Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

GuestPostEvery now and then a friendly WomanOfScience graces me with a guest post. This is one of those times. I think it is interesting and funny. The advice is buried in self-reflection, so please read deeply. Enjoy! (BTW: to get an email overtime I post, push the +Follow button).

Rant and Meta-Rant (a personal diatribe by a woman of STEM currently up for tenure in a research-intensive Engineering department)

PART 1: Rant (in which I say many wrong things)

My immediate reaction to the tenure vote in my department (about two weeks ago) was anger and rage and sadness.

I’d made a concerted five-year effort to network with the right people who would support my tenure case in an alien field; I’d taught classes mere weeks after learning the required content; I’d written grant after grant, which returned rejected with a constellation of insightful, occasionally deprecating, but usually all-too-apt criticisms; I’d spent uncountable hours training the students working in my lab while feeling that progress was painfully, glacially slow; I’d written and rewritten manuscripts to the point at which I’d lost faith in our work; I’d carefully circumnavigated the departmental and college politics as one of the very few women; I’d toiled (albeit not uncomplainingly) in the shadows of my colleagues who received internal accolades and support for their successes in publishing and grant writing, and regularly congratulated them on their successes; I’d organized seminars and the occasional party as the good wife of several organizations; and, most notably, I’d managed a time-consuming internal service duty for two years that was above and beyond what was typically asked of junior faculty. I was tired, I was frustrated, and I was angry. Why had I bothered with any of it?

I suppose that I have should mentioned first that my colleagues voted to give me tenure, right?

Dear readers: as the doyenne of wildly inappropriate emotional reactions, I wasn’t happy or proud or pleased. Instead, I lost my shit completely for two weeks.

I was sad that my department had not noticed that I was doing sound scholarly work; I was angry that said scholarly work wasn’t rewarded; and I was enraged that the non-scholarly demands on my time would only increase in the future. I grumbled (nay, raved) to anybody who would listen — and to the friendliest and most supportive ears (and in particular to one close friend, a junior superstar colleague who had tried to give me helpful advice for navigating my less-starry academic career) I was cruelest and most cutting. I wallowed in misery, loudly.

Then I ranted to two friendly WomenOfScience (the blogmaster and a colleague of similar status and seniority) and got walloped by a clue-by-four.


PART 2: Meta-Rant (in which I analyze the wrongness and try to refocus)

Long ago my graduate advisor told me that I was going to have to learn to live with myself; that, like it or not, my outsized over-the-top reactions were apparently hard-wired, and that I was going to have to figure out how to manage them whilst staying productive.

My mien is not that of the logical, dispassionate ur-scientist. I am enthusiastic and elated, then morose and melancholy. Charming, then churlish; articulate, then profane. (A colleague once asked me: “Is it a taxing effort to speak as precisely as you do?” My response: “No, but it’s overwhelming for the audience— that’s what the profanity is for.”) Bluntly, my disposition is not stereotypically “male.” (Neither is that of many men. Conversely, some women are dispassionate. YMMV. This is about my reactions.) To manage this roller-coaster, I relied upon my generation’s snark-and-irony filter: snide comments about rejections and failures generated the needed emotional distance. I made frequent comparisons to bigger / faster / stronger / greater accomplishments by others to openly disparage anything I’d done — and I used those comparisons to justify not seeking the support that would help me to further my career.

When I ranted to my Women of Science friends, I was hoping for validation — I wanted to hear that I’d been poorly handled by my department, that I had a case for complaint. Instead, I heard that (minus the sturm-und-drang) many academic scientists experience similar feelings during and after tenure. My WoS friends also had similar issues, but had gauged what they needed to further their careers and hence were more adept at asking for and receiving support.

This is all to say: I fucked up like whoa, dear readers.

I agreed to write down my rant for the Woman of Science because I think it is useful to identify those features of my larger-than-life emotional reactions that did not help me during the first five years of my career. I write this with some trepidation; my stylistic choices may be an obvious identifier for close friends and colleagues. I note also that many of my issues are more likely to arise in the context of research-intensive tenure-track positions; my colleagues at teaching-focused institutions or in adjunct positions may have very different sources of sadness and anger. Nonetheless, I hope that, by talking about my sea of troubles, I can help others of similarly non-stereotypical dispositions more readily navigate the slings and arrows of an academic scientific career.

(1) I had let the incessant and vocal self-criticism become unhealthy. Unhealthy for my career: I refused to put myself forward because I could always find a reason to not do so. (Similarly, I used my inclination to not self-promote to whine about others doing so.) Unhealthy for my well-being: I have destroyed several long-standing professional friendships in the last year through my litany of constant negative chatter. (This I deeply regret.)

(2) I had let stress dislodge my horse sense. Academic careers can metastasize; and mine had engulfed much of my sanity and physical health. (I get vigorous exercise several times per week, but less regularly than I had five years ago. Similarly, I eat more foods of convenience and cook less than I used to, due to time demands.)

