Women offer honest perspectives on grad school
"I expected grad school to be awful, and it was. In hindsight I think shouldn't have come to Caltech or pursued a Ph.D." We all know grad school is one of the most challenging career paths available. Long hours, low pay, little external recognition and, if you're lucky, a postdoc when it's all over. Yet the excitement of science will lure most Caltech undergraduates to apply to grad school, a career path about which they know almost nothing.
One challenging aspect of science as a career is highlighted by the universal deficit of women in senior positions. Attaining a senior position in academia is a long, difficult road, so even small but consistent gender biases at each step can result in a large disparity at the end. This "leaky pipeline" is understood to begin in elementary school, but a large proportion of prospective scientists leave academia during or after grad school. To assess the extent to which this exodus contributes to the leaky pipeline at Caltech, I sat down with a number of my female colleagues to hear firsthand what grad school is really like.
This article differs somewhat from a regular news snippet in that it deals primarily with inherently subjective perceptions rather than objective fact. However, when it comes to intelligently engineering a working environment that is welcoming and supportive for everyone, perceptions are what count. Caltech is a community of smart, well-intentioned people. A culture that unintentionally harms a segment of the population often harms the lot. My purpose is to help facilitate the ongoing conversation.
Aubrey* is a first year grad student whose parents are both academics. "I knew precisely what I was getting into. A lot of first years aim too high and try problems that are too difficult. It helps to be humble." Aubrey recognises that her level of foreknowledge is unusual, but her level of confidence is not. In grad school, many students experience what Caltech undergraduates know well - they are no longer very big fish in a very small pond - which can lead to imposter syndrome. Cynthia-Rose recently completed her Ph.D. "Many grad students come in thinking that they know everything. They think 'I was accepted to Caltech and my undergrad research project went well, so Nature will be mine.' It's a little naive."
Getting reliable information during prospective visits can be difficult. Cynthia-Rose added, "I don't think I'll be invited back to talk to the prospectives. My friends even came with popcorn. I tried to scare off as many as possible. The panel was three first years and me, who was the only one who had passed candidacy. Don't listen to the noobs, they just don't know what they're talking about. They still think their PI is their friend. They haven't been screwed out of any publications!" Cynthia-Rose also has advice for women during prospective visits. "You have to be careful when joining a lab. How many people are like me? How does my prospective boss interact with them? Before you join a lab, go to group meetings. Any male talking over a female group member is a huge red flag. It's happened to me many times. You also need to establish what your backup is in the event of project failure. How many other things is this lab doing that I can do? How well-funded is this lab? [To get the truth] I always recommend talking to grad students and doing it off campus, without strings. At the bar, with the department paying for the beer, is not good enough."
How does this play out once you're in grad school and committed to the long haul? Several women I talked to emphasized the importance of cultivating a supportive group of friends. Patricia, who is nearing the end of her Ph.D., emphasized that her fellow students and postdocs were overwhelmingly not misogynists, but were nevertheless mostly clueless about the experience of women in academia. This is one of the tougher cases, wherein people who bear no ill will toward women in STEM (often the contrary) inadvertently contribute to discrimination.
Patricia shares an office with Bumper, a male grad student who has gradually become much more aware of the issues. "I had a meeting with a renowned [non-Caltech] professor on Skype. My [overcommitted] advisor couldn't make the meeting, so she sent Bumper, who works on an unrelated project, to be on the call to supervise me. [Afterwards,] I confronted my advisor, and was told I had misunderstood her intentions. I wanted to talk to renowned professors, but it was handled in a last minute, disempowering, dismissive way. It feeds imposter syndrome, if I feel my advisor thinks I can't meet with collaborators by myself. [Bumper] was mostly unaware of the squashing. It's unintentional, but still harmful. There is poor insight on part of other students."
