Helping the Minoritized Achieve in Academic Science

Archive for November, 2013

Dear Sir

Power of WordsToday’s post is again about application season. It comes from another WomanOfScience, and discusses an issue of sexism that applications should consider when submitting materials for graduate studies, postdocs, or faculty jobs. Enjoy the post! Remember that you can follow this blog by clicking the +Follow button.

It’s academic job application season and search committees are busy poring over applications to find the best candidates. As a repeat member of my department search committees, I am always surprised at how many cover letters are addressed as, “Dear Sir,” or “Dear Sirs.” Is it so inconceivable that there are women on the search committee or should their input just be deliberately ignored? Does the idea of a woman evaluating your application fill you with revulsion or fear? This bad habit of addressing letters only to my male colleagues is especially ridiculous given the goal, or in some places, the mandate, of gender balance or proportional representation on search committees.

Do people write “Dear Sir” because it is tradition? There are many traditions we have abandoned because they are sexist or exclusionary, or just because there are better ways to do things. How many people addressing their cover letters with “Dear Sir” are still characterizing organic compounds with a continuous wave NMR? You perform up-to-date experiments and theory, why not update your attitude about letter writing?

You might say, well, how else to address a letter to a group of people who are unknown to you? Here are some options: Find out who the chair of the search committee is and address your letter to that person. Or address your letter as, “Dear Search Committee” or “Dear Colleagues.”

I regularly receive letters of application to work in my lab, which are addressed only to me, with the salutation “Dear Sir.” I am a woman. Those get deleted or recycled immediately. Why would I hire someone who is not observant enough to figure out I am female? That doesn’t exactly indicate future success in science. Furthermore, why would I hire someone so unprofessional as to address a letter clearly meant for one person, who is known, with a generic salutation like “Dear Sir”?

We have to stop thinking of the default scientist as male. To examine your own implicit biases, you can take the Harvard Implicit Bias test at: We all have biases. To overcome them, we need to be aware of them.

I have colleagues who don’t read the cover letters, preferring only to count up publications and evaluate the research statement and reference letters. I read the cover letter first. Cover letters generally give the committee members a good sense of what the candidate is like as a person, what they value by what they choose to highlight and how they describe it. Unfortunately in the case of candidates addressing their cover letters as “Dear Sir,” the sense I get of them is easily summed up as: “sexist.”

So, what do you think?  Post or comment!

Working Mommy Equals Great Mommy

Mother holds Child

Mother holds Child (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was just visiting a nearby IvyLeageUniversity to give a seminar. I was asked to have lunch with students and sorta do a women’s mentoring lunch thing. I know some people find being asked to do these mentoring lunches strange or somehow unfair, but I don’t. There is no better way to change the social views of people than to convert the younger generations. We can talk more about this in other posts… but this post is about something that was brought up at the lunch.

Two of the lunchers were female postdocs who had children. They lamented that, even though they have husbands who could, and did, stay at home with their kids (awesome!) and/or their kids go to daycare, they feel *bad* about leaving their kids. I know exactly how they feel. In fact, just that morning, my child had a fever. I had already scheduled for several months to drive to IvyLeagueU, so I was not going to cancel. My HusbandOfScience took off the day to stay with our child – canceling all his meetings and getting someone to cover his class. My child was very sad when I left out the door. He was crying and wanted to hug me – a rare event since this child prefers Daddy. I felt very bad about having to leave and go to give this talk. Further, I also felt guilty about making my husband stay at home. I ended up leaving early to get back home – missing the opportunity to dine with my colleagues at ILU. This was an extreme circumstance, and has happened to male colleagues – in fact the man from ILU who invited me also left early when he came up to visit me at UofState. But, did he feel guilty about leaving early? Probably not.

In this post, I want to talk about why you should not feel bad about leaving your kids to have a career. In other posts, we can talk about the circumstances of having to stay home with sick kids and how you make those choices.

On a normal, daily basis, I don’t usually feel bad. I have several reasons or rationalizations to support my choice:

1. Daycare is better for my kids, personally. Just because you have kids and you are a smart person, say a Ph.D.-level scientist, does not mean you will be a good mother. Kids need different things at different stages of their development. I am not able to determine what I should be doing to educate my child at each of these stages. But, I send my child to a great daycare with awesome early-childhood educators that DO know what my child should be learning and working on. Thus, I feel like my children are better in the care of professional childcare experts, which I am not. Basically, the ability to have a child does not give you the power to be a great mom.

