Helping the Minoritized Achieve in Academic Science

Archive for July, 2013

More First Day Activities

Going through your syllabus is not the only first day of class activity that I do.  I spend the day setting up the class, giving them expectations, and orienting them in several ways. I do not “teach” in the traditional sense any material of the curriculum. Here are some first day activities I do. Anybody else with helpful first day activities to prepare your class for the semester, please comment or post a guest post.

  1. Who are you? There are a lot of getting to know you activities you can do. Some work better with big classes, some work better with small classes. One that I always do – no matter the size (although I haven’t yet taught 400 people) is to take the pictures of every single student, so I can learn their names. I bring them to the front of the class in groups of 4. Each student writes their name on the board above their heads (the name they prefer). I take a picture with my phone, and I promise not to share it. Since the students are older than 18, they can consent to having their pictures taken (or decline), so there is no FERPA issues. I don’t share it with them, but when they graduate, I send them the picture to give them a smile. The students love getting out of their chairs, and the activity gets them used to unusual activities in the class right from the start.
  2. How we teach science and why? Before I let the students leave, I take them through how and why we teach science the way we do. Specifically, I tell them where problem sets came from. In essence, people were not learning from lectures, so they hired tutors. The tutors had students do practice problems. Through the act of problem solving, the students learned the material and how to solve other problems. Further, I talk about the principles of the core curriculum of the department and the rationale for its execution. I talk about active learning, and the fact that they are ultimately responsible for what they learn. I am here to facilitate and help that process, but my “blah, blah, blah” cannot force knowledge and skills into their heads. The small group work and homework sessions (more to come on that) is where students will learn, and they will learn best by applying themselves and trying and failing, and trying again until they succeed. This pep talk goes a long way to setting up expectations. They know I am a hard ass who cares about them learning. I firmly believe that this orientation actually helps to give me better evaluations from the students, because it sets up the class. They know what to expect.

After this, I end the class – hopefully 5 minutes early. I set a timer to end the class everyday 5 minutes early to give time to ask questions or give other messages. I let the students know that I will try to end the class 5 minutes early, but if the timer goes off while we are in the middle of something, then we will take it to the end of class.

If anyone has other first day, class orientation suggestions, please comment or guest post!

Syllabus: Your Contract

As I thought about it, there is so much to talk about with teaching. Off the top of my head, I came up with over 10 topics in less than 10 minutes. So, where do we start? Let’s start at the beginning. What do you do on Day 1? Well, the first thing is to go through the syllabus. Many people simply pass out the syllabus and tell the students they can read it. That is because they do not see the potential of the syllabus. Your syllabus is your contract with your students about the policies of the class. It is where you set the expectations for the students, the standards and policies for the course. This is the written agreement about how the class will be conducted, so make sure all the important information is in the syllabus and you should go through the contract with your students on the first day. Once you go through the contract, I remind them that this is our binding contract. I tell them that we can make changes, but we should do it now. I ask if anyone wants to make changes, and we vote on approval of the syllabus. In my experience, students are generally happy with the syllabus and do not request changes. Mostly, I think they are so shocked that a professor takes this approach, that they sit in stunned silence.

Some of the essential items I put in my syllabus include:

  1. Contact information. For yourself and the TA
  2. Textbook and curriculum information. What will be covered in the class?
  3. Pedagogy information. How are you going to teach the course? Making it clear how you are going to the teach the class will help to orient the students as to how the class will proceed. This is especially important if you are going to use modern pedagogical techniques, because students might be used to lecture style from your colleagues. It is also essential that you tell the students that the method you are choosing is what you think is best, because your biggest concern is if they learn the concepts.
  4. Homework policy. You need to tell the students how many homework sets you will have and when they are due. Is it online homework or long answer? Who will grade it? How much will it count for the final grade? What is your late homework policy? Will you accept late homework at all? Will you allow it to be one day late?
  5. Exam policy. How many exams will you have? When will the exams be? And what will they cover, exactly? Have the exams scheduled with the dates on the syllabus, so everyone can mark their calendars (make sure you have a room scheduled, if you do evening exams). How many points are they worth? And how much of the final grade? WHat is the format? Multiple choice? Conceptual? Long answer? How will you do make-up exams? Will you allow people to take the exam late? Or will you only allow early exams if there is a time conflict?
  6. Other grade issues. If you require participation or clicker grades, you need to specifically outline what will be grading, and how much of their final grade depends on it. If you are doing extra credit, say for attendance or clicker questions, make sure it is clear on the syllabus. I also usually outline how the points total to make the points for the class as a chart using either total point (say 1000 points total) or percentages.
  7. Class expectations. How do you expect your class to act? Do you expect them to engage and not sit like lumps? You can positively reinforce that with credit points for participation, but you should also say you expect it. Do you expect them to be respectful of you and the other students’ ideas. You need to specify other specific things such as if you allow computers in the room (presuming you aren’t using a team-based learning room that are built around computers). Do you expect students to work together on homework or independently?
  8. University policies on ethics. At the end, I always list the University’s ethical policy about plagiarism or anything else.

