Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Archive for September, 2013

Applying for Tenure-Track Jobs: Your Packet

I have talked about applying for jobs with a two-body problem previously (Two-BodyProblem Posts can be found in the Two-Body Problem Category, below). But, here, I am just going to focus on the mechanics of how to put together your packet and apply.

In General: First, off, as I have said before, ask other people for their successful examples. This means having a near peer mentor who has successfully landed a job. You might not have one of these, so you can ask your advisor for their packet, if they aren’t too old, they might still have it. Also, you can ask your advisor for advise, if they are a good advisor. If you are interdisciplinary and applying to a specific department, make sure you get a mentor in that type of department who can read the packet and give you advise. If you postdoc advisor isn’t in that type of department, seek out another mentor. For example, you are a chemical engineer currently working in a physics department, but want to go back to chemical engineering, you need to know how the game is played in chemical engineering. (I know chemical engineering is a particularly small group, and they have some weird rituals. If you are thinking of chemical engineering, you have to get a mentor to help guide you!) The goal of the packet is to get an interview, so make it work for you!

Cover Letter: The cover letter is a formality that makes sure the administrative assistant handling things knows which job you are applying to, and they know who to expect letter from, but the search committee will probably not read it. This is important to have the right information (which university/college, your name and full information, why search). You don’t want to go into the molecular biology search when you do evo/devo. Your cover letter should just be bare bones. Don’t make it too long. Don’t go into too many details. If you have a two body problem, don’t mention it in the cover letter (don’t give them a reason to not even interview you).

Your CV: I have had posts on your CV for getting tenure (CV), and the same basic stuff applies. It would be a full CV, with everything you did. You probably won’t have teaching or service sections. You probably won’t have mentoring or grants, but that is OK. Five pages is plenty.

Research Statement: All tenure-track jobs will ask for a research statement. This is a plan for what you want to do when you get to your new position. Depending on the type of science department, it will need to be more or less specific or look more or less like a grant proposal. It should only be about 3-5 pages long. Again, this is where you need to get examples. Mostly, you don’t want it to look too odd. Don’t write an NIH/R01 grant-style research statement for a department that is all NSF and DOE funded. The styles are very different. Don’t write a vague, sweeping and broadly open statement for a department that expects specific questions with specific techniques. Do use figures to illustrate your points. Do state the significance of the proposed work. Do point out places where the work you propose could intersect and collaborate with people in the department to which you are applying. Do say where you think you will be able to get funding (which agencies?). Don’t write the wrong school or department name! Each statement needs to be tailored to the school to which you are applying. In my experience on hiring committees the young faculty on the committee will read these statements with great interest and go into detail about what you propose. Make it exciting and sell it!

Teaching Statement: Not all tenure-track jobs will require a statement of teaching, but many will, especially small liberal arts colleges. Again, get examples from people who have successfully written these statements to land a job. At a research school, they are going to want something pretty standard. What types of classes are you interested in teaching? Will your use modern teaching techniques? Are there any specialty courses you are thinking of inventing for graduate students? Remember that mentoring in the lab is part of teaching, so you can mention what the composition of your lab will be like. How many graduate students do you think you will have? How many postdocs? Will you have a technician? Is that typical for your field? Will you take undergraduates? By mentioning mentoring, you will remind the committee of your research again. You can also mention that innovative teaching and student mentoring are important for broader impacts required by NSF proposals. Again, you are mentioning research in your teaching statement.

Letters of Recommendation: You will typically need 3-5 letters of recommendation from professors for your application packet. For most people, three letters is tough and five is a huge stretch! If you are applying to a tenure track job after your first postdoc, you will likely have had 2 advisors – your Ph.D. advisor and your postdoc advisor. The 3rd person is usually the weakest for most people. When you get to a postdoc, it is good to talk to other professors at your new place, so you will always have someone to act as that third writer. The letters of recommendation are the most important part of the packet for the older people on the hiring committee. Having big name letter writers is important for these guys, unfortunately. And this is one part of the packet you cannot control and also tends to favor men over women, since we know that scientists have significant gender bias.

Do you have suggestions for people going on the job market this fall? Post or comment!

Applying to Grad School: Admissions View

I have served on the admissions for two different graduate programs, so I have had a view of what the admissions people think and are looking for when making acceptances. These two programs do things very differently. One accepts straight up, based on the application alone. The other has interviews for people before accepting them. One relies heavily on the results of the subject GRE, and the other does not require a subject GRE at all. Despite these differences, they are both looking for the same thing: Excellent students who will be able to get good grades in the first year of courses, be able to pass their respective qualifying exams, and ultimately be able to conduct new research and write papers for publication. There are many items that need to be included in the packet and each has various weights in the decision to accept or reject.

