Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Beware the Narrative, Part II

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed that the latest sexual misconduct in science news comes from the university where I did my undergraduate studies.

I was taken by surprise by how much more strongly this news affected me compared to earlier revelations. My undergraduate years were also when I experienced what is objectively the most severe gender-based harassment of my career. As I tweeted last night, I let it be handled quietly by the PI of the lab I was working in, because I needed the PI's letter of recommendation to go to graduate school. A friendly professor in a different department had already alerted me that the PI in question had damned me with faint praise in a letter submitted for a scholarship competition. I'd addressed that and was fairly certain future letters would be better... and I couldn't afford to upset that balance if I wanted to go to graduate school.

I should be clear. The PI and I never discussed "the deal" by which I didn't raise the harrassment to the higher authorities and the PI wrote good recommendations. Perhaps, if given the chance, the PI would have written glowing recommendations even if I had involved others in my complaint. I'll never know.

I do know that as things happened, I got accepted into several really good graduate programs. I picked the one that seemed like the best fit for me, went to graduate school, landed in a lab with a truly great PI, and had an overall good experience. I also, for the record, had an overall good experience during my undergraduate studies, and still think that choosing that particular school was one of the better decisions I've made in my life. As I wrote about in an earlier navel-gazing expedition, University of Chicago was good for me.

Anyway, I got my PhD and spent 15 years in the career that the PhD launched.

And then, a little over two years ago, I left that career path. In one way of looking at it, I left abruptly. In another way of looking at it, I just moved up the start of a plan that had been forming for some time.

Which is the right way to look at it? I honestly still don't know.

I wrote last night that one of the hardest things in making the decision to change career paths was feeling like I'd let my younger self down. She'd put up with a lot to get to where I was, and I in a sense threw that sacrifice away.

What I eventually came to think, though, was that her sacrifices had allowed me to get to a place where I had some genuine options, and it was OK to choose to stop putting up with the things that continuing on that career path required me to put up with.

It is hard for me to compare how hard it was to deal with that undergraduate harassment experience with how hard it was to deal with the "energy tax" I wrote about earlier this week. If I wanted to really understand how those things did or did not lead to my decision to change career paths, I'd have to do a lot more work than I am willing to do right now. I will say, though, that I personally found the constant second guessing of my own experiences really hard to handle. Was I being "over-sensitive"? Was I wrong to not want to always be the one smoothing things over? Was my perception that I was always the one smoothing things over wrong? Was I misinterpretting things? Maybe I just wasn't as good, or maybe my ideas weren't as good, or.... Gah. It went on and on. I still feel like an unreliable narrator of my own career, particularly the last five years or so of it.

Beyond that, you could also tell the story of my decision to change career paths multiple ways. I've written about that before, too, and still believe that trying to make sense of people's messy lives with neat, clean narratives is a mistake.

I was flippant about it last night on Twitter, but I really have made peace with the fact that younger me made sacrifices to stay in a career that current me decided she didn't want. I view all of my career experiences as building on the previous ones, and not just because the money I earned in my first career is what gave me the space to try this new one. It also gave me knowledge and skills that are relevant, even as some other knowledge and skills are getting left behind, at least for now.

Also, I'm truly excited about what I'm trying to do now. There are definitely problems in science and technology that are related to gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, and other factors about which people are often biased. I applaud and support the people tackling those problems.

There are also problems related to the fact that the cultures of science and technology undervalue the skills required to manage groups of people working together. This undervaluing leads to people managing groups of people working together with no actual clue how to do it well. Sometimes they have good instincts and do OK. Sometimes they don't, and really bad things happen. I don't think these career paths burnout so many people  because they are working on such hard problems- a lot of the people who choose these fields choose them because they enjoy working on hard problems. I believe the lack of management skills contributes directly to the burnout rate. That is just a belief right now, because I've never seen any data on it, but this is where I think I can make a more direct contribution. And that is one of the things I'm trying to do in my current work.

I'm trying to do other things that really matter to me, too. But this post is getting long and rambly, so I'll save that for another time.

My point here is that: yes, bad things have happened over the course of my career. Some of those things probably had a role in my decision to change my career. But other things also had a role, and some of those were positive- I saw different problems I wanted to work on. In the end, it doesn't matter why I, personally, left my old career path. What matters is that on average, more women leave than men. Personal stories help people make sense of that overall trend, but don't expect any of them to be neat and tidy stories.

And I'll leave it there. I needed to get this much out, to finish processing what I was feeling when I read that story last night, but I don't want to delve deeper. I have enough work booked and enough money in the bank to be certain that I'll get to stay on this career path for the rest of this year. If it becomes clear that I'll need to go back to something closer to my old career path in order to pay the bills, then I'll need to examine what caused me to leave a bit more closely, so that I can find a way to go back and stay healthy and happy.

Until then, though, I think I'll bury this again. I have work to do.


  1. I know this comment seems pretty weak tea, but... what happened in the past is a sunk cost and can't be changed. What's important is where you are now and what's going forward. Previous decisions are only important to the extent that they affect the future.

    1. Not weak tea! I absolutely agree. It is one reason I'm not interested in sorting through all my feelings on this stuff... unless I have to go back into a similar environment. Then I want to understand better, so that I can avoid another spin out/meltdown/whatever we want to call it. I doubt my career could survive more than one abrupt "I quit!" moment. :)

    2. That sounds about right. :/


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