Derailed on The Track to "Success"
I entered a large, respected university in the fall of 1993 to
begin my studies in astronomy and physics. I was going to
go straight on to graduate school to get my Ph.D. in
astronomy, take on a couple of post-doc positions, and then
go directly into a tenure track job in academia. My life had
a goal and direction.
I was a bright-eyed freshman blind to the social nature of the
department around me. I immediately began doing computer
programming for a research scientist in the department
Little did I realize that as I was programming code for the
project, I too was being programmed. In a matter of a few
months I knew that there was nothing else for me to do other than follow the path of grad school to get the allimportant
Ph.D. and go right on through the ranks of postdocs.
That is how those before me did it and that is how
everyone after me must do it.
In my junior year, I started taking 400-level physics classes. I knew going in that these classes would be quite challenging, but I thought the challenges would be purely academic. I never
could have imagined the
obstacles that would be directed at me because, as a woman,
I approached the material differently than that men who made
up 95% of the classes. Sure, I had heard that the hard-core
sciences weren't the most "female friendly" of the
disciplines. But nothing could prepare me for what I
Group studying was encouraged. I made it a point from the
very beginning to find the best people in the class and work
with them. But little things started to happen to separate
me from the group. People started to laugh at my problemsolving
suggestions. Eventually, they didn't take me
seriously at all. I would frequently go to the
professor's office hours to ask for help on the homework.
The other students interpreted this as evidence of my alleged
secret love affair with the professor, a rumor that made its
way back to the professor.
Eventually I became bothered by things that didn't bother me
before. For instance, I began to be bothered by the fact that
I was one of two women out of a class of forty. The
second woman, who also was in my study group,
was having the same problems with the male members of
the group that I was. I also became very sensitive to how
my professor would treat me when I would ask questions or
make suggestions in class. They would never take my
suggestions as seriously as those from the men in the class.
My problems weren't limited to my fellow students. In fact, I had an astronomy professor try to explain why I didn't do as well on an exam as some of the other (male) students by saying, "I understand that women try to compete with men mathematically, but sometimes it just isn't possible." To this day I have
to check how I type that because I am trying to convince
myself that he meant something else. I was later told by
another professor that the professor who made this statement
was not sexist and that I simply misunderstood him. At
that point, I really began to wonder if every woman in
science had to face such issues or if it was just me.
In fact, my experience with the statements this professor
made illustrated to me just how much of a communications
problem there was between myself and my (male)
professors. Men and women are different. Period. We
think differently, feel differently, and communicate
differently. But there is also a
communication differences and
someone just not
thinking before they say
something. Even if I had
misunderstood his meaning, he should never have said that
to begin with.
Many of the female readers will most likely recognize these
events as being similar to events in their own lives. My
problems were nothing out of the "ordinary." The part that
really began to bother me was that there was nothing I could
do about it. Plain and simple I needed to study with the best
people in the class. When the other female student in my
class and I approached the professor about our problems with
the other students, he stated to us that he had been observing
the group dynamics all semester but there simply
wasn't anything he could do about it. While I have come to
accept that fact that there was little he could do, he also was
unable to offer us any other suggestion than to just live
I talked with several other professors and academic advisors
about my dilemma. They all told me that I should just put
up with it because it wasn't going to go away. Some of the
female faculty members told me that if they put up with it
during the years when it was really bad, so should I.
Everyone seemed to think that my discomfort with the
tenure track and my resistance to the sexism were signs that
I just didn't take astronomy seriously enough.
So I started to question what the signs are that indicate to
the astronomy community how serious a student is. I
noticed that "serious students" assume that it is a natural
course of life to go directly on from undergraduate to
grad school to postdoc to
tenure track positions. "Serious students"
never consider doing
something as "foolish" as
taking time off to get
married, have children, or
anything else. "Serious students" understand that true "success" can only be achieved when one is working 50-70
hours/week on their research regardless of the impact it
might have on their physical or emotional well-being.
There are always those who learn how to balance a "serious" career and handle an existence such as a family outside of
the field. However, in the "publish or perish" world, it is
difficult to have both. Where does one find the time to both
work on research and care for a sick child? How can one
manage to survive the "publish or perish"
environment and do something else
equally meaningful outside
This way of thinking isn't something that people are born
with. Students are taught this by observing their professors.
