Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Archive for June, 2013

Guest Post on Grants

This post is from WomanOfScience, Prof. Robin Selinger, Professor, Chemical Physics, Kent State University Liquid Crystal Institute. Thanks you for sharing and for sharing your name! That way other WomenOfScience can email you directly. Robin is a great mentor, and I am glad to have her on the WOS team. Other guest posts are welcome!

I suggest you read “A PhD is NOT Enough,” a very helpful book written by Peter Feibelman. Get the newer edition (about 2011 I think.) It has plenty of useful advice about many of the issues you will confront in the next year or two.

One of your most important goals is to bring in some grant funds. As a new assistant professor in the mid 1990′s, I found it helpful to get advice from a senior colleague who was a former NSF program officer. He was a great coach and provided very useful feedback.

Some new faculty resent the idea that they might benefit from this kind of input from a senior colleague. The way I see it, even superstar athletes work with coaches who help them to achieve their full potential. Why should scientists be any different?

Don’t wait until the proposal deadline is looming to get advice from your grant-writing mentor. Start bouncing research ideas around and working on your proposal and budget plan at least 60 to 90 days before the deadline. Every campus and funding agency have their own particular rules about budgets and you don’t want to waste valuable time figuring them out when the deadline is pressing.

The most important page of your proposal is the project summary. Many panel members will vote having read only this small piece of the proposal with care and perused the rest.

Remember that some programs such as the NSF Career Award are sufficiently interdisciplinary that many members of the panel will not be experts in your exact field. Make sure your summary is accessible to the panel. If you don’t know what kind of panel to expect, talk with the program officer at the funding agency for advice prior to submission.

Make your project summary memorable and really clear without excessive jargon, and have three people proofread it to make sure it is 100% flawless.

Check the agency’s formatting rules for total proposal length and font size and abide by them. Something as silly as using the wrong format for cited references can result in a proposal returned without review. Also don’t forget required elements such as a “postdoc mentoring plan” or “data management plan” that the funding agency may demand.

Good luck!


You Belong Here

One major issue that many new faculty face is Impostor Syndrome. ImpostorSyndrome is the feeling that you are a fraud, that they made a mistake in hiring you into this position, and at any minute they are going to realize it. ImpostorSyndrome affects women and men, but can be especially stressful for those who are a minority in their field. Unfortunately, women are minorities in many fields of science at the professorial level.

Just to put your mind at ease: this is a common feeling, and you can’t always believe everything you think. ImpostorSyndrome can hit at any level: upon entering college, entering graduate school, starting a first postdoc, your first tenure track, after achieving tenure, after being admitted to the National Academy… the list goes on.

Remember: they hired you. They wanted you out of the 300 candidates that applied and the 6-12 that they interviewed. They negotiated and spent money on start-up for you. You proved yourself in your Ph.D. and your postdoc and your interview to earn a place to be there. You deserve to be here because you are awesome. Think positive.

My solution: “Fake It Until You Make It.” This means that you just act like you belong. Even though inside you feel weird, you just pretend that you know what you are doing, and everything is OK. In fact, you probably do know what you are doing, and everything will likely be OK. As part of FakeItUntilYouMakeIt, keep your eyes open and see what others are doing and act like them.

FakeItUntilYouMakeIt does not mean that you should bumble around doing things wrong time and time again pretending that they are right. People are sure to notice if you are confidently wrong all the time.

I recommend: if you are unsure about something specific, ask your NearPeers how they solved certain problems. NearPeers are people 1-2 years ahead of you who have already gone through the same stage. I actually went as far as to ask my SupportiveSeniorColleagues about how they solve certain matters. I stress Supportive. Since they were supportive, they saw this as WomanOfScience addressing problems quickly instead of WomanOfScience doesn’t know what she is doing.

Another good group to consult are AcademicDynastyPeers. AcademicDynastyPeers are peers who have an academic in their family, usually a parent. They grew up knowing academia from the inside, and they feel pretty comfortable with the process that you are undertaking. Most AcademicDynastyPeers are open about their ideas of the job, and willing to share if you just ask.

