Dear Kate – May 2017

Dear Kate,

I am in the middle of my postdoc and will start looking for a tenure-track position in a year. My husband, who is also in academia, and I have been doing long-distance for almost two years. He recently got a new job and finally we are going to be in the same place (at least temporarily, before my tenure-track adventure). We have been talking about kids, and recently he suggested that maybe we should use this period to get a kid. I am not sure how I feel about this idea. On the one hand, I have heard a lot about how being pregnant and taking care of a newborn baby would severely decrease the work productivity and mobility, and I am not sure how much I can handle (or maybe I can handle it really well). On the other hand, we do like kids, and I am approaching my 30th so the biological clock is ticking, and “there is no best time for pregnancy”. I understand this problem really varies from person to person, but I was wondering if you can give some advice or share your experience on how you handled this challenge. Thank you very much!

— Troubled

Dear Troubled,

My own experience is not easily applicable to today’s career situation, because I was not initially sure that I wanted a career, but knew I wanted kids plus some opportunity to do interesting work outside of the home, for at least some of the year and some of the day. This was in the late 1950’s-early 1960’s, when there were few women in academic jobs. I got lucky because, when I asked my PhD. advisor for advice on getting a part-time job, he said I could work in his group part time, and have the summers off, which allowed me to have four kids, and yet, still ultimately get a tenured position when I was 40 or so.

That is much less likely to work now, when there is much more competition for each academic job. I recommend to young academics today to plan on two children, and to make sure that both spouses cooperate in raising the children and in accommodating their careers to do so. This may mean that one of you takes a lesser position for a time, even one in industry research, for example, to live close enough to share child responsibilities. Or that one of you takes a leave for 6 months or a year. The ease of getting professional work done, while having and raising a child, varies enormously and unpredictably from person to person and time to time. Try hard not to be a perfectionist, and accept help from others even if they do things differently from the way you do it. Get used to some level of mess, and don’t agonize about it.

I think having children in the late 20’s or early 30’s, after one has completed one’s PhD or the equivalent, is probably optimal, rather than earlier in one’s training, or later in one’s 30’s. One problem with waiting too long is that not everyone has an easy time getting pregnant, especially as you get older.

One thing I can say with great confidence is that, once you are past the stress of the first year or two, you will never regret having had children.
Kate M.

(Kate M. is a neuroscientist and a parent)

On behalf of the GWAMIT mentoring committee, many thanks to this month’s Dear Kate contributor, Kate M.

For some other perspectives on having children as an early-stage academic, check out this article from The Times of Higher Education, especially the fourth person’s contribution; this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education on some of the challenges faced by women in academia who become mothers; and this forum thread from the Berkeley Parents Network on when to have children as a young academic.

Dear Kate – January 2017

Dear Kate,

How would you decide whether to take an incredible job offer that would entail having to be in a coast-to-coast long-distance relationship with your husband for at least 2 years?

Thank you,

Puzzled Piece


Dear Puzzled,

I was faced with a similar agonizing decision a few years ago, so let me offer a few words about the decision process I went through.

First of all, for me the situation was this: I had a great, secure job with people I liked in a scientific lab in Massachusetts. That lab was going to be consolidated with one in Albuquerque New Mexico. I had the choice of: 1. Retiring early, 2. Moving with my job to Albuquerque, 3. Trying to find a job with the company in Massachusetts–that would not be research at all. Not being independently wealthy, and the bad economy at the time, quitting and looking for completely new work locally wasn’t an option.

Several of my colleagues chose to move. Several moved with the idea to work long enough to qualify to retire and would move back. Many of these left their families here and would visit frequently.

Where I was coming from was I am single, with no blood relatives in MA, with a house on the beach I love. Having no technical family I had fought to build one in MA out of my friends. I had gone on assignments that took me away from my home (1 year to the Pentagon, 4 years to London and Moscow) but I never sold my house, even though that would financially have made the most sense. It has always been my intention to live here.

As the deadline approached, and everyone kept encouraging me to move, my resolve wavered. I had visited and worked with the lab in NM and so I knew what it would be like living there. I had always thought I would I enjoy a couple year assignment there, but this would be a one-way ticket. A friend from the lab even offered for me to live with her at her house which was tempting. I looked at moving temporarily while getting a friend to live in my house in MA. I drew up sheets of pros and cons. I finally realized that always the model was to work there while trying to get a job back in MA. There were too many variables.

So, the decisive stroke was when I decided to limit the choices: Stay in MA permanently, or move to NM—permanently! When I did that, my choice was clear. The halfway-committed option just wasn’t for me and I didn’t see it working out for the people who did it. Since I knew the whole time I was in NM I would just be looking for ways to get a job back in MA, I decided it made more sense to be doing that in Massachusetts rather than 2,000 miles away.