I am sure there are other items that belong on the syllabus, that I don’t include, so please comment and guest post.What do you include in your syllabus?

Teaching Well

Having just returned from a conference devoted to good teaching practices has got me thinking about the first time I taught and lessons to be passed along. So, the next couple posts will be devoted to teaching. There are a lot of good resources out there, and that is part of the issue. There are too many! How can you possible read them all the distill the best practices. Further, with all the other stuff as part of this job that you don’t know about, how can you get the biggest bang for your buck time-wise?

Luckily, there are a number of ways to do this. So, let’s start a dialog here for a couple posts. All the other educational sages out there, please comment and guest post!

Managerial Solutions

In the last post, I gave some specific examples where communications and lack of policy led to annoying and awkward situations that had relatively large consequences (at least at the time). These issues are managerial. Leadership and management skills are a huge part of running a lab, and we are not taught how to do this at all. There is some idea that if you are a good and organized researcher who has had some smart people as your advisors in the past, you will just pick up all these things. Why should any of that be true? There is no guarantee that because you are good at science you are good at management or even that organized! And the idea that someone else who has been successful is also a good manager is laughable. A lot of leadership and management comes down to communication, but just saying things is not enough, because students don’t always listen (just think about lecturing in class!).

In this post, I want to give some solutions I came up with to tackle these issues. I hope if others have other creative and innovative solutions, they share them as well.

