Tuesday, January 27, 2015

My Twitter Rules

For some reason, I'm really itching to write a post tonight. But the post I had queued up to write next is beyond my mental capabilities tonight. After several weeks of waiting for things I'd set in motion to come to fruition... everything hit at once! Also, my main client has some extra work for me right now, and I'm a fan of money so I've been working slightly longer hours for them. Put this all together, and I've been very busy and I'm feeling a bit drained.

So, instead let's talk about Twitter! Specifically, let's talk about how to keep Twitter fun. I've evolved the following set of rules, some of which I follow better than others.

This list is written in the second person, but should be read as me talking to myself- because these are my rules for me. I'm sure the balance between engagement and happiness is different for other people.

1. Only follow people whose tweets add something to your life.

Since one of the things I use Twitter for is to diversify the opinions I find, not all of the people I follow have tweets that make me happy- but they all add something I value.

2. If you're following someone and they start to annoy you more than the value they bring... unfollow. (Silently, of course.)

I used to worry about offending someone by unfollowing, but... people who get in a snit about people unfollowing them on Twitter aren't the type of people you want to know, anyway.

Seriously, different people use social media in different ways. Some people use it almost exclusively to vent, which is FINE and sometimes really amusing. But if their venting starts to annoy me, I just unfollow. It is their Twitter stream, they can say whatever they want. And it is my Twitter timeline, I can listen to whatever I want.

Some people tweet really interesting things, but at a volume that overwhelms me. So I unfollow and (maybe) add them to a list to check in on from time to time, instead.

I will never, ever tweet at someone and tell them why I'm unfollowing me, because seriously, why would they care?

The corollary of this is that I pay zero attention to who unfollows me.

3. It is cool to follow famous people, but don't talk to them too much.

It almost never makes me happy to tweet at a famous person. I'm just not that secure in my own cleverness. Sometimes, I can't help myself and I do it anyway. I'd be happier overall if I wouldn't.

4. Don't try to ask that super smart person with a lot of followers a specific question about the controversial topic of the day.

This one took me awhile to work out, because I only ever asked genuine questions but it rarely left me feeling good. Eventually I realized that the person with a gazillion followers gets a bunch of "questions" about the hot topic, only a small number of which are actually questions... and of course they can't tell that I'm being curious and trying to learn and not being an asshole.

Also, even if they can tell I'm being curious and trying to learn... damn, they get a lot of questions. They don't have time to answer everyone.

Yeah, this is sort of obvious in retrospect. I am not always brilliant.

Anyway, now I listen when the Twitter famous smart people tweet, because they will say smart things. But I accept that I just have to listen to the statements that they choose to make, and if a statement sparks a question I can use it as a prompt to do some independent study if I want, but I should resist the urge to tweet back a question.

(This, incidentally, does not apply to me, because I am not Twitter famous and have a small number of followers. You can tweet questions at me anytime!)

5. Avoid drama

I tend to not get into protracted Twitter fights. The few times one has started to develop, I've just said we'll agree to disagree and then unfollowed. I haven't had to then go on to block or mute, but I would if needed. I don't like drama, and drama with strangers on the internet seems particularly pointless to me. I will discuss things, even for a long time. But if the discussion starts to evolve into a fight... I'm out. I use Twitter for fun and to learn. Fights are no fun, and not very conducive to the sort of dialogue that helps me learn.

6. Don't worry if you miss something.

I used to follow a small number of people and I could read basically every tweet. I decided I wanted to follow more people, so I had to let that go. Adding lists helped with this.

Those are the rules I try to follow on Twitter. Do you have any rules you follow? Share in the comments!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Weekend Reading: The Stories We Tell Edition

This as been an interesting week. On Monday, I started to suspect that the sore throat I'd had for awhile might not just be allergies, and on Tuesday, I was sure I was I was sick. I figured I was probably too late to have zinc lozenges do much good, but I used them anyway... and woo hoo! I was only really sick for Tuesday. Now, I wasn't all that great on Wednesday, was probably operating at 75% yesterday, and didn't have the lung capacity for a run today. But still. The fact that I didn't spend several days sacked out on the sofa feeling miserable is a minor miracle.