(3) Most deleteriously, by focusing on external markers of success I’d forgotten the joy in doing my science. About five days before the tenure vote, one of my graduate students produced data that strongly supported a tentative physical picture that we had suggested. The data clearly and uncontrovertibly confirmed our speculative picture and suggested a range of follow-up studies. I was thrilled! And yet, five days later I’d completely forgotten how happy and rewarded I’d felt by careful, detailed, dedicated work.

The solutions are easy to state and difficult to implement (for me, least):

(1a) Be passionate about my work. Toot my own horn when appropriate.

(1b) Be relentlessly positive with colleagues.

(1c) Value my supportive friends.

(2a) Exercise.

(2b) Eat well.

(2c) Take personal time.

(3a) Do my science.

(3b) Tired of some annoying aspect of my job? Do my science.

(3c) Frustrated with politics? Do my science.

(3d) Feeling unappreciated? Do more science.


PART 3: Going forward: I hope that my tenure case will be successful, but it’s out of my hands. I’m working on repairing the friendships that I’ve damaged in the past years of self-focused misery. I’ve asked for aid with the more onerous service tasks. I’m writing positive emails to my graduate students to reinforce good work and professional development. I am taking joy in a friend’s recent announcement — as a sign that thoughtful scholarship can indeed be valued. And finally I’m focusing on my science when I feel the urge to rant and rave, trying to redirect my passions towards healthier outlets than my native pessimism.

Work for foodI am teaching at a short course and I spent dinner mentoring some senior graduate students in the course about how best to apply for postdocs. I wrote about this a while ago, but I like this advice better, so read this one!!

The students I was talking to are at just the right time to really plan for the next step – about a year out from getting their PhD. While I was talking, I realized this would make a pretty good blog post full of advice. Of course, this is just one WomanOfScience’s idea of what works. It is certainly from my position as a hirer of postdocs. These are the things I do and do not want to see when you approach me for a position. If anyone else has things they want to add or other strategies that work, please post of comment.

  1. How do you find a postdoc? Unlike applying for grad school, there is no one place to particularly apply. There is no clear application process. Being a postdoc is like being a gun for hire. You just have to go where the job is. But, how does one find that job? You have to approach people individually. When reading papers or at conferences, find stuff you like and see who the PI is. Be systematic about it. Make a list and see what is in common about those then maybe look for more working on those problems or with those techniques that interest you. Think to yourself: “How does this position fit into my life goals? Will this position help me to achieve my goals?” You should be able to answer that question should the PI ask when interviewed. You should also be able to answer the question, “What do you want to do for your career? (Or as I say, “What do you want to do when you grow up?) Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” If you cannot answer these questions, then perhaps a postdoc is not right for you. If you can, double check that you need a postdoc to achieve your goals.
  2. Now that you have a list of people to approach, you need to reach out to those people. The best way to do this is via an email. What should be in your email?
    • First, make sure you address the person personally. Do not write “Dear Sir.” This is for two reasons: 1. The person you are writing to might be a woman, and she will be mad if you say “dear sir” (don’t believe me, see this post). 2. “Dear Sir” or “Dear Madam” is impersonal. It sounds like you are writing a form letter and have no idea who you are writing to. If you are applying to a postdoc, you should not spam (send a million emails to a million people)  nor should you sound like you are spamming. I will not read your email if it sounds impersonal.  You should always write, “Dear Dr. SoAndSo,” or “Dear Prof. WomanOfScience.” This is formal because you are using my title, but it is also personal, because you used my name.
    • Next, write something that identifies you, “My name is Wendy Scientist, and I am a 5th year graduate student at BigStateU working in the lab of Dr. BigName.” Now add a sentence or two about how you know of the PI you are writing to, “I saw your work at the ScienceOfImportantStuff Conference last March and was very excited about it.” Or, even better, “We talked at the ScienceOfImportantStuff Conference about my work on ReallyCoolScience.” The second is better because you actually talked to the person. Will the PI you are applying to remember you? Who knows, but if he/she should, he/she will try to remember and continue reading to hear what you have to say. Of course, only say you talked to the person if you actually talked to them. Don’t lie. Scientists are not supposed to be liars.
    • Now write something about your work and their work and how you are excited about the opportunity to do a postdoc with them. This should be brief – not more than 1-2 sentences. They get the point that you are asking about postdoc opportunities.
    • Thank them for their time and sign off. Don’t write a long email because professors get 100s – 1000s of emails every day. You don’t want to waste their time. If they are not interested, they will let you know. If they are, make sure you include some information for them to read more about you.
    • Give them your information. What should you give them?
      • Your full CV. See this post for a lot of information about CVs. In a postdoc application, you need your contact information, your education, research, and work experience, any awards or honors you have won, and your publications in that order. After that, you can add anything else you want. A full CV can be long – it is full. Do not put a picture of yourself on your CV.
      • A one-page summary of your work. The PI you are applying to is not going to read your papers. Besides, they are listed on your CV, so he/she can look them up. Better to give a one-page summary of your thesis work and any technical skills you have. Yes, you can include a picture.
      • A list of references. These are people who can write you a recommendation. You should have at least three references. You can list them at the end of your CV or in a separate document. My university requires three letters for hiring. I will not only ask for the letters, I will also call at least a couple of them to ask about your abilities, skill set, and mentality in the lab.
  3. What to do if you do not hear back? If you don’t hear back in a week and you didn’t get an away message that they were out of the country for a month, send a short email to ping them. This should be very brief and remind them that you applied. Sometimes people won’t write back ever. That’s OK. They are busy or jerks, to whatever. You don’t want to work for someone who doesn’t have time for you, and we are all guilty of this at some point.
  4. What to do it they reject you? Accept it and move on. Sometimes people do not have money. Sometimes they need different skills? Sometimes it just isn’t a good fit. The relationship is about both of you, and it has to work for you both. If the PI senses something isn’t going to work, it isn’t going to work, and you should not push it. Try, try, try again. Just remember that this job is full of ups and downs (see this post) and that criticism is part of the game (see this post), but you have to push forward and keep applying.

