How did I end up here?

I am a young female science professor in a tenure track job at a major research university.  That in itself is both a major accomplishment, and a very rare thing.  I look my age, or maybe a bit younger, and people who don’t know me usually assume I am a student.  New students who enter my office usually cannot hide their surprise upon meeting me, and some people have even asked me where the professor is.  When I first moved into the office, the department asked someone to come clean it after the recently retired prof who used to have the office moved out.  I happened to be there when the cleaning person came by, and she helpfully informed me that “a new professor is moving in” clearly thinking I could not possibly be that person despite being in that office.

Moving around the wider world, I don’t often mention my profession, but it sometimes happens that I meet a new person or strike up a conversation with a stranger, and my profession comes up.  People react with surprise, every time.  Sometimes, with extreme surprise and disbelief, even thinking I am joking.  I am now purposefully vague unless asked specifically about what I do.

All I did was follow what seemed to be the most obvious path at just about every decision point in my life.  I was smart and did well in high school, so I went to college and majored in my favorite subject (a science).  I did well there and liked it, so I went on to grad school.  I did well there and still enjoyed it, so I went off to an academic postdoc, then a faculty job.  I never skipped any grades, spent 4 years in college, 5.5 years getting my Ph.D., and 2 years as a postdoc.  Not so weird for someone who always wanted to be a scientist.

And yet, it’s very lonely where I am now.  My colleagues in my department, while nice people, are almost all men much older than I am.  There is only one other woman besides me in the department, and we are decades apart in age.  The professor closest to me in age in 8 years my senior, and while friendly, we aren’t particularly close.  How did I become such an anomaly, when all I did was follow what seemed like a straight-forward path?

Why scientists have to work for free

Scientists are one of the only highly respected professions which society expects to work for free.  Not completely for free, of course, but any research scientist can tell you all about the work they do for no pay at all.

Take me for example.  I have a full-time, 9-month tenure track appointment at a research university.  This is pretty much the best case scenario for a 30-year-old scientist such as myself.  The 9-month part means that my university pays me a full time salary 9 months out of every year (the academic year).  I am not paid for the summer months.  This does not, however, mean I can just not work during the summer.  In order to get tenure, I need to obtain grants and publish papers.  The summer, during which I am not teaching, is my main block of time during which I can conduct research, develop grant proposals, and write and publish scientific papers.  If I was to not work over the summer, there is no way I would be able to earn tenure.  If I don’t earn tenure within 5 years, then I’m fired.

I can earn pay for some of the summer months, by obtaining research grants that include some summer salary.  But grant proposals are the most egregious example of how scientists are expected to work for free.  To put together a good grant proposal, with a reasonable chance of success, can take 2-4 weeks of full time work.  It usually takes much longer because I can’t dedicate 2-4 weeks to just writing a grant proposal.  A successful grant proposal requires a well thought out, well researched, novel and interesting idea.  It also generally requires some “preliminary results” to prove that the idea works.  So I have to do a large part of the science I’m proposing to do just to try to obtain the money to do it.  And grant proposals have a success rate of roughly 25%, so 75% of the time all that free work I did amounts to nothing.  Even if I do get that grant, a typical NSF grant pays for 1 month of summer pay for each of 3 summers, after which it ends.  So that means scientists are constantly writing grant proposals, usually 2-4 per year.

I know of many scientists who do not have the benefit of 9-month appointments like I do.  Some researchers are responsible for obtaining anywhere from 50-100% of their pay from grants.  That’s right, some scientists are hired into “jobs” that come with no pay whatsoever, and they then have to constantly apply for money to pay themselves.  These are called “soft money” positions.

I understand the importance of the grant proposal system.  It is a mechanism to direct limited public science funding to the projects deemed most promising by panels of experts, and it prevents scientists from becoming lazy and no longer pursuing new and promising ideas.  But we would be incentivized to participate in the grant proposal system even if we were paid year-round.  That’s because grants are also used to pay graduate student researchers, to purchase equipment, to pay for scientific conference travel, and to pay for publication fees and other research expenditures, in addition to being required for promotion and tenure.