(I take Cold-Eeze zinc lozenges, and have use them to fend off colds with reasonable success since graduate school. There is some so-so scientific evidence supporting the use of zinc, but I would still classify this as "hey, it might be a placebo effect, but I'm not complaining!" If you do use zinc lozenges, make sure you get ones that do not also contain vitamin C, since ascorbic acid chelates zinc and inhibits its absorption. You also don't want to have fruit juice immediately before or after using the lozenges. And that is the end of my somewhat suspect medical beliefs spiel for the day.)

Anyway, I do have some links for you. Here they are!

First up, a bunch of stories about women in tech.

There has been a very disturbing set of events recently, in which Shanley Kane (a prominent activist for diversity in tech, perhaps best known as a founder of Model View Culture) came under attack from weev, GamerGaters and their ilk. I believe the precipitating event was her speaking out against some remarks Linus Torvalds (the founder of Linux) made about diversity and not being nice... and I'm going to summarize it poorly, so you can read this excellent post about why abuse in an open source community is not OK, which includes the background at the top.

Anyway, people started voicing their support for Shanley Kane, often while acknowledging that she has a style that many people find difficult. I don't want to go into the entire history of this here, but Kane's tone and style are direct and confrontational. It is not a style I would be comfortable with, and frankly, it is not a style I would want to associate with, even when I agree with the content of her comments. However, there is a case to be made that she has managed to make progress and draw attention to issues where those of us with more agreeable styles have not. One of the best comments I've seen on that came from @leeflower's tweets, where she observed that Shanley has moved the Overton Window for the rest of us.

But then Amelia Greenhall posted about her role as a co-founder of Model View Culture, and why she left.

I've been impressed with the nuanced reactions and apologies from some of the people who were prominent voices in the original discussion. See for instance @leeflower's post and also Betsy Haibel's post.

I agree with them. The abuse Shanley Kane is receiving is wrong. Amelia Greenhall's treatment is also wrong. Model View Culture publishes some wonderful writing on diversity in tech. I struggle with whether to support it in light of these revelations. On on hand, Shanley Kane is just a human, and humans make mistakes and have baggage and sometimes that baggage makes them perpetuate abuse they have received. On the other hand, I haven't ever seen much evidence that Shanley Kane is willing to listen to criticism and learn and grow from it. Perhaps she is. I am a spectator of these events from very, very far away. But I don't think anyone should get a free pass for being horrible to other people, no matter the reason or the background. There is a difference between being willing to be confrontational towards systemic issues and the people who stand in the way of fixing them and being an asshole. I have no idea which side of the line Shanley Kane is on. I am undecided on whether it matters.

So, back to the actual issues facing women in technology, eh? Here is a report with some statistics on the fate of women in technology. Page 16 has a particularly interesting breakdown of the mid-career quit rate for women, by sector of the industry. This post from Kieran Snyder provides some details about the women who stay.

Speaking of women who stay in tech, the executive team of Lyft certainly seems nicer than the Uber executives who were in the new recently. That doesn't solve the labor-related issues, of course.

The issues women in music face sound pretty familiar....

Alice Dreger writes about what women are allowed to say, and relates that to her upcoming book, Galileo's Middle Finger (which looks really interesting). look like an interesting

Moving on to other topics...

You may have heard about an upcoming movies about the high school kids who beat MIT in a robotics competition. Here's the story of what happened next, which isn't quite so feel good as the press buzz about the movies might lead you to believe. The cost of not fixing our immigration policy is high. (Edit: I haven't seen either the documentary or the George Lopez movie, so I have no idea if the movies themselves show audiences what happened after the competition. I've edited this passage because it unfairly implied that the movies do not show this part of the story.)

You may also have heard about the movie Selma, and seen some controversy about whether or not it was "fair" to Lyndon B. Johnson. Amy Davidson has a wonderful take down of that argument.