So, what do you think? I think this advice is more concrete than the last set about applying for postdocs. I hope you find it helpful. Please feel free to add comments or other suggestions – especially those professors who have been doing this a long time. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

I don’t usually put up posts from other blogs, but this was such a good load of advice, and I cannot resist good advice. I think it is worth sharing with your students and yourselves.



2015-06-23 12.31.18I have served on a lot of grant panels. In the last year, I served on a grant review panel – a small one for a small foundation that you probably didn’t personally qualify for. I was the only woman of three reviewers on the panel, and each grant had a number of ad hoc reviews provided by experts. For each grant, I submitted made a review, and it took a couple weeks to get them all done. Before I submitted my reviews, I re-evaluated all the proposals to make sure I wasn’t systematically biased against anyone. Because we are all gender biased and racist, I paid particular attention to checking myself on this. And, I ended up changing some of the scores based on the re-evaluations to level them out. Of course there are many reasons with scores could have been different, including if I was tired or hungry when I read the proposal, so I didn’t want those dumb reasons to affect the scores. This final step is one that most people don’t do because of time, but I wanted to do a good job. I did end up raising the scores of more women and of more people with foreign names. I felt like I did a good job, and was proud of my work.

And you know what? I am glad I did the re-evaluations. Here are the reasons:

  1. More women were in the upper half of proposals than would have been if I hadn’t re-evaluated them. Thus, we spoke about more women’s proposals in more detail.
  2. The two very nice gentlemen with whom I was serving were so unconsciously biased against women, it was effing ridiculous. Let me give you an example (the information has been changed to protect the innocent):

Grant 12345, a man:

Scores: Man1: 3, Man2: 3, WOS: 3.

 Comments from the dudes included things like, “Not exactly sure how this will be carried out. Needs more details on the experiments. I cannot tell if this will work.”

Grant 98765, a woman:

Scores: Man1: 3, Man2: 3, WOS: 5.

Comments from the dudes included things like, “Well-described methods, clear proposal, looks like PI will be able to secure federal funding.”

I was shocked. These two proposals had vastly different comments from the two dudes, yet, they gave them the exact same RANKING numbers! On two separate occasions, I convinced one or both of them to change their scores during the discussion. For this example, I actually flat out said, “Please look at the written comments for this person. What exactly is wrong with their proposal? You have nothing negative. So, why is your score the same as the last person who you did have negative comments about?” They could not deny that their rankings were illegitimate, and they changed them.

At another point in the discussion, I pointed out that the ad hoc reviews for a particular woman were biased. For them, this statement went too far. They did not respond well to that. They pointed to a woman ad hoc reviewer to prove to me that the ad hoc reviews were not biased. RED FLAG! If you cannot justify something, pointing to another biased review to justify yourself is not a scientifically good way to prove your point. I told them that it didn’t matter if the reviewer was a woman. Women are just as biased against other women as men. Being a woman does not protect or shield you from sexism. They were not convinced. In the end, I had to write the panel summary, and I had a very hard time. Why? Because they could not point to one thing that they came up with as a panel that was wrong with the proposal. This, to me, stinks of bias. You don’t think anything is wrong, but you just go along with what other people say? That is not the scientific way. All their issues were direct echoes of the ad hoc reviews, which I thought were biased. In fact, they only said positive things in their own personal opinions. Luckily, I did get that person to the funded category, because writing a, “Sorry you didn’t get $$, but we can’t figure out what is wrong,” panel summary is difficult and stupid. At least the letter, which doesn’t say anything is wrong, also doesn’t say, “And you don’t get money for not being wrong.”

There were several other times, I was looking at the comments and thinking, this rating doesn’t jive. More than once, dudes with many negatives were given the same score as women with only positives or far fewer negatives. Dudes just got a leg up. One woman was working with her former advisor still, and that got the old chestnut, “Is this person independent?” but the next dude who was working with their former advisor got, “This is a positive because they will be more likely to be successful working with this bigger group.” These were too far apart in the discussion to successfully combat with logic and reason as I did above, and it wouldn’t have made a difference, but that kind of stuff burns me up.

