Thursday, December 22, 2005

Feelings of Fraudulence

Christine Overall, in "A Feminist I: Reflections from Academia" does a very good job of describing the feelings of fraudulence that I mentioned in my last post. DC questioned that it's not just women who have these feelings, but men as well. I totally agree, but I failed to mention it in a post titled "Real Women." Let me summarize Dr. Overall's description here.

She says that these feelings of fraudulence in academia stem from many things. Foremost, for professors, there is this notion that you have to stand up in front of a classroom and teach and pontificate intelligently about topics in which you may not feel strengths. As graduate students, teaching assistants, research assistants, we experience this as well. We do research. We teach students. We are supposed to know this stuff, but we never feel that we know it as well as perhaps we "should." Thus, men and women can both feel this way. They all say to themselves, "Any minute now they'll figure out I don't belong here."

But consider what emwc notes. Women are leaving at faster rates. This is, in part, due to an even greater feeling of fraudulence. There's not one thing that causes this feeling. It's not like the head of my department approached me at one point and said, "You don't belong here. You should leave." It's the thousand paper cuts that I've discussed before. It's the professor that hits on her, the advisor that treats her like a secretary, the high school counselor that advises her against calculus, the stupid jokes by stupid guys about dumb women in front of her, that contributes to a woman's decision to leave computer science. It's a culture which favors the stereotypical geek male that posts comments like this on slashdot. It's a culture to which I've had to say many many times, "Fuck you."

Most recently, I've been thinking about bathrooms. At my old campus, the school was originally an all boys school. The engineering building had only men's bathrooms, and a women's bathroom resulted from repainting the sign on the door. The urinals were still there, which were admittedly a little startling the first time I saw them. This goes for some of the other engineering buildings on my present campus. The only reason there is a women's bathroom is because someone taped a "Women" sign over the "Men" door. The urinals are still in there. In my own building, there are no machines for feminine hygiene products, and I've received many a quiet IM from my female friends imploring me for any tampons I might have. I don't think anyone is intentionally leaving out tampon machines or leaving in urinals to make me flee science, but it's just one more thing I have to ignore.

I don't want to get in a discussion about who is better or worse off, because that is a very stupid discussion. If you look at all the stereotypes in which we are all raised, all genders arrive to computer science and graduate school with some baggage that could be very disabling. I'm just talking about my own experiences; as a female cs grad student. I don't mean to make the male reader, the transgendered reader, or any other reader feel marginalized because I'm not talking about everyone's experience.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Real Women

From a comment on the previous post:

I think it depends on what research you believe. My impression is that the quantitative sciences have shown more and more, in recent years, that men and women do show some differences on average, for example, in studies of how and when cortisol is released in the stress response (ref. Marianne Legato), in styles of map navigation or spatial rotation and linguistic abilities, brain scans of men and women performing the same task, to name a few that come to mind.

Like you said, L. Wu, I think it depends on what research you believe. While studies do show that grown men and women have different brain mappings, I don't think that really proves much. It has been suggested that hormones have an effect on brain development. It has been suggested that estrogen promotes mental skills while testosterone promotes better spatial skills. Still, studies on the brain show that there is a "use it or lose it" notion. Babies are born with twice the synapses needed in the brain. As the brain develops, neurons and synapses hook together to develop specific skills and abilities in humans. How these connections are made is still unknown, but due to this overdevelopment of synapses, there is synaptic pruning that takes place until the age of two. This pruning leaves only the fittest synapses in place. By the age of three, boys and girls can identify persons of the other gender, and by age 5 they have a very strong idea of what activities are for boys and which are for girls. Do boys play with trucks because they have a stronger spatial ability and are therefore attracted to trucks? Or do boys play with trucks because mom and dad give them trucks which leads to improved spatial ability? I think what I said before still stands. Men and women are different. We don't know exactly why. I'll admit, given my perspective as a female scientist, that I am more willing to believe that men and women are not wired differently, because I stand here as living proof that women can do men's work.