However, this is to be expected. Professors thrive on taking
students under their wings to teach them their area of
expertise. It is then expected that the student will follow
in exactly in their footsteps. This involves following their
course of education which, more often than not, is the track
leading straight on to grad school and a Ph.D. and then to a
postdoc to a tenure-track job. When a student is expected to
become a direct image of their mentor, where in that model
is there room to explore other things? If a student's ability
to follow this track is a testament to their seriousness and
capability for success, how can someone choosing a different
path be considered at all successful?
Instead, shouldn't success be measured not only on the basis
of one's work, but also on the achievement of one's goals
for personal growth? I have come to establish some goals
for personal growth. I know that I would like a family life
and that I need some brief time away from astronomy. If
having such goals indicates that one is not a serious student,
there is no hope for me.
Astronomy Outside of Academia?
In January of 1996 I went to the AAS meeting in San
Antonio, TX. I hadn't resolved anything with my life and
so went in with an open mind hoping that there would be
someone who could convince me that I wanted to put up
with the sexism so I could do astronomy. The best session
that I attended was the annual session on how to land a job
with a degree in astronomy. There were several speakers and
some of them represented a whole new world that I never
considered an option: industry.
Attending this meeting was an eye-opening experience. I
began to question the things my advisors and professors kept
telling me about what I should do upon receiving my B.S. I
began to fully examine my options—and I did have them! I
came to realize that this track I was
being placed on wasn't the only
way to be successful in astronomy
or physics. And I now work on a new set of beliefs — my
commitment to the sciences is not
measured on whether or not I plan
on going to grad school, but whether I am mentally
challenged and satisfied by my work, whatever that may be.
Recommendations to the Community
My story is a long-winded way of saying that the academic
community is not acknowledging the problems that face
women and men in astronomy nor does the community
accept the fact that there are options for those feeling trapped
by this system. There are several points that need to be
addressed by the community if the number of women in
astronomy is to begin to reflect the rest of society. These
- The astronomy community needs to acknowledge the fact
that, while attempts have been made on a large scale to
reduce the sexism in the community, there is still much to
be done. Professors cannot sit idly by assuming there
is nothing they can do or that they have already done
enough. They have an obligation to their female students
and to the field to eliminate the sexism present in the
classes they teach—whether it come from them or their students.
- The astronomy community must accept the fact
that working outside of academia is just as desirable and
rewarding as working inside academia. To do this, students
must be allowed the liberty to chose whether or not they
want to pursue a career in academia and that choice must be
respected. That respect must be demonstrated, not only in
the obvious ways, but also in the subtle feedback that can
make students uncomfortable with their choice.
- Academic advisors need to advise their students that there
is a shortage of jobs in astronomy and actively encourage
the students to consider employment outside of academia
either before or after obtaining a Ph.D.
- The academic community needs to understand that it is
acceptable for a mother or father to take some time off of the"academic track" to start a family and not frown on them
when they take time during the course of their research to
nurture that family. This must be demonstrated by some
leniency in the "publish or perish" attitude. The academic community must realize that activities as rewarding as
raising children might require the parent to take some time
away from research leading to publications.
- Graduate students should be told that they are also very
valuable in the job market with a master's degree. This
would reduce the number of Ph.D. recipients looking for a
job in academia.
I have taken several more physics classes since the ones that
I mentioned. None of them was much better. I managed to
rearrange my schedule so I didn't have to study with the
same people. That helped a bit. During this summer I
worked in astronomy on an NSF-funded REU program.
Over the course of the summer, I finally figured out what it
is that I want to do. I have decided, much to the dismay of
several faculty members and advisors, which I am going to
leave astronomy for a while. I am currently interviewing
with companies to do engineering or computer
programming. There isn't a day that goes by without
someone wanting me to explain how it is that I could leave
the sacred world of academia. And there isn't a day that goes
by when I don't reconsider, if only for a minute, whether I
am making the right decision . . . but I know that I am. I
am planning to keep my options open should I some day
decide to pursue grad school and my Ph.D. But, then again,
I may never go back. If the astronomy community intends
to ever be a community that reflects societal norms,
they need to make sure that stories like mine never happen.
The author is a senior at a large, Midwestern university.
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