What counts, and what should really count instead

Sab.JPGSo there I was, listening to my line manager’s words: “Sabrina, if you want to become a Professor, you need to start behaving like a Professor”, and thinking “so actually, at the end of the day, the only thing that seems to count is how much funding I manage to secure”. My thoughts were drifting away and memories of the past year started to crowd my mind. I generally find personal development reviews (PDR) quite useful. They help me with planning and devising possible research directions for myself and my group, while helping me to reflect on what I have accomplished and what I could have done better.

Last year was a tough one though – this was my second year of work in the UK, and I found myself juggling new courses, working on an endless Erasmus Mundus application, supervising PhD students – two of whom were in their final year – administering grants, doing research, organising an international workshop and giving talks, seminars and lectures at conferences and schools. And in the middle of this usual researcher’s life, there was the tragic and sudden loss of one of my best friends and the difficulty of a long-distance relationship with my husband (a physicist too, living and working in Finland).

Some kind of uneasiness was growing inside me during the PDR discussion – “In which way, am I not behaving as a Professor?” I asked. Apparently, it seems that one thing I needed to do was to supervise more PhD students. When I moved to the UK three years ago part of my group remained in Finland, so I continued supervising my three students there alongside starting to supervise two postgraduate students in the UK. But the thing is the Finnish students do not “count”. Only students enrolled in my University seem to be officially contributing to my chances of being promoted. But then, what about the time I spend supervising the others? Is that a waste of time?

To be clear, I have not applied or thought of applying for a promotion; that is, for the moment. And this really was not the issue. My line manager was just doing his job; trying to show me the direction to take in order to advance my career. What did make me think, however, was the realisation that, in one way or another, the criteria and values that seem to count for the most in academia are basically money and numbers. While I do appreciate the importance of securing funding, as it is indeed at the very basis of anyone’s ability to build and sustain a research group and carry out research, I do not believe that this criteria has to be the only important one against which scientists should be judged. Similarly, I do not believe that the number of supervised PhD students should be more important than the quality of the supervision; we do know well that there is a subtle equilibrium between the two.

I am not complaining about my work environment – I have worked in much worse situations in the past – and I do appreciate many things about my school and institute. However, money and power are values that should be complemented with other immensely important values such as more attentive supervision of students, or the provision of time and space for more creative and interdisciplinary endeavours to be pursued, which may not necessarily be motivated by how much money they will generate. The current lack of recognition of the many aspects that define a good scientist is likely to be underpinned, among other things, by the poor level of diversity in our STEM community.

Women are notoriously under-represented in science, especially at top position levels. Yet how can women in STEM bring about change? I was thinking of possible answers to this question yesterday when an email by Tara Sophia Mohr popped-up in my mailbox. I think she beautifully answers this question so I just decided to conclude sharing by her words with you.

“The task of our time is not just to help women participate in positions of power. The task is to empower women to transform the communities and institutions of which they are a part. The task is not just to help women participate in the system as it is, but to enable women to transform it. And here’s the thing I think and am scared to say: In a world shaped by masculine consciousness (which I’d argue politics, business, and our major systems still are), every woman who does her work with authenticity is a force for change. Yes, every woman who does her work with authenticity is a force for change. That means you. A visionary. A change agent. A rebel. I know maybe you didn’t sign up for that, but if you are really showing up, you’ll be a force for change because the questions, ways of working, and ideas you’ll be bringing into the arena at work will be quite different from what’s already there. It’s as if the status quo of your industry/workplace/community has long been blue and now you are showing up with red. Okay, that’s big. Let’s just breathe through that one for a sec. Of course, being a force for change entails struggle: the times when it feels like your new way of thinking is as small as the head of a pin, and the status quo is a MOUNTAIN the times when you have to face your fears of being seen as naive, stupid, or crazy for your ideas and ideals the times when the desire for change burns so intensely in your heart and you try to figure out, “how do I follow that burning while there are the kids and the aging parents to take care of, not to mention the laundry?” Rather than getting lost in that heaping pile of overwhelm (which feels kinda like that heaping pile of dirty laundry, doesn’t it?) today, let’s refocus on the simple stuff: You are a force for change. Struggle – and amazing moments – go with the territory. You are not alone. You are actually in the company of millions of fabulous women, who, just like you, are in the struggle of trying to at the same damn time make change and fit in enough to be allowed to make that change. We’re all up to that together.”

What’s one of the things you would most like to see transformed in your University or Research Institute? Think about it for a minute, and then leave a comment


Dr Sabrina Maniscalco is a Reader at the School of Engineering & Physical Sciences, Heriot-Watt University

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