Saturday, February 28, 2009

mentors

The more I hear about the experiences of other women scientists, the more I feel that I've lucked out in my quest for the PhD and a faculty position. There are a lot of horror stories out there, a lot of pain even, and in comparison mine was a straight shot. I have no shocking revelations regarding sexism, assholism, or anything else. But I guess it's still a story, if not a very exciting one.

I actually started out in a different field, one that I now contribute to through an interdisciplinary subfield of -ology. But when I started out I didn't know that I should be looking into -ology, and so I started somewhere else. My first advisor in that field was less than supportive - she had been burned pretty badly by her own negative graduate school experience working with the biggest (male) name in her field. It was apparently hell, and although she held out and got the degree I still sometimes wonder if it would have been better for her if she had quit instead. She seemed reluctant to encourage students to pursue further studies, which I assume was a direct result of her own experiences. A lack of real support in this first field played a small role in my eventual switch to -ology, where I had a good support network.

I ended up having two great role models in -ology, both tenured men, but both dedicated to undergraduates and encouraging women in science. One directed a program abroad that I attended, while the other was my department chair. I'm still in touch with both of these guys; they've written me letters for grad school and job applications, and my presence at SLAC is probably entirely due to them.

My Masters work was a continuation of this theme - a male tenured professor who was a great mentor and advocate of women in his field. My PhD advisor has been the only female mentor I've ever had - she was a newly hired tenure-track prof at R1U when I decided to go work with her. I think that watching her during the first few years of a Professorship was the best training I could have gotten for my current position. She was, and is, an awesomely supportive mentor, and I never regretted signing on as her student.

The only real question I ask myself regarding my personal experiences is, why have most of my mentors been men, and why have these men been so pro-female scientist? Isn't that supposed to be the rare, sought-after male Prof who doesn't really exist? Or are most Profs actually fairly supportive of women in science, and we just hear about the extravagant assholes who are much more visible? Or maybe my experience is strange - have I just been really lucky?

I think an experience like mine might have convinced me that things aren't so bad in academia; that women are given equal opportunity, if not more so. The blogging community has been a great balance to my own experience: things are obviously not so rosy everywhere.

My own goal, should I be given the opportunity to pursue it, is to provide the same support and encouragement that I had as an undergraduate. It would be nice if a majority of female scientists could have positive College and Graduate experiences - as a product of positive experiences myself, I may be in a better position to make that happen than my first advisor had been. Or at least I can hope so.

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