All in all, the women had to be way better than the men to be ranked equally by these guys, so my re-evaluating of the women only counteracted the lunacy. Also, I was the easy grader for most proposals. I was already seen as the person who gave the highest score (about 1 point higher out of 5 than the guy who gave the lowest scores) on all the proposals, so they didn’t suspect or know that I had re-evaluated and subsequently upgraded a lot of the women.

Based on this experience, I am going to call to all my WomenOfScience friends and male allies: Consider re-evaluating and seeking out your own biases against women and minorities when you review their manuscripts, proposals, or whatever. If you were already going to be nice, act like they walk on water. If you were going to be mean, be 20% nicer. It probably won’t move someone from the unfunded pile to the funded (it didn’t in my case), but it could move someone from the edge into funded, or give someone just a slightly nicer review – you can still be critical without being a total douche.

I will continue to re-evaluate at the end whenever I can, because I think it is the right thing to do. I wish more people would at least be mindful of their biases. To get funded today, you need a champion in the room. Each funded proposal has one. I vow to be the champion in the room for women and under-represented groups. That is what I did. I could have chosen to preferentially fund proposals about beavers (there were no beaver proposals) or a particular school, let’s say Ole’ Miss (there were no Ole’ Miss proposals in the panel), but I chose women. I will continue to choose women. Until there is actual equality.

What do you think? Comment or post here. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

Act Like A Woman

Think-Like-a-Man1I feel like a lot of advice for women in male-dominated fields leans toward the “act like a man” type. I have definitely given that type of advice here. For instance, in previous posts (here, here), when I advocated to modulate your voice during public speaking about science. And I also have given advice about what types of clothing to wear (here, here, for the men: here), and I typically say to error on the side of modest. There is also advice about acting confident and negotiating for yourself. These actions are stereotypically seen as male-oriented traits, and women are stereotyped as “less aggressive” and “less self-confident.” Frankly, I know a lot of really successful women who do these things really well, and they are not particularly gendered – except as how society views such activities.

Sometimes, fitting in is important and “acting like a man” in some ways can be helpful. But, in general, I think there are a lot of great things about being more stereotypically “feminine” that can really benefit collaboration, criticism, and science in general. So, I titled this post, “act like a woman.” I do understand that every woman is different, and I do not mean that all women act as I might describe (I include caveats below). Rather, I think that, in our society, women are socialized in certain ways and men are socialized in certain ways. Women are socialized to be better communicators (but, women are not all great communicators) and men are socialized to be more aggressive (but, not all men are aggressive). My point with this post is to point out some of the stereotypically “female” social constructs and how they could be beneficial to science discourse. I also want to say that many of my male colleagues do already act in these nice ways that I describe below, and it is enjoyable and a pleasure to work with them. If you disagree or have other points, I missed, feel free to comment or write a response post for me to post up here.

Saying “I’m Sorry” There was a fabulous sketch on Inside Amy Schumer where she shows a panel of high-achieving, amazing women and they spend the entire panel saying “I’m Sorry,” (episode, sketch, interesting articles about the sketch: above average, Huffington Post). As often with comedy, and especially with Amy Schumer, the sketch had a social point and then went haywire when one of the women apologized herself to death, basically.

I find myself doing this all the time. I apologize for things that are and are not my fault. In my very progressive local environment, many people will actually respond, “There is no need to be sorry.” True, sometimes I say sorry when it isn’t needed, but what I am really saying is, “I see you. I recognize you are there and you are a person who deserves a comment.” It doesn’t always actually mean, “I’m sorry.” Sometimes it means, “I empathize with you,” or “I acknowledge you.” I suppose I could say those other things, but “I’m sorry” is what always pops out of my mouth.

Saying “I’m sorry” is one of those things that men, women and others try to de-socialize out of women. They say it undermines your power to apologize all the time. But, does it? I have male colleagues who are sweet and kind, and guess what? I have noticed that they apologize a lot, too. It doesn’t seem to take away their power. Plus, it is not exactly distracting or bad or anything else (unlike in Amy Schumer’s sketch). In general, it is minor and not even noticeable. Why are we trying to remove people acknowledging each other and, in a sense, just trying to be nice? So, I am keeping the “I’m sorries.” I’m sorry if this bugs you.

Saying “I was Wrong” I find it ironic how adamant scientists can be even in the face of their utter incorrectness. We have to be able to acknowledge that we are wrong, or we might as well stop doing science at all. In general, although, again, not always, I find that women are more capable of accepting their incorrectness, moving to a new thought and accepting the possibility of other options in their science. But why? Is the proverbial woman more empathetic and thus more capable of seeing someone else’s view? Is it that we are bashed and criticized so much (more?), that we are more open to such critique?

