talk and think about our chances in academia. Consciously or not, we asked ourselves variants of the question, if our professors are having a hard time making it, what makes us think we can? So we asked around, and found out that, yeah.. it's hard. And that from the people who didn't have families. When talking to people about grad school, we heard the rumor that once we enter grad school, extra curricular activities were frowned on. Not only was this devastating to someone who had heard all her pre-college life that the way to get into college was by having lots of extra curricular activities, and whose social life was built completely around the things she did outside of class, this perception clearly had family implications for me. "If PIs frown on someone spending 20 hours a week swimming competitively, how will they feel about families?" Graduate student friends talked about having to move away from their boyfriends for post docs. Post docs talked about PI's passing them up for conferences out of a desire to "be nice to them" since they had just become mothers.

I can't think of a single point in my post freshman life when I thought that academia was family friendly. I can't think of a single female friends who wanted to be an academic who relished the idea of having a family while doing so. When I think back on it, I recall conversations with women on the fence leaning towards industry because they wanted a family.

Not so for the women at University E. They see few female professors, but they also see professors of both genders not come in every day. They see that our "schedules" are similar to school schedules so that it is easier to take time off with kids. They see that we "get to travel to fun cities for conferences." They don't see the rest of it? How is that?

I know at my last institute, I did my best to discourage young women from thinking that academia and motherhood was compatible, in spite of myself, mostly by looking like a miserable under slept zombie for the first few years of Epsilon's life. More explicitly:
"Hi professor, I saw you bike into work today with your trailer. I was hoping to see you pull your kid out of it."
"No, I've dropped him off at daycare. By the time I get here, there's only a laptop in there." If I'd pulled my kid out of the trailer, how did you think I'd be teaching your 10 am class?""How is having a kid and being in academia?"
Well, that's direct. How do I be honest, and not discourage a very smart woman from going into academia? "One of the reason's I chose academia was that I've tried, and hated working 9-5. I've always enjoyed being able to go camping on Tuesday and Wednesday, when the parks are empty, and know that I can make up by working over the weekend. You lose a lot of that flexibility after becoming a parent. You work when you have daycare, or when the kid's sleeping."
"Yeah, I like that about this lifestyle as well. I wouldn't want to give that up."
"I work 8:30-4:30 now, so it's not 9-5. That makes it better. Let's start today's class."
My partner thinks that much of the difference in perception comes from the lack of discussion/awareness about any sort of discrimination in the general public discourse. If people aren't trained to think about this as a possibility by growing up with it being discussed, they are less likely to be able to look ahead and see potential pitfalls. I don't know if that it the primary cause, though I don't have a candidate hypothesis.

I do know that conversations like that over at IBAM's place today makes me very sad. As it does when mentors like GMP get overwhelmed, or Isis thinks about quitting.

Monday, March 18, 2013


Last week we made a sad decisions.

We are not moving to Large City this summer. Our original hope was that we would move to Large City, and both my partner and I would have a long commute to work, and that we would alternate days of going into work, while finding a daycare near the new house so that Epsilon did not have to undertake a long commute every day. For scheduling reasons, this does not seem possible. So we'll continue our two household existence. Which is too bad.

But there's a silver lining. Thanks to Epsilon's obsession with Rapunzel, we now need a new cast iron pot.

Thank you Tangled.

Actually, there's a few other things we could buy as well, but it didn't seem worth buying if we are just going to have to wrap and haul the heavy metal objects across town in 6 months. So now I get to drool over kitchen accessories.

I'm a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to cast iron pans, so though Le Creuset has lots of colors and shapes, this is still my favorite, though a bit small. 

The pan that has served as our wok for the last 9 years is finally begging for retirement. It was a wonderful find from a second hand store during our first years in grad school. My mother has a large round bottomed brass pot that I still would love to inherit some day, but a cast iron wok would serve the same purpose. It would also have the additional advantage of being non-stick without the annoyance of the Teflon flaking off.
William and Sonoma have a nice set of traditional, seasoned, non-enameled pots, but the skillets are small. 

Lodge Logic, on the other hand, has a 17 inch skillet which is well worth my drool.

Decisions, decisions.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013


  • Its a bad situation, when I meet Dr. Superstar after nearly 4 years, the first thing he asks about is Epsilon, and then proceeds to tell me how he also now has a child. It doesn't help that the connection I want to draw between my work and his starts a philosophy discussion, since he is less aware of my particular sub-field than I'd thought.
  • Pubs with obscure literary names make me very happy. Especially when I catch the reference.
  • We all send off class signals, in the way we dress, the way we talk, and even how we carry ourselves. I don't know if we do this less in the US than in other countries, or if we are more likely to believe that the US is a classless society, and therefore we don't have a socio-economic class, but we all do it. I can't help the class signals I give off, but I do try to not be pretentious about it. So when I find myself surrounded by The Accent, I have to remind myself that I should not go running with my tail between my legs from my social betters; I do belong here, that in the US, I belong to the equivalent class. 
  • The conversation on the train between the drunk guys next to me and the trans man in front of me sounds like I may need to intervene, until one of the drunks tells the trans man how one of his friends now wants to be a woman. Sometimes things go well.

