Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

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!

Comments on: "Uncomfortable Conversations" (9)

  1. I definitely agree that it is a fine line, between being nice, and being too nice. It seems that if you are a woman who doesn’t let people get away with not working, or trying to take credit for your ideas etc., then you get labeled a bitch. But if you don’t call people out, then you get walked all over. I don’t hear guys complain about this ever, but most of the women I know in the department feel the same way.

    I haven’t really found a good way to balance this yet. I just decided that I wasn’t going to put up with things just because I’m a girl and “supposed” to be nice, and I know several people who really dislike me because of it. Maybe that means I should move more towards the “nice” side of the scale, but I feel I’m already at a disadvantage being the only woman in my lab, almost the youngest person in lab, and simultaneously the most senior group member. So I feel that being nice would quickly lead to my being taken advantage of.

  2. I have had a research lab for 20 years, independently funded, and now direct a research center. Lots of students, techs and postdocs have been trained and more importantly mentored in my group. The fact that you had to have a series of difficult conversations this year makes me think there may be a mentorship issue. Are you making your expectations clear? When a problem arises, are you really looking for a cause? “Mailing it in” could be a symptom of serious problems. They could be personal, cultural, depression, or simply overcommitment. When we take on a student, it is our duty to look out for them and MENTOR them to be successful, Sometimes this involves conversations that let THEM decide “thanks, this is not for me”.

    I cant’ ever imagine “firing” a student and then blogging about it. The gender reference is a bit much. Have you thought about the subtle sexism this exudes? How about the possibility that this fired student and their friends may actually find this blog and the embarrassment this will cause-“she made you cry”.

    This blog seems a bit mean spirited, there are no losers, just people that don’t know how to win. That is where mentors come it. Show them how to win, or something they can win at. If you are not willing to fully embrace the work of mentorship- yes it really is NOT all about your lab- then please stop taking students.

    Lastly, using terms like bitch in a public blog really make this seem bush league.

    BTW: I am a male, I cry, I father, and I live a researcher’s life. I am proud of each.

    • Before I respond, I am going to thank the commenter for both commenting and for bringing up interesting ideas. Constructive criticism is essential for science, and I am very good at taking it. Further, I take it more than my male colleagues because I am a woman. So, bring it on.

      Also, it isn’t that I have a thick skin – far from it. I have a very thin skin, and all the comments and criticisms cut very deeply, but I hope to always learn from them. This was nicely summed up in a recent post from Hope Jahren.

      Regardless, of the fact that I appreciate and learn from criticism, I also have my own brain, and my own blog! So, that means I can respond and I can block you, if I want. So, in the spirit of scientific dialog that is similar to responses to reviewers on paper critiques, I will address your concerns here. As you might have guessed, I think many of the ideas are wrong-headed.

      I have had a research lab for 20 years, independently funded, and now direct a research center. Lots of students, techs and postdocs have been trained and more importantly mentored in my group. The fact that you had to have a series of difficult conversations this year makes me think there may be a mentorship issue.

      Wow, you apparently think you are a great mentor, which I find astounding. Mentoring is a relationship made between two imperfect people. Anyone who thinks they are doing it well, probably isn’t doing it at all. Like most relationships, it is a struggle, and uncomfortable conversations will inevitably occur. Even my relationship with my HusbandOfScience, who is amazingly compatible with me, has some uncomfortable conversations. They are uncomfortable because sometimes you have to say things that people do not want to hear. Even a conversation that lets them decide, “this is not for me,” can be uncomfortable. If you do not realize this, than perhaps you are not very empathetic.

      Are you making your expectations clear? When a problem arises, are you really looking for a cause? “Mailing it in” could be a symptom of serious problems. They could be personal, cultural, depression, or simply overcommitment. When we take on a student, it is our duty to look out for them and MENTOR them to be successful, Sometimes this involves conversations that let THEM decide “thanks, this is not for me”.

      Yes, I make my expectations clear. In the blog post, I say that I had several conversations with the student already. They weren’t about cheese. They were about his attitude in the lab and his effort, and the fact that he was not fulfilling his side of the agreement to work in the lab, which including him actually working. Did you read the post? Also, I have several other posts about how to communicate with your students and set up expectations (here and here and here). The student I described was actually lazy – clear and simple. He was not TAing – I was paying him. He was not overcommitted, as he was not taking classes either. He had passed the qualifier. Is it so hard to believe that a student could be lazy? My goodness, you must have been privileged. Must be all that White Maleness oozing through your keyboard and into my blog.

      I cant’ ever imagine “firing” a student and then blogging about it.

      Wow! You never had to fire a student, postdoc, or technician? Or maybe you just never told anyone else? I am surprised that you do not confide or seek mentoring from other faculty members. I am not bragging about it. I am describing it in an effort to mentor others and receive mentoring in return. I re-read this post, and I do not understand how you think I am being so rude. I read it as thoughtful. The point of a blog is to discuss these issues. If you do not want to help mentor and discuss in a constructive way, you do not have to read it.

      Here is another thing: blogs are anonymous for a reason – to protect me and the people described herein. I made lots of students cry. Yes, this was one of my first. He was in my lab for two months over 6 years ago. Further, this guy was only fired from doing research in my lab. He could still TA or RA in other labs. He wasn’t exactly unemployed after this “firing.” Maybe I should have said “let go,” but it is essentially the same thing. Regardless, he found a new lab. In this students’ department, they do not do rotations. It is like dating. We have to try, determine if we are compatible, and act accordingly. Because there are not trial periods or rotations, this leads to many uncomfortable conversations. There are people in my department who fire 2 students a year. I fired one in 6 years.

