By Laurian Vega
Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing. — Theodore Roosevelt
To feel like I belong – that I am a “real” computer scientist – I have always felt the need to be the best at what I worked on. My programs would run the fastest, my GUIs would be the cleanest, and my effort the hardest. While my work always left me feeling proud, sometimes all that hard work would leave me feeling drained and low.
The time I felt the lowest was after I had my first child while working on my PhD.
After returning full time, I worked hard to again be the best. In a semester I had managed to publish two papers, I had written a handful of proposals, and I had the mountain of paperwork for my next experiment submitted. Between sleepless nights, working on my research assistantship, long days at the lab pushing on my dissertation, and trying to have clean clothes to wear, I was exhausted. I was the kind of exhausted that you feel in your bones. I remember thinking that if one more person told me that I “looked tired” I was going to burst into tears. While embarrassing for me, no one wants to be the person who makes the female student cry.
It was at this time that a faculty member that I deeply respected told a room full of faculty during my student review that he didn’t think I was serious enough to complete my PhD. Within hours my “situation” was gossip, and I felt more isolated than I ever had before.
I spent a week or so away from the lab and campus. At home I spent time with my data. I questioned whether or not there was truth to what was said. I loved my child, my husband, our home. Could I love both my work and my life?
It was towards the end of the week that I went and talked with another professor. After all, I’m a scientist and I needed more data points. This professor told me I was one of the best students he had ever seen, and he said there was no question of whether or not I was “serious” about my research. He asked me where my doubt was coming from.
The truth is, that people can say all kinds of horrible things about you. It is only the words that you believe that matter. After this meeting with the second professor, I went home to think about what truth was there in what had been said about me that had caused me to doubt myself.
What I found was that my research no longer inspired me. While I was being published, I didn’t find it “work worth doing.” It wasn’t that the work wasn’t important, but that it wasn’t enough to make me not that inkling of doubt. Doubt plus mind numbing exhaustion had driven me to burn out. That is why when a world class hater made some outrageous claim about my ability to do solid research, rather than confront him and tell him he was a misogynist prat, I crumpled.
What I ended up doing was shifting my dissertation topic to one that did inspire me, I stopped working with the professor who had questioned my work ethic, and refocused. With two years I had finished my worthwhile PhD, interned and worked under one of my all time research heroines, published and presented my work, watched my son start to walk and talk, and maintained a happy marriage. Did I mention that my husband was also working full time while getting his master’s in computing? Things were hectic. But, at the same time they were engaging, joyful, and productive.
From this experience I learned three important lessons I want to share.
- Remove the haters. I stopped working with this professor. I realized that I have enough going on in my life that I don’t need to be battling his demons. Negativity like that breeds negativity. Similarly, while interviewing for jobs I asked questions about how criticism is handled by teams to assess whether or not the working environment was one filled with positive constructive people or… haters.
- Assess regularly if the work that I’m doing is work worth doing. This has kept my sanity in check numerous times. For instance, when I was interning in Palo Alto and my husband was working full time in Virginia while minding our son, I was told numerous times that I must have a “very understanding spouse.” Many interns had wives at home caring for their child(ren); but, I was the only one with an understanding spouse. Knowing that the work I was doing was worth doing, made me bite my tongue.
- Staying the course isn’t always the best option; changing course isn’t the same as quitting. Since I feel the need to prove myself, I sometimes feel the need to complete things that are not in my best interest. Realizing that there are other valuable and more interesting dissertation topics helped refocus and repurpose my work, making it fun again.
I’ve shortened the details of this experience, for brevity’s sake. In my years in computing I have seen and experienced all kinds of sexism and harassment – from being the only female in the room and then being asked to take the meeting notes all the way to being told that the only way that women succeed while majoring in computer science is to sleep with the really good (read “male”) students. Those kinds of adversity are blatant and while troublesome are easier to deal with. The experience of being isolated, exhausted, and burnt out, and then filled with doubt is the insidious kind of situation that I believe causes women and minorities to drop out of STEM.
I think most women in computing are going to find times when there is doubt… too much doubt. Call it the impostor syndrome, a lack of confidence, or any other term you like. It is a bit like what people say about riding a motorcycle and crashing: it isn’t if you crash, it is when you crash. For me, it was working so hard that I was blinded by the apathy towards my research that had started to settle in. The exhaustion additionally disabled self reflection, causing a perfect storm of doubt.
I think that if we, as women in computing, start talking about how there are these really crucial times in our careers, then maybe we’ll all realize that they are normal and that we can do something about them. So, when you feel low, or doubt yourself, or think about quitting, I challenge you to assess what is making you feel that way – assess and talk about it. Then, find the work that is worth doing.
Laurian Vega, PhD is a Human Factors Engineer working in the Washington DC area at Next Century Cooperation. She lives with her partner and two sons, and finds her work very worth doing.