Each year, I give a little talk at various venues called, “How to get into graduate school” but really it should be called, how to assemble your packet for graduate school. Here are some of the hints I give:

What does the admissions committee want to know? When crafting your application packet, it is best to keep in mind what the committee is looking for, so that you can give them the information they want. We want to know from your packet, “Will this person do well in their graduate courses?” “Will this person pass the qualifying exam?” “Will tis person find a research group?” “Will this person be able to conduct independent research?” “Will this person get a Ph.D?”

What is in the packet? The packet consists of the following, and I will go through the rationale of each part below.

1. Your grades in your academic classes.

2. The scores on your GREs – both general and subject (maybe).

3. Your letters of recommendation.

4. Your personal essay.

Grades. The grades in your science classes are an important indicator of how you will do in your classes your first year of graduate school. All graduate programs have required classes to make sure you have a certain basis of knowledge before you go forward into research. All graduate programs have a minimum grade average or grade in each course that is required to stay in the program. Your grades in your classes will indicate if you will make good grades in your graduate classes. On the admissions committee, we want As, but that isn’t good advise for how to get into grad school. By the time you are applying, most of your grades are already set in stone. Maybe you messed up a few courses? Maybe you overloaded one semester and did poorly. Maybe there is a specific course that you really struggled with. Any booboos in your grades should be explained (not excused) in your Personal Essay. I once saw a personal essay that plotted the student’s GPA over time to show an upward trend. That was very convincing. It also showed that the student knew how to represent data in graphical form – an important scientific skill.

GREs. There are two types of GREs. General GREs and Subject GREs. The General GREs are like SATs. Everyone has to take them. You should do well – especially on the math. Science majors should have very good math scores. If you are foreign, the verbal scores are used to determine your reading and writing abilities. All graduate programs require the General GREs. Even if you are good at math and verbal skills, you need to buy a book on the General GREs to see what the test is like. Don’t go into the test cold.

The Subject GREs are not required by all graduate programs, but it is required by many. For graduate programs that will have a written exam for their qualifying exam, they often use the Subject GRE as a test run for the qualifying exam. They typically have a minimum number they prefer. That number, or ranking, is not a hard line, but merely a suggested set-point. For Subject GREs, I recommend studying very hard. Get practice tests. Use the summer before the fall semester of your senior year to study for the exam. One issue with the Subject GREs is that it is hard to encompass all the skills your need for scientific problem solving in a multiple choice exam. They are not very good at actually testing critical thinking and reasoning skills that we want you to have in graduate school. That being said, there is no other metric.

Letters of Recommendation. You typically need 2-3 letters of recommendation from professors who know you and your work in undergraduate school. The professors at your school are my colleagues.  These letters are the ability for them to talk directly to me about you. As someone else who has gone through the rigors of getting a Ph.D., possibly doing a postdoc, and getting a job as a professor, I trust that their values and judgments for students are valid. Because of these reasons, the letters of recommendation have a lot of weight for getting you into graduate school. Also, you want these letters to actually come from professors. It is not good enough for them to come from graduate students or postdocs you may have worked more closely with. They need to come from the professor you worked with. If the professor cannot speak about your work, have the postdoc talk to the professor before he/she writes the letter.

You want to make sure that your letters come from professor who can speak about you. The Best: Letters from professors with whom you worked closely in research. These letters can tell me about your aptitude in research, which is your ultimate job in grad school. Good: Letters from professors with whom you worked closely in class. This isn’t as good, because most professors have 100s of students each semester. They might not remember you. Even if you have a small class, you will usually be compared to the other students in the class, and there aren’t as many ways to prove your abilities in a class as there are in the lab. Poor: Letters from professor with whom you had very little interaction but did well in class.

