mentors and dementors

When I speak at career forums, I often begin by asking the audience what they consider to be the major reason for the high attrition of women in the academic pipeline. The two most common responses are (i) childcare responsibilities and (ii) sexism. My last post focused on sexism. And I’ll address caring responsibilities in future posts. But in this post, I want to highlight why I almost left academia 10 years ago.

Greg Petsko decribed beautifully the academic career as apprentice (PhD), journeyman (postdoc) and master (academic) and pointed out the disconnect between what we are trained to do as apprentices and journeymen, and what we need to do to succeed as academics. The academic master is key to a young apprentice’s progression. She or he will set the project, direct the apprentice, provide advice and career guidance, act as a referee and do much more besides. But the academic master is trained to be a researcher, not to manage people, or to be a good mentor. What if the academic supervisor is a dementor?

I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate in this regard in my academic career. My early supervisors gave me great advice and help: they actively sponsored me to succeed. For example, after completing my MPharm degree in 1986, I decided it was time to see the world. My MPharm supervisor, Peter Andrews, advised me to use the opportunity to undertake a PhD overseas. He recommended working with a colleague at Oxford University who was doing some really exciting research.

Wow. I was simply planning to go on a working holiday for 6 months. I was just a girl from Dandenong (a low socio-economic outer suburb of Melbourne). I never imagined studying at Oxford. Yet here was a professor telling me it was possible. He believed in me. So maybe I was good enough. Maybe I could do it.

Thing is, without that seed of an idea, and without the encouragement from a senior academic, I would never have had the courage or conviction to proceed. Some women leave at this point because “no-one encourages them to go on“. I was encouraged, and I did proceed.

So, how to find funding? Again Peter to the rescue. He pointed me to the Grants Register. After poring over the pages at the back index, I identified dozens of possibilities. Scholarships for women. Bursaries for Australians. Awards for young people to go to the UK. I applied for everything that I was eligible to apply for, and Peter helped by providing constructive advice for specific questions and by writing strong letters of support. In the end I was awarded a total of 5 scholarships, bursaries and awards for my DPhil studies. (Mind you, that was after dozens and dozens of rejections, but that’s a story for another day).

In Oxford and later in New York, I also had outstanding mentors in my corner, supporting and sponsoring me to succeed. However, there have also been obstacles to overcome without a mentor’s support.

After 2 consecutive Fellowships at the early and mid-career level, I failed to secure a Fellowship in 2004, 10 years after establishing my independent group. This meant someone else had to cover my salary. My annual performance appraisal that year was conducted with three senior academics – all male – rather than the usual one. Presumably, (I wasn’t told explicitly) this committee had to decide whether I was worth supporting. I provided the review documents the required week in advance. When the appraisal began, the chair of the panel began by thanking me for the documents but then explained that regretfully he hadn’t had time to read them.

Hmm. I thought. This is not a good start. I must be very low on his list of priorities. Perhaps I should excuse myself and come back when he has read them? After all, the relevant appraisal policy requires that the appraiser read the documents before the meeting. But I felt my job was on the line and I didn’t want to rock the boat, so I didn’t say anything. And neither did the other two committee members.

In the next breath, the committee chair offered this, “You know, the problem with you Jenny is that you are not seen as a leader.” Ouch. That hurt. Like a kick in the guts. I responded timidly….. “But I am a leader in my field. I am president of the national society, a member of the Academy of Science National Committee, I am on the scientific advisory committee of…..” but I was cut off. These were not evidence of leadership, these were service roles. Apparently I was elected/nominated to these offices, because nobody else wanted to do them. They didn’t count. If I wanted to succeed in science, I needed to be known for something. Something scientific. I tried again “But I am known for my work on disulfide bond forming proteins, there’s my seminal Nature paper of 10 years ago, several papers in Structure, and my PNAS paper this year, and in total I have over 60 papers mostly as senior author……..”. But no, apparently this wasn’t what they meant either.

To this day, I still don’t really know what they meant, because I switched off at about that point. I sat in self-imposed silence, nodding occasionally, while the panel mansplained to me why I wasn’t good enough. My silence was a self-preservation response that – only just – prevented me from bursting into tears right then and there.

