Where science and tech meet creativity.

This is the second part in a two-part essay on why I stay in academia. As I did with yesterday’s post, I wanted to start with an infographic, but I couldn’t find one communicating what I wanted to say. Astronomy is a rich field, doing and discovering amazing things, but we are a field where budgets are modest, and the overall dollars that are available is going down or staying flat (depending on your sub-field). I wanted to find an infographic that somehow expressed that.

When I talk about why I stay, I have to address the question of “Why do I stay given the current funding crisis?”

I thought about making an infographic, but it hurt too much. Maybe another day?

Here’s what I know: NASA and NSF aren’t getting a lot of astronomy support from congress. There are several big observatories on the way or just getting started – James Webb Space Telescope, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, ALMA, Curiosity. … Each of these projects comes with a large price tag. Budgets from congress are pretty much flat, and when you consider the combined costs of building and maintaining the new facilities while also maintaining the current suite of observatories and spacecraft … and inflation … funding has to come out of somewhere, and the only somewhere left is to reduce the competitive grant lines for new research and new ideas. Oh – and eventually they’re going to have to start canceling things … canceling things like Cassini or Curiosity … or maybe me and those I care about.

It’s that last, that “or maybe me and those I care about” that is literally keeping me up at night.

Last week I listened to an NSF webinar concerning an upcoming grant call. While the grant’s program officers couldn’t tell us how many grants would be submited or estimate how many would be funded, they admitted (when pressed hard by their audience) that we’re looking at somewhere around maybe 8% of the grants getting funded.

I turned to my boss and admitted with weariness:  I’m tired of always having to be in the top few percent to simply survive.

They told us that in some cases, even grants that receive all excellent reviews and recommendations for funding may not be funded – competition is just that tight.

I’m tired of finding that anything less than perfect is the same as failure.

That day I went home and I wrote down a plan of attack for applying for funding, and I then started looking for voice work to augment (replace?) science funding. That night at the barn I ranted to another woman about how frustrating it can be knowing that if I can just somehow get 1 day of studio time – just 8 hours at an average rate – I can earn almost 2-weeks of my salary as an astronomer. The other woman just looked at me and asked why I don’t just do voice work.

Inside my head, a little girl’s voice cried, “I don’t wanna…”

I worked for 10 years in college to get my degrees in astronomy. I left the field once to work as a magazine editor. Against all odds, I found my way back. I want to stay. I want to be someone who gets to change students lives as we together work toward learning new things. I want the freedom to ask questions that have no known answer and to then try and find those answers. This is what scientists do – we ask unanswered questions and we strive to learn things no one knew before.

I want to be a researcher and a teacher and all those things that go together to make someone a professor.

Voice work is something I love to do. I also love to do photography and to ride horses. If I had to, I could earn (some sort of a) living at any of these three things and be satisfied. But … my passion is to be a professor focused on using technology to advance astronomy and to communicate those advancements to the public.

Almost no one gets to follow their passion. There is no good reason why I shouldn’t just be working as some computer programming, web-designing minion, taking orders from some businessman as he makes me live some Oatmeal inspired nightmare. All around me I see people who worked as hard as me, who are as smart (or smarter than!) me; people who have all left astronomy for silicon valley, for Wall Street – for any of a myriad of better paying and more in demand careers. I face survivor guilt.

I don’t think there is an astronomer my age who doesn’t have a certain amount of survivor guilt.

I worked hard *and* I got lucky.

But it maybe could be easier.

While listening to that same NSF webinar, one of my colleagues said something like, “It would be a lot easier if we were at a bigger named school. They have more resources and can just jump on ideas and get started.” It’s true. If you have a really great idea and you’re at a well-funded institute, you can sometimes go to your director or dean and ask for funding for a grad student so you can try something out and find out if it will work, and in the process you can get the initial data you need for federal grants. Yes, SIUE has some competitive, yearly internal grant programs that facilitate new research, but that’s not the same as knowing there is always a discretionary fund for that middle of the night “OMG – could we?” There is no extra. Our university can’t get the state of Illinois to pay its bills on time, and we’re stuggling. We’re at the, “Are you sure your academic department needs a full time administrative assistant?” corporate level of broke (some departments only have one part time secretary.)  We can’t afford to leap on unfunded ideas on random dates. We don’t have the ability to spin up new ideas over night. We are limited by the speed of bureaucracy.

