Tips for women in science


1. Find out what you like doing, Then find someone who will pay you to do it. (From my mother.)

It's important to be satisfied in what you do. But it's just as important to have a pension.

Sometimes, if your spouse is established financially it's easy to ignore that factor. But 50% of marriages fail and failure rates are significantly higher for female academics ... (sorry about that statistical downer)

So it's important to remember that a husband isn't a pension plan.


2. Don’t drift. Each day, focus on what’s important for you. (This one comes from Norma Graham, a woman with 2 children who is in the National Academy of Sciences)

It's easy, especially once you have kids to spend a lot of time just keeping up with your to do list and making sure everyone has underwear that isn't hopping off their bums with funkiness. But it's important to keep your eye on the big picture and make sure that 20 years from now you won't wonder where the time went, and wish that your career was in a completely different place. Deciding you want to make your family is a priority is a totally reasonable decision. Just make sure it's a decision, not the consequence of drift.


3. It doesn't matter how often you fail. Just how often you succeed. (Karen Dobkins, my postdoc supervisor)

I have a good reputation as a grant writer even though my hit rate is actually dreadful (even by today's standards). Why? My biosketch doesn't list the grants I don't get, just the grants I do, and I write a lot of grants.

In science your failures will always outnumber the successes by a huge factor. What separates the successful from the less so is your ability to cry, hurl a cup against the wall, tell your hubby that you are leaving this f***** career NOW, and start working on the revision the next morning.



4. Your parents didn't go to all the trouble of bringing you up to make 'him' happy. (My father)

In almost all relationships the woman does considerably more housework, and makes many more career sacrifices. Don't kid yourself that academic women are different, because they aren't (Mary Ann Mason).

Every woman should read Wifework.

Before you have kids make sure your husband agrees (in writing) to genuinely share the load. If he doesn't agree, assume you are going to either lose your husband or seriously damage your career. Be realistic about this one, it leads to number 5.



5. You can have what you want most in life, not what you want second and third. (Chinese proverb)

You may decide that being with your kids is more important to you then your career. Or that being successful is more important to you then having children. Or that you want to do an OK job at both (my choice). Just realize you can't ''have it all 100%'.

Also bear in mind that children are a wild-card - if you child has some kind of "difficulty" so you are driving to physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy or all three in the middle of the day then the '"OK job at both" may stop being a realistic option.



6. Ask for more. A lot more.

Negotiate really hard on salary when you get your first job offer. Ask for advice (lots of it) while negotiating.

Why? Good daycare is amazingly expensive - that money will buy you time to do research. (Also negotiate going to to the top of the child care waiting lists if your university has a daycare.)

Finally, read Ask for it. That's probably the most important advice in this page.


7. Not everyone has to like you all the time (my children)

When your kids hit toddler age you quickly learn that just because someone is really angry with you doesn't necessarily mean you did something wrong.

When I began running a lab I would get very stressed out if I had a disagreement with a student. Now I've dealt with screaming toddlers I am ok with saying - "I understand you wish that you could work on that project. But I'm not prepared to support it. How about you carry working on Y and if you want to discuss this again in a month, bring it up again." and letting students leave the office feeling ratty (so far none of them have thrown themselves on my carpet and started screaming, but I'm sure it's matter of time).

It's been liberating not being afraid to not have difficult conversations. And to my surprise the students are happier because they feel they can ask for things, be told 'no' and it's no big deal. (Also because I don't let them do stupid things because I'm too cowardly to tell them it's a terrible idea).

8. There are stupid questions, but asking them doesn’t mean you’re stupid.

I am amazed how often I have not understood something in a talk and asked what I thought was a stupid question (excuse me, can you explain what the y-axis was) only to realize that no one in the room could possibly have had any idea what the talk was about.

Of course sometimes it should have been obvious and it really was that I was being an idiot.

But regardless, I learned what the y-axis was.


9. You don't need to be perfect (or even try). (I learned this one all by myself.)

You are going to ... forget to pack your child's lunchbox ... burst into tears at a meeting because you are too stressed to breathe ... forget your husband's birthday three years running ... snarl at a student who totally didn't deserve it because your child was awake for 6 hours the night before, and the night before that, and the night before that ... fail to turn papers around in any kind of reasonable time even though you hated it when your supervisor did that to you ... fail to hand in tax dependent care forms in time and lose thousands of dollars as a result ... forget to pick up your 2 year old child from daycare for 2 hours and your cell phone will be out of batteries ...

Just ... whatever you do ... make sure you don't run out of gin.

never give up

Good Luck!

These cartoons are used thanks to the generosity of Jacky Fleming. They are from a variety of lovely cartoon books that are perfect graduation gifts for the female neuroscientists in your life ...