I left work early that day, almost immediately after the appraisal. Walking to my car, I did burst into tears. Round and round my head went the words, “You are not a leader”. “You should be more like X, Y, Z” (insert any stereotypical white middle-aged male scientific leader name you like). But, I thought, I’m not them, and I don’t want to be them. I want to be me. And I can’t work any harder than I am already. If what I am doing is not valued, if I am not seen as a leader, then perhaps it’s time to leave.

This performance appraisal fanned the embers of self-doubt, low self-confidence, low self-esteem that many women harbour. For weeks, I pondered whether to return to my long-lost former career as a pharmacist. I was still registered, though I had not practised for almost 20 years. I investigated what it would take, and found that I’d have to re-train, and sit practical and theoretical exams; it would take time, but I could do it.

In the end, I didn’t leave, for reasons I’ll explain in a future post. Over the next 2 years, I applied for but failed to secure a Fellowship, though I was awarded several national prizes and my salary continued to be paid (so the panel must have believed in me to some extent!). Then, in 2007 I was awarded not one but two highly competitive Fellowships. My promotion to Professor was also approved that year. And in 2009, I was awarded the most prestigious Fellowship in the Australian Research Council scheme, the Australian Laureate Fellowship (a follow-up to the former Federation Fellowship but which now emphasised mentorship as well as research leadership). I became the first woman in the biological/biochemical sciences to be awarded either a Federation or a Laureate Fellowship. This just five years after being told I was not a scientific leader.

So, I think back to that performance appraisal. Was I being prepared for being booted out? Was I being given a kick up the butt to try harder? Either way, the approach used didn’t work with me. I lost motivation. I did not feel valued. I did not feel supported. I did not feel included. Yet, I succeeded anyway. Some may argue that my later success was because of, rather than despite, the dementoring. I don’t know. What I do know is that it was after this episode that I came closest to leaving academia. I wonder how many other women and men of merit would have left in the same situation. It takes extreme determination and self-will to continue on, when your superiors express a lack of faith in you, and your own self-confidence is at an all-time low.

So that was my dementor “soul-sucking” experience. Perhaps not as bad as some others I’ve heard about. But enough to make me seriously contemplate leaving academia. I’ve asked colleagues if they would share their mentor and dementor experiences. Here are some of them.

•”The contract offered a lectureship at Level B. I was so excited I signed it immediately. A senior male academic was horrified. “Don’t sign the contract, always negotiate.” He advised me what to do. I pulled the contract out and tore it up. I asked the Executive Dean for a meeting. I was nervous, but I put to him that based on my CV I should be appointed at the top of Level B and that I wanted his support for promotion to Level C the following year. Without blinking he agreed. Not only was I promoted the following year, the ED had seen my CV, I was on the radar.”

•”I was awarded a highly competitive Fellowship, and was placed with someone in the department who was meant to support me and my research. He never helped at all, but insisted on being listed on all my papers, and on using funds that I should have received to pay himself a top-up for mentoring me.”

•”My husband and I are academics at the same department. I am currently on my second national Fellowship. We have two children and we share the caring responsibilities. He has recently been offered a lectureship. I have been advised not to continue in science, that it’s too difficult for women.”

•”I arranged a meeting with my HoS to discuss the increasingly difficult situation of working with this person. When I arrived, the HoS was sitting together with this person, they were sharing a beer. It was clear they were mates.”

•”When she was overseas, she always delegated someone to fill in, to sign the forms and to take responsibility. She rotated that task across 5 people in turn. It meant everyone got an opportunity to lead.”

•”Lab meetings often included alcohol. My supervisor – a recently divorced 50-ish man – would regale us with stories of the young chicks he had picked up on the weekend.”

•”When he came in he changed the structure so that everyone reported directly to him. He didn’t inform anyone in positions of responsibility below him. They all found out together in public, in a presentation he made to 150 people showing the new organisational chart on a slide. They had been moved off to the side, without a title or a line of command. It became pretty clear very soon that he wanted total control and that there was no pathway for anyone except him. It was about domination not collaboration.”

•”She was grounded and had lots of life experience and perspective. She made the place positive, you felt like you were part of a team, that your contribution was valued.”

One colleague noted “When I was going through my dementor battle, three of my friends were battling their own dementors. We were all 30-something females – and had hit a wall with some insecure 50-something male dementors. It’s interesting to see 10 years later that although one of my friends did leave academia, the rest of us are now doing better than our dementors.”

