APS News

Women Physicists Learn Survival Skills in Montréal

Thirty-seven women physicists at various stages of their careers gathered on Sunday, March 21, for the second annual workshop on survival skills for successful women physicists. Held just before the start of the APS March Meeting in Montréal, Canada, the event was organized by the APS Committee on the Status of Women in Physics (CSWP), and included university faculty members, researchers in industry and government labs, and aspiring postdocs and graduate students.

The CSWP first organized such a workshop at the 2002 APS March Meeting, which was very well received. The Montréal workshop was aimed at women physicists seeking advice and training to improve their skills in navigating through the waters of today's research world to advance to the top of their profession. "A successful career in physics, as in most other fields, requires more than hard work and good technical skills," said Dongqi Li, a physicist in Argonne National Laboratory's Materials Science Division and co-chair of the workshop, along with APS Executive Officer Judy Franz. Topics discussed included how to negotiate for resources and teaching loads, how to strategically plan one's career, and how to balance the demands of work and family.

MIT's Mildred Dresselhaus addressed the issue of establishing a scientific identity in the traditionally male dominated field of physics, drawing on her own personal perspective as well as findings of the recent Report on Women Faculty in the MIT School of Sciences. For example, when mulling over what to choose for a research topic, she suggested women consider what they do best, and also find a topic that both excites them and that other scientists will care about.

Beverly Hartline of Argonne National Laboratory focused on developing goal-oriented strategies for professional advancement, addressing such issues as hidden barriers to women's advancement, career management, and useful tools for reaching one's goals whether they be in research, teaching, management, or leadership. "Clear goals can enable you to thrive and not just survive in physics, by clarifying the professional skills, experiences, and results you will need for that desired promotion or leadership position," she said.

Laura Green of the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, also took a more personal, humorous twist on what she termed the "Mission impossible": balancing a career in physics with family demands. "No blueprint exists" for coping with this often harsh reality that faces women scientists, she said, because "the number of women actually doing it is still too low for a standard model to be developed."

The event concluded with a special interactive training segment run by Argonne's director of employee development, Geralyn Becker, to teach participants successful negotiation tactics and strategies. Becker adopted a role-playing approach, drawing on the steps outlined in the Harvard Law School Negotiation Project's model of negotiation, using common situations faced by scientists as examples. "For continued professional success, you must be able to identify, articulate, and advocate for the issues that help to further your career," she admonished. "People do not always say 'yes' with a smile to your requests for increased lab space and resources, decreased teaching loads, funding, or administrative support."

Response to the workshop from the 37 participants was overwhelmingly positive, and most found it "extremely helpful." Several cited their appreciation of the personal perspectives offered by the speakers. Suggestions for improvement included allowing more time for discussions, a few more tips on handling gender bias, and perhaps, in the future, organizing separate workshops for women at different stages of their careers.

The survival skills workshop was followed two days later by a networking breakfast, with over 50 attendees. The featured speaker was Joanna L. Batstone, a senior manager in IBM's Healthcare and Life Sciences Solutions unit, who gave her perspective as an industrial physicist on transitions and survival skills for the profession.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette