In the past three years, I've mentored 15 undergraduate women and 30 tenth grade girls in my campus' Women in Science and Engineering program. Several of the undergraduate students have gone on to continue their training under my direction and become research assistants on my projects. I've developed an interest, a passion for women in science. I started this blog. I've written for a newsletter on the topic at my school. I've read articles on the disparity of women in the sciences. How at the undergraduate (and even graduate) levels, the numbers are actually evening, but it's at the higher levels-- post docs, professorships, where things are still quite distant. Professional articles about ways to bridge the gap. About childcare and household labor.
I believe in representation, in mentorship. I believe that if we want more women in these positions, if we believe in diversity in academia-- we need to create it, to be it. I have spent four years trying to be it.
I have told the women and girls who come through my lab many things. I have told them to do what they love. I have told them to follow their passion. I have encouraged them to be innovative. I have reassured them that they are able to do the work. I have eased nerves, pledged my help and time to their learning. I have guided their research ideas, attempting to channel my own best professors. I have helped, assisted, edited, re-written, searched for papers, taught, given constructive criticism, given examples. I have modeled what poster formatting should look like or how a method section should read. I have given advice on choosing a major, a graduate program, a research advisor. I have told them how hard graduate school is. I have been candid about the struggles. I have told them that it's ok if they find themselves crying in their office from time to time, because I have too, and if it happens to them, I want them to know that they're not alone. I have told them to be kind to others. I have told them to remember to eat, to sleep, to have a life, to have relationships. And, I hope, I have shown them how rewarding what I do is. At least, I hope they have seen it by the fact that I have told them all of these other things.
And yet, at year four, as I propose my dissertation and ready myself for the job search, I find myself disillusioned with academia. I still want to be a professor. I still want to teach. I still get a thrill when a student learns something. Anything. And I still love the exchange, the innovation. The amount of research training that can be done in the classroom. The amount of teaching I find myself doing in the lab.
But I also want a life. I want to come home. I want to watch TV. I want to read books and have conversations and unwind. I want to speak to friends and cuddle with my boyfriend. I want to cook, and eat, and shower. I want to have time to have solitary hobbies. I want to contribute to the world outside of my ivory tower. I want time to keep abreast of the news, and to volunteer or write to my senators. I want to right wrongs. I want... a life outside of work.
It makes me better. It makes my work better. And, honestly, I deserve it. We all do. And I don't want to have to choose between my health, my work, and the stuff that makes life worth living. And, frankly, right now, I don't question anyone who decides to leave academia. It is still, potentially, a question as to why (and if) women are leaving more frequently, but the system is broken and inflexible. It is no wonder that it is leaking.
I still hope to find a job as a professor. I think I would be happy doing that. And I think I'd be good at it. But even if I do, it might not be as I first imagined. I would be just as happy, I think, at a small liberal arts school as I would at an institution that was more research-oriented. Maybe I'd miss some of the hustle and bustle and focus on research, but to spend my days with students and not with grant applications-- I think I'd be ok with it.
It's taking some getting used to that I may not always be able to call myself a scientist. I may not continue research. I may never be the P.I. I may never get a grant or have my own lab. Or, maybe I will. I still hope I will. But I'm considering the possibilities. I'm not sure I want to be a part of such a broken system. I have started to doubt my abilities to fix it from the inside out. I am afraid it will break me instead.
The feminist ideal of "having it all" seems to come in stark contrast to the open mouth of academia, swallowing whole all the time and energy of those who participate in it. Academia is a jealous god. It wants all you have, and the system is set up expecting that you will give it. And as many articles as I've read on work-life balance, nothing seems to change that fact.
This is a confession of sorts. I feel embarrassed by this. I have worked hard to try to empower others. I have all the arguments in my head about why diversity is so needed, and I believe every word. But I can't help but wonder, in my own life, if the academic life has enough room to also be a well-rounded person-- for family, community, activism. I don't know if it's possible to be a good, productive scientist at the same time as being a happy, good person. I don't know if it's part of the alleged Millennial work ethic or the new economic structure. I don't know if I'm helping my students on their way to a misguided goal. If I'm a failure for pointing the direction to a road I'm not willing or cut out to take. I don't know what it means if I'm just another drop dripping slowly out of that leaky pipeline, after years of trying to help plug the holes. But if I go, I refuse to ooze out quietly.