Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Lynne Butler on academic life

Lynne Butler is a Math professor at Haverford College and a long-time friend. Here is what she has to say about the academic life.

Claire: How would your career have been different if you had been a man instead of a woman?
Lynne: My field would have been algebraic topology. As a graduate student at MIT, that's what I wanted to do. My advisor was skeptical of the role of women in Mathematics, and thought advising them was a wasted investment because they would not be truly committed to their career. I agreed with him that marriage for a female mathematician was not a good idea, and promised to prove my commitment to Mathematics, and he finally agreed to give it a try. However after some time the situation deteriorated. Once at a meeting I saw a stack of identical papers on his desk, asked if they were copies of his latest work and if I could borrow one to read it; as a result, he complained to the chair that I was intruding on his private space. Things got gradually worse, until one day he told me that my lack of command of a paper he had given me to read confirmed his bad opinion of female mathematicians. The department chair then advised me to find an advisor in a different field, and that's how I ended up getting a PhD in combinatorics with Richard Stanley and - sweet revenge - got a job in Princeton (whereas algebraic topologists had and still have the greatest trouble finding jobs in top places), which later led to my going to Haverford, in a job that I love.

Claire: You were associate provost for a year. Is there anything interesting about that job?
Lynne: yes, although there were tasks that I hated and did very poorly, there were also some things that I really liked and was able to do really well. In particular, negotiating hiring of visiting professors: from the time when a department recommends recruiting a new faculty, to the time when they start, there are many questions that need to be resolved to decide whether the candidate is a good match with Haverford and how to make it work. For example, for faculty with interests that span across several departments, arrangements have to be made, and I loved doing that.

Claire: Do you do a lot of mentoring students?
Lynne: Yes, it's a big part of my job. Not just when they major, but when they start, when they choose their major, when they graduate, and after they graduate. I have continued advising former students through their time in graduate school, when they apply for jobs, and even advised them about the tenure process.

Claire: I remember applying for jobs from France. I was clueless, you took a look at my failed applications and explained to me how I was going about it the wrong way, I followed your advice, and it worked.


  1. Could you be more specific about your mistakes when applying for a job in the US from abroad (and hence, presumably, not knowing the US system very well)? Thanks.

  2. Lynne's story of her first graduate advisor is shocking and unfortunate, but it is comforting that it worked out well for her in the end.

    I am curious, did the department chair ever rase an objection to the original advisor's behavior? I hope these days that such blatant sexism would have serious repercussions, what do you think?

  3. The department chair as very supportive of Lynne and helped her switch advisors. I don't know if he ever raised an objection to the original advisor.


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