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.