      The gender reference is a bit much. Have you thought about the subtle sexism this exudes? How about the possibility that this fired student and their friends may actually find this blog and the embarrassment this will cause-“she made you cry”.

      Why? I have read many, many blogs were people describe making women cry, yet when I reveal that I made a man cry it is a horrible outing. Yes, there is sexism in that statement. It is the same sexism you are showing by saying it is terrible for me to point it out. Why? If it was a woman, which maybe you assumed at first, would that have been less sexist? We are all sexist. The point is to acknowledge it and try to combat it. I do try to do that everyday. Again, I reiterate that this was very early in my career and his. We had a good relationship after that and there were no hard feelings from the student, so why should he feel badly that I anonymously told a story only we know.

      This blog seems a bit mean spirited, there are no losers, just people that don’t know how to win. That is where mentors come it. Show them how to win, or something they can win at. If you are not willing to fully embrace the work of mentorship- yes it really is NOT all about your lab- then please stop taking students.

      Really? I re-read the blog entry, and I did not read it as mean-spirited at all. I read it as questioning and looking for advice. Even though you clearly think you are amazing at mentoring and could mentor the pants off anyone, I am perhaps more realistic. Like any relationship – not all mentoring relationships will work out. Why force them? Especially in mentoring or advising, that is not at all a good idea. I think I am willing to embrace the work of mentoring, but I want to be thoughtful. And that means sometimes not taking a specific student in my lab. So, you are exactly right on this point. I was not able to work with this student, so I let them go. I made the choice to opt out instead of worrying about his poor and flagging performance. I had a hard conversation instead of being upset about him all the time. Does that mean I should not mentor anyone? That seems a little “mean” too. I never said I was perfect, like you, I just said that I have had hard times.

      As for the part about what is best for my lab, I think you are being a little unrealistic. I was trying to get tenure. If a man had made the same decision, as many, many men in my department do, they are seen as smart for shluffing off dead weight. But, I am a bad mentor and should never take students because I correctly fired a student who was not performing?

      Further, these types of decisions apply even if you are not in the pre-tenure stage. We scientists also have an obligation to the agencies that fund us. We say that we are going to achieve certain research goals, and they fund us to perform work towards these goals. To continue to fund a student or postdoc who is simply not working is not fair to the taxpayers, companies, or donors who are paying for the work. Your research lab is not a charity.

      Lastly, using terms like bitch in a public blog really make this seem bush league.

      Hmm, do you read blogs much? I am not forcing this blog on you. Those who know me know that my potty mouth runs unreined in real life – it is quite constrained here. Perhaps that I because I am used to scientific writing where there is a code of conduct. That is not true in the blog-o-sphere. Also, is “bush league” some not-so-subtle insult on my gender? I will disregard it because I am so sexist, already 🙂 (Also, I am just making a joke here. I do know what bush league means, although I was not aware of its strong sports connotation. Maybe that’s cause I’m a girl?)

      BTW: I am a male, I cry, I father, and I live a researcher’s life. I am proud of each.

      Congratulations, do you get a medal for this? Yes. In our society, a man who cares even a little bit – no matter how little – is to be praised, coveted and lauded. A woman who has ambition and drive and makes hard decisions and has uncomfortable conversations even doing so with thought and care is a bitch or is a bad person. Thanks so much for making my day with your comment! You totally proved that I am right and that even a sensitive man can still be sexist!

    • Lady Lab Head said:

      @ John–Strikes me you probably have been granted too much money. Having unlimited resources can lead PI’s to take a more laissez-faire route about mentoring, ‘leaving it up to them to decide its not for them’. I wouldn’t call this classic good mentoring. I remember having past PI’s treat students like this and the rest of us wishing that they would sprout a cock and let them go, opening up space to replace them with someone engaging who really cares about what they are doing. It also sends a message to the rest of the lab, who might be working hard, that you don’t even notice. If said student has problems with depression, as many do, they need to actively be seeking therapy and medication, as would anyone with an illness that is preventing them from doing work and consider taking a leave of absence, if need be. Working around unmotivated people is extremely unmotivating for the rest of the lab. If there is one good thing about the budget crunch now is that there isn’t much room to retain people who can’t be bothered to show up. It just drags down the rest of the lab.

      BTW, I am a woman, a mother, and a lab head, I care deeply about my lab members and want them all to be successful. I naturally become less committed to their careers when they don’t treat me or the other members of the lab with mutual respect and care. And I like to swear. I really like to.

      • “Granted too much money”- it is called merit based peer review, not entitlement.
        “They need to actively be seeking therapy and medication”- you may want to think about the possibility that they may not know how to get help, or may be facing a cultural barrier to mental health assistance. Are you really that callous?
        “I really like to swear”- good for you, very impressive.

      • Lady Lab Head said:

        Ooh, temper, temper. I sounds like while the elder, self-congratulatory, patronizing male scientist likes to dish out criticism, he cannot take it.

  3. Defensive, immature, sexist and nasty. I expected nothing less. You have a lot to learn, sadly, you won’t.

  4. […] is where I fail most. I am obviously much better if I am rested and not hormonal, similar to the uncomfortable conversations post. But, considering that these things can strike without warning, it is hard to always be in the […]

  5. […] boss is that you have to tell people things they might not like to hear. I have written about this before, but this time, I am going to actually have some advice for how to conduct these types of […]

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