As far as the original question, if you had to leave a spouse for a year or two on the other coast, you have to figure out what are your variables and do your own a pro and con analysis for that. It’s highly individual, so the same set of variables would not produce the same decision for different families. Coasts are good, Boston has many direct flights to the Pacific coast so traveling back and forth is not so arduous as for, say, a destination that requires intermediary stops. But people generally don’t get married to be alone, so you would have to weigh potential damage done to the relationship – or perhaps you would both think of it as an adventure! Only you can judge the risk. Whatever you decide I wish you luck!

Kate J.

(Kate J. is a seismologist, astrophysicist, engineer, and science-fiction author, among other things)

On behalf of the GWAMIT mentoring committee, thank you to this month’s Dear Kate contributor, Kate J.

A recent column in Science also offers some perspective on this question: read here

Dear Kate – July 2016

Dear Kate,

I will be starting a new job in the fall and now that I will finally have a paycheck, I am starting to think more clearly about financial planning.  Other than investing, I am also curious about charitable giving.  At MIT, I’ve donated to the class gift and a scholarship fund.  I don’t have a financial planner and cannot afford one but am looking for helpful resources online.  Based on your experience, what advice do you have for women who want to think about and manage their charitable giving?

– Curious about Financial Planning

Dear Curious,

Congratulations on the job! And congratulations on thinking about this right out of the gate.

First: Draft and try out a budget that includes your plan for charitable giving. I found that making ad-hoc decisions over and over (should I buy this thing or donate the money to charity?) was a lot more stressful than coming up with a plan. A plan meant I could make the decision once, instead of repeating it every time I was in the checkout line.

So pick a time period (start small: a month? Six months?) and try out a given level of spending, saving, and giving. At the end of that time, re-evaluate. Was it too hard? Or do you want to stretch a little more? Adjust the budget.If you find yourself doing impulse giving and would rather save the money for a more carefully chosen cause, make habits to divert this. If you feel bad turning down those people with clipboards, keep a tally of how much you would have donated and then give the total to a more effective charity at the end of each month. Or you might decide that donations that support your community and relationships (like the fundraiser 5k your best friend is running) come out of your personal budget rather than your charity budget.

And how to decide where to give?

Don’t pick charities that come to you; if you give reactively based on who calls or emails you, you’re selecting for the charity with the most aggressive marketing department. Be proactive. Set time aside to consider what you value, and to find the best charities in the field.

When it comes to choosing charities, GiveWell is a charity evaluator that I’ve found helpful (full disclosure: I’m on their board). Rather than trying to rate the 1.5 million nonprofits registered in the US, they try to find a handful of the ones with the best evidence of effectiveness.  Their tips for giving include:

  • Don’t make large donations by credit card, because your favorite charity will pay a hefty fee
  • Consider whether you’ll be itemizing deductions or taking the standard deduction, and what tax rate you expect to pay next year, to decide whether to give this year or in January

All the best!

– Kate W
(community manager for the Centre for Effective Altruism, and co-organizer of the Boston Effective Altruism group)

On behalf of the GWAMIT mentoring committee, thank you to this month’s Dear Kate contributor and Kate W. 

Dear Kate – May 2016

Dear Kate,

 “Is it possible to have hobbies as a graduate student or academic?”

– Steph the jock

Dear Steph, 

This question can go in so many directions! By hobby, let’s say a leisure activity (outside work). I think, yes, but it’s very personal, and depends on the type of hobby and the time commitment needed. For me, I found it is possible to have hobbies and be a grad student and an academic.

I have always enjoyed reading outside my field, whether the topic is fiction or nonfiction. Sometimes I felt bad that I hadn’t “read enough”, and definitely in grad school I found that finding time to read for enjoyment was hard to find. Now as a faculty member, I’m fortunate to do a lot of travel, and I have found time to catch up on reading while traveling! In addition to reading, I’ve always loved sports and outdoor activities, and up until I was in college I did a lot of hiking and backpacking. In grad school, I found that these activities tapered off, but that was less due to time than to a change in locale: I moved from a small town near rivers, trails and mountains to one of the world’s largest cities, so getting “away from it all” simply became a lot more difficult! As a faculty member, I’ve found time (and great places nearby Boston) to go out walking and hiking, so when the weather is nice, I head to the hills. I also took advantage of the move to Boston to take up new winter hobbies – like ice-skating and hockey – things I never would have done before coming from a warm climate. They were ways to meet new people, and get outside my lab, and stay physically fit.

As part of a broader question of work-life balance, I have found that hobbies are important ways for me to clear my head and boost my scientific thinking. When I first started as an assistant professor, I used to think I needed to work nonstop, all day, every day. But I found that my productivity and the quality of my work suffered. After about two years of pushing too much on work, I just started forcing myself to make time for hobbies again – in some cases, actually scheduling them like you would a meeting! Surprisingly to me, my work actually improved. I found that with more time spent on hobbies, I actually got more done when I was at work, and when I was in the lab, because I had more energy and found I could just think more clearly and focus on the tasks at hand. That being said, I have also learned that sometimes while I am “relaxing” I actually need to stay connected to work. So I do keep up with emails on the weekends and when I am on vacation, and might even go into the lab or work on data analysis or write paper – but I do this as a choice, for myself, not because I feel I have to work. I choose this balance because it stresses me out too much to be out of touch, spending my vacation worrying about the pile of work waiting for me when I get back.

