Leaking From the Pipeline (Again)
So here’s an announcement: I’ve officially become a master’s student. My advisor, fabulously, has agreed to support me while I prune my commitment-phobic tangle of half-finished papers and dissertation proposals into something resembling a thesis. I’ll be doing that until next May.
I made the decision… well, it was one of those realizations that came on gradually. I’ve been seriously thinking about it since last summer, but I filled out the disappointingly short and unofficial-looking form back in February; my petition was officially approved in April. In fact, I meant to post about this in the first Scientiae carnival, and in every carnival since. Like Zuska, though, I’ve been blogjammed. My decision to leave is a hard thing to write about, because so much boils down to dissecting my personality, my strengths and weaknesses as a student and a researcher, the health of my various mentor relationships, and the culture of my department. Not in public, thanks.
But I’ve been feeling some pressure to come up with a good story about my experience as a leak. The pressure comes in part from colleagues, who ask …really? Why? as if they expect a simple answer. It also comes, inescapably, from my desire to tell myself nice stories about my life. Unfortunately, there are no coherent narratives. Every time I hear or think of a new reason that I’ve been unhappy as a grad student, I respond with an enthusiastic yes, yes, that’s exactly the problem! – because it always is. I tell my colleagues very upbeat stories (sincere ones – yes, yes, that’s exactly it!) about feeling passionate about other career options, mainly science writing and outreach. I will tell prospective future employers very upbeat stories about how much I have missed being part of a team – people here are collegial and helpful, but that’s not the same as having a core group of people whose successes are interdependent. Really, though, I’m unhappy, I don’t trust that I would be able to change that if I stayed, and life is just too short to fart around pretending that if you exercise just a leeeetle bit more gumption your problems will all go away.
I don’t feel I have experienced any visible sexism*, but it has not escaped my notice that in my department, more women than men seem to have trouble with their qualifying exams (this is based on numbers I’ve gathered by talking to older grad students; it is not a statistically significant difference). My suspicion is that this is largely mediated by self-confidence, which is gendered both in terms of who has it and in terms of how it is perceived by others. I started grad school with a great deal of self-confidence, and though I retain the core belief that I am the raw material of a very good scientist (among other things), I’m not quite sure what happened to the rest of it.
I can’t point to a villain. Perhaps I should be pointing to a hero/ine for giving me the courage to leave a situation that isn’t right for me, but I can’t do that either. Regardless, even though I’ll never have more than statistical fuzz and a hunch to back this up, I don’t think I would be leaving if I were a man.
Those of you who haven’t been reading this blog for the past five years might not be aware of this, but when I decided not to pursue an academic career straight out of undergrad (and possibly not ever) I went through an astonishingly similar set of questions and angsty musings. This time ’round I find that my responses have been substantially improved by experience – I am feeling positive about the strengths I have that aren’t being used very well in academia, I am excited about my career options, I am able to recognize misfits between myself and academia as value-neutral or as flaws in academia instead of feeling like I am broken. It’s good to feel like I’ve learned something.
I haven’t quite figured out the trick of viewing a master’s degree from a prestigious institution as a proud accomplishment, rather than a booby prize – the pipeline paradigm is tricksy that way. But that’ll have to be material for other posts; right now, it’s time to make sure there will still be a booby prize for the mulling. Ironically, deciding to leave has made me much happier about work – and work, as usual, is calling.
*At Berkeley. Caltech is a different story.