Something that many of the women in science fields talk about is the "Charlatan Effect" or feeling "like a fraud." They say things like,

Any minute now, they are going to figure out I don't belong here.


I wonder when they'll figure out that I'm a complete idiot and don't belong here.

In part, we feel that we don't belong in science because we are women, but as my friend H. has recently pointed out, "we aren't real women either." We code, we test specimens, we integrate, we derive, we induct, we recurse, we prove, we analyze. We don't own purses, we don't wear heels, we don't wear makeup, we don't like shopping, we don't scrapbook, we don't mother.

Which begs the question, what is a real woman? I was trying to gather up an image of a "real woman" today and could think of only Reese Witherspoon. She's beautiful. She's graceful. She has a successful career. She is a mother. She is blonde. But because I'm not Reese Witherspoon (or behave in any way that exhibits Reese Witherspooness), does that mean I am not a real woman? Like most women, I loathe my body, but unlike most women, I don't wear makeup. Like most women, I cry irrationally during my period, but unlike most women, I haven't worn a skirt in months. These are silly juxtapositions, but it asks an important question. How many women identify themselves as "real women?"

We've been taught that gender is binary. A person is a girl or a boy. There is nothing in between. But like Kinsey introduced with his measure of sexuality, my friend H. suggests that there is also a gradient of gender. A person can have elements of male or female, despite their ovaries or scrotum. A person can be more male or more female than his or her peers. While, my perspective is much different from that of L. Wu, together we are two women who challenge a huge
majority of the stereotypes of women. I am a woman in a "man's field." L. Wu identifies as a woman. In a way, I think that L. Wu and I are making the same point. Neither of us are "real women," (whatever the hell that even means) but we are women all the same.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Open Letter to Dr. Phil

Generally what happens at the end of a semester is that I go up to my friend's house in TheBigCity for a visit. She has a J-O-B, so I either hang out in TheBigCity, or watch television during the day. Yesterday, I ended up watching Dr. Phil. It was an episode about failing marriages, and at the end of the show, he encouraged his viewers to check out his website for advice on relationships.

I have a love-hate relationship with Dr. Phil. He's pragmatic and no-nonsense. His success is based on the fact that he can state common sense ideas to people who need to open their eyes to the bigger issue. I love him because he's right. I hate him because it's such a simple concept that has made him successful. Are people really that dumb? Having a love-hate relationship with him, means I had to go to his website. The following letter to Dr. Phil, sent via his website, resulted:

Dear Dr. Phil. In your 10 Myths about relationships, you say the following, "Men and women are wired differently." While the purpose of this statement was to express that couples cannot have the same mind about various issues in a relationship, there is a subtext to the statement that has serious negative impact on readers.

Since the 1974 publication of Maccoby and Nagy's "The Psychology of Sex Differences" more and more research has shown that there are very few differences physically between men and women. Women are not more sensitive than men. Women are not more suggestible than men. The list goes on. Certainly, there remains to be a firm answer to this issue. Are men and women different? Yes. How much of this difference can be attributed to nature and how much can be attributed to nuture? This is still unknown. According to research, what's most plausible is that men and women, due to social constructs, are raised in two completely different cultures, leading them to have very different ideas and behaviours. Just like Japanese and Americans may have trouble communicating due to differing cultures, so do men and women.

To say that men and women are wired differently suggests that men are "built" to perform certain tasks while women are "built" to do other tasks. This is a particulary sensitive issue for me because I am a woman in computer science. I am working towards a PhD in computer science in a department that is made up of only 6% women. Despite great strides in the women's movement, there are still so few women in this fascinating and financially empowering field. I strongly believe that part of the driving reason behind these low numbers are the messages that women receive in the media. Turn on almost any television show, and the "computer expert" is a date-less geeky guy, locked away by himself with all his gadgets. Your statement, that men and women are wired differently, contains a similar, though less visual message.