Things eventually took a turn for the better. "A few months later at a conference, a senior professor in the field approached me and said a sexist thing right in front of Bumper and another professor. I was floored. Bumper stood up for me. I was glad, but [he] just walked away without apologizing. The fact that I had talked about my experiences and was open about it helped him realize. He started being more of an advocate after that, but it's [terrible] that a fellow grad student has to be an advocate. [I] felt that I have to call other people out and make a scene to be heard. I have to be impolite to get noticed. I would like to give my lab mates credit, as their view of me has not been negatively tainted by my confrontation. Now they come and engage more, and the situation has normalized. I was not expecting to have to do this myself when I came to grad school."
One surprisingly common aspect of Patricia's experience is that workplace sexism was perpetrated or enabled by other, more senior women in the workplace. Cynthia-Rose came under pressure from a senior (non-tenure-track) female scientist in her lab. "She was trying to help, but she was hurtful and judgmental. She intimated that science is hard enough without being different or pursuing other hobbies. Pressure to shape up, to conform, is very common. I don't talk or act or dress 'like a scientist,' and that's seen as not appropriate for a woman in science. It is important to act like man, to play down being female. I feel I should be able to be judged for my competency without being judged on my clothes. Inside and outside the ivory tower there's an expectation of a 'scientific' personality that doesn't reflect reality, and it affects women more."
Cynthia-Rose takes pride in her unusually excellent sense of fashion, but is always attired appropriately for the work. On another occasion, Cynthia-Rose was involved in an audit, where funders came to check that equipment she had personally assembled was being used properly. "I asked my professor what I needed to do for the audit. He replied 'Oh nothing. You can charm them, if you'd like, and be there, but I'll handle it.' It was most definitely intended as a joke. It was not intended as a sexist remark. But I felt a judgment on me as a woman, as a scientist, about how I expressed myself in clothing. I always dressed safely, but his comment revealed a lot about his personal opinions and attitudes. And in the end the professor wasn't even available, so I took the auditors into the lab, and answered their [hyper specific] questions that only I knew the answer to."
One of the most challenging aspects of grad school is managing an advisor-student relationship. At its beginning, the student will often need more direction. By the end, the relationship will have reversed, with the student overtly more knowledgeable about their topic. A successful Ph.D. or adviser-student relationship is longer than the average marriage and, being work-centered, involves a much greater investment of time and personal energy.
Grad students tend to begin with an expectation of professionalism, and a place like Caltech is rightly known the world over for the quality of its faculty, who enjoy a great deal of professional autonomy. Professors rarely consider spoon-feeding students to be part of their job description, but few would intentionally victimize minorities. Despite that, we've already seen a few instances where, for a variety of reasons, research groups became hostile places for women.
Chloe's field sees her making frequent trips to conferences and other universities. "One [issue is] older married men in my field explicitly asking me to have an affair with them. These people have power over me. When I was an undergrad [at another prestigious university], I had one direct supervisor, a married postdoc with children, who asked me to have an affair with him. I said no, but it became an ongoing, repeated discussion. I've had slightly less explicit propositions from men also working in my field at other institutions when we were at conferences together, for example. They have no direct power over me, but they're working on the same kind of stuff. You can't just blow these people off, aggressively. There was one instance where we were at a bar and had had a couple of drinks, but otherwise these were totally sober discussions."
As an adult, Chloe enjoys going out for drinks with colleagues and professors after the day's work, especially at conferences. It's a great way to meet people, unwind, and network. "I frequently drink with professors and it's fine. I think it's not inappropriate for faculty to go have a drink with their students, to have the ability to have a personal discussion with them, to talk about imposter syndrome, career, etc. I think those discussions are appropriate if it's the student working through something emotional that has to do with work and the senior person is offering solicited advice."
A student-adviser relationship can be much more fraught if it strays too far from the professional model. A substantial minority of students, including Chloe, switch advisers during grad school. "Having the senior person solicit advice from the student for their personal emotional problems becomes more tricky. Particularly when that's tied up with the senior person's feelings, not necessarily romantic, about the student. There was an emotional weight to the relationship with my ex-advisor because he was very personally and emotionally invested in my relationship with him that was beyond 'being there' professionally. I think that was what made me uncomfortable. To be clear, he never sexually harassed me, but he was very emotionally involved, to what I felt was an inappropriate extent. We would have these very personal discussions about his psychology toward dealing with students and how he takes things personally. I can't help but play the therapist to these grown men who should have these things figured out, or should be seeking professional help, instead of talking to their students about their problems. That's been my biggest issue, not sexual but emotional harassment. I sincerely doubt it's happened between him and male students."
