Athene Donald's Blog

Reflections on working at the physics/biology interface, being a senior woman scientist, and anything else I feel strongly about

Learning on the Job

Posted by Athene Donald on October 15, 2010

Cycling is one of the many life-skills beyond the curriculum that freshers need to learn rapidly upon arrival in Cambridge. However much they may have cycled previously around their homes, there is something peculiar about Cambridge cycling. Whether it is the on-the-hour rush along Tennis Court Road between lectures, swarming along with hundreds of other students in the same tearing hurry, or remembering your bike lights as the nights draw in, there is much to absorb. This is not something we provide training in; as with so much of life it is ‘on-the-job’ learning.  I was reminded of this today as I watched a young cyclist fail to cycle defensively, coming up on the inside of a bus as it was turning left. Luckily the bus driver was considerably more wise to the ways of cyclists than conversely, and disaster was averted.

At the graduate level we do a slightly better job, not of teaching cycling but of some of the other soft skills needed to survive a PhD: such training might include how to give presentations, writing up their CV’s or thesis planning. However, as one progresses up the slippery pole it seems to me that we are back to learning on the job by one’s mistakes. Some years ago I was asked to participate in a training day for young women at a different institution, entitled ‘If I had only known then what I know now’.  I was supposed to be one of the ‘voices of experience’, but I found it very illuminating for myself. We got to ‘role play’ a committee, with some of the attendees being given specific characters to play out. For myself I was charged with being an inefficient chair of the committee, with a disruptive dean (played by the facilitator) constantly interrupting my attempts at keeping the meeting in order. We all then collectively dissected the dynamics of what had happened.

For myself, I found having this disruptive ‘dean’ a nerve-racking experience, despite it merely being in fun. The moment that stood out in my mind, however, was the woman who had been given the character of ‘just saying no’. She was asked, by me (who didn’t know the character she was supposed to be portraying), to take on some dreary task and she simply looked me in the face and refused. When asked about it afterwards the word she used was that it ‘liberated’ her, that normally she would –like so many of us – have felt obliged to say yes whether she wanted to agree or not. Being given permission, as it were, to say no made her feel positively light headed. We don’t provide such training in the run of things and so, too often, people end up being put upon. Some people are no doubt born with either sufficient confidence, self protection or possibly a complete absence of what it takes to be a good citizen that they apparently have no trouble refusing any sort of chore. For most of us it is a challenge to say I will do so much, but no more. This leads to the danger of being overwhelmed by tasks which may range from the pointless to the thankless, encompassing also those not very appropriate to the skills one does have.  It may also lead to the danger of doing all the wrong sorts of things for the benefit of one’s career, and freeing up others more selfish or self-assertive to make better career progression.

One support system which can help the navigation of such dangers is that of mentoring, as I was reminded today by the receipt the American Physical Society’s CSWP Gazette (CSWP stands for the Committee on the Status of Women). This particular issue – which seems to be openly available – was mainly devoted to a discussion of mentoring, from the viewpoint of both mentors and mentees.  For many women mentoring can prove a vital support system. It does not have to be provided by women for women (in my own case essentially all my mentors have been men), so small numbers of women in an institution need not in itself be a hurdle. Mentoring can be invaluable for obtaining advice about how to tackle an issue, or where to turn to for further information. But even if you know what you want to do, carrying it through can still be a major challenge. I have found the books by Anne Dickson very helpful in this respect (for instance Women at Work , A Voice for Now and Difficult Conversations: What to say inTricky Situations without Ruining the Relationship ) in terms of putting into words some of the confused thoughts with which one may approach a tricky situation and working through them.  But these books still remain at the theoretical level. The ultimate challenge is acting out what needs to be said. I have discussed previously the way support groups can be helpful, and it may be that they can provide a safe environment in which to practice verbalising difficult responses. But beyond this, it seems to me that those providing professional development courses need to consider offering more opportunities for role play to enable the less assertive of us to try out ‘saying no’ in unthreatening situations.

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