After a while of FakingIt, you will forget that you didn’t know how to do that thing, and you will have MadeIt.

Are there other solutions to ImpostorSyndrome that people want to share? Comment or make a guest post.

Starting the Tenure Track

Starting up a new tenure track job is really, really hard. You are stepping into a new job that you were not trained to do. Up until now, your training was in research, and research is important (especially at research-intensive universities). In your new tenure track job, you will also have to teach (well), perform service work, mentor students and guide them, start a lab/research group from scratch, and manage people, manage budgets, manage your time. This job is not just one job, but several. The worst part is that you were supposed to have learned all these skills through osmosis somehow and observation. Unfortunately for many of us, our prior mentors were not good teachers, mentors, or managers. Or if they were, they did not share the secrets of their craft either through purposeful or accidental neglect. Thus, we are left to bumble through and figure things out on our own. 

Over the next few posts, I will be discussing some of the parts of starting a new job and some possible strategies for coping with myriad of new things you are now responsible for. In addition, the initial trial period before attaining tenure is prime time for fertility and trying to start a family and a life. Many women have babies in this time because it is now of never.  I hope the next several posts will help those entering and make those who somehow made it through feel better about how they did to get to the next stage. Please send guest posts and comments, especially those who just got tenure or are still pre-tenure and have specific questions.

Mentoring on the Fly

Just like mentoring in the classroom, mentoring does not have to formal or scheduled. Throughout my career, I have started a number of mentoring groups for women both in graduate school and as a professor. These can be very helpful, but I think I have had the most impact and success mentoring on the fly. Here are some examples of what I mean.

Whenever I pass a WomanGraduateStudentOfScience in the hall or stairwell, I ask them how they are doing, how their research is going, if they are writing papers, and what the next step is for them in their research or their careers. These casual mentoring activities do not have lasting impacts, but they show you care. Several of these students have turned to me when bigger issues have arisen in their careers.

I have a group of peer and near-peer colleagues in a variety of science departments on campus. I try to call them for lunch or meet them in the student center lunch room often to strategize about

Conferences are a time to see people from afar who you might not talk to usually. I always make sure to connect with any SeniorWomenOfScience mentors I have made over the years by having a lunch or dinner with them. I also connect with my broader peer-mentoring network to talk with others at the same stage as myself to exchange ideas of problem solving.

Small conferences, like Gordon Research Conferences, are another good place to do some on the fly mentoring. This can come through having lunch with graduate students and postdocs and having informal talks. Many of these conferences have open times in the afternoons. I once used that time to set up a meeting to mentor women at the conference. Several professors, women and men, came to offer their advice to the young women of the conference. We had over 20 people there from a 100-person conference. It was quite successful, and a number of women came out feeling like they knew better strategies than when they went in.

Do people have other example of mentoring on the fly? Comment or send a guest post.

Mentoring Groups

Mentoring groups come in a variety of shapes and sizes. I have been involved in a number of these groups over the years, and have found them to be very helpful for problem solving and just plain bitching – both of which are needed to survive the academic career path.

In graduate school, I started a women’s group in the department I was in at the time. In grad school, it was for female graduate students. We had speakers and panels on these issues and met once a month. Some of the meetings were supported by the department with food (pizza). Sometimes the female professors would have us to their houses.

As a new assistant professor, I started a women and minorities mentoring group in my new department. After several years of teas, student talks, and student lunches with visiting women and minority scientists, I convinced the department to make it a true committee assignment that should be assigned to a male colleague as well as a woman. Thus, it was taken over a morphed by another, and they changed it. I was released from the extra organization, and made a sustainable contribution to mentoring in the department. The women who have run the group after me did not do the same activities as me, but that is good.

