Women in Academia: What Are We Doing to Ourselves?

I was out in the field yesterday collecting data for one of my projects and while I was standing on a tall bluff overlooking the ocean with the sunlight streaming through the clouds and my hair whipping across my face and into my mouth and nose, I thought – if this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is. I never expected that I’d need to remind myself of why I was doing all this in the first place, especially this early in my career but here I am and here’s what gets me through it.Nothing is going to be as good or as bad as I expect.

This might come as a shock to you all, but building things up until I am inevitably disappointed is not really an issue I come across. Now, building things up until I am convinced that the world is ending and that my future will be made on the black jack table, that is something I do. I do it often and with great skill. If schools started awarding PhDs based on neurotic behavior, feelings of inadequacy, and a general inability to send an email without external validation that it isn’t the stupidest thing that Gmail ever saw, then I’d be knee deep in doctorates.

It’s easy to say that this behavior is unhelpful, but it’s harder to actually change it. Apart from repeating the mantra and making my dog make weird faces by feeding him peanut butter, I try to accept “good” as good enough.  I am here to learn – I did not spring forth from the womb capable of soliciting the NIH for funding or designing a research protocol that sets aflame the hearts and minds of a million research assistants. I can’t get to “perfect,” but I can get to “better.” This applies to my research, too: I won’t be able to cover every possible aspect or make the experiment 100% perfect, but I can make it good enough. Nothing is going to address every question – hit what you can and move from there. It’s like playing darts drunk, except with less impaling.

And, you know, I don’t think this just holds true to my performance: I expect that the future will follow a similar pattern. It has so far. When it comes to my career and goals, some really awesome things have happened, some really terrible things have happened, but nothing so awful that I am left contemplating just how hard it would be to live off the land on an island in Michigan.  I’m not saying that everything is going to be perfect and wonderful and farting unicorns that spit up red velvet cupcakes into buckets filled with bourbon. I am saying that things will be OK.

Choosing to pursue academia with all the bullshit that surrounds it – the anti-academia sentiment, the difficult work, the constant chase after funding, ideas, collaborations – takes a really fucking resilient and resourceful person. More than that, it takes a really fucking resilient and resourceful person who loves what they’re doing. And that’s the bottom of it, when you strip away all the frustration and worries and academia-woe, we’re all here because there is something about what we’re studying that we absolutely love. I mean, yeah, OK, my days are filled with Excel sheets and worries about hurricane-force winds destroying my experiments, but I am also spending my life understanding why the hell plants are the weirdos they are. Every day, I wake up to science and (fueled by caffeine) I hope I bring that enthusiasm to the people around me.

Maybe more than anything else I’ve mentioned here, the thing that really buoys my spirit when I am feeling worn down is the knowledge that I am not alone. As daunting as some things seem, as thick as I sometimes feel, it heartens me to know that there is a community of people who have been in my shoes and know that it’ll be OK. I appreciate what these Persephone posts have allowed me to do, and I hope that you all feel the same community that I do. Reading your comments has never failed to impress upon me how varied, unique, interesting, and sharp this corner of the internet, this slice of academia, really is. We’re standing on the shoulders of giants, helped up by our peers.

7 thoughts on “Women in Academia: What Are We Doing to Ourselves?”

  1. “If schools started awarding PhDs based on neurotic behavior, feelings of inadequacy, and a general inability to send an email without external validation that it isn’t the stupidest thing that Gmail ever saw, then I’d be knee deep in doctorates.”

    Uuuumm…are we the same person or something? Or are you just reading my journal with the unicorn stickers on it? Either way…THIS!

  2. I like this pep-talk.

    The first time I gave a talk as a post-doc I was really, really nervous- I had switched fields and had very little experience in what I’m now doing. My boss noticed and said something to the effect of: “You’ve already got your PhD- no one can take that away from you, ever.”

    Not a big statement, but for some reason it really calmed me down, and it still does.

  3. “When it comes to my career and goals, some really awesome things have happened, some really terrible things have happened, but nothing so awful that I am left contemplating just how hard it would be to live off the land on an island in Michigan. I’m not saying that everything is going to be perfect and wonderful and farting unicorns that spit up red velvet cupcakes into buckets filled with bourbon. I am saying that things will be OK.”

    This really hit home with me, too. Right now, most of my friends are getting accepted to grad schools or other various awesome things and so it’s been hard for me to say that I’m not sure what exactly I’ll be doing in the near future, but more and more I’ve been realizing that things will be OK. It will work out. If I get the job I want and long for and picture in my ideal future, then I do, and it will be great. If not, then I will figure something out.

    And yeah, this was (and still is) a really hard realization. So you are definitely not alone, even though I am not in academia.

  4. “farting unicorns that spit up red velvet cupcakes into buckets filled with bourbon”

    Man, if I’d learned about that in Sunday school I might’ve stuck with religion much longer than I did.

    And you’re right; most things turn out okay. The odds are pretty decent, and being incapacitated by anxiety or perfectionism doesn’t improve them anyway.

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