Thursday, May 31, 2007

Being taken seriously.

I just read Elli's post about wanting to feel like a "real" scientist and it really hit home for me. Her situation is quite different than mine- she is just starting graduate school and I am beginning the process for tenure. However, I still feel that I struggle to be taken seriously and to be seen as a "real" scientist. I am almost 37 years old, yet am frequently mistaken for a graduate student. While, I do enjoy looking young, it can also be a disadvantage.

I was recently introduced to a professor emeritus in another department and he asked "are you a grad student?" My colleague had introduced me as someone he was collaborating with, yet I was still assumed to be a student. At a conference I recently attended, I was mistaken for a grad student by current grad students! The frequency of this misidentification has recently caused me to question other aspects of myself: Do I come across as unprofessional? Does my work seem too basic? I try to convince myself that it's just my "youthful appearance", but can't help but wonder.

The other issue that I face is that I am in a discipline where some people are social scientists and others are natural scientists. While my social science colleagues no doubt see me as a scientist, there are others who do not. My research has always been scientific, but I do occasionally feel like a "second class" scientist.

To address the scientiae carnival theme of "how we are hungry", I'd have to say that I am hungry to be taken seriously: in my discipline, in my university, in my college, and even in my own department. I am in a technical, natural science part of my discipline in a male-dominated department, so this is often a tall order. I have to wonder if things will change when I get tenure? Given the experiences of my female senior colleagues, I have to doubt it. Which brings me to my final point: If I were male, would I have these same problems?


Kathi Fisler said...

One of my biggest pet peeves along these lines is being called "Ms" or "Mrs" instead of "Professor" or "Doctor". Getting this from students is frustrating (especially when they don't seem to do this to males of similar age/stature), but getting it from other researchers (pretty rare) is worse. I thought the problem would die down as I got older, but it hasn't made a difference (perhaps I haven't visually aged yet). I still haven't found a way to respond when this happens that doesn't seem petty. With students, I'm sometimes tempted to wear a tie to class and make a joke out of it.

Rachel said...

oh man, does this resonate!
i started a t-t job last fall and litreally defended my diss yesterday. also, i teach at a big public uni, and am literally younger than all of the grad students. no one took me seriously at first site! the day i went to teach my first class, the security guard carded me, and so i was late arriving to it. i look young, i am young, and i dress young -- though dressing 'older' just makes me look like i am in someone's clothing. i am hoping this imbalance corrects itself soon! at least now i can call myself Dr....

Addy N. said...

Hi Kathi! I also hate "Mrs" and have started just flat-out correcting students because it irks me so much (I even have it on my syllabus!)

Hello Dr. Rachel: Congratulations on finishing the diss! That must have been a tough year with a t-t job AND finishing- yikes!

I feel your pain! Although it's good to know that I am NOT alone...

Elli said...

thanks for this post! Weird as it sounds, it's reassuring to know that there's no "mag I'm not the only one who worries about these sorts of things - am I unprofessional? Do I look too young? Is it just because I'm a girl?

So, thanks Dr. Scientist Addy :) Love your blog!

And to kathi: I'm totally stealing the tie idea when I start teaching.

Elli said...

crud - premature "publish" click. It should say "it's nice to know I'm not the only one who worries". Forgot the edit the middle bit!

Eddie said...

I'm with you on all of this!

I too hate being called "Ms." I have been correcting students--"It's doctor"-- but I end up feeling like a pompous ass. I wouldn't correct them if they called the men "Mr." but that never happens!

Lab Rat said...

100% agreement! I'd though adding things like "Dr" and "PhD" not-so-subtly in your email signature would be enough of a clue, but despite that, stuff still comes back with "Ms", "Mrs" or (ewww!)"Madam".

Getting mistaken for a student, I can live with (even nets you freebies every so often). Getting mistaken for a lab tech is annoying. But what gets me is being mistaken for an admin drone (from HR, Finance, or whatever). :P

JustMe said...

While, I do enjoy looking young, it can also be a disadvantage.

yes, YES. well except i do not enjoy looking younger. i just want to look my age!

and i think sex is a huge factor in your subfield. because us social science ones are usually "girls" and the natural science seems to be/have been/ historically dominated by men.

in terms of dress, a man can dress up "casual" and jeans with a blazer, but a woman in jeans is a grad student.

Jenny F. Scientist said...

I mistook a young (male) professor for a postdoc recently. But I felt really bad about it.

I sympathize; my colleagues treat me like an idiot most of the time. I'm sure bitchiness is not the best response, but I resent so much having to put out the effort that cheer does not come naturally.

As far as being taken seriously while male: anecdotally, including Mr. S, no, they don't have to work nearly as hard. The difference between a 5'7 blonde woman and a 6'2 dark-haired man is amazing.

Henrietta said...

"But what gets me is being mistaken for an admin drone (from HR, Finance, or whatever)."

As an admin drone myself, I'm not quite sure how to take that. Is it because your male colleagues don't get that assumption, or because admin drones are so low in the heirarchy that it's insulting to be associated with us?

Lab Rat said...

No offense to you personally, Henrietta! Where I work, the bureaucracy is horrendous, and well, frankly incompetent (let's see - six months to get a small purchase cleared?).

It's also about not being taken seriously during scientific meetings with outsiders - since they often assume I'm someone else's personal secretary, or the tea lady, or something, it's hard to make myself heard during those enjoyable scientific discussions.

Addy N. said...

Thanks for the great comments, everyone. And welcome new readers! Stop by again soon.

Abigail said...


Your post describes ny life. Although I am not a scientist, I do have an undergraduate degree in music and almost 15 years of work experience, both professional music work and office work.

I have felt for more than ten years now that the way I look is holding me back. I constantly get put down and treated as though I am an idiot for no reason. I started a new position in a church office today and I overheard a volunteer ask someone if I had any experience! I couldn't beleive it! I am 30 years old.

I have a lot to offer as a person. For one thing, there is nothing about my personality, my intelligence, my credentials, or education that should cause anyone to think I have never had a job before! My friends and family tell me I am lucky to look great at my age, but I am NOT OLD anway! For what it does in my professional and personal life, it is not a positive to look so young.

Unbeleivably enough, most people do not even realize I am an adult. I am often mistaken for a twelve year old. It is humiliating.

Does anyone have any useful advice on handling it with people who ask me how old I am?