2. It is important to set an example. My mom worked full-time when I was a kid. I went to daycare, and I still knew my mom loved me and we had a lot of fun together. I know my mother felt guilty and bad about leaving us kids, but it turns out that she set a really great example for us. Because I knew she loved me and gave me a lot of attention, and was still able to have a career, I know I will be able to also be there for my children and also still have a career. In general, I feel like setting the example as a Career-Driven Mom is  important – especially for my own kids. I have a girl and a boy. For the girl, I hope to serve as an example for her personally. For the boy, I am hoping he brings home a significant other who is also a whole person.

3. Working moms are better for kids, in general. Recent studies have shown that children of working moms are just as emotionally healthy and capable as kids whose moms stay at home – if not more so (publicity with initial source material linked can be found here). I think these types of studies are important for women, who like my mom, felt a huge guilt about having a job. My mom made a lot more money than my dad and was in a technical field, although not an academic, so her working was essential for our family to have a good life – a house, cars that run, and the ability to move to neighborhoods that set us in good schools. By increasing the income level for our family, she set me up to have a better life – better access to education, which I fully utilized.

All choices in life require a cost-benefit analysis. For me, being a mom and having a career has way more benefits for my kids than costs. I spend time with my kids every day (as long as I am not traveling) and all weekend. The time is fun because I try to pay a lot of attention to them – and not work and especially not cleaning the house, etc… I hire people to clean the house and do the gardening, so I have more time with the family. We have more money to go on vacations and have a nice house in a good school district. I follow the principles set forth my by parents that the kids school and well-being takes precedent over my comfort. If I had to, I would drive 1 hour to work in order to live in a good school district. Luckily, I don’t have to.

So how do you feel? Do you feel guilty? Do you feel liberated? How can we all feel liberated? Post or comment.

Uncomfortable Conversations

VibrationsOver the course of this semester, which is quickly careening to the end, I have had to have a series of difficult conversations with people. This is one of the toughest parts of running a research group, and it is a part of managerial skills that you do not get taught. So, how do you deal with these situations? I think these situations are somehow inflated for women managers. Is it because we are seen as mother-figures? Is it because we are supposed to be nicer than men? Are they, factually, the same for men and women, and women just inflate them in their minds?

Like many of us, I try to deal with these types of situations professionally and with kindness. One of the first times I had to have a truly uncomfortable situation was when I had to fire one of my first graduate students. This student was pretty much phoning it in. After leaving my lab, he joined another, bigger lab that could absorb this type of attitude. My small, nascent laboratory could not afford to have a lackadaisical researcher in the lab. After his first warning and subsequent failure to work properly, I had to let him go. The student was upset and actually cried. Yes, he was a man. Although I felt bad about having to fire someone, I am glad I did. It was the right decision for my laboratory. I was also to the point and clear with the student.

I want to be firm and not a bitch. I want to be caring, but not a push-over. It is a fine line. Also, I want my student to respect and listen to what I am telling them. Yet, because I am a woman and young-looking, I worry that sometimes they do not.

I find that these conversations go better when I am well-rested and clear-headed, but what if I am stressed out or, worse yet, hormonal? Once, when I was pregnant, I actually cried in front of a student while trying to have a difficult conversation. Embarrassing. But worse, I feel like it undercuts my authority. I don’t think it did in this case, but I was worried about it. I don’t think men have to worry about these things. It is particular to women.

So, do you have any tips for steeling yourself for difficult and uncomfortable situations? Please share them here!

Should Personal Statements be “Personal”?

typewriter This topic came up recently on the Physics Forums site. A number of people responding said essentially what I have said here in the recent past in this post. You should make it about your research, but it should not be too personal about yourself. Online resources such as this one in The Guardian don’t make sense to me. I have a feeling that this is specifically for applying to undergraduate level in Europe and the UK. They have a very different situation – you must apply in your field, but you are also applying to undergraduate level, so they do want to know more about you. An undergraduate application essay is more personal because undergraduate admissions want to make interesting and well-rounded classes. Graduate schools in the US do not care to do that – except maybe trying to diversify with more women and minority students (hopefully).

As I said before, your application to graduate school is a professional application. Graduate school is a professional school.  It doesn’t matter so much to me when you got excited enough about science to want to do it for a living and go to graduate school. As one person writes on the Physics Forum, your interest in Prof. Proton as a child really has no baring on your success as a graduate student. Your success as a graduate student, and beyond grad school, are our only concern.

