Friday, January 12, 2007

Even MIT Girls Get the Blues

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 Italy. It was the friend’s idea to ask the MIT professor and his student along. I had mixed feelings. I wanted to get to know Dr. Hari’s friend better. I wanted to relax a little without the sour (read: jealous) feeling one gets in the presence of someone so obviously better than yourself at the one thing that matters. I wanted at times to be the point of discussion, humbly smiling and shaking my head while Dr. Hari tells the Italian how promising I am. That’s difficult when Ms. Perfect is sitting next to you about to graduate from the best institution in the country.

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.


greensunflower said...

How cool that you found someone that thinks like you. Sometimes we get to feeling like we are the only ones who have certain feelings and to find someone else who feel simliarly makes all the differenc in the world.

My bio clock is ticking too (as you might well know). I am not in grad school (yet), do I go there, or do become a SAHM part time and nurse part time. Just seems like there has to be more time. Why cant we all live til 100 and have our kids in our fifties. That would make life so much easier!

MOM said...

you're looking at this the wrong way, if she pursued academia, less competition for you! act like a kitten, THINK LIKE A LION!

lefty_grrrl said...

Gotta do what you want, not what your able. Abilities mean little if they don't bring the satisfaction we seek. You can quote me on that.

Hot4Teacha said...

OF COURSE she wants to be friends with you - who wouldn't? Smart, gorgeous, talented, witty... when you have all that, who needs to be called "professor"? Love you!!!

e.b. said...

I love how you write so openly about ideas and insecurities that plague us women, physicists or not. I am sure she went home and told her family how she met a genuine girl and how nice it was to feel comfortable.

Scott said...

Mom, you are the best.

Nat, I really, really enjoyed this post. When I first "met" you, you were all about one upping the men, all about proving that you were just as good and better than any man. Now you know it's true, but may not want to follow through. Interesting twist in your life. I also think its wonderful that you have struck up a friendship with someone you admire. That is so rare. Very rare.

magnetbabe said...


do I go there, or do become a SAHM part time and nurse part time

I can't give you an answer to that except to listen to your heart. I finally listened to mine and feel very at peace. I know you will too!

Ha! At least she's a year ahead of me. Maybe she'll be pregnant by the time I'm looking for a job...

You're too sweet to me. Don't forget "kickass dancer" in your description of me!

Abilities mean little if they don't bring the satisfaction we seek

Ah, the Zen of lefty. I just may have to quote you. To my boss.

I love how you write so openly about ideas and insecurities that plague us women

Thank you, e.b. The only way to be a role model to girls is to be honest with them. And hopefully other women can find each other and connect through communication. Blogging helps!

Again it comes down to maturity. Since you've "met" me, I feel like I've proven myself sufficiently to know that I could succeed if I wanted to. I think there is still a huge problem with getting women in faculty positions in universities. I will end up being a result of that. I'm not going to lose my mind working at breaking the mold when I know I'll be happier following my heart. And you know what? In my spare time (which I will have, I insist upon it!) I can still fight to change things for women in the future.

Scott said...

That's true Nat. No sense crucifying yourself to help women. There are many ways to fight, and many battlefields to do it on.

fermicat said...

Great post, and I am glad you chose this one for the SEO meme. Otherwise I might have missed it!

I didn't finish my PhD or go into academia, but yet here I am at age 41 with no kids, just some wonderful cats. They don't fully explain the risks of putting off childbearing. I had no idea it would have ever been a problem.

Jeni said...

How I envy you! Here I am at age 63, three children grown, three grandchildren, three step-grandchildren, living with my daughter, her husband, their two little ones and one of his three other children, receiving social security disability and depressed, disgusted, disgruntled often because I have an education that I could not find a place willing to hire me to allow me to use it! What I wanted at your age was partially what I have today - the children, the grandchildren but I always wanted something more - the education and a career to match up with it. Ok, I got the education but it came to me too late in my life to be able to manipulate around the stigmas of hiring anyone over 40! And now I sit trying to find ways that will give me some self-satisfaction that the education was not four years of hard work wasted. I know inside my heart it wasn't but my mind still doesn't accept that because I have no tangible proof.