A couple years into my tenure track job, a couple of WomenOfScience at my university assembled two EveryOtherThursday groups for peer mentoring and group problem solving for professors. These groups are based on the book, “Every Other Thursday: Stories and Strategies from Successful Women in Science,” by Ellen Daniell. One group met after work. The other met during lunch. My group has women from all career stages, and their collective wisdom has helped me navigate through tenure. I am sure I could have made it without them, but it was a much better, more pleasant trip with their support. Further, despite my being on the younger side of the group, I felt I was able to mentor more senior women as they worked on issues that I had successfully navigated, such as the Two-Body Problem and juggling kids with work. I highly recommend getting into one of these groups or forming one of your own. They continue to be an essential part of my peer network on campus.

If others have other examples or mechanisms of group mentoring, don’t be afraid to comment or to send me a guest post!

Mentoring in the Classroom

Another place where you can mentor students is in the classroom. This may be a less obvious place to mentor, but approaching classroom teaching as an opportunity to mentor can help you be a better teacher, allow you to connect to the students more personally, and help the students connect with you and see you as a real and likable person.

How can you incorporate mentoring into your class when you have a lot of material to cover with a limited time? Here are a few things I use that I invented and learned from other WomenOfScience. If you have other suggestions, please comment or send a post to me.

At the beginning of classes, I always get there early to get the room set-up for class. As students come in, I just chat with them. I talk to them about my lab, how research works, and what kind of research they might be interested in doing. I encourage them to get into laboratories and approach professors. I remind them that, professors are people too, but busy people. Even if they don’t get into the first lab/research group they try, they should keep trying and asking. If they are already doing research, I ask them about it, what is most challenging, and which skills they are learning. If I have to travel, I tell the students about where I am going and why. They are often proud that their teacher is a highly sought-after speaker, as opposed to thinking that I am skipping class and do not care about them. This also is a small way of self-promoting to the students, who are an important audience as future donors to the university and department.

When I teach classes for majors in my subject, I have homework sessions in the evening instead of office hours (more on that in teaching strategy posts). During these homework sessions, I have ample opportunity to talk with students one-on-one. Between homework problems, I ask them about why they are studying science, what they want to do when they grow up, and how they plan to get there. I explain how graduate school in science works and how they can apply. Most students are not aware that  graduate school is paid for, and they will get paid a stipend to teach and do research to live independently. This realization opens the world of graduate studies to many students who thought it was out of their reach financially.

At least one day of the semester is a lost cause. In the fall, it is the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. In the spring, the Friday before Spring Break. I am sure there are others. These are days when students just don’t attend because of holidays. You can cancel that day, and many do, especially if they are traveling. But, if your family is far away, you might not be able to travel for short breaks. Or, if Spring Break is the only time of the semester you can get some research done, you might not want to travel that week. Whatever the case, these throw-away days are perfect opportunities to mentor. I typically take that day to give a talk called, “How to Get Into Graduate School” for undergraduate courses. I advertise the topic beforehand, so students can choose to come or not. Some students who have to travel early ask me for the slides, and I provide them. For graduate courses, I take a day to talk about my research. I can use this to encourage graduate students to join my lab, show them how the topics of class pertain to my research, and give them an example of a research talk, which many of these students have never given before.

Like many professors who teach major classes, I get asked to write letters of recommendation. I basically always agree to do this when a student requests it. But, the student must also do some things in return. I ask that the student come to my office with a CV and a 1-page write up of their current research or research aspirations. Many of the students who request letters are those I see often at the start of class and in homework sessions, so I know some of the information, but I want to see it in their own words. Further, I can give them a little feedback on their CV, which it is often not clear how to format (I have seen some poor CVs even from professors because people often don’t think about the formatting, but it is important). I can also check out their writing skills and talk to them about their research, which I can then comment on in the letter. These extra steps are a low bar that dissuade non-serious students to rethink asking me for the letter. The good students get a little extra mentoring out of it.

Many of these things are tiny modifications to they way people act already, but these small overtures can go a long way to mentoring a wide array of students you see in class. Further, they will also help you get better teaching evaluations because the students can observe that you care about their development as scientists.

Mentoring in the Lab

One place where a lot of mentoring occurs is in the laboratory/research group. This is a classic place where the master (you) are mentoring and directly educating the apprentice (student) in a one-on-one setting. There are a lot of different ways to mentor students. Some people are very hands-off. Others are very hands-on. Also, each student is going to need different mentoring on different aspects at different times in their tenure in the group. It is very much a fluid interaction that is easy to mess up, even if your students consider you to be a great mentor.