This makes me angry. The fact that it happened during Aida is just too much.

The problem with weight loss as medical advice. Pair that with this report on how inactivity is more harmful than obesity. One of my Twitter friends decided that this year she was focusing on exercise and eating what she wants. I think she's on to something.

When I decided to start a newsletter, I subscribed to a few to see how other people run theirs. One of the ones I've been really enjoying is the one run by Jen Myers. Each installment has a story, which she also archives on their own site. I really like today's story, which is about our own origin stories.

Speaking of newsletters... did you know that you can now get a Tungsten Hippo newsletter? It is a weekly digest of the content I post (usually one or two book recommendations and a quote, sometimes a blog post) plus a random bonus recommendation selected from the archives. I'm having a lot of fun revisiting my archives this way! Sign up here.

This is a nice post about early motherhood. I didn't follow the rule of "make no major life decisions in the first year," but I did have a rule that I couldn't make any without contriving to get a night or two of really good sleep first.

And now, for the happy ending:

I want one of these.

I laughed so hard:

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

This Is Not Advice

The discussions that led to my last post and the discussions that followed it kept skirting the issues of who should go to graduate school and whether there should be fewer graduate students. That made me uncomfortable, because I sure as hell don't know the answers to those questions.

So let me get this out of the way right up front: if you are wondering "should I go to graduate school?" my answer is "I don't know." Furthermore, I'd say no one else knows, either. If I had a larger point in my last post (which is debatable) it is this: graduate school can mean different things to different people. No one can write any universal rules about whether you should or shouldn't go.

However, no one can write universal rules about what you should do after getting a PhD, either. I am firmly in favor of a true expansion of our thinking about what people "should" do after they get a PhD and what "success" looks like, but that does not mean I think everyone currently doing multiple postdoctoral fellowships or working as an adjunct as they try to get a tenure track position is doing the wrong thing. What is "right" and what is "wrong" is a very individual decision, and no one can make it for someone else.

Similarly, I don't know if programs should be trying to shrink right now. I know that I'm generally in favor of high but transparent standards; honest disclosure of what a graduate program will cost in terms of time, effort, and money; and gathering and sharing information about the job prospects of people graduating from the program.

I am very, very uncomfortable about the idea that some group of people is going to accurately decide what is best for some other group of people, unless those groups are "parents" and "infants." Really, go read that Tressie McMillan Cottom post I linked to in my last post, if you haven't already. Who among us really has the breadth of knowledge to decide what is right for everyone else? I certainly won't claim that I can look past my own privilege and make such a pronouncement in any sort of universal manner.

When I think about professions that limit the number of practitioners by limiting spots in training programs, I think about medicine. I can see a "public good" case for stringent standards for medical training programs and for strict licensing requirements. I don't see a similar case for PhDs. I'll go further and say that I don't really see the harm to society from having more members who have PhDs, even PhDs from programs of varying quality, regardless of how those people are making their money.

I can see a case for harm coming to an individual from investing time and perhaps money into a PhD that results in poor career prospects... but is that what is happening? I don't know. I see a lot of examples of people who are realizing that the career path they hoped to get on is mighty crowded, and are having to make tough decisions about how long to stay in the jobs in the early parts of that path. I am not unsympathetic to this problem. It sucks. Career angst is absolutely no fun. But this does not seem unique to PhDs. Are there other career paths that are well-paved and easy to navigate, leading to wonderful, well-paid jobs for all who want them, and with frolicking unicorns holding up encouraging signs as you traverse them? If so, by all means... get on those paths!

I don't think such paths exist. I'm sorry. That sucks. I know.

My honest opinion of what I would do if I were a postdoc or adjunct and thought that my situation sucked is to stop being a postdoc or an adjunct and go do something else. Based on what I've done when I've found myself in other sucky work situations, I think I'd moan about the suckiness of it all for awhile, but then I'd embark on the difficult work of figuring out what other career paths might appeal to me and make a change. Sure, there are likely systemic changes needed in how both scientific research and undergraduate education are staffed, but I would not want to spend my life in misery waiting for those changes to happen. Neither institution is noted for being quick to change, after all.

