The Conundrum

The three topics I most want to talk about – my research, teaching, and grad school – are the three topics I can’t talk about.

I can’t talk about my research because part of my data comes from public databases, which means it would be easy for other scientists to scoop me if I even explain what general questions I’m investigating.

I can’t talk about teaching because of student confidentiality. I also don’t want my students to read me critiquing certain aspects of the class, which will cause a nightmare for the people running the class. And I don’t want my students to take it personally when I lament the holes in their education that should have been filled back in middle school if our education system wasn’t so terrible.

And I can’t discuss how I currently feel about grad school out of fear of the social repercussions. I don’t want my personal situation or feelings to be seen as airing dirty laundry or universal statements about my department or field. I don’t want to be labeled as a problem before graduation, let alone tenure.

Even writing this makes me feel uneasy, because I don’t want anyone to think people are purposefully silencing me or telling me what I can or can’t write. No one has confronted me. I’m just scared of the hidden social consequences within academia.

I can wait 8 years to get tenure, right? Well, I’d have to find those increasingly rare post docs and faculty positions first, so maybe I won’t have to wait so long since I’ll have been pushed out of academia by the horrible job market alone.



  1. says

    That sucks. Being able to talk about things that bother you and communicate about them helps to understand them and master them. Do you have another place to communicate about this? A dairy if nothing else so you can get the feels onto a page to make cell-room for analysis.

  2. says

    I’m just glad you are back blogging. I will share words of wisdom from a friend (and professor) before I left my undergrad (and Masters) institution for my Ph.D. “Please your committee, you will have the rest of your life to please yourself.”

    You could blog about feminism in scientific disciplines in general. There is still a hell of a lot of sexism out there across academia to be combated.

  3. says

    Welcome to the real world, Miss Jen! Unless you want to completely rethink your career that problem will always be there, even if you leave academia. It just changes its – well – call signs, but other then that … it stays essentially the same.

    I’m a physicist – and I stayed as a post-grad at university for about a decade. Then I worked as cryptographic expert for Ericsson. And another large IT company later on, and now as a scientist again, but for the army.

    Guess what? Yes, NDAs, laws against treason, common decency, et al. If you tend to talk in your sleep, better get your own bed room. ;->

    So, your only alternative might be becoming a cashier in the local supermarket or something similiar. Or, harsh as it sounds, learn to cope with it. I’m sorry, but there is no alternative!

  4. Pteryxx says

    Or blog under a pseudonym, as many teachers and professors have to do. (Or write it all up and save it for a book in five years when everyone’s graduated!)

  5. janiceintoronto says

    Well, I think the name “Davis Mabus” is probably available if you’d like to write anonymously…

    Hey! Don’t throw that at me! I was trying to help!!11!!

  6. says

    Well, I think the name “Davis Mabus” is probably available if you’d like to write anonymously…


    Although I don’t think that hiding behind an alias solves the problem … And it’s definitly not
          The Way of the Scientist

  7. schweinhundt says

    I understand all of your frustrations except this one:

    I don’t want my students to take it personally when I lament the holes in their education that should have been filled back in middle school if our education system wasn’t so terrible.

    First, it seems you could generalize and delay/time your comments so no individual would identify themselves with a specific criticism. More importantly, identifying observed gaps in basic science education strikes me as fodder for a valuable PSA-type of post.

  8. says

    Yep. Same here. Can’t blog about my research, because superconductivity is a really competitive field, and I can get scooped!

    However, I *can* blog about grad school, because nobody cares what some random person says on some tiny corner of the internet (whereas they might care about something said by an FTB blogger). Hmm…

  9. says

    I certainly understand where you are coming from. When I was in that situation, I found things to blog about like politics, research that others had published, and later, as an adjunct and visiting AP, I blogged about neat, positive experiences in teaching, ways to involve current events in the classroom, or how to approach a particularly difficult (for me) to teach topic, such as certain stats methods that weren’t used in my field of study.

  10. says

    It’s good to see you getting back into the blogging game, Jen!