State of the Lab Address:   I realized a lot of the issues I was having with students came from cultural differences. I don’t mean cultural like a foreign country, although I have always had international students and postdocs, I mean that I expected the lab to have a certain culture, a certain work ethic, a certain civility and collegiality. If you lab is established, a new student can get a lot of this from cultural cues from the other people, but a new lab has no culture yet! Partly some of this stuff is out of your control and depends on the personalities in the lab, but actually a lot of the tone is set by you as the leader of the group, what you will tolerate, and what you will not. So, I decided to just spell it out and not leave it ambiguous.
The State of the Lab address is also an orientation talk for new people in the lab and a reminder to those who have been there for a while. The first pages go through lab culture stuff like Who is in the lab? What are graduate students and what are they supposed to do? What policies do they adhere to that are specific to them? What is expected from undergraduates? What is a postdoc and what are they supposed to do? Perhaps most importantly, what is a Principle Investigator (PI = you)? What are you doing all day when they don’t see you in the lab? Some immature students feel like they only need to be in the lab if the PI is there. I disabuse them of that idea early on and actually explain that I do a lot of lab work in my office writing grants and papers. The address changes based on changing lab policy, organization, and what is happening.
I couch all of this in an allegory of the lab as a small business. I tell them I am the CEO and my job is lead them to success. They are the shareholders and they should realize that the success of the lab depends on their success. The explain that our product from the lab is papers, presentations at meetings, and good students who can reason and think creatively. Unlike a real small business, we don’t make a profit and I can’t go to a bank to get a loan to pay them, so part of my job as CEO is to get the money. I do this by writing grants to the government and foundations. Without these sources of funding none of them would be able to do research in the lab. I also tell the students straight out what our financial situation looks like. I tell them how many grants we have and what it covers. I let them know if I am getting summer salary or working for free over the summer. I tell them how much certain equipment costs and remind them to be careful with it. I tell them how much money we spend on disposable lab supplies and reagents each month. I tell them what grants I am working on, how much we ask for, and the chances of getting it. I know a lot of people try to hide these sausage-making details from their students, but why? When you explain and they can understand the concerns of the lab, they go in with open eyes.
After these discussions, I spend some time on the individual projects of the lab members and how they should be spending their time, so there is no confusion about who is working on which project. We have very few issues with project ownership in the lab because I try to discuss it openly in a full lab meeting with all members present. I make these little presentations twice a year, so everyone is up to date on what is going on consistently.
Lab Rules: Although the State of the Lab really helped define lab culture and told policy, not every student can see that presentation right when they come into the lab. Further, there are a lot of other policies that the lab has, and they cannot all be covered in one meeting that has to address culture, too. So, based on my friend AfricanAmericanManOfScience’s own document that he came up with after the fire incident, I developed a set of Lab Rules.
The Lab Rules are an 8-page document that details all the policies of the lab. When a new policy arises, it goes in the document. Here are some topic headings I have in my Lab Rules document:
  1. Personal Issues, Work, and Work Hours
  2. Lab Organization
  3. Lab Meetings, Seminars, Journal Clubs, Semesterly Reports
  4. Reagent Preparation, Use, and Disposal
  5. Reagent Storage
  6. Ordering and Receiving
  7. Data Collection and Archiving
  8. Lab Safety and Environmental Health
  9. Computers
  10. Major Equipment Use and Maintenance
In order to ensure that the students read it, they must print, read, sign the document. I have them return the final signature page to me, which I keep on record and will use if something goes wrong. Having these rules spelled out, in print, and forcing them to read it has cut down a lot of incidents in my lab. This is especially useful in the summer when my lab balloons up with visiting student researchers.
Undergraduate Documents: I have a lot of undergraduates working in my lab over the summer and each semester. I found I was losing track of which ones were being paid, getting credit from which department, and communicating to them what the expectations were for them to be in the lab and do their work. I decided to make a couple of undergraduate-specific documents. The first was a UndergraduateApplication to work in the lab, an idea that came from a peer mentor colleague while discussing over lunch. I was getting a huge number of students asking to work in the lab, and he found that this simple barrier to making them fill out a form before he would meet with them cut down a lot of frivolous meetings with students who weren’t really interested. The Application is simple with their name, classes and grades, the names of 1-2 professors who can serve as a reference, and if they are in the honors college or interested in a thesis or capstone project.
After they fill out the application to work in the lab, we meet, and decide if they are going to join the lab. If they are joining the lab, we decide how many hours they will work and how they will be compensated (money, if available vs. credit vs. just volunteering). When that is settled, we fill out a contract. The contract has all the details of if they are getting paid or credit, which course they sign up for in which department. They sign and I sign, and we make a copy, so we are all on the same page. I keep it until the end of the semester, so I can keep track with which students need to have grades reported and which department to report the grades to. This system works much better than trying to remember for 6 different students.
Lab Fun: All this managerial stuff is boring, so I try to do some team building as well. We try to take lab trips at least once in the summer to the beach or a lake. I think a lot of people do this because it is fun, but it serves an important part of building lab morale and camaraderie. Another thing I do that is specific to my lab is to make wacky science videos. Unlike in other labs where the students self-organize behind the professor’s back, mine is professor-initiated and lab-sanctioned. We take a whole day in the summer, make costumes, work out shots and film. Someone has to take the film to edit it into a video. I did this at first, but I don’t have time anymore, so I rely on having at least one student with editing skills. When it is done, we watch it and post it to YouTube.
I am sure there are many other creative and innovative ways to manage a lab and cut down on silly miscommunications or other issues. Please comment or guest post (it can be anonymous), if you have more helpful hints!

Things Unsaid

Fairly soon after being a Lab of One, you will get new students to form your research group. In establishing your new research group, there are a lot of little things to consider. Many of these issues will become apparent only after some negative event occurs. You can head off many of these annoying set-backs by establishing lab policies early and communicating to your laboratory. Here, I present a few examples of things that go wrong. Hopefully others will chime in with more examples? Next post, we will discuss some solutions for these types of problems.