Whatever the reason, the ability to accept that you might be wrong is essential, especially in this time when about 30-60% of studies have been shown to be “false.” There was a nice NPR story about this, just this week, actually, talking about the fact that many studies, especially in medicine or biology, are shown to be incorrect. In my opinion, this has to do with:

(1) Biology and parts of science are inherently statistical, yet we do not do a good job of quantifying our results and making the uncertainty clear. For many of their fields, a one-sigma difference is called “significant.” Think about that. One sigma. That means, statistically speaking, you are likely to be incorrect about 30% of the time. That is what a one-sigma difference means!! So, why are we shocked?

(2) People have a hard time admitting their uncertainty in their publications. Indeed, there is not incentive to accurately report your uncertainty when we are pushed to make big, broad claims about our work to publish in “high impact” journals. I find it weird that the old standard journals with good, solid work, much of which is reproducible, have the lowest impact factors. I find it even weirder that the newest journals on the street often have crazy high impact factors, when they have only been around a short time. That system is clearly flawed even more than the one-sigma significance system. At least one-sigma significance has a quantifiable uncertainty!

In the NPR story, the scientist double checking all the work said that he had some of his own original work debunked. He was asked why it is so hard for scientists to face the fact that they might be wrong. He said it was because we feel like the fact we discovered is a personal procession – we own it. I disagree. I am not so tied to my personal possessions, and many scientists are similarly minded. I think it is more that it feels like family or even a part of your own self-identity. Your scientific discoveries define you. To realize that they may be wrong is like realizing you, yourself, are not who you think you are.

So, I see that it doesn’t pay to clearly say “I could be wrong, and it may be by 30%.” On the other hand, your short-term gain is science and society’s long-term loss because we are working off of faulty data. So, overall, I think we could all benefit with being a little more honest with ourselves about our short-comings and admitting that we could be wrong, by as much as 30%.

Listen and summarize – don’t just contribute your own ideas all the time. There is a saying, “You have two ears and one mouth, so you should listen twice as much as you speak.” I have a majorly hard time with this, especially when the topic is something I am excited or passionate about. But, I have found myself in a number of meetings, especially over the summer, where the room was dominated by big voices and personalities talking about things I wasn’t as interested or passionate about. I noticed that the domination was coming mostly from males… OK, entirely. This is partly because I am in a male-dominated field. But, it was more than that. To me, in these meetings, I distinctly had the impression of male animals marking turf and competing with rivals for dominance of the room, ideas, and airtime. If I were to draw a picture, it would look like this:



This situation happened twice in recent memory. In the first instance, I was one of two women in the room. Both myself and the other woman worked with the group to synthesize the discussion and the loud ideas coming from the men. I also contributed many ideas that were incorporated. I felt valued and heard in that instance. It was clear to both myself and the other woman in the room that, without us, very little would have been accomplished because no one else was doing this oversight and group dynamic management that were were doing.

Another more recent occasion, there were three women. We all shirked our responsibilities as the “women who help” to synthesize and steer the conversation to productive avenues (see this article). Why did we do this? It seemed fruitless and a waste of time, given the personalities in the room and the way they interacted with each other. It was easier to keep our heads down. Every now and then, we three women would discuss separately, come to a good idea, and then patiently wait, literally with hands raised, until the males calmed enough to see us. We would give our idea, which was good, and often accepted, and another topic would follow with more “hoo-hoo” and “haa-haa” (gorilla noises in my head, see image) about the next topic. In this second venue, all three of us felt under-valued and unheard, despite the fact that our contributions were significant to making progress for the group. It is demoralizing and marginalizing and off-putting, and worst of the worst – wasteful and impeding to progress.

Again, yes, “Not All Men” and “Not All Women” but what I am advocating is the end of that type of behavior at all. Good leadership and meeting management can help avoid these types of meetings and interactions, but it would be better if such people just acted politer and more gracious – act like a woman – in the first place. I guess I am just saying that the aggressive posturing doesn’t actually work to make progress to solve problems, so why bother doing it?

Be constructive and nurturing – not destructive and critical for the sake of being critical. Many scientists are teachers, many are not – even if they work at a university. Even those who do teach, don’t always value or develop that part of their jobs. Teaching, especially at the K-12 levels, is a primarily female occupation these days, but the opposite is true at the professorial level. Why? Is it because the endeavor of actual teaching is seen as more nurturing and caring than other professions (such as scientific researcher) and women are the nurturers of the society, so they are steered toward those jobs? Whatever the reason for the switch from women educators at lower levels to men at higher levels, is not really my point here – sorry to lead you astray.

Here, I am advocating that science would be more fun, more collaborative, more productive, and more welcoming to under-represented groups if we could be more pedagogical with our criticism. As I have said before (above and in prior posts), criticism is vital for the re-evaluation and assessment needed to understand right and wrong (see above). What many people say though, is our current form of critique is too harsh. This relates to the points made above about impact factors and the cut-throat granting environment. As an editor and scientist who is reviewed, is that reviewers are often emotional, unhelpful, and frankly, a$$h0les, when doing reviews. This attitude doesn’t help science or the authors you are reviewing.

