Thursday, October 11, 2007

Location, Location, Location

Yesterday was the due date for applications to a prestigious postdoctoral program in my field. I spent two solid weeks working on that application, so it was an inexpressible relief to finally turn it in.

Understandably, I'm a bit burned out on the job search right now. I'd love to forget about postdoc applications and go back to research, or in my current mood, just watch TV for three days straight.

About a month ago, my advisor and I worked out a list of 15 positions I'm going to apply for. Yes, fifteen. It has always seemed like too many to me, but my advisor insists it's a great opportunity to force people to read my work and build citations. Initially I agreed with him, and faithfully promised to turn them all in. But now I'm totally exhausted, and I desperately want to cut down my to-do list of job applications.

There are some jobs on my list that I really just don't want. One, in particular, is in a city--I'll call it Plainville--where I had the misfortune to live for a summer, and I do not care to repeat the experience. The weather in Plainville is completely objectionable; I had asthma almost the entire time I was there; and it's so sprawling that one can't get anywhere except by car. (Of course, given the rotten weather, it's no surprise that the inhabitants prefer to drive.)

I don't think the job in Plainville is critical to my career. There are other options, in places with equally good or even better research groups in my field. If my job prospects are bad enough that I get turned down for all my other 14 potential jobs, it's not very likely that Plainville will want to have me either.

So I asked my advisor about cutting this Plainville job from my application list. I don't want to work there, so why waste my time and my letter writers' time? But my advisor was adamant, again, that I go through with it. He sees job applications as a strategic move to build my career, not as just a way to get a job.

I trust my advisor's judgment on most things, and I'm sure he's right that I need to take every opportunity to publicize my work. But right now, I feel like I've come slap-up against reality: I don't have an infinite amount of time, I need to finish my thesis project, and application due dates for jobs I actually want are fast approaching.

The application I handed in yesterday was the first that required a detailed research proposal (some fellowships want only a one-page summary of your interests). Now that I've written the proposal, I can reuse it, so I'm not likely to need so much time for the rest of my applications. But still. I'll need to at least tweak the proposal to address each department's specific recruiting goals. It's a time-consuming process, there's no way around that.

What to do? Either the nuclear option (flatly refuse to hand in the application) or the weasel option: don't mention the Plainville job until after the application due date, then express dismay that I'm too late to apply. I'm pretty sure my advisor isn't keeping track of due dates. The weasel option isn't the most honest, integrity-filled way to solve my problem, but I'm running out of ideas.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Cat-prompted return to the blogosphere

I've been silent for quite some time. To my readers, if I have any (highly unlikely at this point), I apologize. Work got crazy, traveling got crazy, and I neglected the blog.

I'm back and ready to get going again, though. Frustration of the week: cat care! When I was away on my recent research trip, my cat had a meltdown. This was brought about by my cat-sitter, who completely blew off the job and didn't show up at the house. The cat was locked inside for almost three days, until I got worried (because I couldn't get ahold of the cat sitter--I kept calling my home phone and her cell and there was no answer). I asked my landlord to check on the cat, and sure enough, she was out of food and nearly out of water.

As soon as my landlord opened the door, the cat shot straight out of the house and onto the neighbor's roof. She doesn't like being locked inside, and she must have made up her mind not to return to the house until I came home. So my landlord put the food and water outside (I'm very grateful for his help). I managed to arrange another cat sitter, but at no point was he able to convince the cat to come in the house. This was a problem, because I usually bring her inside at night--I don't want her tangling with the raccoons.

I found out all this business about the cat refusing to come inside only a few days before I came home. My replacement cat sitter didn't bother to let me know what was going on (you'd think, since I was paying him $200, that he could have at least let me know what was going on!). He thought everything was fine, and there was no problem, because it looked like the cat was eating. But when I finally got home, she had lost a lot of weight! I believe the cat sitter actually did put out food for her, but the raccoons probably ate most of it.

I have several more trips planned within the next six months, and I'd like to prevent another cat meltdown. Step one is to get a reliable cat sitter. Step two: deal with cat anxiety. She's incredibly suspicious of my travel now, and the sight of the suitcase puts her on her guard. Is there any way I can convince her that the cat sitters (when they show up) are not evil, are not going to lock her in the house for days on end or make her into cat stew?