With academic work, and hobbies and time spent relaxing – I have found my balance for now, but we will see how things evolve.

Kate A. (tenured engineering professor)

Dear Steph,

Yes, of course it is possible to have hobbies as a graduate student or academic. A key is to understand and convince yourself that you are not ‘racing’ against someone else in life. There are multiple opportunities all the time, some explicitly known and some not yet readily apparent. Does one need to finish graduate school in 3 or 4 or 5 years’ time just to be able to work an extra 1 or 2 or 3 years out of 30-40+ years in a career? Of course not. Whether we make the time for developing ourselves, by spending time on sports, family, friends, the arts, cooking, cleaning, exercising, etc., is up to us and depends on what adds to our contentment and thus a healthier overall self.

Here are a few more thoughts on the subject:

Graduate school can be a unique time in life to work on learning how to balance professional and personal life. Working effectively for, say, 40-60 hours a week can be extremely productive. Spending 80-100+ hours a week at the lab working ineffectively – perhaps if one is exhausted, distracted, unhappy from giving everything else up, and so on – is not clearly better. When potential employers look at your CV, they are not likely to care whether you were in graduate school for 6 or 7 versus 4 or 5 years.

That said, we can also have a balance overall that requires occasional weeks or months of greater devotion to certain aspects of our life – e.g., completing the thesis proposal, or thesis work itself. We don’t need to be able to do everything we want to do every week or every month during all phases of our lives. If you’re not certain what you’d rather do overall, think about being old and gray at the end of life: are you more likely to think “I wish I had worked more” or “I wish I had spent more time doing _____”?

Finally, it’s important to try to choose work that you love, which makes the ‘work’ not seem like work at all. Be honest with yourself about what you enjoy and what you don’t enjoy. Choose your path for yourself rather than just to try to please others or do what you think is expected of you.

Kate T 
(an MD/PhD)

On behalf of the GWAMIT mentoring committee, thank you to this month’s Dear Kate contributor, Kate A. and Kate T.

Dear Kate – April 2016

Dear Kate,

I’ve realised that I’m not really someone who people seem to want to work with. Although my work is meant to be collaborative and self-initiated, the only collaborations I’ve had in the past were ‘brokered’ by my boss (e.g. my boss getting me involved in other peoples’ projects). I noticed with frustration back then that some of the others had collaborations that arose directly from discussing ideas with each other other, but this never happened for me. Recently, I heard that some of my old colleagues (including people who I was good friends with) have been talking about setting up companies together, for example. I’m jealous that people are initiating things to work together, but don’t seem to want to work with me. I’ve always really wanted to be involved in these sorts of self-initiated projects (e.g. I’ve wanted to try setting up a company for a while now), so it saddens and frustrates me that I am missing out on opportunities that I would be interested in pursuing, with people who I like and would be interested in working with.

When I confided a good friend, she said that I can be quite direct with my opinions a lot of the time, and also that my anxious and self-deprecating personality can make me seem like someone who is unreliable. Upon reflection, I do tend to get carried away with my ideas, and haven’t really learnt how to deliver critical comments diplomatically. The part that I can’t figure out is: how do I change? Or rather, what do I try to change into, how do I become someone who people want to work with? What does the sort of person who people want to work with look like? I feel like I might lack social ability in some ways (this has been a bit of an issue in my personal life too), and if this is holding me back professionally, then it’s something that I think I should try harder to deal with. The problem is, I really really don’t know how. Can you give me advice?

⁃ Want to change but not sure how.

Dear Want to Change,

This is an excellent question. I applaud you for taking a pro-active approach to self-improvement and attaining your goals. There is a lot to unpack, so here goes:

In my experience, collaborations often evolve organically from people who have an easy rapport and common vision. Collaborations for co-founding companies tend to arise when individuals have a complementary skill set (e.g. the scientist and the business person) and both share the leadership skills that investors will be looking for.

You might consider seeking out opportunities to develop and practice your leadership skills, and/or opportunities to develop relationships across different departments or skill-sets. For example, are there opportunities to volunteer as an organizer of the 100K entrepreneurship competition? Are there courses or seminars with “J” in the course number where you could meet students interested in cross-functional collaboration? Are there student-run conferences that you could attend or help run? Are there local professional organizations that are looking to connect with students where you could volunteer in exchange for free admission to events (e.g. MIT Enterprise Forum)?

There is no single leadership style that will be successful for all people in all situations. Certain notable leaders (e.g. Steve Jobs) have been known for their direct and at times abrasive style. That said, they may be the exception rather than the rule.

For the rest of us, an important element of leadership involves self-awareness and the ability to connect with others. Many leaders have developed a physical or spiritual practice that supports their ability to maintain composure through challenge, build connections, and perform at their peak. It is absolutely worth the effort to explore and find if there is something that resonates with you, whether it’s running, walking, swimming, yoga, meditation, or heli-skiing.