Incredibly but hardly uniquely, Chloe errs on the side of introspection and self-blame. "It's hard not to blame myself. I tend to try to talk people through their issues even if they directly supervise me. I find myself in an advisory position," a clear reversal of the professional relationship.
Patricia is quick to point out that creating a positive, inclusive atmosphere doesn't mean treating women with kid gloves. "One of my colleagues has the view that it's okay to make mistakes [i.e., inadvertent sexism], and that doesn't make you a bad person. But you're a bad person if you continue to do so, or if you don't make an effort."
Chloe finds that actions speak louder than words. "Some of the people who are most conscientious about making my department a more welcoming place for women are in practice the worst for students. I've seen advising relationships, especially for women, go horribly with them. I think it comes down to the idea that you need to treat women in a special way. I think some professors do, in some sense, view female students differently, even if it's just a ramped up anxiety over doing something wrong. The professors I get on with best are the ones that don't talk about it, they just treat male and female students the same - treat them all like people. Advisers need to be human beings and realize that hardship is not gender specific. You don't need to say that women need you to be more sensitive; people of all genders benefit from reasonable advisers. I don't think gender is a reason to be treated differently. The situations in which I've been most comfortable are the ones in which it did not matter what gender I was."
Chloe's experience of an adviser-student relationship becoming too personal is not uncommon, but dealing with it is highly non-trivial. "It wasn't clear for me how to address this because it wasn't a situation where I was being solicited for sexual favours, which I know how to reject. I met with (Graduate Dean) Fecilia Hunt, and she gave me all the harassment policy literature. Those are designed to deal with sexual harassment [for Title IX compliance], or where it's very clear that this person is discriminating based on gender, or is asking for a [sexual favor] in return for something. It's a lot less specific or helpful if someone is being abusive in an emotional rather than sexual way. I don't know if my being female had something to do with my treatment. It may have had something to do with my willingness to sit down and try to work through those problems."
As Chloe points out, Caltech's harassment policy would benefit from revision to cover instances of non-sexual harassment. While this is not explicitly required by law, it is clear that fostering non-threatening workplaces is in everyone's best interest.
Caltech's policy (https://hr.caltech.edu/documents/46-citpolicy_harassment.pdf) begins "It is the policy of Caltech to provide a work and academic environment free of unlawful harassment ("harassment") and retaliation. Harassment is the creation of a hostile or intimidating environment in which inappropriate conduct, because of its severity and/or persistence, is likely to interfere significantly with an individual's work or education, or affect adversely an individual's living conditions." Chloe experienced an intimidating environment due to inappropriate conduct that forced her to change advisors. But the remainder of the document provides examples relevant to race, gender, disability, etc. without making it clear that advisors bear responsibility for preserving the professional nature of their relationship with students.
Cynthia-Rose was faced with a choice when she was subjected to sexist behavior. "I felt I should call HR right away, but I wanted to graduate more than I wanted my dignity. The [complaint] process is annoying and time consuming. I wasn't worried about reprisals, I simply did not have time for the distraction."
Lilly, whose quote opened this article, was at one point involved in an advocacy group on campus. "There are certain professors that are extremely sexist and have harassed female students, but they're protected if they're famous or bring in lots of money. In one severe case, a student was subjected to gender-specific verbal abuse in front of other several other faculty members and no one said anything." This story highlights perceived student powerlessness against relatively rare but institutionally enabled instances of sexist behavior. "Officially, HR has a policy in compliance with Title IX. Unofficially, HR will be unable to protect you against a faculty member. [The] only approach is to leave the program or change advisers."
It's not all bad news. In the issue next week, we examine what Caltech is doing right and unpack some of the cultural obstacles facing workplace equality.
*All names have been changed.