Example 1: The first student to join my lab was from a foreign country. Within 13 months of beginning work, he asked if he could take 4 weeks (the entire month of January) off to go back home. I was shocked at his lack of commitment to his project. I was proud of myself for not going with my reaction which was to say, “No! Absolutely not!” Instead, I told him I would have to look up the vacation policy for graduate students on RA and talk with some of my colleagues about what their policies are before I decided how to deal with it (he was obviously going to go regardless). The graduate policy wasn’t helpful because it was all based on hours worked, and that is a sticky subject in science where we pay for 20 hours per week, but expect 80. My colleagues were much more reasonable. They ranged from (A) any student can take as long as he/she wants without bound to (Z) students get 2 weeks per year, and they can accumulate that time. So, if they take 4 weeks, they cannot go on (long) vacation for another 2 years (short jaunts don’t count against this). I decided to pick the latter view, which seemed reasonable and easy to keep track of. I also explained why January was particularly bad time to go on vacation because I had January off from teaching, and it was a long time that I could be in the lab working with the student. He went anyway and quit the lab within 4 weeks of returning from vacation. Despite that student’s issues, this policy, which I actually considered and thought about, persists today in the lab.

Example 2: I got a really promising postdoc to join the lab joint with another WomanOfScience. She had a Ph.D. from a great institution and was already living in the area doing a postdoc with another professor. After about 9 months, it was clear that she wasn’t making progress on her project. She didn’t even know how to do the main assays of either lab, and she still needed guidance from the graduate students to run the equipment. Instead of working on her own project, she was “helping” another graduate student on some basic work that had a lot of downtime (the graduate student was doing that work and the main assays on the main equipment). When I spoke to her and calmly let her know that, as a postdoc, it is OK to help others, but your main priority is your own project, she flat told me that I was wrong. Whoa! How could her perceptions have been so off from mine? In my opinion, a postdoc has to do his/her own project and make progress. This postdoc left the lab after the 1-year contract was up after accomplishing nothing. (We can talk more about if she would have said that to a man, yadda yadda, but at the end of the day, it didn’t matter.)

Example 3: I had an undergraduate working in the lab for credit. The general university policy and my own policy is 3 hours per week is one credit. This student signed up for 3 credits for the Fall semester. I am sure you can see where this is going… The student didn’t show up often, but when she did, she didn’t do anything and acted like she was in the lab all the time. It was maddening to the other students who were working well and this students mentor in the lab. Although I told her explicitly the rules about credit when she signed up, it somehow didn’t sink in.

Example 4: This one is not from me, but comes from a AfricanAmericanManOfScience I know. Two students were working in the lab at different benches. Suddenly, one student notices the other student run past and out the door. Several minutes later, the student still in the lab smells something funny and it turns out that something was on fire in the lab! The student who quickly exited was likely running from the incident and subsequent fire, but neglected to inform the other student or try to put out the fire with an extinguisher or do any other reasonable thing. Now, this seems like common sense. You set a fire, you should at least tell your labmate so they don’t burn to a crisp, yet some people need to be told everything. Further, young people and scientists do not always have the best common sense. Thus, you need to tell them everything – even seemingly obvious things.

In each of these examples there was some policy that I didn’t think about, odd perception or preconceived notions that were incongruent, forgetfulness, or just plan idiocy. Despite this, fewer and fewer of these incidents occurred in my lab over time as I developed policies, materials, content, and new activities to keep everyone on the same page. Since this post is getting out of control, I will describe some of the methods I employ in the next post. Please comment of guest post with other examples or with your own solutions.

A Lab of One

So, you just started your new job. You have a new lab space with or without workstations or lab benches and equipment. But, at first, you have no students, technicians, postdocs. You are a lab of one. The people who will populate you lab are not just important to getting work done, they are also essential for keeping you in touch with science through regular conversations and working groups. What do you do to stay in contact with science during this short, but possibly debilitating time in your science career?

Build your network on campus. This is a good time to get to know the other people on campus who are doing work within and peripheral to your research. For people very near to your field, invite them to lunch to discuss your research plans and grant ideas. Ask them if they would be available to read a draft of your grants. For people more afar from your field, talk to them about what they are doing, get general advice about starting a lab, and time management, and maybe see if there are some collaboration possibilities.