Building relationships with supportive health professionals can also be tremendously helpful in overcoming challenges such as anxiety, lower self-esteem, or difficulty with focusing/following through. Many successful professionals have had great success and improvement from working with behavioral health professionals or health coaches. Many students shy away from this due to stigma, lack of time/energy, or perhaps the first attempt was not a match. I encourage you to be open-minded, thoughtful, and persistent in seeking support. See below for further suggestions.

With the help of a professional or on your own, you might experiment with different ways to approach interactions with your peers and your teams. See below for examples of phrases that may come across as more collaborative or diplomatic.

May the force be with you on this challenging yet rewarding journey!

Kate W
(a senior manager)

Continue reading “Dear Kate – April 2016”

Dear Kate – March 2016

Dear Kate,

My graduate advisor told me that I’m ‘not cut out for science’ and does not think I could ever ‘think like a scientist’.  I trusted her to support my scientific goals and now the trust is broken. What do I do?

– Broken

Dear Broken,

If your graduate advisor truly believes that you are not cut out for science and does not think you could ever think like a scientist, then it is time to switch advisors. The mentorship and sponsorship of your graduate advisor is absolutely crucial; you are counting on them to help you get to where you want to be. If they do not believe you can get there, they cannot help, never mind that you cannot trust them to write a sufficiently strong letter of recommendation when it becomes time to look for postdocs or faculty positions.

Before immediately taking such a drastic step as switching advisors, however, it is important to make sure you are correct that your advisor means what she said. There are two other possibilities for why she could say such a thing. One could that she believes that she should say horrible, tough things to you, in order to prepare you to thrive under adversity. That is: maybe she believes that one thing she needs to teach you in the world of science is to have a thick skin, and defend yourself in the face of doubt, mockery and abuse, and part of her job is to provide the adverse environment. If this is the case, I personally would switch advisors anyway; this is not a tactic I think is at all helpful to me, and I believe I am more likely to succeed with a less abusive advising style. However, when my friend was at music conservatory, one of the very famous teachers was known for saying the musician equivalent to all first year students, by third or fourth year, he would tell them he was wrong, and maybe they weren’t hopeless after all, and by the final year, if he said “well, I guess you aren’t so bad after all” they would be over the moon excited, because that was his version of high praise. But he was known for supporting his students as they graduated and beyond. What is your advisor’s reputation with her other students in terms of what she says to them?

The second possibility, was you momentarily disappointed your advisor and she was just complaining at you, or you were in the middle of a heated argument with your advisor, and she said this in frustration. In other words, this is a passing emotion on her point, and while it might be her opinion today, it might not be her opinion next month. What was the context in which she made these remarks? Did you just do something really disappointing?  (for example, did you fail to triple-check a calculation and nearly send out a co-authored paper with her with an error?). Alternatively, were you and your advisor in the middle of a heated argument where you fundamentally disagreed about something or someone in the field (for example, you just told your advisor you admired someone whose entire research program she does not respect on technical grounds). Alternatively, have just told your advisor you cannot do something that she thinks (right or wrong) any successful person in her field needs to be able to do? Certainly, we are all sometimes frustrated with ourselves and think we will never make it; I promise you, that sometimes as an advisor, I am frustrated by my students and think that they will never make it. I have had such feelings of doubt at least once about all my Ph.D. students, even the ones who went on to be most successful. I have never said words to this effect to any of my students, however, and I don’t think this tends to be a productive thing for an advisor to do. Nonetheless: even advisors can get frustrated and have bad days and let their frustrations show more than they ought to. Do you know what caused the problem? Is it some particular issue that you can address?

Bottom line: this is serious. You need an advisor who believes you are cut out for science, and who believes they can train you to think like a scientist. You do not necessarily need an advisor who doesn’t deny that they will be that person, but do figure out if they really mean it.

– Kate C
(a faculty member who has successfully graduated a half dozen PhD students)

Dear Broken,

Here are my thoughts:

1. How on earth did you get to graduate school at MIT, of all places, if you are “not cut out for science” or unable to “think like a scientist”?  Clearly, your graduate advisor is wrong.  This is not about you at all, but has something to do with her.  There is some kind of misunderstanding or good old fashioned personality conflict between you and with your advisor.  I don’t know the context here or whether this is a long -term advisor or someone you have been assigned to since September. Is it possible to get a new advisor?  I am not in academia or at MIT, so I don’t know the process or possibility of these things.  If it really is an outcome of the fact that you and your advisor just don’t get each other, a change might be in order.  Are you working with this advisor on a project of your dreams, or are there other things you could be working on that would be fine with you?  

2. If this is the person you really need to work with or want to because her project is what you want to spend your time studying, I’d suggest requesting a meeting and asking her what she meant by that.  I’d make sure I was calm and collected before any interaction with her. Be ready to discuss what you bring to the situation and you qualifications and contributions that she has overlooked.    

