Monday, January 14, 2019

Career barriers, part 5: Cross-racial mentorship in a segregated academy

By an anonymous graduate student

We all face career barriers, and while every situation is unique, we also have much in common. This series of guest posts highlights stories and advice from a diverse group of people who have confronted a wide variety of career barriers. Hopefully this post helps you to feel less alone in your struggle, gives you advice for moving forward, or allows you to help someone around yo.

I was a junior in college when I decided that I wanted to be a professor. I was hooked on the thrill of working to solve a fascinating biological problem. I spent nights and weekends at the bench without feeling like I was making a sacrifice. I had found my professional home and would work to earn the intellectual freedom of a faculty position. It would take a decade of perseverance, creativity, luck and a supportive network, but I finally knew what I wanted. At the time, I could not see myself aiming for anything else.

In part due to naiveté, I did not think to look up demographic data on faculty in the biological sciences. Of course, I knew that African-Americans were underrepresented in STEM, but I underestimated the severity of the problem. It was in graduate school that I learned only 0.7% of biology professors nationwide are Black or African-American. Considering the fact that 12% of Americans are Black, it would take a 17-fold increase in the number of Black faculty to reach a number representative of the general population. Surely, diversity officers and enlightened faculty were trying to understand and address this problem? It would take me another year to conclude that, despite paying regular lip service to diversity, faculty and administrators did not seem to consider racial exclusion to be a problem at all.

Academic twitter is full of threads about career barriers based on gender, race and class. STEM faculty, in particular, appear to have woken up to these barriers in recent years. To me, the most revealing aspect of this newfound “wokeness” is the amount of attention given to racial and gender inequities relative to the magnitude of each disparity. Take the life sciences, for instance. Women are underrepresented as PIs, especially at the level of full professors and department chairs. Overall, women make up only 30% of biology professors. This is a serious problem that requires our attention, but it pales in comparison to racial disparities. Progressive-minded faculty who are vocal about gender inequity in STEM are typically silent about race. Most of these faculty likely don't know the numbers, nor are they concerned about not having a single Black or Latinx professor in their departments, professional networks, or seminar series.

While gender inequity in STEM is correctly understood to be an engineered phenomenon that must be actively reversed, racial disparities are seen as part of the natural order, not worth discussing or challenging. From time to time, it becomes necessary to condemn explicit racism like that of James Watson, but good liberal professors who have inherited Watson’s segregated academy must never be asked to look in the mirror. It is acceptable to diversify trainees, but never colleagues. "We don't get qualified minority applicants for job openings," they claim, somehow forgetting that it is their job to help make qualified applicants from all backgrounds.

The structural barriers limiting the educational success of students from marginalized communities, starting as early as pre-school, have been thoroughly documented. Despite these barriers, the near-total absence of Black faculty cannot be explained by unequal representation in the academic pipeline. Underrepresented minorities have made significant gains over the past three decades in earning PhDs in the life sciences. However, this has not translated into a more diverse professoriate. A candid account to explain this phenomenon comes from Dr. MarybethGasman, who stated, “The reason we don’t have more faculty of color among college faculty is that we don’t want them. We simply don’t want them.” The more time I spend around professors, the more I accept Gasman’s assessment. I have come to conclude that White faculty, with rare exceptions, prefer their departments as segregated as their neighborhoods and social circles - not all white mind you (that wouldn’t have the right look), but with just a few “acceptable” minorities, preferably from privileged backgrounds.

Both success and mental health in academia rely heavily on quality of mentorship. The preference for homogenous professional spaces influences mentorship habits, which is where it becomes a problem for aspiring scientists from historically marginalized backgrounds. The literature on mentorship distinguishes between two functions of a mentor: instrumental (skill development, career guidance, etc.) and psychosocial (concern for mentees’ well-being, building confidence, forming relationships, etc.). According to mentorship research, one determinant of an advisor’s investment as a mentor is the degree to which the advisor sees himself or herself in each trainee. This is particularly true with respect to the psychosocial role, which is facilitated by the effortless interpersonal comfort of a homogeneous pair in this deeply segregated society. In the absence of conscious effort to overcome racial biases, faculty help to reproduce the White academy by investing in trainees who look like them, or share other key aspects of their background, while at the same time decrying the dearth of colleagues of color.

