Sciencewomen

When I started my PhD, professors and fellow students would ask me what I was planning to do with my degree. I had a ready answer: “I’ll either focus on teaching or on research, but I don’t want a job where I have to be good at both.” I felt confident in my answer, I’d done my research. I knew I wanted to be a mom, and having spent enough time in academia, I just seemed impossible to be a good mother, a productive researcher, and a committed teacher. I didn’t want to do the impossible, so I was going to use the time during my PhD to figure out whether I wanted to go into teaching or whether I wanted to go into research.

If you’ve ever read this blog before, you know that despite my confidence at the beginning of the PhD, I am now fully embroiled in a job where I am expected to excel at both research and teaching. The best laid plans, and all that. So what happened in between? Why I am attempting what I thought was impossible?

I grew up in an academic family; ScienceGrandma was a science professor at a teaching-heavy public institution. I was pretty sure that I didn’t want my mom’s sort of job, and besides, I liked research. When I looked for potential PhD programs, I was attracted to my eventual advisor in part because he had a research job with a government agency. This seemed like an attractive alternate model for a career, and one I didn’t know anything about.

As I worked through my PhD and my life evolved, I learned some things that made my mantra of “teaching OR research” seem a bit less tenable, and the impossible started to seem a bit more attractive.

First, there was the problem of the post-doc. If I wanted to go to a really research intensive place, I would probably need one or more post-docs that would require relocating for one to three years each time. If I headed toward a teaching track, I discovered that the post-doc was often replaced by one or more years of sabbatical replacement or instructor positions before I would have enough teaching experience to land a tenure-track gig. Not so bad for a single person, but I was married and planning on having children. How would those moves be managed? I decided that I would try to gain teaching experience by being an instructor for a summer class or two. Fortunately, my department was happy to let me have that opportunity. And it turned out to be just enough to let research-y universities know that I had some teaching experience and wasn’t totally green. (I managed to skirt the post-doc move by staying at the same institution for my post-doc. This worked great for me, but may or may not work for others.)

Second, over the course of five years of working with with my advisor, I learned that while the life of a government researcher does offer some really nice perks, but it comes with its own set of limitations and sometimes impenetrable bureaucracy. I also learned that my advisor’s situation was fairly rare. If you think academic jobs are hard to get, try getting a federal research job in an administration that is notoriously anti-science. The job openings are competitive to the extreme, the application process is byzantine and tortuously slow (even by academic standards), and you have to answer questions in just the right way to even make it past the human resources screeners. I did apply to one federal research job, where I think I would have been a very good fit and where a phone conversation with the supervisor suggested I might have a good shot at the interview. Eight months later, I’d heard nothing and I accepted my current position.

Third, I discoveredreaffirmed that while classroom teaching isn’t an overwhelming passion of mine, I love mentoring students individually, and I really do enjoy doing research. Those discoveries started to push me towards considering faculty positions at places with graduate programs. I went through two cycles of applying for academic jobs. The first time I applied broadly – SLACs, public undergraduate universities, research intensive universities. The sheer process of applying to those places helped me narrow down what sort of place I wanted, and interviewing at two ends of the spectrum confirmed my intuition. The second round of applications, I focused on places that had MS programs in my field, and maybe had young or interdisciplinary PhD programs, but that weren’t aiming to be ivy-league quality (expecting million dollar grants and 4 pubs a year).

And that’s the sort of place I am at now. My job requires both teaching and research and expects me to be good at both. It’s not exactly what I planned, but I really think it’s where I was meant to be. My hope now is that I can work in some small way to transform academia into a place where future generations of young women won’t think that the combination of teaching, research, and motherhood is an impossible combination.

This post is a contribution to the Scientiae carnival, where this month’s prompts are:

  • How have your career goals changed in the past year? 5 years? 10 years?
  • How has your perception of self changed in the past year? 5 years? 10 years?
  • How is where you are now different from what you imagined for yourself as you worked toward this point?
  • How much of a role have things outside of science had on your changing career goals?
  • Carnival submissions are due tonight at midnight.

Comments

  1. #1 Flicka Mawa
    April 28, 2008

    Thanks for the great post!

  2. #2 kate
    April 29, 2008

    thanks for your post. i’m facing looming decisions about my postdoc: where to start searching, what lab atmosphere to seek out, what experiences will make me most competitive for which types of future positions. it’s daunting in and of itself, without weighing in all of the factors in my personal life.

    your post provides nice perspective and left me feeling a bit more inspired that a healthy balance lies out there…somewhere. it’s just up to me to find it. THANKS :)

  3. #3 Silver Fox
    April 29, 2008

    Yes, I think there is something about “best laid plans”… I’m glad your journey has worked out, that you have found a fit that works, and I too think your post is inspiring.

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