I believe that folks in the public eye like yourself have a greater responsibility not to further these kinds of incorrect ideas about the genders. You have a great show, and a great website, and you have the influence to change popular ideas. I implore you to change this wording in your website and in your vocabulary. Help to change a culture that teaches men and women that they are built only for certain tasks.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Why the qualification exam doesn't prepare you for research

I'll admit, like most grad students, I bitch about my advisor (both of them) behind his back. "He talks too much." "He doesn't listen." Despite my complaints, he's a well-intentioned man who just suffers from the same social inadequacies we all do. He's a smart guy, and every couple of months he says something that makes a lightbulb go on in my head. Today, he lit up one of those 10000 Watt bulbs that light up Wal-Mart parking lots.

I won't go into the details, mostly to protect the identity of said advisor, but I will impart the lesson here.


For my department, the qualification exam is what students take to prove to their qualification committee that they have what it takes to do research. Years later, they take the prelim, which is a kind of oral contract between you and your PhD committee on what your dissertation topic is about. One year later, they defend and graduate. Of course, this all depends on the advisor, but it's a rough time-line.

In some areas of research, students are given two papers for the qualification exam. They have to read and understand the papers and their related works within a month, and give a stellar presentation to a group of three professors, none of whom is their advisor. The qualification exam is mostly about luck and attitude. It's about luck because you could get a committee of baby chicks or a committee of angry, blood-sucking pirates. It's about luck because you could get a good paper related to your research topic or a bad paper that consists of 61 pages of formal methods from hell. Ahem. It's about attitude because these professors can smell fear. If you cannot emulate a cocky, knowledgeable mini-professor, if you exhibit the least bit of doubt in what you are presenting, then you should just go home. I've seen very, very, very knowledgable people fail the qual and get kicked out of this department because they are too, well, mousy. It's stupid, but maybe being a cocky bastard (or at least being able to emulate one) is part of academia. Or maybe it's another facet of this bizarre culture.

In other areas, students are given a written test which they pass or fail. I won't speak on this because I don't know enough about it. I just know that if I had a six hour test to take on theoretical computer science, I'd likely wet myself.

That said, I came into graduate school having worked in Industry for four years. In Industry, it takes years to make anything, mostly because your days are filled with regression tests, writing white papers, attending meetings about 401K plans, and attending workshops about how to use Clearcase. Most of the time, what you made isn't particularly new, but what you made is QUALITY because other people have to use it. For some companies, this is truer than for others.

Three and half years ago, I started graduate school. I did the coursework. I got the grades the department demanded. I courted and begged for an advisor. I took the qual.

How did I pass? Well, technically, I didn't really pass. I got a conditional pass because some blood-thirsty pirate starting asking me R-A-N-D-O-M questions in the last twenty minutes. I had to take a course, but I passed. So, how did I get the conditional pass?

1. I read and read and read and read and read. I read many of the citations. I read book chapters that the author had written. I read other papers that criticised the papers. I read and read and re-read the papers.

2. I practiced and practiced and practiced. Including the first practice where I broke down and started crying in front of all of my friends. My girlfriend had to lure me back out of the bathroom saying, "Just finish it this time and it will get easier." Including the first practice where the beautiful man who would later become my boyfriend told this particularly enthusiastic though overbearing guy to shut up because, "She needs to answer the questions."

What did I learn about research? What did I gain from my experience in Industry and the qualification exam that would help me do research?


Research isn't about reading. Certainly you need to be familiar with related work or you will suggest the Mousie-Kitten model for web interfaces and people will laugh at you. Research isn't about making release 1.0021, making sure to refactor carefully and be backward compatible with old ideas. Certainly it helps if what you are doing works on Linux, works with the http, or works with AADL, or works with ______ so users don't have to have take for granted your weird-o setup to understand your results.


Research is about what I think. Lately I've been thinking to myself, "I'm just making this up!" But I've gotten to the point in life where what I "make up" isn't bullshit I'm writing on short essay test questions anymore. No, what I "make up" are my ideas and I have the intellectual back-up of ten years of working on this stuff to give these ideas weight. Yeah, I have to make my ideas work. Yeah, I have to show a room full of experts that my results are reasonable. I have to have my own ideas. I have to be brave enough to stand in front of people and say, "This is my idea and it is good so nah nee nah nah nah."