Etiquette for requesting letters:

  • Ask for letters with enough time for the recommender to prepare it. Give them at least 2 weeks.
  • Send a complete list of all the places you are applying with the online location link, and the date the recommendations are due. This allows your recommender to check off when they completed one, and it is all in one place. If you just trust that the online systems will send messages to the professor’s email, you are not thinking about how busy your professor is or about how many emails he/she gets each day. The list will help your professor keep track of how many requests you sent to make sure they didn’t miss one.
  • When you request a letter, make an appointment to meet in person. Bring your CV/resume, a 1-pager on your current or past research, and have a talk with your recommender about your goals, so he/she can speak intelligently. Think of this as coaching your recommender, so they can write the best letter possible.
  • Professors are busy! Send friendly reminders via email. Do not badger, just remind. Most professors will appreciate it. If they agree to write the letter, they will want to get it out in time.
  • After you hear back, let your recommender know if you got in. They spent time to write a letter for you. They want you to do well.

Personal Essay. This is your time. It is your time to shine. It is your time to explain. So, what do you write? For the admissions committee, your research is the most important aspect of this essay. Include what you have done in research with enough detail that the professors reviewing it will know that you actually did it. Include examples when you solved a problem on your own. You should have a letter of recommendation from your research advisor to corroborate your statements. Summer REU advisors can write letters – not just your home professors! This is where coaching is important, because you want to make sure you and your professor are on the same page about what you did. Include specific advisors with whom you would like to work (only if you know and are sure, it is OK, if you don’t know for sure). Include subjects on which you would like to do research. They should be subjects that are actually pursued at the school you are applying to! You can use this space to explain any negative aspects of your grades or anything else.  Don’t make excuses and don’t dwell on it.

Here are some Do’s and Don’t’s:

Do’s

  • Do have someone else read it – preferably your advisor
  • Do address or answer these questions – either directly or indirectly:
    • Will they find a research group?
    • Will they conduct independent research?
    • Will they get a Ph.D.?
  • Do use examples to demonstrate your ability to do research.

Don’ts

  • Don’t start with a quote from something
  • Don’t give your personal reason for wanting to go to graduate school
  • Don’t make it too personal – this is a professional application
  • Don’t include a long list of every person in the program with whom you would like to work. If you aren’t sure, say that you are open to exploring your options
  • Don’t put the name of another institution!!
  • Don’t have egregious typos or errors. Make sure you proof-read and spell-check

OK, so that is a lot of information. Does anyone else have any suggestions for students applying to graduate school? Post or comment!

Applying to Grad School: Student’s View

It was a long time ago, but I remember applying to graduate school. It was my senior year at SmallLiberalArtsCollege, and I knew I wanted to continue science in my MaleDominatedField. That meant applying to graduate school. The task was daunting. I was very worried I would not get in anywhere.

Looking back and understanding the psychology of it, I realize I was suffering from major StereotypeThreat. I knew that my field was male dominated, so I felt like I could not make it into graduate school because I was a woman. Further, StereotypeThreat played a significant role in my ability on the required SubjectGRE exam required by almost all graduate schools in my field. I knew women did not do well on the SubjectGRE in my field. I knew that LiberalArts Students also did poorly (male or female), so I had a double whammy. (I was also at a special SmallLiberalArtsCollege that was women-only – sheesh!). The protective and nurturing environment of the Women’sCollege was actually harmful because I knew it would ultimately hurt me on this exam, and so many schools straight out use that number to decide your ability to do well in graduate school. JUst as a matter of record, I did really poorly on the SubjectGREs. The typical cut-off is the 50th percentile, and I am pretty such I hit the 30th. I was pretty bummed about my prospects of getting into graduate school anywhere.

As far as the rest of my packet – I have no idea what I wrote. I am sure it was stupid. I did have a 4.0 in all my MajorCourses and I think I had good letters from my professors. One benefit of SmallLiberalArtsSchools is that many professors know you very well. I had three letters from professors who knew me, and my abilities in class and in research first hand.

I submitted 8 applications to schools that were mostly in the top 20 in my field. When I got my first acceptance, I was so happy and grateful I could fly. It wasn’t even a safety school. In the end, I was rejected from 2 schools. These 2 are well-known weed-out schools, so I might not have survived anyway. I got into 2 other top 10 schools, and they became my focus to try to decide where to go.

Deciding where to go was another issue. One thing that was very important to me was how the graduate students felt and acted. I visited one school where the students were just depressed. They were so down trodden and defeated that I couldn’t imagine going there. Other places, the students were happy and positive about their work and future. Other than that, and the ranking, I didn’t have a great deal of knowledge about what to look for. I was pretty naive.