Here are the options I've come up with so far:
1. Tranquilizers--on the morning I leave, give her one. When the cat sitter comes the same afternoon or evening, the cat will hopefully be calm enough to accept the presence of a (comparative) stranger.
2. Bring the cat sitter over to the house before the trip, and see how the cat reacts to him/her. If she's obviously afraid, it won't work.
3. Only go with cat sitters whom the cat has reacted to well in the past. (I tried that this time, unfortunately--someone whom the cat likes and who has been really responsible in the past really let me down.)
4. Maybe the cat could come with me on a couple of my trips? I'm hesitant to try this, because the airplane ride and unfamiliar surroundings might scare her more than the cat sitter. But it might be the only way of ensuring that she's fed and looked after when I travel.
5. Kennel (or pet hotel, to give it a nicer name)? Again, not great for a cat who's scared of most people, but if things just don't work out with the cat sitters, I may be out of options.

I hope some combination of these will make my future trips go more smoothly. I love my cat and don't want her to suffer. If anyone out there in the blog world has some advice about dealing with panicky cats, I'd be glad to hear it.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Lost Boys

Two students emailed me today telling me that they tried to come to my office hours, but another professor's name was on the door and there was no one in the office. After double-checking that I had put the correct office number and building on my syllabus, and the correct times for office hours, I knew they had both gone to the wrong office.

My building has a corridor connecting to another one on campus, so I figure the students must have gone to the office number I gave them, but in the adjacent building. I felt a little bit bad about the mix-up, and I almost apologized to the students in my replies to their emails. Almost.

Then a second guilty thought: I figured if multiple people got lost and missed office hours, I should hold make-up office hours tomorrow morning. Student X, who had to work during today's office hours, already scheduled an appointment for tomorrow. I could open up the extra help session I'm giving Student X to other students as well.

Then I stopped myself.

No apologies. Did my students who got lost on campus ask directions to my building? Clearly not. Did they consult a campus map before trying to find my office? Clearly not. Did they call my office phone number (printed on the syllabus) to ask for help finding the office? They did not. It's too bad they got lost, but it's not my fault and I shouldn't apologize for it.

And the idea of opening up Student X's time to the directionally challenged? Bad. It's not fair to her. She was responsible enough to schedule an appointment with me when she knew she would miss office hours, and she doesn't deserve to have other students monopolize her extra help session. I'll bet she shows up in the right place at the right time tomorrow.

I'm not unreasonable. The lost boys are free to email me and ask for help outside of office hours--as is clearly explained on my syllabus, and as I said in the first lecture. But so far, I've only received mildly accusatory emails--"we went to your office hours, and you weren't there." To which I replied, with no apologies, "you were in the wrong place."

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Thoughts on Feminism

Here's an essay I originally wrote for the IBTP forum, in response to a question about how radical feminism has failed or succeeded. The IBTP thread can be found here. Writing this helped me clarify my thoughts about where I stand on the feminist spectrum, but I'm still not totally sure. I'm probably not quite a radical. I don't advocate complete revolution and building society up from the ground (I would have no idea how to proceed with such a monumental task), but I do think there are serious, deep-rooted ways in which our culture is sick, especially in its attitudes to women.

You can also see from this essay that I ascribe our cultural problems not to the "failure of feminism," ala Time Magazine and its obnoxious "Feminism is Dead" headlines, but to the failure of our leadership and society at large to listen and respond to feminist concerns.


I don't like to think of feminism itself as having failed, because then the blame falls on feminists. My conception is of a society that has failed to keep up with feminism; to respond to women's just demands.

Betty Friedan and other second-wave leaders were unhappy with radical feminism. They thought the radicals were moving away from the real work of feminism; they were taking on porn and sexual violence with "Take Back the Night," when the battles for equal pay, access to credit, and safe, legal abortion were far from won. (Here I'm paraphrasing "The Second Stage" as I remember it.) Friedan and her compatriots thought women should unite against economic injustice and leave the messy world of bedroom politics alone. It's certainly easier to talk to Congress about equal pay than domestic violence.

I think I understand where these women were coming from. They wanted real policy change, and to a certain degree, they got it, but not enough. Had Richard Nixon and his minions not fought the feminists at every opportunity, had full economic equality for women been won, had the ERA passed, we would be living in a very different society. The patriarchy would still be there, but would-be exploiters of women would fear the power of women's wallets and edit themselves. As I see it, this was the promise of non-radical, second-wave feminism: a world where the full personhood of women was reflected in their access to all the opportunities men have. In the US, access to opportunity is determined by economic status, so feminists fought for women to have economic and political power.