Glom onto others. This is a bit silly, but what I mean is keep yourself in a lab culture of some sort by attending the group meetings of other people. When I started, I attended group meetings and had joint lab meeting with 3-4 different groups over the first couple years when we were still a very small group. Small groups can’t really have normal group meetings. If you rotate who is presenting, they end up presenting every-other-week! Combining with another smallish lab will give more lag time between presentations. Also, this gives you the ability to see how other people at your institution format their group meetings. You can choose your favorite method.

Join or start a journal club. Journal clubs are a good way to stay current with the latest in your field. Depending on the field, journal clubs are more or less prevalent, yet most people see the benefit of reading an article and discussing as a group. Joining an existing journal club or even starting a new one and including other professors and their students within your field is a great way to stay in touch with science and stay motivated while you start your new position. This piece of advice may seem really obvious and stupid, but when faced with so many new demands for your time, it is easy to decide to skip this practice that was a no-brainer as a graduate student or postdoc. All I am saying is, stick with it! Don’t give this up because it is a essential for when your science picks back up out of this temporary lull.

Build your network off campus. When you first start a lab, you may be tempted to stop going to conferences because you have to pay your own way and you don’t have anything new to present. Go anyway! Conferences are essential for keeping up your network of scientists and mentors. Don’t be embarrassed that you don’t have anything complete to present, discuss your plans with supportive mentors working in your field. Talk with them about grant writing strategies and see if they will read your proposals before you submit. In a couple years, you will have to go through the mini-tenure process and then the tenure process a few years later. Conferences are essential to build up your connections with potential letter writers. Even if you don’t talk to BigShotProfessor who will ultimately write your letter, if they see you across the hall talking science at a conference, they will assume all is well. Once you have anything even close to resembling results, submit an abstract to present. I recommend even submitting a late abstract if your results are late-breaking and after the normal deadline for abstracts. Tell people at the conference that you are presenting your new results and that they should stop by to see the poster or talk (shameless self-promotion is good, remember). Presenting new work early does two good things: (1) you are marking your territory on the project and (2) you are demonstrating your ability to create new science, fulfilling your promise as a young tenure track professor. Basically, use these conferences to see and be seen.

As your lab grows and you have students, these initial habits will pay off.

Any other suggestions for how to cope during this low time in the lab before you have people and perhaps even a lab at all? Please comment or guest post!

Hiring Woes

I found one of the most important, yet untaught skills, is assessing candidates to make hiring decisions. I am going to honestly say that I have not mastered this skill. Unfortunately, that means I sometimes bring people into my lab who do not work out for one reason or another. Hopefully some people who are better at this will comment and help out. Here, I will tell you about some mistakes I made in the hopes that others can learn from them.

The thing that everyone always says is, “Don’t hire the first person who comes to you.” Of course, I totally hired the first person who came to me. It is hard to avoid because you are just so desperate for people. I hired a graduate student who had been in the program longer than I have. This should have been a red flag. If a student ca not find an advisor by the time they are in their third year, there is something not quite right with the student. As perhaps expected, this student did not stay in my lab. Nor did the next 2-3 who randomly knocked on my door. Looking back, it was clear that these first students were aimless and had no real interest in my research. As a naturally curious person, I am excited by many parts of science. I hoped that my excitement about my science would entice them. It did not. This is when I realized that people need to be self-motivated to do science, and no matter how excited you are, that isn’t enough for anyone else. Happily, I was able to recruit two excellent graduate students who have been very productive. The first rotated during my second year and joined the lab official in year 3. She is getting ready to graduate soon, and I am super proud and excited! {I should note that I can take students from multiple departments. Some do rotations, and the student have to pick by a certain time. Others just have to try out advisors, and it is more like dating.}

I did hold off on hiring a postdoc. I felt that postdocs are a lot of responsibility because you are somewhat responsible for getting them a job. This was also a mistake. I wish I had hired a postdoc earlier. My first postdoc was first author of our first paper that was fully initiated, performed, and completed in my own lab. My first postdoc motivated the graduate students through his consistent presence – something that was impossible for me to accomplish with teaching and traveling. My first postdoc was essential to establishing the research program of my lab.  Two more postdocs later, my fears of mentoring and placing postdocs has been quelled since one postdoc successfully started a tenure-track job last year. Although I wish I had hired a postdoc sooner, I know other WomenOfScience who had very bad luck with postdocs, and it was a more expensive error than hiring the wrong graduate student.

