Lessons from the bottom rung of academia

Lessons from the bottom rung of academia

Golden Ladders by Yoko Ono

I’m scared to talk about my job at Harvard because of imposter syndrome. But I know from experience that writing here and talking about myself incessantly is the way to beat it.

If I post about things that make me nervous, then the people who are going to call me out will do it right in the comments sections. You know that adage keep your enemies close to you? It’s sort of like that.

It’s also like when I got a job writing a weekly finance column — my brothers told me I shouldn’t even take the job, because people will find out that I cashed out my 401(k) to pay for childcare, and I’ll get fired so fast it wouldn’t even be worth the trouble to start. I took the job and wrote my first column about that. And I never worried again that people would think I’m financially incompetent.

Just kidding. I know I’m financially incompetent. And I worry all the time that I look reckless trying something totally new when I am too old to be messing with income. Because I am reckless.

What no one tells you about Harvard

I’m in a lab run by a professor who is the best manager I’ve ever worked under. I want to put her name here, but shockingly, not everyone thinks it’s an honor have their name on my blog. She is amazing at motivating and inspiring people to do the work she wants to do. And she’s organized. She published an incredible number of papers while she had kids and I’m always asking questions that are too personal to figure out how she manages her life. I wonder if anyone has written their dissertation on their advisor’s life skills?

Perks of being on the bottom rung

Being an expert in your field makes it really difficult to ask hard questions that generate new insights. In a new career everything is a surprise.

For example, in a conversation about whose name is going on a paper, I asked, “How are you deciding which order?” The answer was that one person is outside the country and can’t be paid, so his name will go first and the person getting paid will go second, and the person who is most important goes last.

I’m not even sure if that’s right. It’s like trying to speak another language you don’t really speak, where you nod continuously and wish for understanding.

Blogs are still the best resource to learn a new industry

Even though very few people still keep a blog, the ones still left standing really really know their topic. PhD Comics is a primer on academic claustrophobia. Tyler Cowen’s blog is a masterclass on disrupting academia. My blog is a cautionary tale about the insane hubris it takes to switch to academia after basically building a career on berating people about being in academia.

ChatGPT is an important tool for entry level work

At the bottom of the ladder you know nothing, so in many cases, ChatGPT can do your job better than you can. This is not cheating, this is a service to the people above you so they don’t have to slog through your reams of entry-level crap.

Six months ago there was no grant proposal that ChatGPT couldn’t write. But as I got smarter at knowing how to add nuance, ChatGPT got dumber about where to find information. Or maybe ChatGPT has imposter syndrome too, but is less willing to tell you when it doesn’t know something?

On the other hand ChatGPT is happy to tell you when it doesn’t want to tell you things. Ask for information about women in the workplace. ChatGPT pleads ignorance — somehow women working has been relegated to the same off-limits category as building bombs.

I told my mom I used ChatGPT to write a conference proposal. She’d already honed in on all the downsides of my draft, so I know I was egging her on. But I thought it would be a challenge to her to have negativity in an area where she knows nothing.

She was up for the challenge. My mom can finish the Sunday NYT crossword before she finishes her pint of ice cream. She saves the acrostic as a treat. She gave me the ChatGPT version of “you’re gonna get get fired.”

Learn which rules are sacred

To her point, I’ve been fired a lot. But typically I get fired for being a self-starter in things that shouldn’t start. Academics usually get fired for stealing or lying, which is not really my thing. Still, I read DataColada prophylactically. The blog’s tagline is thinking about evidence and vice versa, which I would totally want to plagiarize if plagiarism was my thing.

I found the blog because Francesca Gino, who I’ve quoted here, just got fired from Harvard’s Business School, and the guys at DataColada wrote a four-part series about how she lied about her results. You can read that starting here in DataFalsificada Part 1: Clusterfake. I wish I were having another child so I could have these people come up with a name.

At the beginning of your career a mentor matters the most

My mom does not joke about having kids because she got fired from a job she loved, so she got pregnant with me.

Then right away she got another job, and then she was upset that she was pregnant, and on top of that when they realized she was pregnant they fired her. She tells me it was okay the second time she got fired, because she got another job and her boss liked her so much that that they let her work from home. In 1966.

Me: “How did you work at home with a newborn?!”

Mom: “I wanted to have my own money. You know my family never had money. I didn’t want to live like that.”

I asked ChatGPT what Penelope Trunk should write about her mom. It spit back: Life is short, and time with our loved ones is precious.

See? I told you ChatGPT is getting dumb.

Changing careers is like relocating your home. The scenery is different but you’re still the same inside. I always want to know how women manage their careers and their kids. And I always ask questions that put me a little too close to trouble.

20 replies
  1. Danielle A
    Danielle A says:

    I did my post-doc in the Harvard system. Here are some other things people don’t tell you about Harvard. 1) You may have heard the saying “a teaching position at Harvard and a token will get you on the subway.” They toss out “Clinical Instructor at Harvard” titles like they’re going out of style. 2) Harvard is notorious for underpaying people, they can get away with it because of their reputation as the cream of the crop. Maybe now that you’re there, you can do some rabble rousing about fair pay and equity. 🙂

    • Penelope
      Penelope says:

      I’m definitely not earning much money. But I love doing my research so right now I’m happy. I have so much experience working for no pay when I have a new career so getting paid anything makes me happy.