3. Some self -examination might be in order.  Is there anything you could have done to give her this impression?  Are you in awe or intimidated by her?  She might interpret your reticence or shyness as a lack of ability if you freeze up in her presence.  I don’t know the situation, so I am trying to think of various issues that could have prompted to her to say this.  In this case, I don’t think I’d request a meeting to tell her I am afraid of her, but you could then work on yourself to be your most positive, flexible, gracious, (and scientific) self whenever she is around.  

4. Lastly, are you where you really want to be with this advisor?  I am reaching on this one, but I am wondering if you are someone who did well in science from high school on and made it all the way to graduate school at MIT (clearly a sign that you have the ability), but did so because it was what was expected of you, and you haven’t yet stopped to think about whether it is what you really want to do.  Perhaps she is picking up on that.  If this is the case, spend a little time thinking about and exploring what you really want.  

I recommend you think through all these possibilities and decide whether it is worth it or necessary to you to continue with this advisor.  If it is, then you have to convince her that she is mistaken in her assessment and that you will be a great contributor to her project.  If it isn’t, then work on moving on to find another advisor.  Good luck!

– Kate F

On behalf of the GWAMIT mentoring committee, thank you to this month’s Dear Kate contributor, Kate C., and Kate F.

Dear Kate – February 2016 (Stereotype Threat and Stereotype Tax)

Dear Kate,

How best should I respond to obvious sexist remarks from people outside of MIT? Two occasions in recent memory come to mind – once when I was shadowing physicians, considering going to medical school after graduating with my master’s, I was asked if I wanted to leave engineering “because the math was too hard”? Also, at a holiday party I was told point-blank that the only reason I got into MIT was because I was female. Usually I’m too stunned to respond but then I’m left feeling angry and discouraged.

-Female Engineer

Dear Engineer,

Right now you’re hearing negative comments based on your gender, but this, too, shall pass. If you enter the corporate world, no one is going to imply that you’ve gotten there because you’re a woman.  An MIT degree carries weight: your smarts won’t be questioned, your ability at math dismissed.  But for now, there are a couple of tactics you can use – pick one and practice it – because these comments say more about the men making them than they do you.

“Wow. You actually believe that.”

If you’re up for putting them on the spot: “Why would you say that?” Don’t defend yourself; they’re in the wrong and they need to realize it for themselves. Keep repeating versions of “why” to every response, like you’re a toddler, and let them back themselves into a corner.

Remember that you don’t need to convince them of your worthiness – they’re grown-ups, they’ve been exposed to the facts and repeating them won’t help – you just need to let them know how stupid they sound. If they were trying to make polite but thoughtless conversation, these responses are instructive on their failure.

Depending on what branch of engineering you’re in, and what company you end up at, the face of sexism will change. The field I went into is 90% male; it’s not uncommon for me to be the only woman in the room, or to be confused with clerical staff. Most of the men I’ve worked with are confident that it will remain a “man’s” industry; they’re not threatened by women and tend to treat women about the same as they would another man. But sometimes that means cracking crude sexual jokes, or belittling their wives and girlfriends. And more rarely, there’s intimidation and sexual harassment. I left a job because – among other reasons – I felt unsafe with a co-worker. I could have spoken up when he made sexist comments (which was the extent of it), could have documented him, could have reported him to more of management than I did. But I didn’t: it seemed more exhausting than finding a new job.

I don’t regret my silence in that case. You have to put yourself first. When you hear an obviously sexist comment, if you have the strength – and it’s safe to do so – speak up and let him know just how much of an idiot he’s making himself. And if you can’t, forgive yourself. Your time at MIT will open doors; you don’t need to fight every battle to walk through them.

– Kate A

(another female engineer)

Dear  Female Engineer,

My responses to these kinds of statements depend heavily on setting and context.  When people I’ve just met learn I am a mathematician, the most common response is usually a variant of “Math is so hard”.  Since so many people have mathematics baggage,  I try to give people the benefit of the doubt when their intention is not clear.

For example, in response to  the physician’s comment (which is in a context where they are doing you a professional favor and perhaps  they struggled with the subject), I might say, “I actually really enjoyed and excelled at the mathematics, but my interest in biomedical applications {or whatever}  led me to consider medical school”.  The phrasing is positive, but it also challenges stereotypical assumptions that may be behind the original comment.    Comments like the latter are harder for me since they are often purposefully provocative.  I don’t want to take the bait, but I also don’t want to let the comment stand (for my own sanity).  A level and confident “I disagree” often dissuades people from continuing with those kinds of comments (and encourages others to jump in against the stereotype).  If someone wants to argue further, I’d probably curtly suggest another topic of conversation (or excuse myself if at all possible) and vent elsewhere later.

– Kate L

(a mathematician)

Bonus recommendation: Stereotype Threat and Stereotype Tax

In addition to our mentor’s insights this month, we thought that we would share an interesting NPR podcast on the topic of stereotype threat and its counterpart, stereotype tax. Stereotype threat is a situation in which someone feels that they are at risk of confirming negative stereotypes about their social group.