I said I wasn't going to give advice and that is straying dangerously close to advice, so let me be clear: that's just me. I have never viewed a tenure track position as a uniquely desirable prize, and I have never had a life long dream to do anything.

One thing I learned in my own forays into career angst is that the acceptable ways out of said angst are very personal- what looks like a great solution to one person will look like a fate worse than death to someone else. The only universal thing is that you have to be honest about the situation to have any hope of finding a good path forward. Wishing that the world was different than it is won't do any good. If you're up for fighting to make the world different, more power to you. Otherwise, you just have to accept the suckiness and figure out your next move.

Oops. That is sounding a lot like advice again. But I think I'll stick with that one: you really do have to make an honest assessment of the situation if you want to have a good chance of figuring out what you should do next.
Not all warning signs are this unambiguous.

One other thing I feel comfortable saying: if that honest assessment leads you to determine that you made some poor decisions in the past or ignored warning signs and stayed on one path too long: let it go. Examine it only as much as necessary to make better decisions in the future, and then accept that the past is the past and evaluate your options in the present. Flagellating yourself over past decisions will not help you get to a happier place. You know more now than you did then, so apply that knowledge and figure out what you want to do next.

My last post was a personal story about the role the PhD played in my life. I got several responses that a person could gain confidence and master self-directed learning in other ways. That is true. But I gained my confidence and mastered self-directed learning through doing a PhD.

My story doesn't mean that I think getting a PhD is a great decision for everyone. I think that getting a PhD was a great decision for me. But let's look at the whole story.

I graduated from college in 1994. We were still coming out of a recession. It wasn't as bad as the recent one, but the economy still wasn't great. There were jobs for recent graduates, but they weren't as plentiful as they were five years later when the dotcom boom was booming.

I had a degree in biochemistry. I had worked as a lab technician in college and knew that was not a good long term career plan for me. I wasn't sure what my other options were. Maybe I could become a high school teacher? But I have a lot of teachers in my family and had absolutely zero illusions about how easy or well-compensated such a choice would be. I could go a completely different direction- but for all the reasons outlined in my last post, I didn't have a wide view of the options available.

Or I could go to graduate school. I had several competing offers from which to choose, all from really good programs. I had applied for and won an NSF fellowship, which at some of the programs meant that I would get an increased stipend.

I was living in Chicago. I liked the city. In fact, I loved Chicago, but I was tired of the cold winters. Several graduate programs in California had accepted me, including one that was offering to bump my stipend up to $18,000/year, thanks to the NSF fellowship.

My friends who were starting entry level positions were getting offers in the $20,000 - $25,000/year range. A bunch of my friends had no offers at all.

Getting paid $18,000 per year to go to graduate school in California sounded like a good deal to me.

I tried to pick a good, healthy program. I ruled out one where one of the professors I interviewed with said "Oh, you're from Chicago, so you're used to the idea that you work all seven days of the week." I also tried to pick a good adviser and a good thesis topic. But in fact, I mostly just got lucky and landed in a quality program and with an adviser who was not a giant asshole, working on a really interesting- but doable- project.

Even given that luck, there was a time when I considered quitting. It was in my third year, which I consider the darkest year- I was so far in that I couldn't see the light from where I entered the tunnel, but not far enough along to see the light at the end of the tunnel, either. But I did not have an abusive adviser and I wasn't actually miserable. I can't remember what swayed me to stay, it might have been something as embarrassing as not wanting to rock the boat in the relationship I was in, which I thought was going to last (it didn't). I don't know. But I stayed, and I finished.

My timing in exiting graduate school was far, far better than my timing in exiting college. I came out with a PhD and experience working with databases just as this new field of "bioinformatics" was exploding. I had a choice between a postdoc paying about $25k/year and a job at a biotech start up that paid $50k/year. I agonized over that choice for a laughable amount of time, in retrospect. I never had a strong desire to become a professor, and turning down that much extra money to continue on the professorial path was never going to happen, particularly since everyone told me that I could never be a professor working on the things I was most interested in (which was scientific data management... yes, I am aware they were all wrong).