The problem I discuss here is enormous and persistent. It will not go away anytime soon. Perhaps that is why so many professors avoid discussing it. Or perhaps avoiding the issue is the easiest way to maintain the status quo. Neither avoidance nor feigning ignorance will lead to a solution. And above all, we need to discard the myth that time will magically heal all inequities. As much as we all love to bash President Trump and James Watson, things have not improved in our corner since the 80’s, and the first step is to acknowledge the possibility that we might not be as innocent as we would like to think. The second step is to figure out how to talk about the problem without instinctively getting defensive. As I have seen in my own university, the few Black PIs out there are in too precarious a position to seriously advocate for racial inclusion, since they have to worry about punishment for offending their White colleagues’ sensibilities. White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo is an excellent resource, especially if you find yourself offended by anything I have said here. As for improving cross-racial mentorship, the concerned reader can begin diving into the literature here and here. Unless those with power take initiative to change their fields, departments, and mentorship habits, “diversity” will remain a code word for tokenism, and Watson’s vision of a segregated academy will persist in my generation.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Career barriers, part 4: Letting go


I was digging through my backpack a couple of weeks ago looking for a snack, and I came across the finishers medal from a Spartan race I had run…in October. Without realizing it, I had been carrying that medal around everywhere I went for the past two months. To work and back every day. Through numerous airports (surprisingly without ever getting flagged at TSA) and across over 10,000 miles of travel. It’s a pretty big medal and weighs over a pound, so definitely enough to be a burden. The funny thing I realized is that it would have actually been less of a burden if it had weighed something like 10 pounds. If that were the case, I would have noticed the weight immediately and taken it out of my backpack before going to work the next day.

One obvious and embarrassing takeaway of this story is that I need to clean out my backpack more often. However, there’s a bigger lesson here. In our careers, we often carry around burdens that slow us down, but we keep carrying them because they’re not quite heavy enough to get our attention. And, one of the best things that can happen is when the burden gets big enough to make us realize that we need to let it go. A few examples of this that I’ve experienced throughout my career include:

Fear of failed experiments. As an undergraduate new to research, I thought it would be just like the lab classes I took. Follow the directions, be efficient and you can finish in half the time, and everyone gets a pretty yellow crystalline solid. If you’ve worked in a research lab for more than one day, you know just how wrong this is. However, as an undergraduate working in lab part time and without too much at stake, the fear and frustration of failure was like that one pound weight. It slowed me down, but was bearable. This changed when I got to grad school. Research became my all-day, every-day life and the stakes became much higher – my future career was riding on successful experiments leading to research articles. The weight of my fear became crippling and I was forced to acknowledge that if I didn’t let go, it would stop me from moving completely. It was the best thing that could have happened.

Decision obsession. As a student and postdoc, my day involved making quite a few decisions: what solvent will I use for that reaction? which experiment is most important to do first? is that article worth reading? However, the number of decisions was still small enough that I could obsess over every one of them. As a new faculty member, the number of decisions I had to make every day changed by orders of magnitude. My days were consumed with things like: do I order these graduated cylinders or those ones? do we hire this postdoc or that one? do I say yes to that opportunity or not? Within the first month, I realized that if I stopped to obsess over finding the-one-absolutely-best answer to every question, my lab would never get anywhere. Instead, I had to let go and lean into the knowledge that I would make some good decisions and some bad ones, and that was unavoidable. The best I could do was to try to be wise with each choice, keep moving forward, and learn from the things that didn’t go so well.  Even though my average day still involves a tremendous number of decisions, I actually have less stress from this than when I was a grad student.