  2. Ann
    Ann says:

    Congratulations. I wonder how women manage any kind of jobs ,kids ,relationships and a semblance of sanity.I have two part time,non demanding jobs.I still find it hard to manage to keep house( not pristine just basic hygiene,basic tidy away,laundry) .I didn’t have any job for awhile in my twenty ‘s when several things went wrong.I don’t think I will have a career and still don’t know what my Autistic super power might be.

  3. Beth
    Beth says:

    You should write a dissertation on your advisor’s life skills.You could do it! At least get us a blog post on your observation. Does it upend your world view of working women/careers etc? I infer from your post that she has a relatively stable/happy home life, has a successful career and is a wife to boot! Does she have a house husband or wife? I suspect your findings on this might make you nervous. So embrace your descent into imposter syndrome. Maybe your advisor’s story may upend some premises you’ve embraced and (admirably) annotated with hyperlinks.

  4. Roland Speck
    Roland Speck says:

    You might find the work of Dierdre Mccluskey to be interesting, if you have not read her before. One of the most accomplished “literary, quantitative, postmodern, free-market, progressive, Episcopalian, Midwestern women from Boston who was once a man” in the world.

  5. harris497
    harris497 says:

    Trouble is to you what water is to the ocean. Do you and it will all work out. It always has in the past.
    Bring you to your academic pursuits and you will be wildly successful. Brains only get you so far in academia. Uniqueness of thought, clarity of discernment, and the ability to turn a phrase will get you the rest of the way.
    Keep asking why. You know you can’t help yourself :)


    • Penelope
      Penelope says:

      I already have. Because I lived in Brooklyn when my kid was in Early Intervention so everyone who came to my house was Hassidic. They were doing anything they could to not have to be at home all day. And their older kids took care of their younger kids. And then, presumably, those kids grew up and would do anything to get out of their house because they were sick of taking care of kids. Also money is power in Hassidic households, so women had to get money to overcome their position of otherwise lowest-tier.

      That said, it was fun to hang out with these women. They were desperate for someone to talk with and so was I.

      I should have been more clear about talking about the professor I work with — it’s hard for me to see how she functioned when her kids were young. Which is not usually the case for me. I can usually figure out in ten seconds because I’ve talked with –literally– thousands of women.


  6. celestial
    celestial says:

    When I was in academic research, the person who did most of the work and wrote the paper was the first author. The head of the lab/project/grant/professor was always the last author. Anyone who contributed ancillary work was listed between the two. It could be a real show-down between two competitors in the same lab and I witnessed some really ugly battles between graduate students and post-docs. I also heard of horrible strife occurring within hallowed Harvard labs where students would “lift” a particular bacterium from someone else and claim it as their own, as well as students coding/disguising their written lab records so others could not understand and steal their ideas. It was hard enough doing research without having to worry about your samples being stolen or your work stolen; I was glad to be in the Midwest where open honesty was the standard and Harvard sounded like hell.

    I tried reading the Data Colada paper and all I can say is “Whew. These people are the bomb”. Again, it is difficult enough just getting the data analyzed and interpreting it correctly; having someone dive else into the data and find discrepancies like they are is awe-inspiring. I’ve always maintained that I am not smart enough to cheat correctly. The idea that the authors cheated on data while writing a paper on honesty/cheating is ironic beyond measure.

  7. Buchanan
    Buchanan says:

    I’ve been reading your blog since I saw you on TV talking about your miscarriage when I was in college. I haven’t been reading for the last year or so since your posts stopped showing up in my Feedly app. I just finished re-reading Making Scenes for what felt like the 10th or 11th time and made my way to here to catch up on all the posts that I have missed. Your writing never disappoints, no matter the topics. Congratulations on the new job.

    • Penelope
      Penelope says:

      Thanks. I’m glad you’re back. I’m really excited. Also, do you know why I stopped being in your Feedly? I’m really bad at managing that stuff. I’m trying to get better.


  8. Starrie Williamson
    Starrie Williamson says:

    I have been a web developer at a university for 16 years. I have two sons (age 12 and 10) and since covid I have worked from home and homeschool them. Everyone else on my team has school age kids and also work from home. It is stressful and I am unhappy because work is stressful and so is homeschooling. I am the breadwinner because my husband is a musician and his career got wrecked since covid but he is ramping back up. He works at home, too, unless he starts touring again. So, I have help.

    If I could do it all over again I would have married, went to college while married and had kids and stayed at home with them until they were both done with high school.

    • Penelope
      Penelope says:

      That’s so interesting about going to college while married. That’s a great idea. That’s time when you can be having a great time with your partner. When we wait until we’re under the (biological) gun to get married and have kids we end up losing out on the fun time with our special person – we just go straight to kids.



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