Unfortunately, the patriarchy is not just reflected in economics and politics--it lives in the minds of all human beings and infests personal relationships. The radicals realized that they were dealing with much more than lack of economic power. It's great for women to become doctors and lawyers, but what if they still come home to abusive husbands? Personal degradation is alive and well, and the systematic devaluing of women in private life most definitely inhibits our ability to function fully in the public sphere. So the radicals were right--the personal is political.

In fact, the 1970s radfem focus on pornography and violence was prophetic. Had other feminists, had society at large, taken the rads' concerns seriously, they could have saved us from the free and available internet porn that's poisoning our conceptions of sexuality. Seriously, has there been any generation in the past that had free and easy access to hard-core porn? Now we see young high-school girls with bare bellies and thongs showing over the tops of their jeans, their sexual consciousness shaped by Girls Gone Wild.

The sexual revolution was most definitely not a revolution that served women. It left us free to be used, with no consequences for the men who use us. I think the rads realized that once the genie of sexual freedom was out of its bottle, it would immediately be co-opted by the patriarchy to demean women. If only their concerns had been heard. The sexual revolution called for an immediate re-evaluation of personal relationships, which did not happen. That was society's failure to listen to hard-thinking women who told uncomfortable truths.

I don't know where radical feminism should go from here, but I agree with Jack-Booted Thug that consciousness raising is a necessary first step. Young women need this more than anything. They absolutely have to have some intervention from the pornsick culture if they're going to grow up respecting themselves at all.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Sneaking Holidays

While July 4th is not technically a university holiday, I have decided to make it a personal holiday, in the sense of not showing up in the office. This is my spontaneous holiday, not planned or anticipated, but decided midmorning because I'm exhausted, depressed, and feeling unproductive.

The depression is mainly due to my best friend leaving the country for an entire year, starting today. She's an anthropologist, and she has to go do fieldwork. I've known this day would come ever since we met four years ago, at the start of grad school, but it still feels unreal. H knows me better than anyone on earth, and the thought of not seeing her every couple of weeks (we have lived 90 miles apart up till now) is wrenching.

H hasn't wanted me to make a big emotional production of this separation. Quite sensibly, she doesn't want any extra stress or guilt laid on. When we said goodbye yesterday, there were no tears, just a promise to Skype often. We're both counting on this being only a physical separation, not a spiritual one.

I still feel yucky and hollow, though, and can't seem to browbeat my brain into concentrating. Hence the spontaneous holiday. I'm going to the beach with another good friend. I have to get out of the house, or I'll just mope all day.


I decided to give Z, the boy of my last post, another chance. We seem to be getting along well, and he's coming tonight to watch fireworks. I'm not really in the mood to see him, though. Today I'm in the mood for female companionship, or just my cat. With my female friends, I can wear my ugly glasses and big sweatshirt--a hand-me-down from H--if I feel like it. Plus, I don't have to do anything fancy. A walk to the beach or a home video is sufficient.

Men are often very labor-intensive, needing to be entertained, wanting women to keep the conversation going, and deciding we're boring and/or antisocial if we're not in a chatty mood. My ex was a prime example of this problem. X would work 16-hour days, then come to parties too exhausted for social interaction. Often, he would even put his head down on the table and leave me to keep the conversation going with HIS friends. But if I was too tired to take on this role and wanted to stay in, X would complain that I wasn't social enough.

One thing I like about Z is that he seems to know how to just be silent. He doesn't need constant stimulation. This is very good for me, because I am a quiet person. The reason I feel like seeing him will be a lot of work is simply because it's early in our relationship. We're not yet at the stage where we sit around in sweats watching movies. He hasn't seen my ugly glasses.

If today is really a holiday for me, I should probably extend that designation to my date with Z as well. No pretending to be cheerful, no Chatty Cathy impersonation, because I'm really not in the mood. And no elaborate plans--just walking from my house to where we can see the fireworks, and then back home for a video.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007


I have been seeing a man for about four weeks. We met at a speed dating event--after waffling for a long time, I finally decided to "get out there" and meet new people. I was falling for this man, whom I shall call Z. He seemed a perfect match for me--great listener, respectful, loves poetry, supportive of my work, dedicated to his own work.

Then last night, Z drove the 40 minutes between our homes and showed up unannounced at my door. He was obviously anxious and upset about something. From his manner, I thought Z was about to break up with me. I was steeling myself to hear, "I've had fun hanging out with you, but I'm just not ready for a relationship. It's not you, it's me." Etc, etc.

But the truth was weirder. Z was having a conscience attack because he had lied about his age. When he signed up for speed dating, he listed his age on the registration form as 27. He's actually 34.

When I asked why he lied--why?? It's such a futile gesture, guaranteed to start any relationship off on the wrong foot--Z said it was because he was embarrassed about still being in grad school at age 34. He didn't think any woman would be interested in a 34-year-old grad student. He intimated that the reason this thought was infesting his brain was his ex-girlfriend--his over 30-student status was something she used to taunt him about.

This prompted further discussion of the situation with his ex, and I won't tell the whole story here, because it's extremely long. Suffice to say, their relationship was and is completely toxic. The reason they still communicate is because when Z and the ex were together, he was a stay-at-home dad to her child from a previous relationship, and Z still wants to be involved in the child's life.

I already knew about the child--Z told me about her on our second date--and I made the decision that I still wanted to pursue the relationship. But now, another bombshell. I don't have a problem dating a 34-year-old (I'm 26), but I don't like being lied to. Now I just wonder if I can trust this man at all. How many more surprises will there be? What else is he keeping from me?

Z asked me to understand why he had lied about his age, assured me that he felt terrible about it, and promised he would never do it again. He said he's human and he made a mistake. Okay, fine. I understand that people aren't perfect. But right now, I just feel hollow and disappointed. The bubble of happiness that this new relationship created has definitely been punctured.

I have no answers right now. My friends are split between giving him the heave-ho and giving him one more chance. My mind has been doing this back-and-forth dance all day. It's early days yet, but somehow I really thought this relationship was on the right track. I can hardly express my disappointment at finding out I was wrong.

Friday, June 15, 2007

The Second-Choice Student

Here's a post I started in June, but never finished. The job search has brought the issue of being "top-choice student" to the forefront of my mind again, so I decided to keep writing about it.

My advisor has other students, and he has to do the right thing by them. This I know, and I don't normally get jealous of the other students. But this summer I asked my advisor to contact the department at Prestigious U and ask if I could give a seminar. He begrudgingly, with argument, assented to my request, but with one small edit: instead of sending an email recommending Jane (not my real name) as a seminar speaker at Prestigious U, he recommend "my two students, Jane and John." Cue resentment and annoyance on my part.

I always used to worry that I was my advisor's second-choice student (or even third-choice student). When I started with my advisor, another man and I were working on similar projects for the same consortium. My advisor really pushed this male student to publish his paper, and spent a lot of time helping him with the draft. In the meantime, I was quietly writing my own manuscript with little help from anyone.

Our department has a prize for the best third-year student. Male Student shared the win with our department chair's female student, and my advisor's other male student got honorable mention. For me, zip zero zilch. Fine--certainly plain old jealousy and sour grapes are part of my resentment here--but when there are six people in your class and three get awards, but not you, you can't help but feel that the department is sending you a message: you are a second-tier student.

To me, it was particularly frustrating that the only two male students in my class got honored, and they were both my advisor's students. I really felt like Advisor's third choice, and considered leaving the program. A grad student needs a strong advocate, and I didn't think my advisor was advocating for me.

My advisor and I healed the breach over the award business when I finally broke down and told him I was sick of not being noticed, and I felt like the department considered me to be at the bottom of my class. He was surprised, shocked, had no idea I felt that way. The reason I wasn't considered for the department award, he said, was because the faculty's perception of me was that I was "fine". I was self-motivated, I was above needing awards, I didn't need any confidence boosts. (On a side note: this is a real danger of being stoic all the time. But I think it's only a danger for women--no one would ever think a male student didn't want awards.) Male Student left our research group to work on a different project, my advisor worked harder to get me recognition, and I no longer felt like a second choice.

Fast-forward two years, to right now. Seeing that Advisor recommended Jane and John to give a seminar at Prestigious U, not just Jane, made me feel all over again like a second choice. Visiting Prestigious U was my idea, and I was the one to make contact with the professor there. Can't anyone advocate for just me, only me? Why always bring male students along for the ride?

Monday, June 11, 2007


Today, it's just me alone in my office. My office-mate is not in this afternoon. I have no meeting with my advisor scheduled. Even if my advisor and I had planned a meeting, he might just blow it off, which is what said advisor did with both of our meetings last week. No message, no note, nothing--just a no-show, leaving me hanging with an unfinished paper draft and lots of questions.

Sometimes this alone-ness can be a real drag. All the energy and enthusiasm I had this morning has drained for want of stimulation. I was pathetically grateful to nice Professor P. for exchanging a few words with me in the mailroom, when we were trying to un-jam the petulant printer.

