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Educated Woman: The Grad School Adventures of Micella Phoenix DeWhyse--Chapter 8: Micella Remembers She Is Female


And so life continues ...

Fortunately, there is no new major drama to report. Hallelujah. On the surface, things appear to be getting better. It?s funny, life is like the weather in New England: If you don?t like it, wait awhile, things will change, for better or for worse. I know I?m experiencing the general ups and downs of life. Things will be better when I?ve mastered ways to cope with the low days. You've heard the expression, "Your attitude determines your altitude"? I agree, but there are times to acknowledge the funk and deal with the source.

Speaking of funk, something has been bothering me a little lately. Jeff, my PI, seems to be treating the men in the group differently than the women. It isn?t a public or blatant thing but more of what he says to individuals. Maybe it is also how we perceive what he says.

I wonder sometimes if being female makes me more sensitive to others. I haven?t quite figured this out. In fact, I have gone through most of my life without thinking about being a "woman in science." I?ve generally been more concerned with being a member of a minority community, and so my sensitivities are tuned to racial bias rather than gender bias. I guess I need to arm the other sensors as well.

Specifically, it seems as if Jeff is quicker to criticize or fuss with the women, while the men are not reprimanded for sub-40-hour workweeks or times when they disappear without permission. I?m trying not to jump to conclusions, giving Jeff the benefit of the doubt. But it?s getting harder. I don?t have time for hostile relationships, especially with my adviser.

To his credit, Jeff says he wants to be supportive (in light of my distress about failing some of my qualifiers). On the other hand, the same day we had this conversation, when I asked if I could go away for a few days to study, he got agitated and said, "Well, I can?t keep you from going, but at what point do I say no?" I?ve been busting my butt all summer trying to make something work. I?ve been working 50- to 60-hour weeks and coming in on weekends when other people barely get in 40.

The difference might be my data. Or it might be my gender. At first, I thought it was a matter of results. We've obtained some results, but a lot of what he wanted to work this summer simply hasn?t. Or maybe, just maybe, he doesn?t fuss at the men in the group when they haven't put in their time.

The funny thing is he has said to Daphne, Laura, and me that the group isn?t working up to its capability. The three of us have been putting in a lot of time and effort. That said, I am perfectly well aware that the number of hours worked does not directly correlate with the amount of meaningful work or the results obtained. And when the work is experimentally intensive and chemically dependent, anything that can go wrong often will, and anything you want to work most times won?t. It?s just frustrating because I know Jeff should understand this, but it doesn?t feel like he does.

I asked the other women in the department about this issue. Some of them have noticed that their male advisers seem to treat them a little differently. Now, I am all for understanding the individual and dealing with each individual student in a manner that suits their needs. But blanket treatment for one gender, I don?t think so.

I?m happy Jeff expects us to work hard and wants to be involved in our work. I just don?t think he should expect more from the estrogen, and that?s how it feels.

I haven't spoken with Jeff about this yet. It is a very sensitive issue, and I have to be sure that it?s not just my own vibe, that the situation is a palpable reality. My own discomfort only inconveniences me. Until I say something about it, he?s not going to know. I'm going to have some conversations with my female mentors to get their perspective on gender issues and how best to handle them. But my instincts are telling me to watch and wait for the moment.

Don?t get me wrong: I don?t think that Jeff is exhibiting these qualities on purpose. There just seems to be a disquieting undercurrent flowing.

Playing the Game: On Gender and Science

Granted, this has been a light treatment of my own issues with being a female scientist. There are many organizations and Web sites related to the issue. And if you are male, this in no way means you can ignore gender in science. To the contrary, heightening your level of sensitivity makes life better for all of those around you.

Excellence in science comes from diversity of thought and action. Scientific progress happens when different minds from throughout the world come together in collaboration. Most of the time these minds were male, but times have changed considerably from when Rosalind Franklin was elucidating the crystal structure for DNA and Watson and Crick scooped her. Watson and Crick did not acknowledge her contribution in their "his"tory, and it was excluded from papers that appeared in Nature and other publications. Franklin, who died from cancer before her contribution to the discovery of DNA structure could be recognized, did not receive a Nobel Prize because it is not awarded posthumously.

We must continue to acknowledge the contributions of all members of the scientific society and not allow individuals to knowingly or unknowingly marginalize enterprising scientists who do not fit the Hollywood stereotype: white, male, meek, socially inept, and clad with glasses and pocket protector.

Resources and support are necessary for all scientists; here are a few for women scientists:

Association for Women in Science


Some related Next Wave articles:

A heartfelt thanks to those who sent kind thoughts and e-mails regarding my confidence crisis. I passed the qualifier I just took, so things are looking a little better. I received some additional advice from fellow students and professionals in the field (translation, those who are done with the process):

  • If an exam question or section on which you performed poorly came from a particular professor, seek out that person. They might not give you the answer per se, but they might point you in the right direction so you can succeed on the next go-around. And if no particular professor wrote the question, find someone knowledgeable in that area and see what he or she thinks of your answers and see if you are making careless mistakes.

  • If possible, strike a deal with the department to audit a class to make up for the bad exam.

  • Who cares how many tries it takes? Who cares how long it takes? Less than 10% of the nation's population has a Ph.D. and there is a reason for that: It is difficult!

  • Pat yourself on the back for being brave enough to give it your best shot! Keep working and you will prevail in the end!

When dealing with lab work that won?t cooperate:

  • Give yourself a deadline. "These experiments aren't working for the month of February, but come 1 March things are going to be better." If it works for baseball players, then it ought to do wonders for graduate students.

  • "Lab sacrifices" can sometimes help, and they are a great stress reliever. One correspondent told of sacrificing a chocolate donut on the altar of a Bunsen burner and keeping it around to prove that she'd pleased the gods. Her experiments worked great after that.

In general:

  • You got through college; you're not going to be homeless or jobless if this doesn't work out. And if it does work out, you can look back on this time and be proud that you survived.

You can send e-mail to Micella at

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