Monday, March 4, 2013


Navigating conversations about family and work is complicated.

When on the job market, I am uncomfortable bringing up my family life to a hiring committee. The semi-legal advice in the US is that "they can't ask, so don't tell them."

When interacting with graduate students and research oriented undergrads, I am more than a subject matter expert. I need to be a model of a woman with a child in my field. If it comes up, I talk about it.

At conferences, I know the common wisdom is to not bring up family, but when the guys are talking about their kids, or when my partner is in town with Epsilon, common wisdom finds its way to the dustbin.

In general, I feel that if I am not willing to talk about my family, then it is unfair of me to complain that this is an uncomfortable issue for women to talk about. ... So I out myself. ... Within limits.

What I try not to do outside of friends circles and pseudoanonymous settings is talk about how hard it is. I expect to be rated on the same scale as colleagues without kids or two body problems. This means that I often expect not to be successful. I fear that sympathy may fall too close to pity. I don't want the baggage that comes with being seen as an affirmative action hire.

Which is hilarious. I believe strongly in the need for hiring under-represented groups. It is good for the students we teach and mentor, and it is good for science. Leave aside any arguments about fairness  and diversity for the moment. As a first level approximation, if we broaden the pool of people who we encourage to do good science, then we have more people trying to do good science, and we get more good science.

But of course, the world is what it is. I don't get cut a break for a difficult pregnancy and a new born. My partner doesn't get cut a break for multiple stints of single parenting because everyone assumes that Epsilon lives with me. We can be bitter, or move on.

So why is it, now that I am faced with a system that legally requires me to be judged differently for my family,  that I still feel uncomfortable participating?

Part of my discomfort comes from the fact that I know men on hiring committees (I've only had this discussion with men) who feel uncomfortable when a female candidate brings up her family in her cover letter, even in a country where I've been encouraged to mention my family when applying to jobs. Part of my discomfort comes from years of habit and advice, some of it from seeing how devastating other people's uninformed best intentions have been for me.

Whatever the reason, I now find myself feeling trapped between the possibility of being judged by standards that are stricter than legally required, or revealing personal information that makes me feel exposed. It is a perverse world where an attempt at legislating fairness elicits a feeling of being trapped.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Hiring by the Numbers

Or, how regional difference make a big difference in the job hunt.

If there are job search lessons to be taken out of this post, they are:
Or, I suppose, you could be so good that it doesn't really matter how you present yourself. Your brilliance just shines through.

Over the last few months, I've been getting some much needed feedback on my applications, and I am being surprised by what I'm finding. Consider the following:

"Your CV makes you look like someone from the rope design and development department. When competing against other bridge makers for this position, it is really hard to advocate for a CV that looks like yours versus other CVs that come across our desk."
"But I make rope bridges. In the US, that lives in the Bridgemaking department." 
"I know, but the lines are different here. It does cause a good deal of confusion as well for applicants from here who are applying to departments in the US."

Okay. Good advice. I know how to make use of it, after a rejection from that position.

Then I have a conversation from a friend in a different setting who points out to me that my teaching and advising experience is not on my CV. Of course it isn't. That goes on the Teaching statement that is a standard supplement .... in .... the .... U... S.... 

I can't blame anyone but myself for this one. I know that for all the jobs I've been applying to, I've only been submitting my CV and a research plan. I know that my letters don't get read until late in the game. I know that my teaching experience makes me stand out from other applicants applying to a similar position. Why didn't I update my CV? 

Don't answer that.

Water under the bridge. A few more rejection letters have come and gone.

Then there's this:
 "You look like a decent candidate, but because of the rules of the upcoming review, the committee will be really looking for people who have X knots."
 Well, damn. This one is complicated. By the rules of the upcoming review, the university will consider the best Y knots I have, for Y<X. These Y knots are clearly marked on my CV. What is also marked (though maybe not so clearly) is one of the reasons I think I only need Y knots. But the main reason I only need Y knots is not mentioned at all on the CV. It is Epsilon.

So how do I communicate to the committee that I only need Y knots without talking about family? I had hoped that the picture of Epsilon on my webpage might be enough. But if the issue is that sometimes the faculty members on the hiring committee aren't abreast of all the details of the review, how do I make them aware? How many other places have seen my application, and not put two and two together to get Y?

I've settled on pointing out the Y knots again in my cover letter, and explaining why I expect that I will be evaluated on Y and not X. I hope that doesn't come across as bizarre. But this really emphasizes the need to know the system well, and how to make oneself look appealing to the constraints obvious and subtle.

Dear readers, if you happen to know what system I am talking about, and want to chime in with advice, I will eagerly accept it. Please do so privately, via I will anonymise and post any useful feedback I get via e-mail in the comments section.