    You may not feel comfortable blogging about your own projects before they’re published—or your advisor may not feel comfortable about it—but what about writing about other people’s published papers that you find interesting or cool? I got a lot of blog-mileage out of that while in grad school. It’s more or less how I started blogging. As a bonus, writing a blog post about a paper is almost the same thing as preparing to present about it for a lab or journal club meeting, so it’s reasonably compatible with a grad school schedule.

    Assorted caveats: Yes, okay, you may not feel like you can rip a paper to shreds on the Internet at this point in your career—so don’t post about the ones you really hate, even if it’d be fun. Also, I’m a dude, and I was blessed with a pretty tolerant doctoral advisor, so my personal risk profile != yours.

  11. says

    Could you not blog about your area of research in general? Interesting developments and papers that are coming out, basic principles as outreach to the lay public, etc.?

  12. says

    On average, each academic with a permanent job will have one student who will get a permanent academic job. That’s it. Whatever metric is chosen to select from applicants, the person who works 100 hours per week—at least until they get the job—will usually be chosen. Give up now while you’re ahead. If you really, really, really like biology, get a well paid job elsewhere for 10 years, save the money, then you can live the rest of your life on the equivalent of a postdoc salary. This is probably the best you can hope for if you stay in academia anyway, but in that case you have the job insecurity whereas if you’ve made your pile first, you don’t. No obligations either—full time for research.

    Of course, ostensibly jobs in academia are given to those who should perform well in the future, not as a reward for past effort, but past effort is often used as a proxy for future performance. However, employers don’t know if you published 20 papers while working 40 hours per week or 100 hours per week.

    This is a real advantage of non-academic jobs: you are hired on the basis of your ability to do the work, and since the employer is risking his own money, he will find out if you are capable or not. And you work 40 hours a week and that’s it. Starting salary can be more than what the best academics make, and jobs are often permanent right from the start.

  13. says

    “I’m just scared of the hidden social consequences within academia.”

    If someone doesn’t want to hire you because of what you write on your blog, do you really want to work for them? Also, if someone wants to use your blog against you, they have enough evidence already. :-|

    I know an active blogger who recently moved from full professor at one university to (the equivalent of) dean at a more prestigious university. His blog didn’t hurt him (maybe it helped him). He blogs about academia (including big criticisms of it), about his own mental illness, about sex, about politics etc. (OK, he’s not in the States.)

  14. Erin Manthey says

    You are in an all around better position than me, so understand that (better educated and better experience from the start). However, I’m also in higher-ed and this is my third year as adjunct-ing with no sign of full-time in sight. My bf has had his PhD for a couple years now, and can’t even get adjunct work. He will be published soon though, so perhaps that will help. Anyway, this is very downer – sorry. Being that you are young, teaching already (experienced), not in humanities… you have some nice footwork that other don’t. I think you can be optimistic.

  15. chris says


    First, it seems you could generalize and delay/time your comments so no individual would identify themselves with a specific criticism.

    Absolutely not! More than likely she is teaching a very small class, like in a quiz section or a smaller upper level undergraduate course. Those are often under 25 students, and can be as small as fifteen. Her name is well known, her blog is well known… and it would be very simple to figure out who is being discussed.

  16. says


    Seriously. Whether you get a job in academia is largely up to luck. Holding off on writing because of that incredibly unlikely possibility is lame.

    I would avoid doing anything that might get you scooped, as well as from directly criticizing instructors in classes you teach… but otherwise, WRITE! You have a platform here, and that’s huge. I talked about my unbelievably under-prepared students on facebook and my blog, and I’ve always either been preaching to the choir or screaming into the void. You have the opportunity to make a difference.

    I know it’s terrifying, but do it anyway. Maybe if enough of us have enough guts to speak up about shit instead of protecting the status quo for the sake of our theoretical future careers, things might actually have a shot at changing.

  17. says

    I can sympathize with you about the lack of basic skills on the part of present college students. Who the hell can get through school without learning how to spell, write grammatically, stand up and give a three-minute speech on a topic (any topic!), or even *begin* to think analytically??


    I fear I must agree with PJ about the tenure thingie. Eight years is optimistic.