Instead of being harsh, I wish people would try to be educational. As with everything I am saying, there are always specific places where this is not true. I have a favorite “home base” journal where I like to publish. This journal is great because mostly, the reviewers are helpful and pedagogical without being pedantic, patronizing, or condescending. The reviews are helpful to making our papers better. Needless to say, this is not a “high-impact” journal in the short-run. But I have been able to replicate experiments published from that journal, AND using the experimental methods outlined in the papers as published. In the long-run, these papers will be the truly impactful ones – the ones that are correct.

I would like to note, when being pedagogical, try not to be patronizing or fatherly. This can be a hard line to walk. Just remember that the thing you are reviewing is actually written by “the expert” on that subject. You are brought in as an expert on what you do, which is not exactly what the authors you are reviewing do. They are the experts – it is their science. You are there to offer advice to help improve the manuscript or proposed science. Consider them a colleague seeking advise. If you blast off a review and act like a know-it-all, that is a$$h0lish, too. Basically, follow the golden rule – treat these authors the way you would want to be treated by a reviewer. Keep calm, don’t get emotional. Stick to the science and the facts – not your opinion of science and the facts. And, for heaven sake – cite your references in your review!

Man, that was a long one. What do you think? Comments are welcome. If you want to get an email every time I infrequently post, push the +Follow button.

Giving GOOD Talks

Ferris_Bueller's_Day_OffI was recently at a Gordon Research Conference (GRC) for a field I am tangential to and want to learn more about. If you are in science, and don’t know what GRCs are, you should. They are small conferences on more focused topics. The one I was at can only have less than 200 participants. That means you can talk to many people deeply about science. Further, the GRCs are structured such that the afternoons have free time for you to socialize with the participants. I think that socializing in this way is essential for networking and forming stronger bonds, perhaps even friendships, with people in your field. At the GRC, there is only one session at a time (no concurrent sessions) and long discussions afterward. The GRC is good for learning science without getting overwhelmed or worried about not going to the right session. So, if you are a student or postdoc, especially, you should ask to go to a GRC. I think they are especially good for your career.

But, this is not the point of this post. The point of this post is to talk about talks. I think a lot about how best to present my work to people. Even if my work/publications are boring, my talks never are. They get people excited. I guess I feel more comfortable pushing the envelope in person than in writing. This is probably why I don’t get published in HighImpact-OneWordTitle-Journals. At this conference, as in all, there are many different speaking techniques. All the talks are by professors who are doing excellent and interesting work, but they don’t always speak in the best manner. It got me to thinking about some advice for giving good talks. This is not the first time I have given advice on this topic. General information can be found here.  In this post, I am talking about other aspects that I didn’t touch on previously.

***Disclaimer: The advice given here is not meant to shame any particular person. I am not talking about you. This post is only meant to give advice to help people interested at self-improvement.

Up Talk, Vocal Fry, Voice Tone, Using the Pointer, Body Language:  This was all discussed in detail in previous post. Here is an over view. Don’t sound like you are asking questions (no up talking). Make declarative statements. Use a lower voice, if possible. Two hands on the pointer if your hands shake. Don’t fidget – gesture.

Don’t Yell Your Talk: I have noticed a number of people, mostly women, basically yelling their talk at the audience. It is like a string of words without pauses at a very loud tone. I personally, find this hard to take and a bit off-putting. I am not sure when this style got developed or taught, but I have noticed it more and more. It feels like I am being blasted by the person’s talk instead of engaging with the information.

My advice: insert pauses. If you have a hard time remembering this, put things into your talk that will make you pause. A white rabbit. A small smiley face. Use these cues to remind you to pause. You need to let the audience take in the scientific information you have delivered. When you present the method or experimental system, put in a pause and ask the audience if they have questions. When you present an important result, pause and let it sink in, then state that this is remarkable or significant and why.

As for the yelling tone, I think the only thing that will cure that is thought and practice. I think the yelling is caused by nervousness mostly. This is why I am surprised to see it in experienced scientists with tenure who have been doing this for a long time. You might need to practice using inflection. Inflection is not necessarily up talking. Maybe the yelling monotone comes from a fear of up talking? There are other ways of speaking with inflection that does not sound like asking a question. Instead of thinking of a talk like a public presentation, think of it as a conversation with someone who doesn’t know what you do where you have all the information with you and arranged on slides that you just happen to have up on the screen. If you design the talk this way and maybe pick someone in the audience to talk to, you might be able to blot out the fear of “public speaking” that I think could be driving the yelling. Of course, I grant that I could be exactly wrong. If you have insight as to the yelling your face off style of giving talks, please post or comment.