But as numbing is it is to hear only the sound of one's keyboard, often interactions with one's colleagues are a real bummer. So it was last week at morning coffee, when I had a magazine about women and science tucked under my arm. I didn't intend this magazine for a discussion piece; I just happened to go straight to coffee after checking my mail. One harmless male, trying to make conversation, asked what was in the magazine, so I gave the highlight--a report of consistent bias against women at a prestigious university that's an important employer in our field.

Of course, this prompted a knobbish, irksome male student to expostulate that all discrimination against women was in the past, and now we're just waiting for women to move up the pipeline and fill senior positions. So I tried to explain how the pipeline leaks, and proportionally more men than women advance at each career milestone. The discussion went downhill from there.

I don't know what possessed me to engage with Knob Boy at all. It was entirely predictable that I would just expend energy and get frustrated, while his mind would remain firmly unchanged. This whole story, though, is just to illustrate the catch-22 that exists in my little slice of academia. Working completely alone is, well, lonely, but being around one's colleagues is sometimes worse.

What to do? Go to Graduate Women's Group every week, look forward to my next visit to nice collaborators in SoCal, and finish my degree so I can get out of here.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Remember, You're a Woman

Two days ago, a young male professor gave a career planning seminar to the grad students in my department. He broke down the jobs available to new Ph.D.s by number and type--prize postdoctoral fellowships, grant-based postdocs, and lectureships. Very useful, because we need to know as much as we can about the job market before the spray and pray of fall application season.

Male Professor also gave us his opinion about how much each component of the job application--letters, research statement, bibliography, seminar--counts. Letters, he says, are the most important, followed by the job talk. The moral of the story: don't be shy about promoting your work, because no one is going to invite you, a lowly grad student, to give a seminar. You and your advisor have to contact prospective employers and make a strong case that you belong on the seminar schedule.

But then said professor couldn't resist throwing in a well-aimed dig at the women students. "Women," he said, "lack the confidence to showcase their work. They are too shy. This is something you guys (sic) will have to overcome."

Now, was that necessary? Admittedly, Male Professor had a point: women are socialized to be diffident and modest. This socialization is at odds with the academic requirement of tooting your own horn loudly and often, and might contribute to women faring badly on the job market. But I was nevertheless offended by Male Professor's discussion of women. Here's why:

1) Can't I even go one day without being reminded that I'm a woman? Do people think I forgot overnight?

2) If female Ph.D.'s aren't getting the best jobs, how much easier to blame it on the individual women for not trumpeting their greatness to all and sundry, than to acknowledge that sexism and patriarchy play a huge role in hiring decisions.

3) Whenever there's an academic culture issue where women are perceived to behave differently than men, women are always the ones asked to change. Message: science is a man's world, and men are the default scientists. I want to shout, "I'm not a guest in your club! This is my world too!"

So I'm saying it here: science is my world. So is academia. I've jumped through all the hoops, taken the exams, written the papers. The same work the men have to do, but at the end of the day, I'm still a woman, and I'll never be allowed to forget it.

The Blog Begins

I, srastro, am a woman working in the physical sciences. I'm headed into my final year of grad school, so in 365 days, I'll be Dr. Srastro. I have amassed enough work to get a decent postdoc, so my first-job prospects are good. Plus, I chose my own thesis project and am very interested in the results, whenever they may come. On paper, my career and life seem fine. So why do I not feel fine?

Here's an excerpt from my handwritten journal that illuminates why I'm burning out in the home stretch of my Ph.D., and how I hope writing this blog may help me get through:

Maybe I'll start a blog. I have been reading I Blame The Patriarchy a lot, and I find it really inspiring. Could blogging, and getting comments, help me process some of my frustrations with the intense manifestation of patriarchy that is academia, especially science? I have come to realize how truly, truly thankful I am for the safe spaces that exist for expressing feminist ideas. Thanks to Twisty Faster for being absolutely unbending in her criticism of patriarchy.

In fact, I have spent a lot of my work time on IBTP this week. Why? I searched and searched for the answer, and today I decided the obvious conclusion was the correct one. I spend my work time on IBTP because I'm TIRED. Tired of work, of having it pointed out that I'm a woman every other day, physically tired by an academic calendar that has, after months of languor, jumped by orders of magnitude. Easier on the tired old brain, and more fun, to read feminist persiflage than write supercomputer code.

So here is the blog. I don't expect it to solve all my problems, nor do I expect it to set the scientific and feminist communities on fire. But at least, when I take the foment of my thoughts out of my head and cast it into the internet void, I may find the relative peace that comes from identifying and articulating one's thoughts and feelings.