People pleasing. I’m a people pleaser by nature. That may not seem like a bad thing, but it was causing me anxiety and creating a lot of extra work. However, I could get away with trying for a long time. What finally changed this? Twitter. As I’ve become more active on social media over the past year, one thing has become evident – no matter what I say, there will always be someone who disagrees with me or tells me that I need to do more. But, twitter is not my job. It’s arguably not even part of my job. It’s something I do for fun in the spare corners of my time because I enjoy connecting with, learning from, and encouraging others and engaging in dialogue over what academic culture could look like. What started out as a mild burden of trying to respond to every critic quickly became unmanageable. I had to let go or it would start to eat away the time that I spend on my actual job of teaching and mentoring students and managing a lab. Again, this turned out to be awesome. It has forced me to learn how to see or hear someone’s problem or criticism and try to understand, but without feeling like I need to be the one to intervene. I've now brought this same attitude into my other relationships. It has turned out to be transformative to how I interact with my coworkers and family, and I’m actually a more empathetic person because of it.

As you read this, you may be starting to recognize the things that are becoming huge weights in your life or career that you need to let go of right now. That’s great. Even more so, I want to encourage you to do the hard work of “cleaning out the backpack.” What are you carrying around that’s slowing you down and you don’t even realize it? Think about how great it would feel to get rid of that burden now before you carry it through another year.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Career barriers, part 3: In search of the dream job


By: the Junior Prof
www.juniorprof.com

We all face career barriers, and while every situation is unique, we also have much in common. This series of guest posts highlights stories and advice from a diverse group of people who have confronted a wide variety of career barriers. Hopefully this post helps you to feel less alone in your struggle, gives you advice for moving forward, or allows you to help someone around you.

Thinking About Employment in Graduate School

I’ll confess to you that I arrived to the first semester of my graduate school career totally unconcerned about my future employment prospects – no one had warned me that the Humanities were in “crisis” or that landing a job post-PhD could be an arduous task. You can imagine, then, my shock when a unit of my cohort’s “Intro to Graduate Studies” class was themed around the death of the profession I thought I’d one day join. I’ll never forget fighting back tears as a faculty member in my field told me briskly that I didn’t have a prayer of getting a job in my field. In many ways, my dreams of finding healthy employment at an institution (like the R1 I had attended for undergrad) crashed before they ever took off.

Throughout graduate school, I was surrounded by both institutional and departmental programming that addressed employment issues in the professoriate for Humanities PhD-seekers. Much of this was deeply empowering – I learned about the systemic issues causing the decline of the field that I belonged to; I internalized that this decline was something far greater than me and not to be taken personally; I learned to recognize the skillset created by pursuing a Humanities PhD and explored the multitude of professional opportunities that could make me happy post-degree; I embraced the intellectual journey for what it was and saved the anxiety of unemployment for another day.

That being said, the over-arching tone remained true to the reality…which was that I was statistically unlikely to ever get a tenure track job. Far less likely was that I would land a tenure track job at an R1 institution like the one that was producing me. I began to feel puzzled by the ethics of producing PhDs in my field if there were no jobs to be had and wondered if the programming I appreciated was the corporate university’s strategy for dodging these ethical qualms and retaining its source of cheap labor.

I did what any young dreamer with an interest in self-preservation would do…I talked myself out of wanting a job in the professoriate before I ever really made up my mind I wanted it; it was so far out of reach that why should I bother? This attempt at self-preservation started off cautiously as I researched the wealth and variety of postsecondary institutions across the United States and found merits in all of them. Then I explored the transition to the demanding yet rewarding possibility of teaching high school or finding a job at a government agency. I entertained editing, publishing and creative writing. I trolled hiring webpages for the tech industry’s hard-hitters (think Google and Facebook) who were looking for researchers of all different backgrounds, including Humanists. I’ll also never forget my graduate school adviser telling me not to worry because if I didn’t get a job I would surely get into a great law school and everything would be fine from there… (that’s a myth, by the way).