Engage the Audience: I said this before, but here I am being more general than just using demonstrations. Also, audience engagement goes along with the issue above of having a conversation with your audience. In theater, there is a concept called “breaking the 4th wall,” where the character on the screen talks to the audience. Remember in Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, when he looks at the camera and talks to you. Ferris is breaking the 4th wall. It is the invisible wall between the action going on on the screen or on stage and the audience.  When you give a talk “at” an audience, you have the 4th wall up. I recommend that you try to break the 4th wall in your talk. You can walk into the audience, although that is not always sensical if you are tethered to a laptop at the front. You can also ask your audience questions. Give them a quiz. You’re probably a teacher of some sort if you are a faculty. Or maybe you aspire to be. Putting a question on a slide by itself and asking the audience to vote on the answer is a good way to engage the audience and to wake them up.

Use Humor and Analogy: Some people are naturally funny. Some are not. If you are funny, try adding some humor to your talk. If you are not, I don’t advocate trying to include it. On the other hand, non-funny people can include analogies to well-known, modern, or macroscopic systems and objects to help improve understanding during your talk.  A few well-placed analogies with images in your talk can go a long way to taking your talk from boring or opaque to exciting and clear.

I said the same thing at the end of the last post that I am saying here, which is: I am sure there are even more helpful hints for how to give a good talk, but these are the ones that came to me just now. I realize the last post was about a year a a half ago, but maybe going to conferences makes me thoughtful about giving talks.

TrixiefriganzaThere was an interesting NPR story about being the only X in the room, where X can be anything, but is typically some under-represented group.  The story was spurred by an interview Marc Maron (love) did on WTF? with Wyatt Cenac (love). As a WomanOfScience, this has definitely happened to me where I am the only woman in a room. As a friend of many WomenOfColorOfScience, I understand how it is so much worse for scientists of color. I have a suspicion that white men have probably never had this happen to them. Of course, I could be wrong. There could be times (not times in science, of course) when you are the the only white male in a room. I asked HusbandOfScience, and he cannot recall one time when he was the only white man in the room. He says there was a time when he was almost the only white man in the room, but he was never actually the only one.

An interesting part of the original story and the report from NPR was the pull the “only one” feels between fitting in and speaking up when some racist or sexist shit goes down. They rightly point out that your ability and willingness to speak up as the “only one” depends on your personality, your stature within the group, and your level of power. I definitely have done these calculations when deciding if I should speak up about something. Now that I have tenure, I let loose all the time: with ally-colleagues, at faculty meetings, at a grant panel, at a government funding agency workshop, etc… Oh yeah, I speak up, make a joke and point it out. But, before getting tenure, I was very hesitant to speak up if I could not judge the situation, and I would seek guidance and advice from colleagues in the form of “mentoring” to let people know about certain situations.

Now, I will regale you with a tale of a time when I spoke up. I am sorry if this story is embarrassing to my department, college, or university, especially since pretty much everyone and their mom knows who I am (pseudonym WomanOfScience didn’t last as a pseudonym for very long). But, again, this is part of speaking up. We cannot hide our past like Ben Affleck wishing he was not descendant from slave owners. It happened, and I am retelling it to inform and move forward. Here is the story:

In my first year as an assistant professor, I had several run-ins with a particular senior colleague. This person was an EmeritusProfessor (EP). My first encounter was before classes even started when he approached me about another excellent ScientistOfColorColleague of mine. He asked if he thought my excellent colleague’s new paper in some “high-profile-journal-with-a-name-that-is-a-single-word” was total crap like he did. Of course, I said “no,” because I respected my ScientistOfColorColleague’s work very much. Also, this guy, EP, really creeped me out.

While at a conference, the same semester, I was fortunate to be invited to a women-only dinner with some BigFancyWomenOfScience in my field. At some point, they started talking about times they gave seminars at each other’s schools. I was so mortified when one told a story about speaking at my university and having EmeritusProfessor grill her at her seminar about the jargon of the field. Even more creepy than that, he started stalking her long distance. Except, he is old, so he did it the old fashioned way – via snail mail. She was really grossed out by his letters because they were very fawning and discussed her appearance. Again, I was very embarrassed for my department. I asked some people about it at my university, and I realized that was the last time my department was invited to seminars from the other departments. They stopped sending us the emails for fear that EP would show up and embarrass them.

My next run-in with EmeritusProfessor was at lunch with a seminar speaker. He started being very obnoxious to the speaker and me because of our subfield and the funny language it sometimes uses. This is the same jargon he harassed my WomanOfScience colleagues about, above. I told him that it is true that jargon can be annoying, but when in an interdisciplinary sub-field, you must be able to speak both languages and translate between them. He became pretty irate that I did not agree with him.

The third run-in I had with EmeritusProfessor was at a luncheon for a colloquium speaker, who happened to be a young woman. He sat right next to her, kitty-corner from me, and was creepily all over her during lunch. Yuck! At some point, he said something I thought was too far over the line. I called him out on it at the table, in front of some of my senior colleagues. He snapped back at me that I must be part of the PC police force. I made a joke about PC standing for Port Chester (a stupid reference to the movie “PCU” – love you Jeremy Piven!). We let it drop, but there was tension at the table. I approached my senior colleagues later to tell them both about the other run-ins I had with him and the story of my colleague from the conference dinner. He said he now understood my outburst, but felt it was rude at the time. Ugh. I had been worried about that, which was why I went to smooth it over with him. I was right to worry.

