Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Confessions of a Female Faculty Candidate

The below is an anonymous guest post submitted by an astronomer on the faculty job market for the first time.  

I am a woman in her early 30’s in astronomy, and this is my first time applying for faculty jobs. Here’s what I knew beforehand. I knew statistically that I’d be likeliest to “leak” from the research pipeline at this exact juncture: reaching up to barely touch the lowest rung of junior professor. I knew that women falsely identify limitations as lying within when they truly lie without: that Impostor Syndrome is especially rampant among us. And I knew the process would be fraught with rejection. Despite educating myself, I have been grappling with profound feelings of inadequacy that are very gendered. There are statistics of women leaving science at this stage, but a lived experience isn’t fully expressed with statistics: what does it feel like to be a woman grappling with this professional transition with all her might? My mental health provider had to remind me that there is a context for this struggle beyond my own scientific record and the scary academic job market. If I’m feeling this stuff, so are other women. It’s so hard to hang in there. She said, “if you could talk about this to other women at your same stage, what would you say? What would you like to hear?” I’d want to hear how it feels to other women, to normalize my own experience. My experience as a white, middle-class, cisgendered woman is a privileged one, and is not universal: distinct emotional costs exist for people residing at other intersections. My experiences are reflective of my social status, and ought to be read that way. 

First, I would want to be reminded that the way gendered stuff manifests in this process is very steeped in cultural background noise.  What do I mean by that? There’s a strong correlation between whether women have or want children, and whether they leave the field after their postdoctoral work, and surely there’s a calculus there about the availability of paid leave and childcare. But I think it’s more expansive than that. I think it’s fair to infer from that statistic that this process applies profound pressure on women’s ideas of self, and that extends outside the professional sphere. Having children is only one aspect of this consideration—it’s also true that tenured women professors are twice as likely as their male colleagues to be unpartnered. Our culture is very clear about the relative worth of unpartnered women, particularly as a function of age and professional success. It would be no surprise for a woman’s values about romantic relationships to be tested at this stage, while she grapples with the personal sacrifices women before them have seemingly made. In fact, several studies concluded that the "mid-20s through the mid-30s appear to be a time of intense contemplation for never-married women regarding their future family trajectories": exactly the transition timescale between postdoc and assistant professor.

One of my own go-to responses for dealing with the stresses of this process is to criticize myself, using the criteria by which women in our culture are judged. My personal defenses are compromised, from sheer exhaustion and uncertainty—now, that’s surely true for scientists of all genders. But when my defenses are compromised in this way, it means the onslaught of cultural messages start slipping through the cracks in the mortar. I lay a bunch of oppressive criticisms at my own doorstep. When I feel frightened by the uncertainty of my professional trajectory, I am likelier to be crueler to myself about my appearance, and the (perceived and real) failures of my romantic relationships. Because there’s so little I can control about the process of applying to jobs, I displace that anxiety onto other aspects on my life. For the discomfort, there’s no one to blame, so I do what our culture so relentlessly tells women to do: I blame myself, and it’s toxic and very difficult to understand. But it’s very clear that gender oppression is manifesting, because the messages I hear are so clearly leveled against women: “You will experience failure because you haven’t sufficiently curated your looks” or “You will experience failure because you are not in a committed relationship commensurate with your years,” among other hot garbage. I want to say that I dismiss these criticisms as silly. But women scientists are hearing the same messages as women in any profession. We’re not uniquely immune. So I’d want to hear: it makes sense and is totally normal for your feelings of uncertainty during this stressful time to manifest in a gendered way.

I’d also want to be reminded: it makes sense for this period of time to feel profoundly shaky to your sense of self, because you’re already grappling with applying for things you feel are not meant for you. There’s a reason why “open” faculty searches (those defining the search in broad terms, that avoid stating specific desirable qualifications) provide a less-biased applicant pool, as the University of Michigan reported. As one of my reference letter writers observed, I was quick to exclude myself from any search that I perceived to be too far afield from my own specialties, even as one urged me: “let them make that hard decision!”