Another example of how scientists are expected to work for free is peer review.  Every scientific paper and proposal goes through peer review, meaning it is critically read and evaluated by 2-5 other scientists.  Those peer reviewers typically spend anywhere from 2-8 hours reviewing a paper or proposal, completely for free.  In fact, in the case of a paper, the author pays the journal fees in the range of $2,000-$5,000, not one penny of which goes to the peer reviewers for their work.  And we can’t even take credit for peer review, because it’s meant to be anonymous and confidential.  So this is work we’re expected to do for free, out of professional ethical obligation, for no pay or recognition whatsoever.  If one refuses to participate in peer review, that person obtains a strongly negative reputation with journal editors and grant program managers, which can be professionally very damaging.

There is a saying in research science that no one chose this career for the pay.  And it’s true, the vast majority of researchers could make more money by applying their skills in a more lucrative industry.  Our salaries aren’t enormous, especially considering the number of years of education it requires to become a research scientist.  We’re here because we believe our work is important and valuable to society.  And I believe our time and work should be valued enough that we are paid for it.  For all of it, not just during the academic year.

Dear Autism Intervention Providers: Women work now

As I’ve mentioned before, the big Three-Oh (3.0 years old, that is) is approaching quickly for my kiddo with autism.  She’s aging out of the state early intervention program.  We recently discovered something about every program for 3-5 year olds with autism in our area: they are designed for stay-at-home parents.  Has the autism community not gotten the memo that women have joined the workforce now?  Working parents need quality all day care for their children, autistic or not.  We’d be happy to pay a bit more for such a program if that were an option.  I’d love comments from anyone about whether things are similar where they live for care for children with autism in the 3-5 age bracket.  I really wonder whether this is because I live in a mid-size Midwestern town, and if things would be better in a major urban area by one of the coasts.

We thought we had a plan for the age 3 transition, but this week, we’ve realized our plan is untenable.  The original plan was: she’s eligible for early childhood special ed, essentially a part-time preschool run by the school district for special needs kids to get therapies and interventions.  This is typically 8:30-11:30 AM, Monday – Thursday (although not always, and we won’t know her specific placement for a few more days, about 2 weeks before her birthday).  This preschool program is run out a building on the far edge of town, nowhere near either of our commutes.  There is also a program run by the local Easter Seals chapter that does ABA with kids with autism, that is 12:30-3:30 PM, 5 days/week.  As you have probably already noticed, this means 1) someone needs to pick her up at 11:30, feed her lunch, and drive her to another location by 12:30.  Also, 2) someone needs to get her at 3:30 and care for her until her parents get home, and 3) Friday mornings have nothing.  Not great we thought, but hey, my mom is semi-retired (works part-time) and lives in town and is willing to help, so maybe this will work!

This week though we found out from Easter Seals that actually they can only do 2:30-4:30 MWF, and 12:30-3:30 on Thursday, and nothing on Tuesday (!!!!!).  Oh and the morning program from the school district doesn’t run at all over the summer.  This information made our plan go from merely very difficult to impossible.  Looking into other programs in our area, we found that there’s only one all-day preschool program geared towards kids with disabilities, which is not specifically for ASD kids and does not incorporate ABA.  And we’ve been on their waitlist since last November.  We hope to get in with them in August.  I also found 3 other programs that are similar the the two I described, 2-3 hours per day of ABA and/or speech therapy, 3-4 days/week.

So, new plan.  She’s currently in a “regular” all-day preschool environment, with therapists that come work with her there every day under the state early intervention program she is about to age out of.  But, we have lots of “make-up time” on the books, meaning every time someone cancelled because of illness or whatnot, we can have them “make-up” those sessions even after she turns 3.  So the floor won’t fall out for a few weeks yet.  But once her make-up time runs out, it’s the end of formal ABA, speech, and occupational therapies for her, and it means greatly reduced help at preschool, unless we come up with another plan.  Also, the preschool will need to “hold her back” because the 3-year-old room requires potty training, which she doesn’t yet have.  We’ve already privately hired one of her ABA implementers for part-time care, and we are partially reimbursed through a county program.  We can use this to keep this particular implementer on indefinitely, with some manageable cost to us, but without the BCBA who designs the ABA program.