The path since then has not been all sunshine and roses, but it has only rarely really sucked, and when it has sucked, I have (eventually) changed course. It wasn't always easy to figure out when to change course when things didn't suck but weren't really great. I've used a career coach twice, and found that very helpful in clarifying what I wanted out of my work life. And I've done a lot of navel-gazing.

So, that's another personal story. I am not arrogant enough to try to give universal advice, but I can tell you where I think I would have chosen differently if the situation had been different.

I don't think I would have gone to graduate school if it weren't a paid gig. It seems even less likely that I would have gone into serious debt to go to graduate school.

I doubt I would have persisted in graduate school if I had an abusive adviser. I base this on the fact that I have recognized other abusive work situations and (eventually) gotten the heck out. I cannot think of any career reward I think is worth tolerating abuse to secure.

If I had a strong desire to become a professor, I might have taken the postdoc over the start up job. Given the odds, I probably would not have gotten a job as a professor, or if I did get one, it probably would have been in a geographic location I did not find desirable. I have no idea how many postdocs I'd have done as I tried to land a tenure track position. Given my decision making processes in other cases, I suspect it would have been strongly influenced by how much I enjoyed the postdocs. I do not know if I would have been willing to move to a place I did not like just to be a professor. I can tell you that I would not move to a place a do not like to take any job now. There is no amount of job satisfaction that can overcome living conditions suckitude for me.

But those considerations are all very much driven by the type of person I am, and what makes me happy. No one can tell you what the right answer to any career choice is, because no one knows what is most important to you. A good career coach can help you find the answers, but in the end, they come from within you.

Yeah, I know. That sucks, too. But I found that doing the work to figure out what really mattered to me was fairly transformative in terms of my vision for what my life could be. Maybe you will, too. Good luck!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Becoming Me, Part I

I had a conversation on Twitter this morning about the purpose of a PhD. It made me think again about the role that graduate school and my PhD have played in my life. I've touched on this before, but my thoughts also fit into the thoughts I've been having lately about how I feel like I'm finally becoming me and not a hybrid of myself and who I think I'm supposed to be. Therefore, I'm going to explore it more fully, as part of a series of extremely navel-gazey posts about how I got to this pretty nice place in my life where I've figured out what really matters to me and have the opportunity to try to live a life that optimizes that.

Here's the tweet that started the conversation- you can expand it (I think) to see the whole discussion.




To understand why I say that the most useful things about getting a PhD were confidence and the ability to teach myself whatever I needed, you have to understand who I used to be.

I grew up in a what I'd call a lower middle class neighborhood. I thought I could use zip code demographics to demonstrate this, but zip codes are too broad, I think- my childhood zip code has a median income of $38,204 and my current zip code has a median income of $40,642. However, anyone who has visited my current neighborhood and my childhood neighborhood would surely say that the one I live in now is far wealthier. I guess I'm in the wealthy part of my zip code. So you're just going to have to take my word for this. By Robert Reich's proposed definition of the middle class, both my childhood zip code and my current zip code could be called "lower middle class," but single family homes in my neighborhood start at about $500,000, whereas some homes in my childhood neighborhood can still be purchased for less than $100,000.

Anyway, that's not all that important. Suffice to say that I grew up in an area and went to schools that my current peers would code as "rough." I had some wonderful teachers and generally think I got a decent education, but the difference between my education and the education of someone in an upper middle class neighborhood (not to mention someone who went to a private prep school) became painfully clear to me when I got to college. I went to the University of Chicago. I almost transferred out after my first quarter, because I felt impossibly behind my classmates. I credit two things with keeping me there: (1) a friend- who was dealing with far more difficult issues than I was- went to the campus counseling center and found it helpful, so I decided to try that, too, and (2) my first year boyfriend (who grew up in the Chicago area) had issues with his family and couldn't invite me home with him for Thanksgiving. I was stuck in a mostly empty dorm over the long weekend and didn't have anything to do except study... and I downright aced my next chemistry exam.

