Mother's Day appreciation (part II): Mom goes to grad school.

In part I of the interview, my mother described what it was like to be propelled by her dream of being an astronomer from being at home with four children to being in an undergraduate physics classroom and finding a serious mentor.

Part II: Out of the comfort zone and into the graduate program:


Were you encouraged by the folks at Rutgers-Newark with whom you were taking physics coursework to move on to graduate work?

As I was nearing the point of exhausting the undergraduate physics curriculum, and with no graduate physics program offered on that campus, my professors all encouraged me to continue on in physics or astronomy. It was time to move beyond my current comfort zone.

How did you choose City College of New York (CCNY)? What were you looking for from their graduate program?

I looked at programs within a reasonable daily commute, and that might allow for a bit of time for family. My goal remained working in astronomy in some capacity. One university advertised a part-time masters program in astronomy in the New York Times. When I contacted the astronomy department, they seemed not to know about the ad, and had no intention of dealing with a part-time graduate student.

It's never a good sign when a department isn't aware of what they're advertising.

One of my profs from the undergraduate work told me about a NASA funded program starting up at CCNY to train women and minorities for NASA. The CCNY course catalog listed a few astronomy courses, and some related physics courses (e.g., fluid dynamics), and identified the option of a concentration in astronomy. I interviewed, applied and was accepted to begin with graduate physics courses (since my current grades were good, but my performance on the physics GRE was not great), to prove myself worthy of entrance into the NASA program. I expected the head of the lab housing the training program to be my mentor. After the first year of course work, I was doing reasonably well, but the program had been redefined: women were no longer to be considered for inclusion. I needed to find a new way into astronomy.

Was the transition to graduate school smooth?

No. I was well prepared, but I guess the ethic in most graduate programs is to bury you with work the first term. I spent most of October crying, saying I couldn't do this. Your dad went away for a week on a business trip, and meantime his parents and my parents had both had phone conversation with me in which I had expressed my doubts. I guess I had told them that this was not worth the grief, and that I was going to quit the program before your dad left. During the week, I had time to think while traffic had me stalled, swaying on the GW bridge. I decided that if I quit before any tests I would still never know whether I could have been an astronomer. My stubborn streak kicked in, and I decided they would have to flunk me out before I'd quit. My in-laws called when me husband got back, and saying to him that they were sure it was a relief I had quit -- but he knew better. He had come in the door and asked what I had decided. That is support!

Maybe this is too difficult a question, but were you disappointed or angry that your in-laws seemed to have been hoping the grad school thing was something you'd get over? I don't think I was aware of it at the time, but hearing it now bothers me, perhaps as much because of the assumptions they seemed to be making about dad and what he needed as because they underestimated you.

Expectations are everything, and my parents and my in-laws (who were 10 years older even than my parents) had come out of the war (World War II) expecting that the wife would be the "homemaker". I had been at the back-to-school plus working thing for 4 years, and when I started grad school and still felt overwhelmed (and talked about it), I guess they figured that my life could happily get back to their version of normal.

But I had watched my mother deal with many frustrations not going out into the world to use her education. (Having 5 children space over a 20 year span did not let her get out of the house.) I don't believe my in-laws thought I could not do it. In their minds it was just not the normal course for a nice suburban girl to follow. Their son could provide for his family, so I did not need to work (once he finished law school).

I was happy that my spouse knew me well enough to expect me to continue trying to reach my goal.

You've mentioned to me that, once you were ensconced at CCNY, it became clear to you that there weren't many faculty who worked in areas that had a lot of overlap (or even contact) with the area you saw yourself wanting to be in. How did you deal with that?

I continued with the second year of required courses, albeit dropping down to half-time, so I could continue working on the outreach program for Dr. Pine. My teaching assignment was in a program to retrain New York City teachers teaching science out of certification, which required them to take physics. During those first two years no astronomy or astronomy-related courses offered in the catalog were on the schedule.

When I inquired as to when these courses were going to be taught, I was told about astro-related profs who where working elsewhere, and so were unavailable to teach. They were not due back anytime soon. The only astronomer left in-house was doing research, and working with one or two students on Ph.D. dissertation research.

How much mentoring do you feel like you got at CCNY? Was there anyone there you'd identify as a mentor? Did you have anything like a strategy for getting the mentoring that you needed, or did it feel like it was more a matter of luck?

Little or none. The grad student advisor was the only woman full-prof, and fancied herself a mentor, but there were tales among students that indicated differently. I never really had a mentor at CCNY.

Students banded together for mutual support as they found compatible souls. I was fortunate to find another woman with children (fewer and younger, though) who was a year ahead of me. She had come to CCNY for medical physics, described in the catalog -- including a specialized segment of the qualifier to replace quantum -- which never materialized. She provided emotional support, and we remain close friends, kind of like war buddies.

I get the sense that the grad student community in your program was pretty fragmented. Do you think this fragmentation was inevitable? Are there ways you think a more cohesive community of grad students would have helped your experience there? Are there ways that you think the lack of a mentor or a strong community to fall back on helped you to cultivate skills, strategies, and strengths you might not have cultivated otherwise?

The particular school and department had a fragmented student body. At that time most of the student in the physics program were foreign students here on visas, and of course most were males. I think about 15% of us in my class spoke English as a first language. And as you know, I am horrible at other languages (except computer languages). Just finding a few students to communicate with was a challenge, and at the beginning you are pretty much regimented to stay with your class. Very few were married with children, at least early in the program. Many of the foreign students shared apartments with their compatriots, giving them a built-in study/support group. The rest of us commuted, I by driving from North Jersey into Harlem. The guys I went home to (you kids) were not much help as a study group for advanced physics at the time.

Because I did grad school out of normal sequence, there was never going to be time to integrate with the kind of supportive community you were able to find and develop doing things in sequence in a residential setting and without appendages. It did help immeasurably when I found another like me a year ahead of me in the program. She only had two children (younger than you guys), and a supportive husband. She was a native New Yorker (I was transplanted from the Midwest), so she could figure out more of what was going on around us.

Comments are off for this post