Friday, September 7, 2012

Career Paths III - New Plant Biology Professor

There are the people that inspire us at a young age to pursue (in my case) science, and then there are the women that help you achieve that career. Today’s ‘career exploration’ is from a woman who mentored me while we were both in graduate school. Her enthusiasm is infectious, her lab skillz invaluable, and she was/is an amazing teacher. She’s now a new faculty member at a small liberal arts college whose students don’t know how lucky they are.
As always, feel free to nominate a mentor or friend to be grilled about their career choices! 

When you were a little girl, what did you want to be when you grew up? 
  Well, when I was young I sought to distinguish myself from my friends who wanted to be like Kristi Yamaguchi and so I said I wanted to be the ice skating choreographer. Later in high school I sought to distinguish myself yet again from my fellow biology students who wanted to be doctors or marine biologists by professing a love of plants. I had spent much of my childhood hiking with my family and also had worked a lot of summer jobs in landscaping. I plunged head-first into a botany degree day one of college and haven’t looked back since. I think I’m a bit unusual in my lack of shopping around. 

How did you decide to start on your current career? Are you happy with your current job in relation to what you hoped for?
  I found out that my undergraduate degree did not necessarily prepare me for a job running a greenhouse like I initially thought it would, but luckily I had completed several fairly extensive undergraduate research projects with a wonderful professor mentor in my program and this opened my eyes to the possibilities of a career in research. I also was delighted to discover a world of adventure in traveling for fieldwork and research in far-off lands. While in graduate school, I found that many of my favorite experiences were as a teaching assistant or working with undergraduates in the lab. In my job as a biology professor at a great liberal arts school, I get to both continue my research with fantastic undergraduate researchers and dedicate myself to being an outstanding teacher.  I am extremely happy with my job! It is even better than what I had thought I could ever get, honestly. 

Do you have to worry about when/if to have children? 
  Yes, I certainly do and time ticks by.  We don’t currently have children, but very much want some, sooner than later. This is my primary worry about my job right now. I do see men and women around me at my institution with babies and young children, and that is very heartening. I worry about not having built up enough good will or established enough of a track record pre-tenure to have everyone OK with me taking a bit of time off, which is allowed for by my contract.  I also worry that my desire for my career or ability to keep it all together might diminish after I have kids. It is so easy to keep putting it off and thinking that work should come first, but that is ultimately not satisfying. In our case, I don’t think it would be a good idea to wait until tenure. Luckily, I’ve watched other female friends around me have children as academics and have seen that they are successful at both being mothers and professors. 

What role does your spouse or partner play in your career development?
  My husband has been vital to all parts of my career development.  He is not a scientists but he keeps up with all that I do, asks great questions and motivates me when things are tough.  He has moved with me multiple times as my career in academia has progressed, having to change the trajectory of his career and find new jobs multiple times. I am forever humbled and grateful for this and am so lucky to have him. It is hard as a professional couple for everyone to have everything they want at exactly the same time, I think. 

Did you ever experience a ‘glass ceiling’ or discrimination as a woman? Are you willing to share your experience? 
  Not really, to be honest, but I do hear stories from women slightly older than me about being questioned about their pregnancies, or who were passed over for tenure or jobs in the first place.  Sometimes I’ve seen white men progress in this line of work further than their merit deserves, while it seems that women and minorities have to work a bit harder with less room for error to get to the same places. In general, though, I’m feeling very positive about the position of women in sciences & academia. 

What does ‘having it all’ mean to you personally? Do you feel like you can achieve it? 
  To me, having it all means being happy, healthy, and personally and professionally satisfied. I do feel like I’m pretty darn close as of now, though it feels like there is less room for many of the other ‘things’ that I used to do, like hobbies or spontaneous travel.  I do find being a new professor to be extraordinarily exhausting, but I’m also truly delighted to go to work and interact with my students every day.  I am very happy to be in a job position now where hopefully we won’t have to move anymore, as that was very taxing. The stability and the protection of tenure-track also put my mind at ease and help keep my focused on what I need to do to be successful. I feel more confident and inspired than I have in a long time. 

How can we encourage women to pursue their dream jobs? 
  Developing a strong network of women in similar stages of their career (and just ahead) has been so crucial for me. The mentorship process is so crucial and so we should look out for other opportunities to talk formally or informally to other women and girls around us (and men, too!) Being approachable and also unafraid to discuss the human aspects of a life in science is also key. We need to see from each other that we can and should expect to succeed and not compromise for both the professional and personal life that we want, and that others around us will share in our joys and struggles every step of the way.

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