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Female Faculty Members Share Insights on Academic Careers with Graduate Students and Postdocs

Modified: November 1, 2017

Four Northwestern professors participated in a lively panel discussion on a theme of “How to stay on (tenure) track” on October 25 at Chemistry of Life Processes Institute in The Richard and Barbara Silverman Hall for Molecular Therapeutics and Diagnostics. The panel, consisting of Dean Teresa Woodruff (The Graduate School), and Professors Christine Froula (English), Emily Weiss (Chemistry), and Neda Bagheri (Chemical and Biological Engineering) discussed the pressures and satisfactions of an academic career and strategies for female advancement. The panel was moderated by Chemistry of Life Processes Training Program trainee Jennifer Ferrer (IBIS). The discussion attracted more than 60 students, postdocs, and faculty from across the humanities and sciences.

The panelists described their respective paths to the professoriate, strategies for developing confidence in individual research capabilities, pushing through difficult moments, when to start a family, self-care, harassment and preventing the concept “work/life balance” from becoming a barrier to pursuing professional and personal goals.

Jennifer Ferrer, the moderator and organizer of the panel, said she wanted women professors at all stages of their careers to share their stories because she has attended career panels were questions about “work/life balance” were glossed over.

“I wanted the panel to appeal to everyone across the university, so it was important to include faculty and students from STEM as well as humanities. But I was still surprised when more than 65 people, from different academic backgrounds, ages and all genders, showed up.”

“There were questions from the audience that spanned a number of important topics, and so much insight, passion and conviction in the panelists’ responses. It seemed like the discussion could have gone on much longer than the hour we had allotted. I feel like there are many other questions and perspectives to be explored. It’s obvious that the community is interested in these types of events and that more of these discussions need to be had,” said Ferrer.

The event was sponsored by the Chemistry of Life Processes Institute, Graduate Women across Northwestern, the Chemistry of Life Processes Predoctoral Training Program, and the Women’s Center.

Selected responses below from the discussion highlight the power of storytelling in helping next generation scholars develop an understanding of the road ahead of them: 

When was your ah-ha moment that lead to you becoming a professor?

Froula told the audience that when she started in academia the job market in her field was terrible and she thought that she might pursue journalism, rather than academic career: “You don’t have a eureka moment, where you say “I am going to be…” You say, “I wonder if I’m going to survive?” If there is a principle it is that tenacity is a good character quality…. Having a kind of core love of your work and what you do for its own sake is a really valuable thing in life and will carry you a long way.” 

Whereas Bagheri stated that she knew that she wanted to be in academia at a young age, “I love the work that we do. Being able to be independent about the problems that you choose to solve. The impact that your research can have long term. But my aha moment didn’t derive from the research so much as it did from the people. It was in high school when I recognized that the classroom, that the lab is a second family to many students. And I thought, I want to help foster that second family. I want to develop an environment that grows people, not just so that they could accomplish task X more efficiently or with so much more elegance; but so that they could become better people. More well-rounded, better citizens, more active in the community, more active in their research.”

How do you build confidence in your work?

Weiss addressed developing confidence as a maker of new knowledge, “If you’re completely transparent about what you know and what you don’t know. And you’ve given good thought about what you don’t know. How important is it? How can I find it out? Why is it interesting? What might I do next? Then people, especially in academia, find that line of thinking extremely interesting and it gives you a lot of credibility to talk about what you don’t understand as much as what you do. I’ve gone into fields that I have no business going into. And people tell you in many indirect ways and with many different words that you shouldn’t be there. And you say, “I know what I know. I know that it is interesting. I know what I don’t know.” For example, our first draft of a paper we submitted wasn’t good enough, it was wrong. The reviewers caught it and we learned how to do it better and now we know how to do it. You can’t be afraid of criticism, everyone hates it, but you can’t be afraid of it. And you also have to look at it as an adventure and a process. Once you get over that barrier, you’ll find the second time is much easier. Confidence is not innate, it is learned.”

How do you push through difficult moments?

