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"Abused" scientists

Karen Allendoerfer kallen at ontogeny.com
Thu Jul 29 22:03:21 EST 1999

This thread about "abused" scientists is interesting.  Without dismissing 
any of the concerns raised by any of the participants, many of which I 
think are valid, I wanted to take the conversation in a slightly 
different direction.

I've been out of training now for about a year, have a job at a biotech 
company, and am expecting a baby in a month.  I've been considering my 
personal experiences, both in training and on the job, from this 

The good news is that I have NOT, so far, experienced any pregnancy-based 
abuse.  My boss and co-workers have been about as understanding as I 
could possibly expect or hope.  Many of them have kids themselves, so the 
women have experienced it first-hand, and the men have wives who've had 
to deal with the conflicting pressures.  Our HR Director summed it up 
well when she remarked how different things are today than when she was 
my age (she's about 25 years older than I am).  She said that "in her 
day" you had to hide your pregnancy as long as you could and you feared 
for your job.  Now people congratulate me and offer me advice on day care 
and breast pumps.  There are two other pregnant women and one man whose 
wife is expecting, at our company now, out of 78 employees, and within 
the past year, two male and one female employee have had new babies as 

I would also say that during my graduate training and postdoctoral period 
I was lucky enough not to experience any real, overt sexism.  My female 
graduate advisor was especially wonderful in this regard.  I think she 
had a real commitment to equality, while still being sympathetic to the 
unique problems that women faced.  

So, then, why do I still have this residual feeling that scientific 
training as it stands currently in the U.S.A. is, in fact, abusive in 
some way?  

Part of it is empathy with the experiences of others, who didn't have had 
as great of a thesis advisor as I did, or as understanding a boss as I do 

Another part of it is looking back at the unquestioned cultural 
assumptions that made up graduate school and postdoc life in the sciences 
in the late 80's/early 90's.  I did not find that these assumptions were 
foisted on us primarily by P.I.'s, or by men, although there were plenty 
of P.I.'s and men who shared them.  Everyone bought into them to some 
degree; I certainly did.  And to the extent that I did, I suffered.  
These assumptions included:

1.  Scientists do not need to eat or sleep regularly.  

--The corollaries of this were many:  the expectation that you shouldn't 
mind if an experiment unexpectedly went over lunchtime or dinnertime, or 
into the night; the 7-10 p.m. seminar classes you were expected to attend 
after working a full day in the lab (that sometimes turned into the 
7-10:45 p.m. seminar classes); the seminars that don't end on time 
because the speaker is clueless or because professor Glotz in the front 
row wants to ask yet another question; the many people squeezed into a 
hotel room at meetings, some sleeping on the floor; the departmental 
events that take place in the evening; the unhealthy food served at beer 
hour.  The meals eaten on the run.  "Work hard, party hard"  being 
something to aspire to, and its practitioners admired and praised.

2.  Scientists do not suffer from mundane physical concerns.

--Heaven forfend that one might want to go to a meeting, or to meet a 
collaborator on the other coast or on the other side of the ocean a day 
early in order to adjust to the time difference, or that one might end up 
sleeping through the poster/slide presentations the following morning, or 
that one might not be able to give a coherent scientific presentation 
after taking the red-eye flight.  

Or being expected to defend your thesis around your infant's due date.

3.  Scientists do not have a spiritual life or celebrate national 

--National meetings that start at 8 a.m. on Sunday morning.  Lab meetings 
that are regularly scheduled for 4 p.m. on Mondays being held anyway, 
even though it is Memorial Day, Labor Day, or Martin Luther King Day.  
Postdocs bragging about the leftover Chinese takeout they ate for 
Thanksgiving dinner in the lab.

4.  Scientists do not need help with their taxes, their visa problems, or 
with any institutional bureaucracy related to their program of study or 
training.  In fact, they should ignore these things as much as possible, 
and should never waste anyone else's time with them at work.

--Students being surprised to find out what estimated tax is and how/when 
to pay it.  Students being told that time spent studying for coursework 
or qualifying exams is a "waste of time."  Students being given wrong or 
conflicting information about the composition of their thesis committee, 
how many units they need, whether they can/should serve as TA's for a 
particular course.  Postdocs being given wrong information about whether 
and how their fellowships are taxable, and having the wrong amount of tax 
witheld.  Foreigners stuck in or out of the country due to visa probelms. 
 Responsibility for dealing with these things being left up to the 
individual lab, student/postdoc, and overburdened P.I., who, 
understandably, knows nothing about this.

I'm not talking primarily about things like going to the movies, or 
"having fun."  I'm talking about the concerns of real life: eating, 
sleeping, reproducing, paying your taxes.  Buying Christmas presents for 
your family.  Taking care of your sick mother.  There isn't a lot of room 
for any of this in science.  And viewed that way, I honestly think the 
cumulative effect of these assumptions could be considered abusive.  Not 
that they're necessarily unique to science as a profession.

But I've also found that these assumptions are just that:  assumptions.  
Over the years, as I've questioned them and stopped buying into them, 
I've found that people come out of the woodwork who don't share them 
either.  Men and women.  Postdocs and grad students.  PI's and non-PI's.  
People who have big Thanksgiving dinners at their houses, who put up 
Christmas decorations at their bench or observe the high holy days.  
People who know about taxes.  People who cook and enjoy their food.  Even 
a few people who get 8 hours of sleep a night on a regular basis.  These 
people often aren't the scientific stars or the favorites in the lab.  
But I started to realize that who makes the favorites, anyway--I can have 
my own favorites.   More often they are the quiet ones, the ones whose 
work, both scientifically and otherwise, may fall outside the mainstream. 
 It can be lonely there, but more and more, I think I've come to see that 
it may be, all in all, a better place to be.  

Karen Allendoerfer

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