It is obviously more complicated than that. I was in the honors chemistry class because I had tested into it. I was at the U of C on a full scholarship, awarded on merit. I felt like I was struggling, but in reality, I was on track to get Bs and Cs at the worst. I was not failing, not by a long shot. So I had plenty of evidence that I belonged, if I'd chosen to see it. But I didn't choose to see it, for reasons that largely traced back to the expectations of women in the place where I grew up. Between the work with a counselor who was helping me understand the roots of my lack of confidence and the concrete demonstration that yes, I could succeed in my most difficult class, I pulled out of my funk and stayed at Chicago. I not only stayed, I flourished there, and went on to graduate with honors.

So why was I so lacking in self-confidence? It is complicated, and in talking about this I don't want to imply that I place any blame on my family. In fact, when I count up all the ways I've gotten lucky in life, my family (encompassing both my immediate family and my extended family) is at the top of my list. I have wonderful, supportive, loving parents and a wonderful, supportive, loving group of aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. I have never in my life felt like I'd be without some place to go if I needed help, and I am smart enough to know how much that means.

My parents were both the first generation in their families to go to college, and I was the first person in my extended family to get a PhD. (In fact, I think I am still the only PhD in the family.) I grew up in an atmosphere that encouraged me to follow my interests and gave me support in doing so- but my ideas of what my interests could be were somewhat limited by what I could see. Ta-Nehisi Coates has written brilliantly about how he didn't even know what to dream of when he was a kid:

"When you don't have much exposure to the world the options you see for yourself tend to be limited--you can't really dream about that which you don't know exists. "

I am not comparing my background to Coates' background, not at all. But the core point he made applies to kids like I was, too. Your dreams cannot extend beyond what you know exists. My father was a librarian, so I naturally spent a lot of time in the library, and that undoubtedly expanded my horizons greatly. As a child, I wanted to be a carpenter, a country-western singer, a doctor, and an anthropologist. I didn't really know what that last one meant, but I loved learning about people and their cultures, and someone told me that is what anthropologists do.

I didn't think I wanted to be a scientist, because my science classes in school were all about what would happen and not why- and I have always been drawn to the "why" questions. However, I'd liked chemistry enough to consider it a possible major (perhaps I thought I'd become a high school science teacher? I'm not really sure what I was thinking when I considered chemistry as a major but not a career.) I was in that honors chemistry class because my chemistry teachers had been better than the others at giving me an inkling that science could answer some "why"questions, and because my high school chemistry teacher had advised me that I should take any honors classes I tested into, and I took his advice.

I think the environment in which I grew up had an even more profound impact on me than just influencing what I saw as possible career paths, though. I think it taught me a way of being that crippled my self-confidence and gave me a false impression of how I was supposed to be. It took me years to really recognize the extent to which the broader environment in which I went to school affected me.

In my home, girls could do anything and women's equality was assumed. In my school, some of my friends joked that calculus was useless to them, since it wasn't useful in the kitchen. One boy asked me if I was going to that "fancy" college to meet a rich husband. One of the mothers volunteering in the school told me that women who have careers are denying their true nature as women, which was to have and care for as many children as possible.

I had my butt grabbed at school so often that I can't differentiate the experiences into any distinct occasions. I do remember the boy who sat in front of me in one of my classes, who would reach back and run his hand along my leg anytime I wore a skirt, saying he was checking to see if I'd shaved. I do not know why I never thought to complain to the teachers about this treatment. I think I just thought it was how things were, and nothing that I could expect to change.

I was a vocal feminist, within my limited understanding of what that meant, and I took a fair amount of teasing from a couple of guys for it. I heard so many dumb blonde jokes that years later I shocked someone on a graduate school interview visit by rattling off twenty or thirty of them without needing to stop to think. But I was not bullied, and I was actually reasonably happy in high school. I never realized how many toxic assumptions about what it means to be a woman I was absorbing. I started to understand as I sat in the office of the counselor I saw in college, and struggled to answer her when she asked why I thought I should not voice pride in my own accomplishments, why I thought I wasn't smart enough to major in chemistry, and why I felt like I had to keep giving a boyfriend who tended to belittle me second, third, and fourth chances.

