Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Guest Post: Women in Theory Workshop II

This is the second part in Samira Daruki's report from the Women in Theory workshop at Princeton. The first part focused on the technical talks at the workshop, and this part focuses on the non-technical events. 


As an aside, many of the topics discussed would be quite useful to have at a general conference as well: it would be nice to have a similar panel discussion at a STOC/FOCS/SODA.

The opening talk of the workshop was by Joan Girgus (Princeton). She presented statistics about the percentage of women at the undergrad and graduate level in different fields of science and engineering in the last five decades. She mentioned that nearly fifty years ago, those who wanted to combine a career with raising a family were seen as anomalies. Today, combining family and the career is the norm with its own complexities and difficulties.  However, even now women continue to be underrepresented in science and engineering beginning from undergraduate level till the faculty and research positions. Joan presented several possible reasons for this and also suggested approaches that could be taken by universities to improve the  participation of women in academic and research careers.

The other interesting talk on the first day was by Maria Klawe (Harvey Mudd) who argued (and actually convinced us!) that it is the best time ever to be a woman in theory, and discussed opportunities for the future.

On the second day, there was a "work-life balance" panel led by Tal Rabin. All the speakers and organizers of the workshop were gathered to answer the questions by students. This panel was one of the most useful sessions in the workshop, because  we could hear the real experiences and challenges that pioneering female researchers faced in their career and life. 

The panel began by Tal asking speakers to just give one piece of  advice to the audience. Some highlighted points were:
  • " Be aware of young male talkers”
  • “make conscious choices”
  • “Make a right decision and go for it”, 
  • “Go for what really interests you”
  • “The path is difficult, and so you must acquire  the ability to talk about yourself and your work”,
  • “do the work you like and be excited about that”,
  • “Try to be more self promoting”

The floor was then opened for questions. There were different types of questions. Some of the questions were about  family life for female researchers and the right time to have children.

Some speakers believed that having children is an option, rather than a default, and there should be no pressure to have children. While it might seem that everybody by default expects you to raise a family and have children, you don’t need to listen to people and do what they want.  It was also mentioned that there is no "right time" to have children, and that it was a very personal decision. You should just decide for yourself when it's the right time for you.

Valerie King said that some of the conditions at one's  job  can affect decisions regarding one's family. She pointed out that in Canada there are child-friendly policies for women in academia. But she also mentioned that sometimes you have to sacrifice something because of your family life, and  in those cases you should find some other alternative ways to minimize  the impact, like choosing a less taxing problem to work on or...

There were different views on how family life and having children could affect the career life of young female researchers. Some believed that it wasn't a major issue - you could  take off for a few years and wait till you reach a stable point for going back to your job -  but some argued against this, pointing out that research in fields like CS develops very fast,  and coming back after being away from research for a while can be very difficult and destructive for your research career without a  careful and conscious plan. There were also discussions among speakers about how choosing a supportive partner can help young female researchers to deal with these difficulties more easily, (and that actually finding a proper partner is time-consuming and challenging by itself!).

Another question was about the challenges and pressures of graduate study. One of the highlighted issues was about challenges in working with colleagues in academia. It was mentioned that you should be careful with the people around you, and make sure to have some people around you that talk about your contribution and acknowledge you.

Panelists talked about different experiences they had with male colleagues.  some of whom would make sure to acknowledge your contributions explicitly in their presentations, and some who would use your ideas without any acknowledgement. Clearly if you want to be more successful you should avoid being surrounded by this latter group of people. It was mentioned that one of the techniques in dealing with problems that you might face with male colleagues (if you find yourself unable to solve it by yourself) is to go to your manager or boss and push him to help you in that situation.

Another challenge that was highlighted was finding a research problem to work on during graduate study and also for one's research career after that. Many of the speakers agreed  that was one of the biggest challenges in their research work). Other discussed challenges were about choosing the right advisor and changing research problems or advisors during one's PhD.

It was mentioned that usually the most common mistake new students make in doing research is that they decide on some topic, do a wide search on the current and previous work, and then come to the conclusion that  all the problems had already been solved and that there was  nothing new to do. But in fact in most research topics there are always ways to make the area broader and find new directions: this is the creative aspect of research. This is the main distinction between doing research and "re-search"

There were also some discussions about the different aspects of working as a researcher at research labs or at a university as faculty. Lisa Zhang from Lucent mentioned that research labs have good quality of life and encourage a lot of flexibility.  However, there are issues relating to job security versus tenure and there is a trade-off between these two kinds of research positions.

There was  discussion about collaboration between researchers. Valerie King mentioned that one should not be afraid to  contact  people and ask to work with them. In fact, people like it that others come and work with them on interesting research problems. She related experiences where she got stuck in solving some problem and  found someone more expert in that area to collaborate with. One such collaboration was with two other female researchers resulting in what she called the only “Three Women SODA paper”.

At the end of the panel, Shubhangi Saraf (IAS, Rutgers) talked about her experiences during graduate study. She said that it was  very important for one's research career to do multiple internships,  travel and visit different schools and research labs,  find good people to work with and build  a good network and connections. Shubhangi was one of the participants  that first attended the Women In Theory workshop as a student four years ago and is now, at the third workshop, one of the organizers. She mentioned that this workshop was one of the ways that she was able to meet new people and make connection to do internships.

At the end of the second day there was a banquet in  Palmer House at which we were able to meet other professors from Princeton University and talk with them.

To conclude this post, I think this workshop was successful in its  main goal of bringing together theory women from different  departments and fostering a sense of kinship and camaraderie among  them.  It was really a good feeling to talk about challenges you  faced or times when you got stuck during your research and realize  that other students and researchers have had the same experience! You  feel a lot more powerful, because now when you're stuck with a  problem and don’t know what to do, you know there are some other  people with a similar situations that you can just shoot an email to  and say: “Hey! I'm stuck and need to talk with you! ”.




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