I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that my scientific identity is being tested. I ran a thought experiment on myself, considering a job application with two types of wording. For one job ad in this experiment, I imagined a department looking for a person “who will contribute meaningfully to our department, both with novel scientific research and excellent teaching. The applicant should be eager to advise and mentor students, preparing them to be innovative, careful, and responsible scientists.” If I applied for this job and was rejected, it wouldn’t profoundly rattle my sense of self. I am confident in my ability to contribute meaningfully to groups. I am confident that my ideas are novel and interesting. I am confident that I could learn to support and launch students, with a holistic mindset about their growth as members of a scientific community. In response to hypothetical rejection from this job, I’d say to myself: “well, I could have done that job too, but they found another person, and that’s okay.” I imagine that this is more often how my male colleagues respond to rejection.

But job ads are often not like that: the qualities described are ones that men use to identify more than women : “We are seeking an individual to run a superior research group”, for example. If I were rejected from that job, it would only reinforce my own doubt about whether I am a “superior” type of scientist. It is much pricklier to unpack whether I am “superior” or not—I would never use this word to self-identify. In this sense, rejection itself is triggering a gendered response, whereby I am judging myself by the male-biased value adjectives in the job ads, and finding myself wanting. Rejection is not personal, but in this particular way, there’s an extra degree of vulnerability for women.

Please share with me your own responses to the application process, whether gendered or not! Does any of what I’m experiencing sound familiar? I wrote this article anonymously (which is the only way I felt comfortable sharing the more personal elements), so if you’d like to submit your experiences anonymously, please do so.


Anonymous said...

There are two separate issues here.

First, finding a faculty job is extremely hard, regardless of anything. A usual search will receive 200-300 application for one job and most likely there will be 30 extremely good people that won't even make it to the shortlist. In order to get on a short list, one should have some initial ties to the department. I would argue that even though jobs are almost never tailored to a particular person, the search committee would usually have some idea about the people they would like to see on the shortlist even before the search starts.

The other issue is work-life balance and family planning. After being the main caregiver (I am a dad...) for two kids during my postdoc years I can state that there is never a "good" time to have kids, in any job. You should simply decide to go for it and manage you life with kids and a job.

and yes, having a partner who shares the load is extremely important if you want to have a career

Anonymous said...

I am a (white, cis, hetero) male in about the same career position: early 30s and submitted my first faculty applications this year. I wanted to say ... (1) Thank you for sharing your experiences and reflections. (2) Best wishes for your job search this year and in future years if necessary. (3) Several of your points struck home with me, particularly using specific terms in job postings as an excuse to shy away from applying (in my case, I latched onto focus area preferences instead of competitive or gender-biased buzzwords), and feeling extra-vulnerable in other aspects of my personal life. (4) While I think some of these stresses are nearly universal, I am trying to contemplate the additional grief my male privilege spares me. One example -- when my decisions to (e.g.) split time between two projects, spend time on outreach activities, pursue a romantic relationship affect my desirability as a faculty candidate, I justify: "these actions reflect my priorities." And so far no one has challenged that stance, and I believe that the entitlement to set my own priorities is a direct consequence of privilege. (5) So, I wish for you to have close friends and a community who support your choices and call out bulls*$t when society (or anyone) second-guesses you. (6) Once again, thank you.

Anonymous said...

As a married woman scientist myself with a postdoc and a tenure track position in her thirties I agree with the first part of your article but not quite with the second half. I agree that after having a child everything becomes less favorable for a female faculty as opposed to her male colleagues workwise. But when I was applying for positions I never took rejections or job postings so personal. Maybe because when I read "superior skills" I inferred that they are looking for someone with more experience in the field and I never related it to gender. Moreover one thing that really bothered me when applying for academic positions was that those around me kept telling me that since I am a woman I have a better chance of getting the job because there are fewer women in science compared to men etc.... This to me only meant that I would get the job even if I wasn't good enough, and that I am not really scored by my knowledge and research abilities but just by my gender and so it was very offensive to me.