In the end, the awful SubjectGRE didn’t matter once I got in. I acted like it didn’t exist and didn’t let it drag me down in grad school. I saw that it was only one test that lasted for 3 hours of my life, and I majorly failed it. Luckily, plenty of schools decided it didn’t matter as much as the other parts of my application. Being able to put it behind me and having confidence in my abilities in class and in research allowed me to excel in actual graduate school, which is nothing like the SubjectGRE. Even though a couple schools didn’t want to give me a chance, the ones that did were smart, and the one I went to is lucky I accepted. I was very successful in grad school and after, and that success reflects back on them and their forethought in letting me in and educating me well. Looking back, I still feel anxiety about big tests where I know I won’t do well. Luckily, I don’t have to take those anymore.

Any other stories out there on their experience in applying to graduate school? If so, comment or post. We would love to hear you share your story.

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Application Season

Well, it’s Fall again. It’s getting cooler, time to start new classes, and the time of year for academic applications of varying kinds. As you may be aware, academia’s clock is typically a 9 month affair. All transitions start with Fall-time applications: high school → college, college → graduate school, postdoc → faculty. The ability to put together your application, get an interview, and make it to the next level is essential to a successful academic career. Being that it is the application time of year, I thought we could have some posts on how to apply. That being said, I need your help! I cannot remember what it was like to be a high school student applying to college. I vaguely remember applying to graduate school. I remember through cloudy lenses what it was like to apply for tenure track jobs, but I only applied once to one kind of place, and there are so many options. So, send a post or a comment!

The Trouble with Teens

Here is one more story on kids. Enjoy!

Both of my children were the result of unplanned pregnancies. How two biologists had two unplanned pregnancies I cannot explain. But in retrospect, we couldn’t have planned it any better.

I got pregnant with my first child about 4 months into my postdoc. I was terrified to tell my IvyLeagueWorldFamousAdvisor. But he and everyone else were very supportive. One MaleFaculty told me he liked having pregnant women/mothers work in his lab – they were focused and driven and got more done in 8 hours than many graduate students did in 16 hours. Three years later I had my second child. Yes, having children put a dent in my work output and my postdoc years were longer than the current average. But I wouldn’t do it any other way.

What does it take to be a scientist (or lawyer or Google executive or …) with children? First, you must have a good support system. This includes your spouse or partner, your advisor/boss, and your lab mates. And day care providers. We shared a nanny with another family, and I realized after one week of her caring for my first born that he was much better off with her during the day than he would be with me. She was (still is) a saint. Second, you must be focused and driven. I didn’t have time to hang out chatting in the lunch room. When asked “how do you do it?” I would say “you just put on the blinders and take it one day at a time.” Third, don’t be afraid to ask for help. I often asked my lab mates to fix cells, change the antibody on my western blot, or start overnight bacterial cultures for me. Fourth, take my Mother’s advice: Don’t worry about how clean your house is (play with your kids rather than fuss about such frivolous things). And don’t make a battle out of food (choose your battles).

When my kids were toddlers, I was shocked when our pediatrician said she was quitting her job to stay home with her pre-teen and teenaged children. She told me they needed her more now than when they were toddlers. I did not and could not understand. I said “But the hardest years are behind you. How could you quit your job now?” Ten or so years later, I totally understand. When they hit middle school, they need you in a different way. It’s not “sit on the floor and color with me” kind of needing you, it’s “be near (but not too near) me and/or drive me to soccer” kind of needing you. You can’t just hire a babysitter anymore. And that time driving in the car is so important for conversations! So the really good thing about having kids as a postdoc is that when your kids hit middle school, you will be post-tenure and able to set your work load and schedule. I say no to a lot of things. I often leave before 3 pm to be home after school. I now get a lot of work done sitting at the kitchen table after school or sitting on the sidelines at soccer practice.

Is this a XX thing? My husband does not feel the same need to be there for our kids in their teen years. He also works in industry and his job is much less flexible than mine. So is it that he can’t leave work at 3 pm and thus doesn’t even entertain the possibility of being home for our kids after school or is it that his XY makeup prevents him from feeling that he needs to be home for our kids after school? Maybe we’ll have time to talk about it when the kids are off to college.

How about your story? Post or leave a comment!

Having Kids in Grad School

Here is another very successful WomanOfScience’s story about how she decided to have kids in GradSchool.