There are a variety of items students need mentoring and training about and many different mechanisms to achieve this. I am going to report what I find works best for me, but different people are… different. Please post other ideas of successful mentoring strategies as comments, or as guest posts!

Meetings. There are a variety of ways to meet with students. Many people like to have one-on-one meetings with each student every week. These can take a lot of time, especially if you have a lot of students. Further, it may not be necessary for most students who are continuing fine on their projects. I recommend streamlining meetings by having a group meeting where every student gives one slide each week. During this time, it often become obvious who needs more attention, and I set an individual meeting during the lab meeting. The slide has a specific structure, again to facilitate the process. Every student must have a list of what they did the past week with a image, movie, of plot to represent their work. They must list their goals for the following week. If someone doesn’t have a slide, they must do an interpretive dance of their work, which is funny and encourages them having a slide the following week.

Writing. Science writing is hard. And most of us learned it the hard way – through terrible cycles of trial and error trying to write our first manuscripts. In order to help that issue, I have adapted a strategy from another SeniorWomanOfScience to have informal writing assignments from my students. The original idea was to have monthly assignments, but that was too often, and I couldn’t keep up with the reading! Instead, I have semester/summer reports. Each person in the lab has to write one. It must include:

  1. A list of goals that the student had for the previous semester/summer.
  2. The experiments the student performed to reach those goals with data results (images of raw data, examples of analysis methods, and plots). Publication-worthy level is encouraged.
  3. Any problems that the student encountered in attaining those goals.
  4. A list of unmet goals.
  5. A list of goals for the next semester/summer.
  6. Your view of your progress, what you have done well, and what you need to improve on.
  7. Any new protocols developed over the last semester, typed, and as separate word documents.

The students turn them in, and I make comments in writing and return it to the students. If needed, we have a one-on-one meeting to discuss the report writing and figures, progress, changes in the goals for the next term. At least once, after seeing all the results together in one report, we submitted a paper. These regular writing assignments help students get over their fear of putting words to paper, facilitating the manuscript writing process.

Speaking. There is a lot of public speaking in science. Ironically, many students in science are shy. Thus, they need to practice and not just in front of you and the group. In addition to our weekly lab group meetings, we have a a multi-lab group meeting where students present their work. It is a reasonable safe environment, and I expect students to have seminar-level talks that explain the background, aims, raw data, analysis, and results of their research.

Research Training. Training students in good research techniques is the obvious mentoring avenue of academic science, yet it is surprisingly still neglected. Maybe people believe that students will learn things through osmosis or from their peers. Also, teaching students one-at-a-time is time consuming. In my lab, I developed a week-long lecture and lab curriculum that I term a “Bootcamp” to train new students. I offer it 1-3 times per year to teach basics of laboratory research specific to my lab. I start with some really basic ideas and orientation such as how to keep a laboratory notebook and how to do the types of calculations we use most in the lab. The students work is small teams and do hands-on laboratory work. This way, students learn all together, can teach each other through peer-learning, and create a sense of camaraderie early in the lab. Students who go through bootcamp start their projects seamlessly and feel comfortable in the lab. Students that do not often have a hard time incorporating into the group, and have a higher likelihood of leaving the lab without significant progress being made.

Research Group Culture. Another part of research is knowing some of the social aspects of the lab. Many new (undergraduate or high school) students coming into the lab don’t know what a graduate student or a postdoc are or what they do. Many graduate students and even postdocs don’t understand how what the PI does all day, since she is not in the lab. Such gaps in knowledge can get people into trouble and cause bad feelings between lab-mates. The easiest way to combat this is to just communicate. Twice per year, I give a lab meeting where only I speak called the “State of the Lab.” In it, I define the roles and responsibilities of people in the lab. I also take everyone through the funding situation and how it works and each science project from 10,000 feet, how it started, its current status, and where it is going led by which researchers of the lab group.

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