I don't know how to fix this. I don't know how to change the system so that it doesn't take other graduate students A YEAR AND A HALF AFTER THE QUAL to understand the concept of research. I'll think about that and let you know.

PS. You've caught me at a moment of anger combined with confidence. The usual angry and depressed FCSGS should be back in future posts.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Whining and Learning, Part II

Scene: The boyfriend and I are walking to his apartment. I'm whining about the 9 page paper.

Me: I don't want to work on it anymore. I need to work on my research.
Bf: Why don't you write 3 pages about your research and stick in the paper?
Me: Hm. Hm. Yeah! I could do that!

The next day, I end up with fourteen pages in 12 pt font. I love that man.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Whining and Learning

So far, I've written 9 pages of the last 12 page paper that is due for the course I'm taking this semester. This course was really heavy on the writing assignments, and while I like to write, I'm a little worn out. I'm approaching the mind-set that likely every student enters at the end of the semester, "Okay, let's say I get an A on the final, and I got an A on everything else, so that means I can totally blow off the rest of this essay and get the B that I want as my final grade." Sure, I want this professor on my dissertation committee, but I don't think he'll think less of me if I am four pages short. Besides, I could make up four pages of bullshit which would just give him more to grade. I think he'd be more upset by the bullshit than by a lack of pages.

Whining aside, I wanted to share with the readers what I learned this semester, much of which didn't have anything to do with the class I'm taking. Like Mark Twain said, "Don't let school get in the way of your education."

  1. Every diagram and figure for every paper and presentation should be drawn in the same program and placed in a central directory. When it comes time to write the dissertation, culling diagrams will be easy.

  2. Third year+ graduate students should not act like students. They should act like junior faculty.

  3. Don't ask for what you want. Tell THEM what you are going to do and ask for help on how to get it done.

  4. Talk to everyone, whether it's the head of your department, your group's secretary, or the assistant dean of your college. The more you are known and the more you help, the more favors you can call in later. This is networking.

  5. Leverage the help of your dissertation committee to make progress on your research. This is also networking.

  6. Leverage the power of your dissertation committee to help convince your PhD advisor that you are ready to prelim. This is also networking.

I've also got a glimpse of what academic life could be like if I don't quit and work at McDonald's. In recent months, I've started working on a side project having nothing to do with my actual "research." It's been an interesting process of making friends with smart people, and deciding to work on a cool project with these smart people. We've worked on writing outlines, proposing workshops, obtaining funding, getting authorization, and all kinds of other bureacratic fun because we really really believe that this problem is worth solving. It's just too bad that this has only happened once in my four years here.

PS. Here's my New Year's resolution. Stop cussing so much. Last week, I was in the office of the Assistant Dean of the College Engineering, and I'm pretty sure I said "crap" 12 times.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Lost & Found

I just found my soldering iron. I'd been looking for it for a few months to try to finish a project I'm working on to get more computer science education into children's museums. I found it while I was looking for a wrench somewhere in my desk.

Why a wrench? I want to find a wrench because I hate my chair. Combined with my desk, the whole setup was built for someone much taller than me, and I cannot get into any position in which my right arm doesn't feel like I'm trying to twist it off my body while I use my mouse. Most of the time, it's not a big deal. I use my laptop a lot and I tend to avoid my desk.

However, there is a current combination that's screwing up my arm.

1. The loss of my laptop (it's on the fritz, gonna die any second),
2. My current mood of "Every second I don't work is one second longer I have to spend in this hell-hole."

So, I'm doing a lot of work at my desk. And so my arm is aching like fucking hell, and I want to take it out on my chair by ripping it's arms off. I'm also stressed about the loss of my laptop, my lack of "good research" (whatever the heck that means), and other general financial malaise that comes with being a graduate student. It's really no mystery to me why people quit. For all those reasons, I'm trying to find a wrench.

Instead, I found my soldering iron.