All of this is super frustrating.  Why are we only being given important information 2 weeks before the big change over, despite being in touch with the relevant people since last December?  More than that, why are all these programs only 2 or 3 hours here and there?!  It seems like the only way to actually use these things is to have a stay-at-home parent.  None of this is designed for someone who works even part-time.  I literally feel forced to choose between my academic career, which I have worked really hard for my entire life, and getting the best interventions for my child with autism.  Not only is it not fair to ask myself or my husband to give up our jobs, we wouldn’t be able to afford our home without both incomes.  We could potentially do something really drastic, like have one of us quit our jobs (with greatly reduced earning potential forever as a result, we’re both early in our careers) and moving to a much more modest home (not that our home is particularly extravagant).  But we’re not going to.  We’re going to do the best we can with what we have, and hope that she’ll do OK.  We may or may not also do the morning preschool program, with attendant driving across town twice a day, depending on what we think when we finally get to see it.


Terrible policies

This week has for me been a week of frustration with policies that clearly don’t make any sense, and that make my situation even more difficult than it already is.

First, I’ve been periodically getting in touch with the university parking office since I started my job to ask for parking reassignment.  I have been assigned a spot in a parking garage that is about a 7 minute walk from my office.  Like most university garages, it seems to have been competing for a “most inefficient” design award, and it can easily take 10 minutes or more to wind up or down the darn thing.  And, the location of the garage adds about 5 blocks of congested downtown driving to my commute each way.

About half of the faculty and staff in my department have permits for the lot just outside our building, which I will call the good parking lot.  The university charges less for these permits than for my garage permit.  This week I complained a bit more loudly to the parking office, including pointing out that because I have a toddler with autism, I sometimes have to leave midday for appointments or urgent issues.  This time I was escalated to the head of university parking – who told me there is nothing they can do.  University policy assigns good parking lot permits based on seniority, and once assigned, they are never revoked.  If a faculty member retires, they can choose to keep their permit – at a retiree price of $24 per year, or essentially free.  We have two retirees in our department who sit on these permits and only use them very rarely – but with pricing like that, why give it up?  I’m 8th in seniority order for a permit currently, in a lot with something like 10 spots.  So I’ll be stuck paying a lot more to park in a ridiculously inconvenient garage while the retired professors get to park right next to the building on the rare occasions they chose to grace us with their presence.  What a wonderful university policy that is.

Second, Husband and I have been preparing for a while for our daughter to turn the big Three-Oh (3.0, that is) because she ages out of the state early intervention program and ages into the public school early childhood program.  The transition is going to bring a lot of changes and stress for all involved.  This week I learned that, like all public schools, the early childhood program that serves toddlers with disabilities is out of session during the summer.  And their summer, for some reason, begins May 8.  So she’ll start this program, be in it for 1.5 months, and then for 3.5 months she’ll get nothing.  No supports, no services, nada, and we’re on our own to arrange care for her.  What preschool wants to take an autistic toddler just for the summer?!  The early intervention program for children under 3 is year-round for obvious reasons, so I was genuinely surprised to learn that the public school program isn’t.  Does my child somehow magically not need autism services over the summer?!  It just doesn’t make sense to me.


Liberal elitism and fear of being different

I haven’t written here in a while, not since the 2016 US Presidential election. I was originally a Bernie supporter and then later a Hillary supporter, and I, like many others, felt immense fear at the election of Donald Trump. On election night I sat in bed shaking uncontrollably as it became clear Trump would win. I was terrified but less surprised than most because I had been following FiveThirtyEight’s election coverage for weeks, and they gave Trump roughly a 30% chance of winning.

Trump’s presidency makes me afraid for many, many reasons, not least of which is the fact that he’ll undo the precarious progress made in addressing climate change – progress that was already too little too late. I also fear his clearly bigoted, sexist, Islamophobic, homophobic rhetoric. But the reason I want to write about here is my autistic daughter. Remember when Trump mocked (or did a bad impression of, if you are a Trump supporter) New York Times reporter Serge F. Kovaleski? Mr. Kovaleski has a physical disability that does not affect his brain. Imagine how Mr. Trump or one of his loyal supporters might treat someone with Autism then. I fear that in this new world, people will feel more prejudiced towards those with autism and similar disabilities, as well as more comfortable saying and doing rude things to them, because we no longer need to be “politically correct” or worry about the hurting the “special snowflakes.”