In this podcast, the NPR team talk to Annie Duke, a professional poker player who often found herself the only woman at the poker table. She talks about how being in a male-dominated space influenced the way people saw her, and about how feeling like an outsider can bring both costs and advantages.

On behalf of the GWAMIT mentoring committee, thank you to this month’s Dear Kate contributor, Kate A., and Kate L.

Dear Kate – January 2016

Dear Kate,

How do I ask my advisor to connect me with people for professional reasons (e.g. to find an internship or full time job)? Feels so awkward and inappropriate at times.

– Networking Novice

Dear Novice,

These types of conversations can be tricky to navigate, but sometimes they can be easier and more straightforward than you would expect! Of course it all depends on your relationship with your advisor, so feel free to take this advice with a grain of salt. I’m writing from the perspective of someone who has asked current and former bosses (as opposed to advisors) for professional contacts/advice, and also from the perspective of someone who has received these kinds of requests.

First, I would suggest paying attention to your gut — if this kind of request feels inappropriate for whatever reason, I’d trust that and suggest finding a different time or avenue to make the request.  But if it just seems awkward, I’d push through it!  Remember that your advisor doesn’t expect you to be a student forever, ideally wants the best outcome for his/her students after their studies, and is probably in the best position to connect you with relevant contacts and to vouch for you. It could be as simple as bringing up your question during a regularly scheduled meeting — or if that’s not possible, requesting a 30 min meeting to ask for career advice.  I’ve had the best luck when I’ve framed these kinds of requests in terms of seeking career advice rather than a more transactional “can you give me the name/contact info of someone in X organization/position, etc.”  This allows it to be a two-way conversation and gives your advisor more of a stake in later helping you make connections.  I would also strongly suggest doing your research before the conversation.  Have a clear idea of the types of people and the types of organizations you want to be connected with (the more specific the better) and be able to share a brief narrative why.  This demonstrates you put in lots of thought and effort so why shouldn’t the person you’re asking do just a bit more to nudge you further in the right direction.  It can also be helpful to ask for connections for informational meetings/interviews (early in your job search process) rather than making a connection to immediately apply for a related job.

Perhaps you won’t be able to cover all of this in one conversation, in which case follow up — you’ve likely helped to build rapport and more trust to continue the conversation.  Either way, I’d also suggest keeping your advisor in the loop on whatever follow up you have with his/her connections.  Maybe this will lead to further connections — even if not, it’s good practice.

Good luck!

– Kate G

Dear Networking Novice,

My experience with this issue has always been quite positive. I find that advisors typically want to see their students succeed.  Remember that building connections between colleagues is beneficial for everyone involved, including your advisor.  For example, a Ph.D. student at the University of New Hampshire spoke with his advisor about contacts at the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).  This agency had funded some of the research at their lab in the past.  After graduation, this student was hired by the FHWA. He now comes back to UNH regularly to mentor some of the new graduate students at the lab.  It is a great relationship that benefits the ex-student, the advisor and the new graduate students.

In summary, while it may feel uncomfortable at first, “just do it” knowing that relationship-building will be good for both you and your advisor.  I am confident that your advisor will be pleased that you asked and will be happy to make introductions.

– Kate K

Dear Kate – December 2015

Dear Kate,

I am in my last year of my program and am starting to think about preparing to go out and get a job I love. I am very involved in queer organizations on campus, but have never been out in a professional situation. I am not sure what to do about putting this involvement on my resume, particularly because they comprise most of my relevant recent leadership experience. While I don’t want to work in a place where my sexuality would be an issue, I am not sure how it would affect the application process. On a resume, I know I can use acronyms, but in interviews etc. it would likely come up – Thoughts?

– Back in the Professional Closet

Dear Back in the Professional Closet,

This is a tough one and very individual for each person. What might feel right for one person won’t feel as comfortable for another. I know the job market is tough right now…but would you really want to work anywhere where your sexuality is an issue? Where people would look at your resume and instead of seeing a candidate who has done interesting leadership experience and service commitments focus on where that leadership experience is? In some ways it actually might be an asset. A lot more places are talking about diversity in one form and another and trying to promote it. I know that places have been interested in my background with minority and women’s mentoring in STEM. So one way of looking at this is turning it around saying this is how I like to mentor/work with minorities. Frankly I think if you frame it like that it becomes very strong.

To turn down a potential job offer can be a luxury for a lot of people. If that is the case, totally understandable, then tailor your CV for specific job applications. Frankly I think it should be fine to keep that on the CV — it shows your commitment to leadership and service that other applicants may not have (another way of setting you apart). In conversation focus on how this benefits diversity and serving a minority group. And decide before the interview how much you want to say about yourself. Especially in academia people interviewers can be bad about asking personal questions (sometimes innocently, aka they just want to know you better, other times not so much). So make sure you know where you stand and what you want to say before hand because I find that makes the process easier.

Good luck with everything!

