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Derailed on The Track to "Success"

January 1997

 

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 experienced.


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
difference between 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
with it.


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 of work?


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 include:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.


Conclusion


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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