I truly believe my daughter has a lot to contribute to this world. She is delayed in language, and certainly has issues with communication and social interaction. She has sensory meltdowns. But she is also brilliant and is already, at age 2.5, surprising adults with her intelligence and her ability to put ideas together in novel ways. I can’t wait to see what she can do as an adult, because I expect her to be a very out-of-the-box thinker, and people like her have the potential to create big change. But only if society will accept them, only if people will listen instead of dismiss her and make fun of her differences. I’m not asking people to give her lots of special treatment, only to consider my daughter and people like her worthy of being listened to, not made fun of, and yes, treated a bit differently (as much as is required to be polite – for example, not making snide comments about strange sensory behavior in public). It’s not a big request, or at least it wasn’t, but it’s starting to feel less and less likely in a Trump world. I am afraid for her because she is different and being different is now, more than ever, very scary.

I’m also afraid for myself because I am one of the “liberal elites” who is “out of touch” in my “ivory tower.” So I want to use this space to explain that point of view a little bit. I am a scientist and a professor at a flagship state university in the midwest. I spend about half of my time doing scientific research, including training and mentoring the next generation of scientists. I spend the other half of my time teaching, including teaching undergraduate courses and doing public outreach such as radio and magazine interviews, and public lectures and demos at science museums. The research I do is aimed at better understanding certain natural hazards, mainly earthquakes. The end goal, if my career is a successful one, is to make advances in understanding earthquake physics that directly inform earthquake hazard forecasts. These forecasts tell engineers and emergency planners how much shaking to plan for in the event of an earthquake and whether or not to plan for the possibility of a large tsunami. Though I will never (I think) be on the ground pulling survivors from the ruble after a large quake, I nevertheless hope and expect my work to contribute to saving thousands or even millions of lives. But scientific progress is often slow and incremental, and only occasionally flashy enough to make the news. So while it might seem like I, and people like me, are disconnected from the concerns of “regular” people, the reality is I’m working very hard on a project that takes a lot of smart people working hard for a very long time, but our end goal is and always has been saving lives.

I think most “ivory tower” academics could similarly argue that their work is aimed at either saving or improving lives. Even theoretical physicists, because advances in theoretical physics eventually lead, down the line, to life changing inventions (for example, the microwave oven). I hate when people ask theoretical physicists what the practical applications of their work are, because we couldn’t possibly know the practical applications of physics we haven’t even discovered yet. But the biggest, best advances come discovering new physics, even though no one could have told you what they would be ahead of time. Even people in the humanities are largely concerned with saving or improving human lives (I don’t want to spend tons of space here giving examples, and others are more qualified than I am to give humanities examples, but I am confident you can find them if you look). Climate scientists are another great example – they are literally trying to give us the information we need to save the environment, our cities, and many human lives but many in power refuse to listen and many scientists are personally attacked and threatened for it.

As academics, our jobs are very stressful. At best, we get our first permanent jobs around age 30 (referring to a tenure track assistant professorship, optimistic scenario) with the option to fire us unless we hit very difficult targets in 5-7 years. These jobs don’t pay a super high wage, either. In fact academics at the very best universities, many of whom are visionaries in their fields, can’t afford to own homes within communting distance (this is true for Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Oxford, and CalTech to name a few). For state universities like mine, our salaries are public information. I challenge anyone who thinks professors are very highly paid to take a look. We’re (almost) all PhDs, and in private industry, most PhDs are hired with six figure salaries. At my university, new assistant professors are hired in the $50-75k range, and only more senior professors (age 55+ usually) make over $100k. Certainly most of us do OK to well money-wise, but we’re not exactly swimming in wealth and we worked really hard to get where we are. These salaries may seem pretty high to someone in the working class, and I’m not trying to complain that I am paid too little (I’m fine with what I am paid). Rather, I am trying to challenge the notion that academics are among the super elite in terms of income. Most of us are solidly middle to upper-middle class. And that’s only counting those of us who actually got tenure-track or tenured jobs. Many, many more never landed those dream jobs and spend years or even decades serving as very poorly paid adjuncts with no job security whatsoever. (To be fair, these numbers assume no “summer salary”, meaning these numbers are 9 month salaries. Professors can obtain research grants and pay themselves for the summer months, but usually are only paid for 1 or 2 of them. And it’s a myth that we don’t have university work to do over the summer, we all do things like prepare our course materials, advise students, and serve on committees, we’re just not paid to do it. Many, if not most, new professors go without any summer support for the first few years.) For more info on salaries at a variety of universities, see