– Kate O


Dear Professional,

You pose a great, rich question that many folx don’t need to consider. With the legalization of same-sex marriage comes the layered complexity of employment discrimination given that there are currently 18 states where sexual orientation or gender identity are not protected from employment discrimination and, where they are protected, this may depend on the total number of employees within the organization. I suggest early research on whether the employer has a non-discrimination statement inclusive of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. This could be one factor that helps you determine how (or whether) to proceed with that application.

One good resource that may help with your US company research is the HRC Corporate Equality Index that rates American workplaces on LGBT equality: link

It’s also worth noting that, while employers might (sub)consciously make such an assumption, indicating your affiliation with these organizations doesn’t necessarily mean identifying with any particular identity. It all depends on how it’s worded on your application materials and responses during an interview. There are various sources on the internet regarding illegal interview questions and how to strategically respond to them if you’re not comfortable being straightforward. While they might ask you for clarification on information you’ve already provided (whether written or verbally), you can decide how to frame the way you talk about it. Some people have also chosen to notify references in advance and asked them to keep their involvements intentionally vague yet specific (a professional development group for women, or a social organization for underrepresented students, etc.), or associating their involvement with a larger umbrella organization for some stealth; for example, at MIT the Rainbow Lounge is affiliated with the Student Activities Office, which allows students some flexibility.

You may consider researching or asking about employee resource/affinity groups, as there may be an opportunity for you to continue being involved with queer organizations through your employer. Inquiring about organizational culture and employee and partner benefits that may be important to you now or in the future (such as health insurance, parental leave and fertility/adoption benefits, name changes, etc.) will also give you perspective to inform your decision. There may already be information available on the internet — if not through the employer themselves then possibly through personal blogs or message boards in which employees, clients, or other stakeholders have shared their experiences.

Ultimately, the choice to participate in the process is continuously yours to make. Each step is a series of ongoing personal decisions based on the full range of context that only you know for yourself. Some people may have the time and ability to temporarily lean on others for help throughout the job search until the perfect and most comfortable opportunity arises, others may need to make decisions that challenge some of their values in order to survive or support their immediate and/or chosen families, and more may have additional circumstances influencing them. Hopefully, whatever comes of the process, you can find support to help you feel fulfilled, heard, and seen.

Wishing you the best,


Dear Back in the Professional Closet,

I think this post by Lily Zhang at MIT might be really helpful as a place to start.

I’m a semi-retired CEO, having spent 30 years in tech. I’ve seen thousands of resumes and conducted countless interviews over the years. I encourage job-seekers/applicants to use the resume to get in the door. The goal is to get the interview, so less is probably more on personal interests. Then if you are comfortable, share and discuss your organizations / involvement during the interview process. This communication is always best in person, once there is some rapport. For example, guns and gun control are certainly controversial. I know that many employees in my companies are/have been involved with guns (some were ex-military), hunting and probably the gun lobby – but I cannot recall a candidate who put NRA member on a resume. 

– Kate W


Dear Back in the Professional Closet,

While acceptance of gay people has increased dramatically in recent times, I think it would be unwise to mention your involvement with gay activist groups in your professional resume, interviews etc. Please remember that the university environment is much more liberal than the world at large; ask any of your former student colleagues now in the work world….it’s quite a shock to make the transition from the tolerant school world to the less enlightened business world.

You could mention your leadership experience without identifying specific groups, saying that they were student organizations. Including reference to LBGTQ activist involvement on a professional resume can signal a major focus on your personal world ahead of the professional. I think it’s useful to remember that you don’t know who will be reading your resume and once it’s sent, you can never retrieve it, so caution can not be overemphasized. 

– Kate K

Dear Kate – November 2015

Dear Kate,

I am a PhD student and will graduate in 1-2 years. When I am planning for my future career, I hesitate a lot between industry and academia. From the bottom of my heart I am inclined to academia, but I doubt whether I am good enough for academia because of the extreme competitions.

If I go for a postdoc, I am not sure how much achievement I can get out of it to make me strong enough for academia positions. When I talk to industry people, they say I am really good, and some even say I should not join their company, but should go for academia, at least prestigious research labs in industry. (Though I’m not sure this is their etiquette or they really mean it.) How do I choose the career path?”

– Hesitancy


Dear Hesitancy,

If your heart is set on academia, then go for it!  You’ll never know whether you can get a position unless you try.  The main achievement you should strive for from a post-doc is to demonstrate that you can raise research funds of your own.  You will have a much better chance of landing an academic job if you can bring funding with you.

That being said, you should try to figure out what it is about an academic career that attracts you.  Do you enjoy teaching classes?  Mentoring students?  Writing research proposals?  Managing projects?  Presenting your results at conferences and writing journal articles?  Do you like thinking about big picture problems or concentrating on the details of making something work?  Do you prefer to be in the lab yourself or to supervise others who do the hands-on work?  Think about which aspects of being a scientist or engineer are the most exciting to you, and then you can explore which work environment provides the opportunity to do those things.