And periodically, someone in my university will ask, “Why are you here? Why don’t you go to a better school?”

I’ve been at the best. I had a job as an instructional laboratory associate at Harvard for a few years. It paid well. The benefits were amazing. I had access to the top equipment, and my boss encouraged my ideas. The one thing I didn’t have was a sense that I was really making a significant difference. The brilliant students I dealt with could work for nobel lauretes, or belong to clubs that played with Hollywood stars. There were no doors I could open for my Harvard students. They were good with or without me. After I’d been there two years, two older women in astronomy – women who’ve mentored me through the years – pulled me aside to say it was time to start looking for a new job. It was time to find something that challenged me and would let me grow.

I came to SIUE for a lot of reasons. Many of those reasons are no longer relevant. The main reason I came, however, was I wanted to be somewhere that I could matter and that is still something I am doing. At SIUE, I work with students for whom I can provide opportunities they couldn’t have otherwise. As my university works to transition from a teaching university to a research university, it finds it self at a point where there are more students interested in research and work experience than there are jobs to challenge them. I can be that professor who says, “Yes, I have a job for you.” And I can be the professor who asks, “Do you have a passport?” as their first plane ride of their life lands them in a European city for an international conference. I can be the change I want to see in the world, and I can transform a trite old expression into my own small reality.

I’m at a small named school because I want to be. It was my choice to come here. And when the asshole in the corner says, “Well, there must be something wrong with you or you’d still be at Harvard,” (a paraphrase of a real event) I know that I made the right choice, but maybe not the obvious one. My goals – to be an astronomer, to be a professor, to make a difference to my students while plugging away at research – my goals aren’t easy ones. I set my self up to take the hardest path there is. My choice. No one made me be an astronomer or come to an under-resourced university. It is my choice to be here.

Why do I stay? Because somehow, by the grace of God and hardwork, I haven’t lost all my funding yet.

I don’t know how much longer I’ll survive. I have a soft money job – that means my salary comes strictly from donations, grants, external contracts, and short-term non-renewable contracts with my university. My future is only defined a few months at a time. Word on the street is, “The space race is over. We won. It’s now time to send the astronomers home.”

My future is only defined a few months at a time. For now, I’m good through maybe May.

So I stay.

I stay as long as they let me.

girls-in-stemAs an aside… after I posted yesterday’s post, I stumbled across the infographic at right. It was originally put together by engineeringdegree.net, and I found it via +Malthus John on G+. While I don’t agree with the infographics headline that “Girls are Smarter than Boys”, the numbers it presents make it clear that while girls show all the promise, interest, and ability needed to potentially succeed in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM), something is happening that is preventing women from fulfilling this potential.

There is no simply answer. There isn’t even a concise list of reasons women leave STEM fields. All we really have is catch all ideas of why women leave: they are told STEM interests/careers aren’t feminine; they get tired of the innuendo, harassment, and objectification; the biases they deal with drive them out; the statistics work against them; and sometimes the workplace is just designed for flat chested, tall, heavy-lifting individuals and some of us women don’t fit in the man-shaped holes they leave to climb through equipment (this happened to me with a telescope).

Women leave for many reasons.

Want to keep females in STEM? Create a world where girl’s and women don’t face the world knowing jobs and funding are extremely competitive, and because of their gender they start out with less of a chance than an equally skilled man.

We all get tired of knowing that anything less than perfection is failure. If you want girl’s to grow up and be women in science, change academia so those girls don’t see an internet full of emotionally (and sometimes physically) battered women who are tired of having to fight for the right to do amazing things.

If you want girls to go into STEM, support the women who are already here and help us advance in the proportion that we entered our respective fields.