Being half Mormon (other half Jewish–crazy mix I know), I decided to get knocked up at the tender young age of 30 when I was in graduate school at MajorMedicalSchoolinCA. Why? I went in for a general check up to obtain more birth control pills and the nurse, a non-native English speaker, asked me if I was planning to have children. I said the usual, “yes, eventually.” Her response: “Well, I wouldn’t wait too long or you will have mongrels,” (Yes, mongrels!) I think she meant mongoloid, as in Down-Syndrome, but that scared me into action. I thought about it on my way home: I had been with my boyfriend for ten years, I did eventually want to have kids, we weren’t getting any younger, and probably there was a lot less pressure in grad school than in the later steps of my career. In Utah, where I was from, I would be a grandma by now, whereas in San Francisco, I was a virtual teenager. The other thing that my women friends in school and I were noticing is that all of the women faculty that we knew at MajorMedicalSchoolinCA never had kids and many of them didn’t even have a significant other. While we looked up to these magnificent women, we thought it was time to push the process a little further and try to ‘have it all’. Damn the torpedos full speed ahead! See if it works, at least! I also had two other important graduate student role models in this respect, who also had kids in grad school.

Despite birthing the kids under the auspices of Student Health, which I am afraid we nearly bankrupt, I had a wonderful experience having my babies as a student. My boss, BigFancyProfessor, who was also starting a family at that time, was incredibly supportive and my lab was fantastic–bringing me in smoothies when I was pregnant and dinners after the baby was born. With my first daughter, my now husband had just finished his PhD and got to take care of her for around a year. I really wish that I got to do the same with our other child–putting her into a large daycare at six months felt too young. I did try to plan parenthood strategically–the first while writing up a publication and the second at the end of my PhD, so I could have more time off (while writing the thesis and fellowships). The other benefit I had was that I had worked in labs and industry for ~three years before and had money and stocks saved to help afford taking time off. Really, though, I think having kids as a scientist can work pretty well at any stage, as our jobs are more flexible than most. The main thing is having a supportive partner in crime, and I have been blessed that my girls have a great dad.

What is your story? Comment or post.

Flexibility in Academia Makes Work-Life Balance Possible

Another story of how to have it all in academic science from another WomanOfScience. Thanks!

I chose to have a child as I came up for tenure (at age 35). I didn’t start “trying” until all the scholarly work that was going to be part of my tenure packages was done and I was pretty sure my case was strong.

I chose this time for a few reasons. First, I didn’t meet my partner until the end of my postdoc (when I was 29). Second, I was so overwhelmed with responsibilities of starting a lab that I couldn’t have imagined having kids earlier. Third, a close friend of mine tried very hard to have kids in her early 40s and was unsuccessful and warned me that, if I wanted kids, I should start trying. So I did.

This timing alleviates a huge amount of work-related stress. For instance, I had a functional lab with senior postdocs and advanced graduate students so research was uninterrupted and papers were submitted throughout pregnancy and the first months after my child was born. Because I was reasonably well known in my community, I could say “no” to nearly all travel for the first year after my child was born. My department was incredibly generous and relieved me of all teaching and committee assignments so all I had to do was focus on keeping my lab running for the first 7 months after my child was born.

I worked from home for the first several months and then started going in on a part time basis. My child didn’t enter day care until 7 months.

Being a tenured professor provides an incredible amount of flexibility for one to be able to *choose* how to do work-life balance. I actually didn’t appreciate this until having my child (and getting tenure). I am (mostly) my own boss so I flexibility over my hours, can rearrange 50% of my meetings if necessary, can work from home when I want to, and can choose how much I commit to in terms of travel and “extra” things like reviewing manuscripts. I can even choose to make my lab smaller so that I have less responsibility with my science and mentees. I didn’t have to fill out FMLA paperwork and have my pay taken away when I took maternity leave.

The downsides of this timing are that many women are old by the time they get tenure. Despite what we see on the news, fertility drops DRAMATICALLY after age 35. Besides fertility, I bet the 27 year old me would have had a bunch more energy to get everything she needed to get done with her job and family if it had been an option – I have much less energy now and infants are EXHAUSTING!

We hear a lot of talk about how uncompromising the academic clock is but the truth is that there are times when we can “pause” in our careers to take care of a baby – late grad school, middle of postdoc and post-tenure seem to be common and successful times. My personal opinion is that the common theme for success at any of these times is to have a kid when your experiment/science is going well and results are coming in. If you have a kid as a new graduate student, new postdoc or assistant professor, you can’t “go on autopilot” for a short time and the “distraction” of having a baby won’t be helpful for you in troubleshooting experiments and/or learning how to be a PI.

What do you think? Send a post or write a comment!

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