As a graduate student, you have a pretty good view of what your life would be like as a professor.  Do you have an equally good idea about life in industry?  Have you explored other alternatives such as national laboratories, Federally Funded Research & Development Centers, research institutes, or private companies with government funding such as Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) grants?  Each of these offers a different combination of the various roles that you would play as a professor.  For example, although I work in industry, I supervise and mentor undergraduate co-op students.  In a previous position at a small company, I wrote SBIR proposals to government agencies just as a faculty member would write funding proposals.

During your last year or two of graduate school, make use of the alumni network, people you meet at conferences, LinkedIn, and any other contacts you have to learn as much as you can about all the different settings where PhDs work.  If possible, arrange for informational interviews and visit small companies, large companies, startups, research centers, etc.  Similarly, talk to faculty members at various types of institutions (large, small, undergraduate, research-oriented) and at different stages of their careers and see what their jobs are like.  You may learn that your impressions of life as a professor are somewhat different from reality.

Although it may seem like this is a once-in-a-lifetime decision, it’s really not.  Many people switch from industry to academia and vice versa.  A few years in a national lab or at a company writing SBIR proposals can enable you to establish a funded research program and put you in a stronger position to apply for an academic job down the road.  If you want to follow this path, however, you will have to choose your projects carefully (i.e., nothing classified or proprietary) so that you will be able to publish your research and maintain visibility in your field.

It is also important to keep in mind is that jobs in industry are not just for those who are not “good enough” (your term) for academia.  I can’t imagine reviewing an applicant’s resume and thinking he or she is too good for my company to hire, but we are less inclined to consider someone who is too “research-y”, who has not demonstrated an understanding of the practical applications of his or her work.  It takes a different set of skills to bring a reliable, well-characterized product to market than it does to create the concept on which the product is based.  Similarly, the satisfaction of seeing something you developed go into mass production is very different from the thrill of synthesizing a new compound or demonstrating a new theory.   Considerations such as work-life balance, long term flexibility vs. stability, and financial rewards also vary in these different settings.  You need to identify the mix that works best for you.

Whatever you decide, best of luck in your career!

– Kate S

(who works in industry)

Dear Hesitancy,

First, I think there is no reason to believe that you are “not good enough to succeed in academia” at this point in your career. Clearly, there are a good number of people who think that you are quite good including the people who decided you belonged at MIT for graduate school and the people that you have been talking to in industry who suggest that you should stay in academia! Please don’t sell yourself short.

Second, there is a very wide range of jobs that are “staying in academia”. There are research professorships at R1 universities. There are more balanced research/teaching professorships at a SLACs. There are heavily teaching professorships available at a variety of colleges and technical institutes. There are positions as researchers. There are positions as instructors. These jobs share some characteristics, but there are many differences between them as well. Even the ones that share a nominal title. One thing to consider about academic jobs is what type of work/life balance you want to have. I am in academia at a teaching-focused, undergraduate-only school. My research load is quite light, and my teaching load is officially moderate–we teach three courses a term. But there are schools I interviewed at that required as many as 5 courses a term! And even most research schools require somewhere between 1-2 courses taught a term. These tend to impose non-negotiable time constraints in an officially flexible schedule. That said, outside of term my time is much more my own to arrange as I see fit between research, teaching prep, and living my non-work life.

My partner has the same academic degrees I have through Ph.D, but he works in industry. He doesn’t feel that his work uses any of his degrees, but he does have the ability to take time off for vacations, illness, or to go volunteer in our kids’ classrooms. As with academic research goals, there is always more that you feel you should be doing but the pace of recurring demands depends a lot on the industry you choose to work in. From my perspective at the moment, his work demands are high and constant. There is also more pressure/ability to change jobs frequently on the industrial side. Nearly all of my friends who work in industry seem to change jobs every 2-3 years. They also all make significantly more money than I do.

If you are partnered, I know very few successful dual-academic couples. Among my graduate school classmates, there are no partnerships that I know of where a couple both stayed together and stayed in academia. There are examples that split up and examples where one partner left academia, but the difficulties of finding adequate career paths for two academics in close enough geographical proximity to sustain a relationship are almost insurmountable.

If you think you might want to go into industry, please try to get some industrial experience during graduate school! There are summer internship or cooperative learning experiences, for instance. When I looked at industry positions directly out of graduate school, none of them believed I was a serious candidate because my background was all in theoretical fields. Showing concrete evidence of your ability to succeed in an industrial capacity is important as you will not be a cheap person to hire.

To summarize:

– Academia has very uneven periods of stressful endeavor, tending to cyclical periods matching teaching requirements, grant deadlines, and tenure/promotion reviews. To paraphrase a mentor of mine, “if teaching and/or research are not your drug of choice, don’t take the academic route.”

– Industry has more variability in both potential jobs and career tracks, but generally a more stable stress level (though possibly very high!) and better compensation.

– Kate Z

(who works in academia)

On behalf of the GWAMIT mentoring committee, thank you to this month’s Dear Kate contributor, Kate S., and Kate Z.