TAKEAWAY: Ask yourself what you want early and frequently. To clarify, I DO NOT advocate for closing doors on plan-B’s, but I DO advocate for knowing what your plan-A is. The constraints of finding professorial jobs as a PhD in the Humanities are REAL, but you should ask yourself if you want one.

Thinking About Employment While on the Job Market

I went on the job market twice while in graduate school. The first time I had funding left and wanted to dip a proverbial toe in the waters to see what came of it. My partner was transitioning in their career so it was a chance to align our geographical location. I also saw it as a chance to get my materials in order, experiment with what worked and what didn’t, get asked bizarre interview questions and strategize on how to answer them. I applied to around 20 jobs and got a few interviews. They didn’t go anywhere which, in hindsight, isn’t surprising considering I’m fairly confident I came across as very green. I tried to mitigate my disappointment by continuing my forays into exploring any and every possibility other than becoming an assistant professor.

Year two I felt confident. I had some experience with this beast under my belt and was much closer to completing my dissertation. I applied to EVERYTHING. I applied to the jobs I was “making a case for” even if it proved to be a tremendous waste of time. The rejection was starting to take a toll on my mental health so I resolved that this was the last year of job market hell. However, I know myself well enough to know that to properly grieve something and move on, I have to leave no stone unturned. So that was the strategy…all in so that I could be all out.

Near the end of year two my home institution threw me a bone and offered to let me come back to adjunct for them in the event that I didn’t get a job. I was tremendously relieved that I would know where my next paycheck was coming from but, in some ways, taking it would have felt like moving back in with my parents after I had resolved to move out. I had accepted the offer when something miraculous happened: I got a tenure track offer. It came so far out of left-field I thought I was dreaming. I took it. And I sighed with relief because I hoped it meant I wouldn’t have to ask myself these questions ever again. I was thankful that I had gotten the job so few people get and, given industry standards, relatively early in the game.

TAKEAWAY: Only apply to jobs that make sense. The desperation of employment led me to apply to so many things that all I did was effectively double the amount of rejection I faced. Applying to more jobs doesn’t mean you’ll get more interviews. More likely, it means a larger tax on mental health.

Thinking About Employment as an Employed Humanist

The prognosis for the Humanities continues to be solemn. Since getting my job, I’ve allowed myself the mental and emotional space to do the deep-dive of figuring out exactly how solemn. In the last several weeks, the Chronicle of Higher Education has published “What We Hire in Now: English by the Grim Numbers,” “Why Are Students Ditching the History Major?” and “The Real Cause of the Humanities’ Woes.” When I read these articles, my gratitude for my job deepens, but I can’t ignore the nagging question that has finally surfaced: “what do I want?”

Prognosis aside, I have found myself back on the job market a mere 6 months after getting my job. I believe this to be the unfortunate side-effect of not feeling sure I’m where I’m supposed to be. Some people might argue that it’s shamefully soon to be considering leaving a job I only just got. (I have heard that argument more than once.) I’ve come to realize that reason I’m back on the market is relatively simple: all of the hype surrounding unemployment among Humanities PhDs caused me to internalize that reality, which prevented me from ever asking myself what my best-case scenario was.

My job search this year has produced a couple of interviews which is, quite frankly, a couple more than I saw myself getting. I feel relief that I can mentally turn over the pros and cons of each job and ask myself whether or not I want it in a way I never felt empowered to do before. My current job may have produced a bit of a paradigm shift in that regard, but I still get the sense that I’m back at square one.

TAKEAWAY: If I could give my younger self a piece of advice, it would be to relax about the whole thing. I realize that it was the key ingredient in allowing myself the space to self-explore. Instead, I spent a lot of time stressing about things I couldn’t control.

For all of these reasons, finding employment provoked an unexpected existential quandary in me: if I could have any job, what would it look like? My obstacle now trying to shed the habit of consistently answering questions about my future with what I deem “possible” or with my impostor syndrome laden “limitations” in view. I confess all of this to you so that you’ll ask yourself what you want sooner and more frequently than I did. Sending all of you positive vibes as you search for your calling.