Here are some really good reasons why I don’t care about your personal reasons:

1. I should not care because it enters a bias. If one student says they have had a passion for science since they were 4 when they looked to the stars and wondered how many there were and how big the universe was, is that any meritorious than the person who didn’t realize it until high school? Or better yet, the person who entered college wanting to do history, fell in love with a science gen-ed course, changed tracks, took an  extra year to finish with a science major and now really wants to go to graduate school? The when you decided to devote your career and life to science does not matter. And it should not matter because I have no way to evaluate it objectively, so it isn’t even fair to put in. I usually just ignore it all together, trying to skip past until you get to the real information I need.

2. It wastes time and space you could be saying something real. By making your first 1 – 3 paragraphs about personal drivel that I cannot, by good standards of judgement, use to evaluate you for graduate school, you are wasting my time and your personal real estate in the statement. I have to spend time getting past it to the real information I need. You are wasting words from your word count to tell me things I don’t care about and cannot use.

3. Another indicator that it is not what you should do. In all my years serving on graduate admissions, no one has EVER said, “Well, this person has wanted to do science since they were in junior high, so we should accept him.” No one uses the information. In fact, it is often a source of negativity within the discussion. I have heard people say, “Not another one of these quotes! Did they at least quote a scientist this time?” or derisive comments about what the applicant writes. Again, this is not the best thing for YOU, the applicant, so why give them this information.

I hope this information is helpful to some of you preparing your applications to graduate school. I am serving on admissions again this year, so maybe I will read some of them myself. If I can even get one student to remove this useless personal information and give me what I really need, it will be worth it. Feel free to forward this post to your friends and colleagues. Make comments or post here or at the Physics Forum to continue the conversation.

Application Season: Advice on the PUI

Science on a Sphere exhibitThanks for this post on Primarily Undergraduate Institutions (PUIs)  – what they are and how to apply from an excellent WomanOfScience:

In honor of the most recently passing holiday (Halloween), I thought I would try to demystify the application process for tenure-track appointments at Primarily Undergraduate Institutions (PUIs). Over 85% of professoriate jobs are at PUIs, so more than likely and right about now, you are weighing your options and trying to decide if that second or third postdoc is right for you. I know that some people have a misconception about what it means to be a professor at a PUI, and I’ll admit my family does too. They think that professors at small schools don’t do research, they only teach and that they only have to work for 9-10 months of the year. This is just not the case! We do teach, we do research and we perform extraordinary feats of service. We just can’t usually do research at the pace of a research one school, or like we did when we were postdocs. At PUIs, we usually don’t have access to graduate students, lab technicians, or postdocs to run our labs while we teach. There are at least three tiers of teaching institutions and maybe more depending on whom you ask. Here’s the skinny on what I know…

There are the elite liberal arts colleges, where one teaches on average two lecture courses per semester, about 8 contact hours. At these schools, one is definitely expected to conduct research with students. There’s the middle-tier school where one has about 12 contact hours per semester. A typical schedule maybe split over some combination of one to two lectures, along with the labs associated with that lecture course and an advanced majors lab type course. There is still an expectation that one will perform some student-centered research. Here’s an option which might be a nice bonus if you are at an institution or in a department where they built-in research release time into their teaching load. This is the case at my institution. And then there is the high-contact-hour liberal arts college department. At these schools one is in contact with students for about 12-15ish hours. At these schools, there is not the expectation of research. Some professors have even told me that they are even discouraged from doing research. Here’s some application material to think about in preparation…

You will need, at the least, a curriculum vitae, a teaching statement, and a research statement, all wrapped up in a cover letter. Some schools will ask for names and contacts of references to phone later, others will ask for formal letter. Some will also ask for student evaluation forms or course material, as well. If you are going to a place where you are expected to start a new class, you should feel free to submit your syllabus along with any course outline or material you may have on hand.

Although the vita is pretty much self-explanatory, I will share with you a few tips to adjust your vitae depending on type of teaching institution you are going for. First of all remember to highlight your teaching. You should probably not really change the order from highlighting the research first, especially if you are applying to the upper-tier liberal art institutions. Just remember, “This group of schools really want good researchers who can learn how to teach.” Move the teaching sections right below your educational background. If you don’t have any teaching, which is pretty much a must have for the middle and lower tier school, you should try to highlight any TAing or guest lecturing you’ve done in the past. If you have been associated with any outreach, perhaps it can be mentioned there or if you’ve lead any activities. The biggest difference for the two resumes for elite and middle is that the closer the institution is to the elite schools, the more they will be interested in your research and deciding if it fits into their department. For the lower tier school, they want to see that you can teach and that you can hit the ground running. So make your resume reflect that.