We’re all intelligent people, and with some exceptions, we’re well-meaning people. We chose to devote our lives to academic study and teaching not because it’s easy, and certainly not because we get paid a ton of money, but because we thought it was important. We do it because we believe we are making significant contributions to society, and because we enjoy the work (largely due to the feeling of making important contributions). So when people dismiss us as “out of touch” and “liberal elites” who don’t care about the “regular people” it’s very disheartening.

When people complain about jobs opportunities shrinking, pay going down, etc., I know those are real concerns that Mr. Trump tapped into with his campaign. I know these problems are real in part because we have them in academia too. Getting a tenure-track job now is more difficult than ever, and in real dollars (adjusted for inflation and local cost of living) academic salaries in many places have gone down. The competition for jobs is so tough that people with truly exceptional qualifications (e.g PhD from Harvard, published 10+ original scientific papers, some highly cited by others) have a hard time landing one of these $60k/year gigs. Many of the academic jobs are increasingly going to immigrants, too, many of whom come to the U.S. on student visas as undergraduate or graduate students. (For the record I am in no way anti-immigration, nor do I have any problem with foreigners getting academic jobs in the U.S., because I think we should hire the best regardless of origin, I am just trying to draw the parallel between the situation in academics and the situation of working class whites). So no, we’re not as out of touch as many people think. Rather, we experience the same issues of increased competition and decreased job opportunities. We’re all in this together, and people really need to stop seeing professors as out of touch liberal elites, because we’re anything but.

Scientific Travel

This week I’ve been attending a scientific meeting.  It’s been a very good meeting both in terms of the things shown and discussed, and in terms of the networking opportunities and collaborative conversations I have had.  But it’s brought to the forefront of my mind the issue of travel when I have an autistic toddler.

I try to reduce how many meetings I go to every year, because it’s always hard on my daughter and husband.  This year, it’ll end up being 3 meetings, all of which will be 1 week or less.  At least in my field, this is fairly low.  An informal survey of colleagues gave numbers in the range of 3-6 trips/year, with some of those being multi-week long workshops or scientific expeditions.

Meeting travel is fundamental to my job in a few ways.  It’s key to keeping up with the current research, to getting my own research out there, and to building and maintaining collaborative relationships.  Reputation really matters in science, especially as I contemplate going up for tenure in a few years.  And reputation is largely built at meetings.  Meetings are also the place where I get to concentrate on just science for a few intense days.  95% or more of my original scientific ideas come to me during meetings as I absorb other people’s results and have in-depth scientific conversations.  I always come home re-invigorated and excited to do new research.

On the personal front though, it’s difficult.  People sometimes to say to me “just bring your husband and daughter along with you!”  Some people do this, and in fact, we did try it once.  But as anyone with a kid knows, travel with your kid is hard.  Travel with an autistic kid is really really hard.  She can’t sleep in strange spaces.  She melts down in loud, crowded environments.  She stops eating pretty much entirely when she travels.  It’s bad enough that we’ve contemplated refusing to travel with her at all, even to visit relatives.  So bringing the kiddo is not an option.  At home, she and daddy get along OK without me for a few days.  But of course it’s much harder on daddy doing it all by himself.  And for the first day or two, there are usually more meltdowns and more defiance as she realizes mommy isn’t around.

So there is a clear personal-professional tension that comes up every time there’s a meeting in my field.  Like all things, it’s about priorities and balance.  I do wonder if meeting travel will get easier (ha) or harder (probably) as my kiddo gets older.  If any readers out there have any advice or personal experiences balancing these issues, I would love to hear it.

Maternity Leave

As I mentioned in a previous post, my husband and I are thinking of having a second child.  It’s been coming up in conversation between us more and more lately, and we’ve both caught ourselves aww-ing over stranger’s babies a lot.  We even have an extra bedroom in our home that we refer to as the nursery or the “baby’s room” in anticipation of baby #2.  For various personal and professional reasons we aren’t planning to get pregnant until early 2017, but clearly we are thinking about it a lot.