After that, I decide to go have a conversation with some senior people and my chair about this. These were all one-on-one conversations where I went for advice and help. Asking for advice plays well with senior white male colleagues who will always see you as a youngen in need of help.  It is not their fault that society grooms them that way. It can be annoying to play this sometimes, when really you just know better and want to suggest to them what to do, but it is the card I play most. Also, I am often seeking their support and help, so it isn’t as difficult to act. In fact, I prefer they see me as young and in need of mentoring, because the alternative is to be their competition and get no support. OK, these are extreme views, but I have heard from many women that once they reach a certain level/age, the help mentoring into resentment and competition. Perhaps another story for another day.

With SeniorColleague, I asked if EmeritusProfessor would have any say over my tenure case? I wanted to double check that he would not be apart of the discussion. In asking, I relayed the stories from above. He was actually friendly with EmeritusProfessor, but said he understood my side. He guaranteed that EP would not have a say in my tenure case, since emeritus status means they are not on the faculty. SC also admitted to me that EP had “woman problems” his whole life. SC didn’t elaborate, but I could imagine, considering how he treated women, that it was probably EP’s fault.

With the DepartmentHead, I actually asked that EP be excluded from seminar speaker invites. I cited the three seminar related issues and the fact that our entire department paid for EP’s actions by not being informed about seminars. Since I was interdisciplinary, this exclusion affected me more than others, and was unfair. Further, his rude behavior at two lunches with seminar/colloquia speakers led me to suggest at he be excluded from those activities. I said that it was embarrassing and was making the entire department look bad. I guess he agreed because EP stopped showing up for several years.

After these conversations, I felt I had a green light to fight against EP when needed. Luckily, I didn’t need to very often, as he was not being invited to seminars anymore. But, this is not where the story ends. For my RoundNumber-ith birthday party, I decided to have some catering done. Someone recommended a person to me who happened to be an alum of my department – a young woman who graduated undergrad from my university with a major in my department. We had much in common coming from the same field of study, and she actually had jobs in the field, but did catering as a sideline. At some point, she asked about EP. I was a bit cautious. Did this student like him? Hate him? I asked her story. She said that he taught her in a lab course and he disgustingly hit on her in class. He asked her to take a romantic boat ride with him. She refused him, but worried that it would adversely affect her grade. This story was outrageous, and yet expected. I mean EP was a real creep. I never asked, but I always wonder if any of his/my colleagues knew how he acted when he was a professor. I mean, they clearly knew he had “woman problems,” but did they realize how far over the line he stepped? Did they turn a blind eye? Did they purposely ignore it? It still bothers me to this day.

So, the day finally came when EP kicked the bucket. OK, that isn’t a nice way to talk about someone dying, but I cannot be nice where EP is concerned. Despite many other emeritus faculty passing on and never doing this, for some reason, some of the senior dudes wanted to take faculty meeting time to talk about EP. Ugh. I boycotted. I could not stand listening to fond memories of someone who sexually harassed his students. I let it be known to several of my colleagues that I was purposely boycotting and why. I asked how long it would take, so I could make sure I could show up afterwards. I texted my colleagues, who didn’t boycott, to figure out when to show up, because of course it took more than the allotted 15 minutes. After that, I came in, and faculty meeting proceeded as usual.

And that was the last time I had to deal with EP-related issues. I always worry I might run into some other woman alum who might have a worse story. I’m not even sure how to report something like that. The student is long-gone. I am sure it is way past the statute of limitations and now the guy is dead. She didn’t exactly disclose it to me in a way that meant she wanted me to do something about the information. She was basically telling me in a conversation of camaraderie – two WomenOfScience regaling each other with war stories from the front line of the ScienceGenderWars. Comparing battle scars. Hers were far worse than mine.

At this point, I want to also address something that was commented on from a previous post because it is related. I had a post about Why I am a Feminist. Among that list where a couple TV shows, including the Cosby Show. Someone posted a comment later if I would change my mind about the Cosby Show now that it is clear that Bill Cosby is a huge creep – most likely way worse than the EmeritusProfessor I describe here. So, I will set my record straight. Bill Cosby is a disgusting pig of a man who raped women. There is no doubt. I wish we lived in a society that valued women enough to make rape a crime without a statute of limitations, so he could be prosecuted and go to jail. The comments I made about the show were about the premise of the show rather than Cosby himself. The premise was that an upper middle class African American family in Brooklyn existed, and the mom was a lawyer, and the dad was a doctor, and they cared for their children. I value that vision, and I despise the man who presented it to me.

So, what do you think? Post or comment here. Push the +Follow button to get an email whenever I post.

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