The teaching statement should reflect that you’ve given some thought to teaching. It should show that you are conscientious and care about your students and it should convey how you intend to get this point across to your students. It’s basically a statement of how you teach, what techniques you use in your teaching (pedagogy), how you reflect and improved in your teaching, and perhaps a summarized list of your courses taught throughout your teaching career. I also like to include some statement about how I also use my lab to mentor and train students in research. If you have been asked to teach a new class at the institution you are applying to, I would integrate that into my teaching statement as well. You can also add any teaching ideas you would like to introduce or classes on the books you would like to teach from. This will show your diversity.

The research statement should reflect projects that are student centered.  Then you should introduce the reader to your line of research and detail, without being jargonny or overwhelming, noting the fact that the reader has a Ph.D. in your general field, but perhaps not in your specific topic. Use the opportunity to teach them about your research. Being careful to convey how you would interact with a student in your research group. If you have supervised or mentored any students’ prior, you should highlight your achievements. You should convey how students can access your work and list specific projects they can work on in your group.

The cover letter should tie your application together. It should highlight your activities from you resume, research and teaching statements. And most of all remember it has to speak for you to the application reader.

So get your interview suit cleaned and get ready to start interviewing. Carpe diem!

Thanks for this great post! Do you have suggestions for applying to PUIs? Comment or send a post!

Organizing Your Group: Training Students One at a Time is a Waste of Time

1114_universe-crop-500x416Earlier, I had some posts on organizing your research group (here and here) and mentoring students (here and here). I have mentioned that you can train students in a bootcamp setting.  Here, I will describe the general method of a bootcamp and the benefits of group training. I am happy to give our examples of specific topics I cover in my bootcamp, but you can probably think of your own for your own research group.

What is the Bootcamp? Each year, the same time of year that is convenient, I run a  5-day bootcamp to train students in all the activities of my lab (I do experiments, in case you couldn’t tell). The camp is set for 9am – 5pm Monday through Friday for one week. The number of contact hours in the week-long course in the same as those for a normal course for an entire semester. Thus, the students get a concentrated dose of lab training. We start with how to keep a lab notebook and go through all the important experimental techniques needed to work in the lab.

Some days end early, but others go late. No day is really 9am – 5pm. This is to teach them the lesson that science does not proceed 9-5. It is a strong lesson. The training includes basic bench work needed for the lab, performing certain routine tasks specific to our lab, and performing new experiments and data analysis.

Benefits to Students:  I train students in cohorts in the bootcamp – at least 3-6 at a time. This gives them a group of students who all went through the camp at the same time. I make it fun for them. I put them in groups. They work together in small groups to answer questions during morning “lectures”  and to perform experiments in hands-on afternoon “experiments.” I make t-shirts for each team. They typically have a theme – such as Scooby Doo – and each group is a different character and color. The over-sized t-shirts act as lab coats for the week.

After the students take the bootcamp, they are considered trained and ready to start their own research projects. They take off with a lot of confidence knowing how to work in the lab, who the people are who can help them, and having a set of students to turn to for simple questions (their cohort). The next year, students who are still around and took the camp already are welcome to join again, or serve as TAs to train the next cohort.

Benefits to Me: Saving time, saving money, saving effort. As the title says, training students one-at-a-time is a huge waste of time. By training many students at once, I save a lot of time. I found, when I first started my lab, that only 1 in 4 or 5 students would pan-out. Unfortunately, you never know who those students will be before you begin training. By training all the students at the same time, I make sure to train the good with the bad. I save money because I can properly and personally train the students, and don’t have to leave the training to others, who might miss things or miscommunicate. Sometimes the TAs say incorrect things, but I try to be around to correct them immediately, which teaches both the bootcampers and the TAs. I save money by not paying bad students who don’t want to stay and by having more-respectful students. Although, at first, only about 1 in 5 students stayed and was productive, I have found the bootcamp and the cohort to be a powerful tool for recruiting and retaining students in the lab. Students who weren’t sure about research in the lab, decided to stay after having a lot of fun in the bootcamp. Thus, I am actually able to recruit more and better students.

So, what about you? Are you still training students one-at-a-time? Is it hit-or-miss? Do you have additional activities or improvements to be added to the bootcamp idea? If so, post or comment!

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