That counselor and some good friends helped me get onto a healthier path, mentally. I started to take myself and my own aspirations more seriously. As my success in my courses continued to grow, I started to feel more confident in my capabilities. I started to learn how to speak up for myself and began to expect to be treated with more respect. I can think back to specific professors who nurtured that budding self-confidence, and went out of their way to encourage me. (They happened to primarily be men, because most of my professors were men- so men professors, let this encourage you to also encourage your women students. We may not always have the self-awareness to thank you at the time, but we will remember and be grateful to you.)

I have often said that I think I could have gotten an equally good education at the state college near my home, and I stand by that. I do not think I would have gotten such a good education, though, because I do not think I would have had the self-confidence and the vision to seek it out. One advantage of a school like the University of Chicago is that the education is unavoidable. I did not need vision to seek it out- it was handed to me, I just had to accept it and do the work to absorb it. It was a place that pushed me to take my intellectual self seriously. In fact, given its rigorous distribution requirements, it practically forced me to take my intellectual self seriously. I consider myself very fortunate to have gone there, not because I think it is a uniquely excellent place or that I got a uniquely excellent education there, but because it propelled me along a path of intellectual growth and forced me to confront and work on my self-confidence issues and start to take myself seriously.

But the work was not complete by the time I graduated from college. Perhaps it would have been if I had started from a different place, I don't know. I do know that in a very real way, going to graduate school helped me grow into the reasonably confident woman I am today. The experiences of persisting through the inevitable research setbacks, of having and pursuing my own research ideas, of figuring out how to learn the things I needed to know that my adviser did not know, of being a world expert in something (albeit a small something of interest to a handful of people)... these experiences were invaluable to someone like me, who had once struggled to consider herself worthy of intellectual respect.

I went from my PhD directly into a job in a biotech company, and have continued to grow and learn along my career path. I graduated with a PhD and a far stronger sense of my capabilities, but I still had insecurities- and I still have insecurities today. I don't think you ever lose them, you just learn how to work around them. More importantly I still had an incomplete view of the possibilities for my life, and I was still operating within other people's ideas of what I "should" do. Learning to see that and figuring out how to get past that has taken another 15 years, and that is a topic for another post.

I'll close this post with the hope that it has helped explain why I am uncomfortable with the calls I sometimes see to limit the number of graduate students because of the lack of jobs on the other side. I understand the impulse, but I worry that doing so will close off opportunities to people who can benefit from them, and that this will disproportionately affect people who are starting from less privileged places. Tressie McMillan Cottom has written about how credentials like a PhD have different impacts for different types of students. I am not in the categories she discusses, and I am aware of the extent that I have benefited from the privileges I have- I'm white, I'm not a first generation college graduate, and I have a supportive family. But I also feel like the PhD provided benefits for me beyond those that people usually discuss. It happens that my specific career path was made possible because of my PhD- my first job and at least one job since required a PhD. But even if none of the jobs I had ever held had actually required a PhD, I would think the PhD was worth the five years it took me to get it. I do not think I would have had the confidence to place myself on this career path without having first done a PhD.

It is certainly true that a person could get to where I am today without a PhD, but I do not think I would have done so. I am sure I am not unique in this experience, and that is why I think we need to stop thinking of a PhD solely as job training, and start thinking of it as a valuable life experience, one of many different ways people can find their way to the path that is right for them.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Weekend Reading: Another Mishmash Edition

First of all, thank you all for the sock and style blog recommendations! I'll be doing some blog browsing and possibly some sock buying this weekend.

I spent a large chunk of my day working on slides for a talk I'm going to give about preparing your a job search. I don't mind making slides, per se, but I do have an interesting pattern of cleaning my desk when I have slides to make. And then I had to write a short bio of myself, something I hate doing beyond all proportion to how hard it actually is.