Woodruff responded as a seasoned researcher, “Science is heuristic, every time you get to a problem it opens doors to new problems. It doesn’t mean that on the way that the equipment doesn’t break, that you do something wrong, or that the hypothesis is wrong. The joy of science is figuring out which of those things it is. You just have to take that next step, and if you don’t take that next step you won’t know what comes next. The key is to keep walking. Sometimes if we stop ourselves, if we don’t take that next step, we’re the ones that are apoptosing. Just keep taking that next step and its remarkable were you will ultimately get.” 

What is work/life balance?

When a question raised regarding work/life balance Woodruff answered thoughtfully and passionately, “We all have things within our lives, males and females, which pull us away from the central thing that we want to do. The answer to work and life, is that it all is really life. If someone asks you about work/life balance, it isn’t that its fulcrum, it is that it’s part of a continuum.”

Woodruff told a story illuminating her point, “I run this high school program for girls from the city of Chicago, they come to my lab every summer and we have a lot of fun activities that are really learning activities. At the end, I have them come talk to me and I ask them, “What questions do you have?” There was one girl, who said to me, “Well you know I really love science. I really love to come be a scientist and be in the academic world. But what’s this thing about work/life balance?” I looked at her and I said, “You’re 14. There is no such thing as work/life balance for you right now.” 

“What she was doing at 14 was starting the process of taking herself out of the system. Of removing herself from even the possibility of getting to the point where she could imagine a life as a scientist. What that struck me in that moment is that work/life balance is a cultural meme that has been created that we have taken on board. It is a new constant that everyone is now dealing with, it's starting to push its way down to 14 year olds. They’re saying, “I obviously can’t do that. Because there is thing you call life and this thing you call work and they are incompatible. Therefore, if I want to have kids I cannot do what you do.”

“I want to tell you that it’s absolutely not the case. And that all of you can have the life you want in the context of the work that you want to do. And you can be fulfilled in a way that you can’t even imagine, but you have to put yourself into that situation. This cultural meme of work/life is something that you have to think very openly about,” said Woodruff.

When do you have kids?

Weiss spoke openly on her experience on having kids after tenure, “There’s no good or bad time to have kids along this trajectory. It’s all good, it’s all bad. On waiting until you have tenure, Weiss says, “You’re busier after tenure than before tenure.” It’s all busy. You just have to manage it. Academia is a long career. When you’re 65 and getting that ACS National Award, no one remembers those 5 years you gave to your really young children.”

What about self-care?

When asked if they have any tips on what they do to take care of themselves, because it can be easy to give so much that you have nothing left to give, Froula answered, “That's an absolutely crucial question. There’s no one answer, but that taking care of yourself by giving yourself time to do the things that restore you. For me, it’s things like walking, things like kayaking, things like being outdoors, bicycling to the Botanic Garden, whatever it may be. For other people, it might be three hours playing with your children. Try to enjoy your life. There’s so many pressures on everybody all the time. Push back.” 

How do you deal with harassment?

A student shared her story of being harassed by a professor as an undergraduate at a different university, and she wanted to know how to address harassment beyond reporting it to the central administration. Woodruff responded, “All of us have our horror stories. And certainly, in the 80s it was horrifying. There just weren’t enough of us and we were easy marks. Its horrifying that it’s continuing and it’s not just in the sciences. We have to be better activists on our own behalf, when people say things to us, turn it back to them. There’s a broader issue for all of us as citizens. That is, we have to start kicking back on this. If we hear from someone else we have to be the ones to protect them. We have to all be each other’s friends and be able to call these things out. We have to take it as high as we can. If people don’t speak up, then we really have a problem. Then I hope that many of you stay, stick in the fields. And that more of us are around who are willing to say what needs to be said to people who are in power, who shouldn’t have that kind of power over us, and who will use that power in egregious ways.”

 

Resources at The Graduate School tgs.northwestern.edu

Office of Work/Life and Family Resources 

TGS Child and Family Resources

Professional Development

Dealing with Conflict

Graduate Education Expectations Document, a guide for student-advisor relations

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