I wanted so badly to hate her. An MIT student defending her dissertation in May, she has tenured professors lining up to interview her for a postdoc. She is gorgeous- tall, thin and exotic looking. She is outgoing, excellent at networking with a big welcoming smile. She makes good eye contact. I was positive she wouldn’t remember that day when Dr. Hari made James and me go to lunch with her and her advisor for the simple reason that someone from MIT wanted to have lunch with us.
I was ready for the awkward moment when I pretended not to remember her either so as not to make her embarrassed and somehow we’d have to start all over. But she walked up to me with an unassuming smile, hand outstretched and said, “Hi! I don’t know if you remember but we ate lunch together in this same fair city in March…”
“Of course,” I replied graciously taking her hand, shocked that someone so used to having her butt kissed would remember a forced meal with two students from a university she had probably never heard of.
Our advisors were catching up. A third party walked up to her advisor and asked if he was still at MIT. He looked surprised. “Where else am I going to go when I already work at the best school there is?” Despite the disdain I felt at this scientific brand of royalty, I had to admire his honesty.
That evening, Dr. Hari had already made plans for us to go to dinner with an old friend of his from
In the end I decided to make the most of it and engage her in conversation as best I could. “So, what are your plans after graduating? Academia? National lab?” Typical discussion for which every grad student has a typical 10 second response. Since we were a conversation away from our bosses, her response was surprisingly candid. She told me about her skepticism towards academia. She didn’t think she was a good fit. She wanted job security, immediate stability. She didn’t want to move several more times. She wanted to settle down, start a family. She didn’t want to work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week and be dead on her feet with no time of her own. She didn’t need the prestige that would come after spending the best years of her life not enjoying them and instead toiling over tenure, writing proposals while not getting to know her kids. That is, if she were lucky enough to have time to reproduce while she was still able. She was practically in tears. Her advisor didn’t listen; he felt that she could do these things so she should, no matter what her heart was telling her.
I was stunned. She might as well have been reading my mind. We spent the evening pouring out our hearts over sangria. Whispering our thoughts on our advisors pressuring us to break the mold and be female faculty. We agreed on why there are so few female faculty- even MIT students have biological clocks which will win out over clawing our way up the academic ladder. It’s not worth it and we can see that from miles away. I was so relieved that I wasn’t the only one to feel this way. That the smartest women in the world gave up the best opportunities in the world for the same reasons I was contemplating. And that other people’s advisors were similarly unwilling to accept this prospect.
That was the night I had the most fun at the conference. I blushed as thoroughly as a junior high boy when I asked for her contact information. I nonchalantly said something about us women sticking together, especially those of us secure in our decisions not to pursue a tenure track. She seemed truly touched at my thinly veiled attempt to be friends with her. And she accepted.