I never thought I would be here: working as a non-tenure-track lecturer at the same university where I earned my Ph.D. In graduate school, I had many ideas about where I might eventually end up, and I carefully prepared for every scenario -- except this one.
Nearly two years ago, after finishing my degree program, I received a tenure-track offer only to find that I couldn't accept it. The perfect fit for me turned out to be an unexpectedly bad fit for my husband. Since that time, I have been plunged into a vortex of uncertainty, forced to re-evaluate my marriage, my career, even the very essence of who I thought I was.
You see, I am a scientist. I have been a scientist since I started collecting butterfly eggs at the age of 4. It is not what I do; it is who I am. However, I am also a wife and a mother of two preschool children. Those latter two roles seem to have exerted a disproportionate impact on my career choices and I struggle daily to figure out where that leaves me professionally.
Fortunately, I am also an X-Gal, one of a group of nine female biologists who have banded together to offer one another advice and support as we seek careers in academic science. The daily e-mail messages from this amazing group of women have rescued me many a day. They have kept me engaged in science and motivated me to challenge the traditional, yet elusive, single-track career path that dominates our profession.
To say that I fell into a serious funk after turning down the job offer would be a gross understatement. But that changed after I had a heart-to-heart talk with one of my mentors. A full professor, he asked me what it was I wanted to do that I couldn't do at my current institution as a lecturer. That simple question changed my perspective. I also owe my adviser a debt of gratitude for offering me the lectureship. Thanks to his willingness to open his lab to someone trapped by a personal situation, we now have a collaborative relationship that is working, and I applaud the effort of an established scientist to help an unestablished one.
A year later, I am teaching a class that I love, doing research in my adviser's lab, supervising undergraduate researchers, and writing a large grant that could finance my own research in the future. Life is good, and I am happy.
But if I am so happy, why do I often feel like a failure? Why do I face a nagging undercurrent of uncertainty and panic?
I am teaching a course that requires specialized knowledge, so my job is relatively stable, but the university could decide tomorrow not to renew my contract. In addition, my future as a scientist depends not only on my grant-writing abilities, but also on the willingness of science agencies to be open-minded enough to back someone in a temporary post. Increasing the number of women in science requires that we design a new, more flexible model of a successful academic career, and that starts with grant money.
My feelings of failure, I know, have many complex sources. Some are external (such as the new assistant professor -- a woman! -- who refuses to acknowledge my existence ever since she learned I am only a lecturer). But many are internal: This is not the path I was supposed to take; I owe more to those who invested their time and energy in me (mentors, institutions, grant agencies); I owe myself more.
Defining success is a tricky thing. Would I consider myself successful if I had moved my family across the country for my career, making my husband miserable and decreasing our standard of living? We now have a high quality of life (income aside) in a location where our kids are happy and where my husband (who provides the bulk of our income) has limitless career opportunities.
Is that success? I don't know. I do know that I need to find a new definition of success, one that fits the opportunities available to me.
How to define success is always a hot topic among us X-Gals. Given our varied paths, no single definition has fit all of us, and we have each struggled to define it for ourselves. In academic science, the traditional definition of success for a recent Ph.D. or postdoc is a tenure-track job. But given that women earn most of the Ph.D.'s in our discipline yet men hold most of the tenure-track jobs, a large number of female scientists are going to have to modify their idea of success.
Our most recent debate about how to define success came as we were preparing to write the first column in this series. An early draft of the article had included a list of our various successes. Missing from that list was the career path I had chosen -- a lectureship.
Bothered by the omission, I e-mailed my fellow X-Gals: "One of the things that makes our group so unique is that we have [taken] so many diverse paths, all with the hope of fulfilling our passion about science yet balancing all that life stuff. We all are trying to find our way. I think that if this is going to be the underlying message of our articles -- giving hope to people -- we need to be careful of what value we inadvertently place on any one path. By leaving out the lecturing path in the list of 'successes," I did not think that you all think I am a failure but that this would be the message we would unintentionally be sending the readers."
As you can imagine, a lively discussion followed. Eventually we reached a consensus: Success, to us, means choices -- ones that allow us to pursue science with all of our passion and abilities and to have fulfilling family lives.
When we have talked about this topic with other female scientists, we have discovered that the perception in our profession is of a distinct lack of career choices. There's the tenure-track path, the industry path, or the lecturer's path (featuring a series of non-tenure-track positions in teaching or research). Choosing any one of those paths may mean that you have to give up something you love, whether it be teaching, research, family time, or academe itself.
We question the wisdom of studies such as the three-year project under way at Harvard University, "Persistence Research in Science and Engineering," financed by the National Science Foundation, that focuses on understanding why women are less likely to major in the hard sciences. While we applaud NSF's supporting such research and the researchers who find it worthy, we feel it is misdirected. Based on our experiences, the problem is not at the undergraduate level but is that women are getting lost in the sciences much later on in the pipeline.
As one X-Gal, Rachel, said, "It seems that society wants to fix the problem of the lack of women in science by pushing whole crops of bright, eager women into the profession. But we get squeezed out at the assistant-professor levels because of biology, plain and simple, and this can wreak havoc in our lives." Instead of pushing young women to major in the sciences, she said, "there should be some 'pulling' going on at higher levels."
The tough part is to figure out where the institutions are failing us and where we, as women, are "choosing ourselves" out of an academic career.
For example, as Lucille (ever the devil's advocate) countered, "We chose to have kids. We chose to get married. We chose the men we married (with all their mobility, or lack thereof). Those decisions have consequences, but they are our consequences, and we really shouldn't rail against them. The things we should rail against are the things that are beyond our immediate control but that still hinder our careers." Things like the institutionalized sexism reported by the National Academies.
We see truth in both arguments. As women, we need to take responsibility for our choices, but we also think that academe needs to take responsibility for incorporating more women in science. The academic career path is in direct conflict with the prime childbearing years. That is a biological fact, not a choice.
We also think that some women are predisposed to make choices that benefit the family rather than their careers and that any professional structure that demands a choice against family interests will see a concomitant shortage of women. That last statement is clearly debatable. We all know very successful women with children who have realized their highest career aspirations. Clearly it is possible. But why isn't it possible for more women?
Are women "choosing ourselves" out of an academic career, or is the traditional path of the academic profession so hostile to women that we feel we do not have a choice?
What we, as a group, want to do is encourage female scientists to challenge academe's rigid structure and broaden the definition of success in our professional and personal lives. We want to encourage female scientists to explore their options early in their graduate careers. We believe that many viable career paths exist in the sciences that would allow women to pursue their academic interests and still have time to dig out the fingerpaints on the weekends.
As for me, I could be out of a job next summer, in which case I may write an article ranting about that. But for now, I am choosing to teach and keep my research going. Where will that choice lead me? I don't know. But I'm following the lead of my fellow X-Gal, Jana, an administrator at a major university, who said: "My personal definition of success has always been whether I am using the gifts I've been given to the best of my ability -- considering the spectrum of my life as a professional, a parent, a wife, and a friend, across the continuum of time."