On Friday I was discussing this a bit with a colleague and friend, who is also currently the only other female professor in my department.  I realized that since she doesn’t have kids, there was a good chance this department has never had a faculty member be pregnant and take maternity leave.  There have been other female faculty members in the past, but none was here more than a few years.  So I asked and yup, if I become pregnant it will be a department first.  There have been female grad students who had babies, but not faculty.

I don’t expect any issues surrounding this however.  The university has a good maternity leave policy for faculty, and our current department head is very supportive of work-family balance issues.  I am entitled to 12 weeks paid leave, and knowing my colleagues I don’t think anyone would really complain about it.  But it’s strange to think I would be something of a trailblazer just for having a baby.  Newsflash to science departments: young women can be science professors AND have babies too.

I already went through this with my first baby. I was a postdoc, one of very few women in that department.  They had never had a pregnant postdoc before.  I had a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship paid from an endowed fund.  I caused some headaches for the department and many meetings of committee that was in charge of the fund, which included the department head, just to discuss how to handle my case.  It apparently had never occurred to anyone that a postdoc brought in under this fund might become, gasppregnant!  In the end they decided to give me up to 4 months unpaid leave, since by university policy they had to.  Then they suggested I use my short-term disability insurance in order to get 55% pay for 6 weeks, and suggested I could take my 4 weeks of combined vacation and sick leave (paid at 100%) as well.  So no real maternity leave, but it was something anyway.  Luckily my postdoc advisor was also very understanding and supportive, and really didn’t mind if I needed to take a little bit of extra time off here and there.

All-in-all, my experiences haven’t been that bad.  Certainly it could have been much worse and likely is for many academic women.  But it’s just a bit mind-boggling that just having children causes me to set a bunch of new precedents within my departments.  Being a trailblazer in this area was never my intention, but if I’m the first, so be it.  Hopefully my forcing these departments to deal with this issue will help others who come along after me.


First Summer as Faculty!

I’ve been making mostly Autism related posts at this blog, so it’s time for an academia oriented post.

The academic year ended officially about two week ago.  That’s when I turned in final grades for my class, and the summer finally began.  I took off a few days to decompress and switch gears.  My final exam was given at the end of finals week, leaving me not much time to grade all 47 exams by hand, including a few math problems and short answer questions.  It was brutal and I needed a break afterward!

Now I’m trying to pivot into “summer mode.”  The first thing on my summer docket was a proposal deadline, and now that’s done.  Next I have a paper draft from my postdoc work that I need to revise, add some figures to, and send to co-authors so we can hopefully submit it.  I also need to conduct some new research and prep for next fall, when I’ll be teaching a more advanced class I have never taught before.  So I have a lot to do, but so far, I’m having trouble being motivated to do it.  Partially the lack of a set schedule revolving around teaching is weird getting used to again, and also partially just being in my office all day alone is lonely!

Despite those complaints, I am happy summer is here.  Stress levels are lower, parking on campus is easier, the weather is warmer, and I can concentrate on more interesting science.  And, I am lucky in that I actually have a funded grant which will give me 1 month of summer pay.  That does mean that officially, I’m “unpaid” for two months this summer, although obviously I will still need to work during that time.  I have chosen to take my 9-month salary over 12 months, so getting that 1 month of summer pay feels like a “bonus.”  It also means that at least in theory, for the designated month I am supposed to work on nothing but that project.  In practice, I suspect I will need to work on other things a bit during that time, and I suspect I will work on the paid project during other summer months.

Having just submitted one grant proposal, I am now debating with myself whether to try to submit another for an early July deadline.  That isn’t a ton of time, and the program I am thinking of (NSF’s CAREER program) has a low probability of funding me on my first round, but a high payoff it I am funded (roughly $500,000 over 5 years).  Ordinarily I would tell myself to do it and not expect to get the money, on the argument that I could use the feedback to make my application better next time.  But as far as I know, this year is the last year for the CAREER program, meaning there won’t be a second shot.  So I’m debating whether the effort is worth it or not.  Any advice welcome.