So, what I'm saying is that my brain is pretty much checked out and you shouldn't expect much from the commentary around these links.

But they are, as usual, awesome links!

I really liked this post defending academic writing and the practice of taking the time to really study things. I don't have a problem with the fact that scholarship advances the way it does- I do wish, though, that we could manage to get more of that wonderful scholarship presented as well in forums and formats from which the rest of us could absorb some new knowledge. When I said in my "I'm a publisher now" post that I was interested in people's academic work, I was serious. However, I also understand that time is finite and that people will prioritize the things that keep them employed and their career advancing. I don't have a solution for that.

I also really liked this NY Times column about the hazards of speaking while female. OK, "liked" might not be the right word. It resonated with me and my experiences.

This week, I was thinking about my experiences of speaking while female, and also about the fact that it seems a lot of the guys in my field have a discussion style that veers towards incredulity when disagreeing with something I say- as in a style that makes me feel like they think that what I'm saying is the most asinine and/or stupid thing they have ever heard- but that these same guys (most of whom I actually really like) will often change their mind and agree with me if I just keep answering their objections.

I'm not sure what to do with that. Mostly I press ahead and then come home and have a beer.

Given that line of thought, this essay from Katherine Angel about the experience of writing while female also resonated, even though she is discussing the literary world and I work in the tech world.
It is long, but worth your time. Here are some choice quotes:

"Being underestimated — by men, by women, by themselves — is something most women have in common. We have to work harder from the outset to resist being dismissed, to attain equal footing, and then to maintain it. It’s endless, repetitive work, cut across and intensified by yet other assumptions based on accent, skin color, class, education, dress."

and

"Not being responsible for the inequality out there in the world doesn't mean one shouldn't try to chip away at it."

and

"The visibility and status of women’s writing is important precisely because of a web of marginalization across all areas of life. "

On a similar subject, here's a hilarious list of instructions for interviewing a woman writer.

Again, not sure what to do with all of this. I suspect the only thing I can do is have another beer and wait for more guys to have daughters. Here is a better than average example of the tech guy who has a daughter and suddenly starts to get it essay. I guess I'll take the more enlightened men no matter how we get them. But one thing I'd like to ask all the men who write these essays is why it takes having a daughter to see the problem. Why can't they listen to their wives- whom they presumably love and respect- or grow some empathy and read an essay like one of the two linked above and really get it? Why do they need a daughter to really observe this dynamic?

I guess that will remain one of the mysteries of our age.

Speaking of things that make me grumpy, have you heard about the measles outbreak we're having?

On a much less clear cut health topic, here is a really good essay from a man whose wife has episodes of serious mental illness.

Heather Barmore's essay about seeing Selma with her father is also really, really good.

Vox reports on the threats they received in the aftermath of their Charlie Hebdo reporting. Spoiler: the threats mostly weren't from Muslims upset about the cartoons.

Ta-Nehisi Coates happens to be in Paris, and has written some initial thoughts on recent events. I look forward to reading his further thoughts.

I have been struck by how little attention has been paid in the press I see to the four Jewish men killed in the supermarket. They are included in the BBC's obituaries. I have also been struck by the way people seem to want to overlook the very real threat that Jews in France feel from the radical Islamists in their country. It was only a couple of years ago that there was a horrific attack on a Jewish school, and I read somewhere (that I cannot find now) that many Jewish parents believe that Amedy Coulibaly (the man who later attacked the supermarket) was heading for a Jewish school when a traffic incident diverted him and he killed a policewoman instead. Whether that is true or not, the fact that they believe it to be true says a lot.

I think we struggle with the messy realities of this situation.

As usual, I don't want to end on such heavy topics, so here are some fun things:

This imagining of Harry Potter retold as a story about Hermione is full of spoilers and swear words, but a lot of fun.

This middle school dance performance is pretty cool. Watch at least through the dance version of bubble sort, about half way through.

Here are some beautiful pictures of ancient trees.

I've been to Boring. I think I'll have to try to visit Dull.


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