After multiple fails, I started playing hard to get with certain graduate students {the ones who have to go through the dating route, but not rotations}. When I first started, I would pay them right away to show I was serious. Much like dating, this early commitment may have scared them away. Now, they have to do a training period without pay. If nothing else, it saves me money!

But, the worst part is that I still cannot tell, even after getting letters of recommendations and conducting interviews, who will be a good lab member and who will not. I have taken to calling letter writers to get more candid and truthful reviews of candidate lab members, such as postdocs and technicians. For graduate students, I have no clear cure. I have missed out on good students, and I have tried and given a lot of effort on terrible ones.

These difficulties are not limited to my own lab.  These issues also affect larger-scale hiring, such as search committees when hiring new faculty members. When I witness faculty hiring I still think, “How did I get hired?” and “I have no idea what I am looking for,” at the same time. Unfortunately, in these cases, the stakes are higher. If you hire the wrong lab member, the most you suffer is for 1-year, given the typical contract. If you hire the wrong colleague, it is at least 6 years until tenure, and who wants to deny tenure?

So, if anyone has any helpful strategies, please guest post or comment. We who do not know are waiting to hear from you.

What do I do?

As described a couple posts ago, there is a lot to do in this job. In my experience, it doesn’t all come at you at full force right at the beginning. For instance, when I got to my new position, I didn’t have a lab. So, although I was stressed about teaching and other new things, I didn’t have any people to manage or a place work to on research yet. Instead of lamenting the lab, I decided to take advantage of the fact that I didn’t have a lab. My solution was to spend time just writing grant proposals for the first two semesters while my lab was getting together. After this, I realized that spending committed time focusing on just one aspect of the job allowed me to get really good at it, so that it became second nature. After that committed time, I didn’t have to focus on that thing as much, and could use my new skills to save time. This is just another testament to the idea that there is no such thing as multi-tasking. Since you cannot really multi-task, why not focus on one thing at a time and get it right?

When I started my tenure track job, it worked out best for me to focus on grant proposal writing for 1 year.  A lot of the grants I wrote were horrible, but I got feedback, and I got better with practice. After writing more than 10 proposals, I actually got one my first year!

The second year, I focused on making my teaching better. After my teaching went just OK the first year, I decided to focus on making it great the second year. I re-wrote my lectures, offered evening office hours, and really worked to learn the names of my students. In our department, they have a good policy that you get to teach the same courses three times in a row. This is great because a class is always the worst the first time around, but once you get the hang of the material, the second and third years can be great.

By year three, I finally had reliable people in my lab, I had some grant money to hire people to work on specific projects, and we were getting results. In year three, I finally came back to research, which was super fun after my hiatus. I spent significant time with my students, gave myself my own projects to get good preliminary data for new work, and we wrote our first papers.

Although this timeline for focusing on proposal writing first, teaching second, and research third worked well for me, it is highly personally dependent. If you step into a beautiful lab that is fully functional with people who can work on day 1, maybe work on getting papers out first. Some people I know had this, and they got their first papers out a year before me. Most people I know had to wait 1-2 years for their lab situation to get working well. Why waste time and energy working on something out of your control that you cannot fix? Instead, refocus on other things that you can succeed at first. Get those things taken care of, so you can focus on other aspects later. By the fourth or fifth year, all the important aspects of this job are under control – tackled one at a time.

I want to mention that at no time did I focus on service. My advice is to perform adequate, or just good enough, on service to your department and college. Doing a good job doesn’t buy you anything and is a big waste of time for the other stuff you have to do. Once my grants and research got going, I got asked to do more service to my scientific community, such as reviewing grants, reviewing papers, and organizing conferences. I did not say no to those opportunities, and I did a good job on them, because they helped my research. These opportunities led to more invited lectures for seminars and conferences.

Do you have some helpful information about what to focus on first when starting an academic job? If so comment or guest post!

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