Perhaps the life lesson here is that everyone has dementors to tackle, and that it’s part of the process of growing up as an academic. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, as my mum would say. Not very helpful, but there it is. The best advice I can give is to find your own mentor, or better yet a circle of peers that you can meet with regularly to discuss challenges and obstacles to your career.

And when it comes to dementors, how can you avoid having your soul sucked out? Well you can do what I’ve learned to do from my own circle of peers: be proactive and practice your own patronus charm.

So when you hear me muttering “Expecto patronum!” under my breath, you’ll know why…..

10 thoughts on “mentors and dementors

  1. What a great post! Thank you. So inspiring. This highlights the importance of our own roles as mentors, as well as our vulnerabilities to dementors (great term).

  2. I want to add my thanks for this post. Although men typically have a better time of things in academe, however, it isn’t always a free ride. I was given precisely no encouragement in my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. Only after I got my doctorate (while working full time and raising a family) did anyone think to ask me why I hadn’t applied for academic positions. Seriously, with 25 years of study behind me I didn’t know I was good enough to go further. Nobody had ever said. I raised this with some of my lecturers and they said “We thought you knew we liked your work”. I didn’t, because nobody had ever told me. As a result, I entered academe 20 years after I could have, and suffered as a result.

    So when I hear this said by women, I think that they have it so much harder than I did, as at least I was male. Any woman who makes it in academe has overcome enormous difficulties, far greater than any I encountered.

  3. I think that women in all careers need to learn to be strong in the face of sexism in the workplace. We also need to learn how to negotiate more for our salaries. Men are paid more because they ask for more. Women tend to accept whatever peanuts of money and validation men give out. This needs to change.

    • I agree that increasing women’s resilience (and powers of negotiation) in the face of sexism is a good and important goal, and I support efforts to provide them with the tools and support they need for this. But framing it like this – like something that women ‘need to learn’ – seems to put the burden on women to adapt to sexism rather than on society to eliminate sexism. Words matter.

  4. Jenny, thank you so much for this post. I can relate! and have had several dementor experiences -as a student I was ‘holding back’ the (still stellar) career of my husband, I was too high risk for PhD support because I had young children (from the female PG coordinator), I’ve even had “they only hired you because you are a woman” in my first lecturing job (from the person assigned to mentor me). I realise in hindsight that many of these comments reflect the dementors own insecurities, but they still managed to undermine self confidence, and made me question whether I should keep going. I’ve also been lucky enough to have hugely supportive mentors and this does make a difference. Your post is a great reminder about the importance practising this in our own dealings with our colleagues and research team.

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  6. As long as I’m here complaining about someone else’s comment, I should really also thank Professor Martin for writing this post in the first place. The voices of established women academics (Hope Jahren is another example) carry extra weight, and are an inspiration to us lower down in the pecking order!

  7. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated your post. While sexism is (duh) alive and well in our science workplaces, I liked that you separated it also from mentorship as such, and that you reminded us that one can seek support to overcome a dementor experience with peers and unofficial mentors gleaned from elsewhere. Which is why support networks – even blogging ones – matter so much.

    You wrote: “So, I think back to that performance appraisal. Was I being prepared for being booted out? Was I being given a kick up the butt to try harder? Either way, the approach used didn’t work with me. I lost motivation. I did not feel valued. I did not feel supported. I did not feel included. Yet, I succeeded anyway. […] It takes extreme determination and self-will to continue on, when your superiors express a lack of faith in you, and your own self-confidence is at an all-time low.”

    I have had more than one of these talks with people in a higher position of authority over me, with similar results. I absolutely think they are a brake and not an incentive, at least for certain personalities, no matter how much subsequent success one might attain. After my first one, when I was nearly in tears and talking with a colleague about the well-meant ordeal, he told me that he had left that very office in tears the previous year. Yet I don’t think the “tough love” helped either of us, in the long run. Who knows how much further we could have gone with active encouragement, instead? My most appreciated mentors to date have been benevolently non-interfering, but I’ve had no disinterested, active assistance up the ladder. At my age, I don’t know if I’ll get better than that.

    Anyhow, that first office was run by one of the very few powerful women in our discipline. I forgave her for the “sink or swim” talk as, later on, when I was seen to be a survivor after all, we struck up a new colleague-level correspondence. She later wrote a highly supportive letter nominating me for a prize for women in science (which I didn’t get – not her fault at that point – but who knows, in the alternate universe where I had felt valued and promoted in my 20s?).

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