    Maybe you could become a mad scientist ala Helen Narbon.

  18. great1american1satan says

    Why does it seem to me like people are more likely to use condescending language with Jen than with male bloggers? Am I tripping, or has anyone else noticed this? “Miss Jen”?

  19. callieleuck says

    That *is* a bummer. I never write about certain aspects of my life for similar reasons. Mostly the fear of social repercussions or fear of endangering my employment. The “invisible mallet” that Terry Pratchett talks about in “Unseen Academicals.”

    You could write about other things in science though, maybe? I like your posts about science. And I am ADORING the pokemon stuff. Seriously. I also like when you talk about TV shows like Ancient Aliens. I’m even OK with pictures of cats.

    I’m sure you can find fun things to write about!

  20. thesandiseattle says

    I never quite understood the concept of tenure. Of course I don’t see myself being a teacher either. or at least not a teacher in an academic setting like a college or university.

  21. says

    This is a rough problem, but it’s just the way things are for a lot of jobs. I’m in a position where I can’t say anything about my work other than the fact that I’m an engineer. Just goes with the territory for a lot of things, it’s one of the unfortunate side effects of the internet.

    It’s also the reason I strongly don’t want to use my real-name when talking about my atheism online.

    Hopefully you find other topics to blog about. Good luck with all that other stuff BTW.

  22. ismenia says

    I could write some fascinating stuff on the human rights work I have done if it wasn’t for those pesky confidentiality agreements and the sheer wrongness of revealing material on people who have suffered terribly and in some cases are not out of danger.

    I could say interesting things about the research project I’m doing some (very basic) work on now except that I am not authorised to speak publicly about it.

    I have recently joined a fascinating society but again it’s that accursed confidentiality spoiling my fun again.

    Then there’s some personal experiences I’d love to right a book about, except that I can prove nothing so would risk being sued for libel.

    Free speech is a right that has to be balanced against a lot of competing interests and that’s before you get out of legal territory and into mere tact and diplomacy.

  23. Opera Arches says

    the great theatre of ruin

  24. says

    Could think about teaching in public schools to help rectify those holes? Also – just a thought – from a public school science/math teacher for 18 years….it’s not always our fault. :)

  25. Ysanne says

    Research blogging: Would it be an option to explain the non-cutting-edge parts of your field? Point out nice details in published work maybe? I’m pretty sure that would be quite advanced and interesting.

    I can wait 8 years to get tenure, right? Well, I’d have to find those increasingly rare post docs and faculty positions first, so maybe I won’t have to wait so long since I’ll have been pushed out of academia by the horrible job market alone.

    You could also do research (or research-related stuff) or something else that uses your brain and knowledge outside of academia after you graduate. Seriously, getting tenure and working at a uni is a nice career path, but academia is not the be-all and end-all, and deciding to quit it is NOT a failure.
    I know I always had this little “the best get to stay and if I don’t that means I failed” voice in my head as a post-doc. After a move halfway around the globe I had no choice but find a job fast, and I had to settle on a non-academic one — which turned out to be just as interesting as uni, but way, way more fun. Not to mention that people here suddenly appreciate effort, skill and hard thinking, whereas in academia that kind of gets taken for granted… so, yeah, non-academia is definitely worth considering.

    Anyway, all the best & thanks for posting again.

  26. sc_677205d219f80551bb5cfc02336dfdaf says

    Fake FB account to blog about crazy students. It’s often good to let out the stress–but if you don’t want it directly linked to you.. then create the fake handle that you can use… Just don’t have it connected to work people.. and lock down the privacy stuff..

  27. stevefines says

    Get a dog. Maybe a nice Golden or Lab. They will listen to everything you have to say with full support and without criticism.

  28. CaitieCat says

    Hey, Jen – I notice you didn’t ask for advice, so I’m just going to offer empathy and a virtual cuppa. It definitely sucks when the need to make a living at what one loves makes it hard to talk about what one loves, or…well, anything in your life that feels interesting, really, huh?

    Really glad to see you posting, though. I hope you’ll feel up to more. :)

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