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.