Helping the Minoritized Achieve in Academic Science

Archive for December, 2013

Writing Letters of Recommendation

Power of WordsSorry for the delay in posting, but grading, the holiday, and trying to get a paper submitted caught up with me. I just had an email asking for mentoring on how to write letters of recommendation for graduate admissions and REUs and even a few for faculty jobs. After answering that email, I had a lot of fodder for a post, so here it is. Think of this as a possible outline for how to write a letter of recommendation. Hopefully it will help make sure we are including everything we should to give a complete picture of the student for the recommender. I am sure I am missing something from here, so please add any other suggestions for important parts or items by comment or post!

1. Use letterhead. Is this obvious? Maybe, but it is probably still worth mentioning. Best to make up a letterhead in Word or LaTex with the school seal and your information instead of trying to print onto letterhead. Also, it is good to have a scan of your signature to add to the bottom.

2. Introduction. Like other forms of writing letted of recommendation need an introduction. An obvious way to write is to introduce yourself and say you are excited to write this letter of recommendation for Student X. Then, you can say in what capacity you know student X: as the research advisor, as the student’s instructor in a course? as some other type of mentor or advisor? You should probably also say how long you have known the student in this capacity. Some of my research students were also students in the courses I have taught, so I  have to describe both.

If the student is from a class you taught, describe the class. Was it required for the major? Was it an advanced elective? Was it a lab course that would showcase research skills? What was the level of difficulty of the course?

If the student was a research student in your group, describe the research of your lab in general.

3. The student’s performance. In the second paragraph, I describe the performance of the student in the capacity that I know them. For a course, I list the student’s ranking in the course (i.e. “this student was in the top 3 of the 53 students in the course, earning 93% of the total points for the course”). For many of my students, I have interacted with them personally in class, in homework sessions (office hours), and outside of class activities. I describe the student’s  hard work, dedication, and scientific ability and intelligence, as I saw it from these interactions. I use specific examples to make my points and as evidence for my opinions. For instance, I might say, “Student Y had exceptional ability in the course, which I noticed during in class small group work and during homework sessions. In particular, Student Y was the first one to complete assignments and was often able to describe the solution clearly to her classmates to enable them to learn the material, as well.”

For a research student, I describe the student’s specific research project in the group in my words. The student should have also described their research in their own words, and these two descriptions should match up, more or less. The student’s description is often less precise than mine, but it is important that the person reading the recommendation has an idea of what the student was meant to accomplish. As for a student from a course, I describe the student’s work ethic, dedication, and scientific ability to do research using specific examples to back up my personal claims about the student. This is easy for a successful student who has a publication or has attended a national meeting and presented there, as there is direct evidence of success in research that is verifiable. For students who are not quite at that level, I use examples from the lab where I interacted with the student to demonstrate the student’s abilities. Why use examples? Our only way to assess future performance is based on past performance, at this point.

Interestingly, recent studies have shown that personality tests or “employment tests” can accurately assess a person’s ability to do a certain job (see recent story from NPR). As far as I know, these tests have not been tested for success in graduate school in science, but it would be an interesting thing to look at – maybe some Discipline Based Education Researcher should test this out? The benefit of these tests is that they remove inherent biases of “knowing someone who knows someone” and biases against certain genders and races. Kind of like when they started doing blind auditions for orchestras and realized that women and minorities can play just as well as white dudes. Also, these don’t have the same issues as Subject GREs, which are terrible for women, minorities, and people from SmallLiberalArtsColleges. Just FYI.

4. Personality and Social Skills. For each student, I try to describe the personality traits of the student that demonstrate an ability of the student for the position being applied for. I also point out the other non-scientific skills the student possess that will make him/her successful at the next level. Some important personality traits include: work ethic, perseverance and determination, follow-through (completing tasks), anxiety, niceness, etc. Some examples of important social skills include: ability to work in groups, ability to learn from mistakes, ability to take direction, ability to express oneself  in oral presentation, ability to write scientifically, ability to represent data graphically, ability to lead and mentor others. I know that some people shy away from discussing personality, or only discuss it for females and not males, but I include it for all because it is an important consideration when hiring or bringing in someone. If their personality is not a good fit, the person may ultimately  fail even if they are the smartest person in the application pool. Fit is important and social skills are important – not just if the person is a genius.

5. Personalization for each school. Some people think this is ultra important. But, if you are like me, and you have 4-5 students applying to 20 graduate schools each, that is way, way too much work. I might personalize a few if I particularly know people at the school, but for the most part, I just make it general. For faculty positions I always personalize every letter, and it takes forever, but you have to do it.

I am sure there is something I usually add, but haven’t included here. So what did I forget? Post or comment to fill in the gaps.

Writing, writing, writing

write-on-november-is-national-novel-writing-month-a5349cc216There is a lot of reading and writing in science. This is ironic for me, personally, because I went into science because I am a slow reader and I hated humanities classes where I had to read all day. I liked my math and science classes where I solved problems with pencil and paper. My professors delivered content, so I never read textbooks. It is true, despite the fact that I endorse active learning now where students have to read for themselves.

So, here I am, a tenured professor and all I do it read and write all day long. I rarely solve problems with pencil and paper, and I joy in the chance to do so for courses I teach or just snag some back-of-the-envelope time while reading a paper or writing up my own work. I also cannot get most of the content I need delivered, although I go to journal clubs and talks because I am a great auditory learner and I learn best that way. I even have to read papers to myself out loud. This is embarrassing, and I have to close my office door when I review manuscripts or proposals.

After writing that past post about how best to give presentations, I realize there a lot of aspects of this job that we can write how-to posts about. Writing has an seemingly unlimited supply, since we do so many types of writing. I think we will have a few posts (a theme, if you will) on writing. I am happy to entertain guest posts to describe your best practices for writing different things. I am going to list a few that come to mine, comment if you have more types of writing you can think of in addition to these.

  • Manuscripts
  • Proposals
  • Abstracts for posters/platform talks
  • Chapters
  • Books of research
  • Thesis
  • Textbooks
  • Lecture notes
  • Reviews of manuscripts for peer review
  • Reviews of proposals for peer review
  • Grant reports
  • Committee reports
  • Letters of Recommendation
  • Letters of Support
  • Job Application Materials for various stages and types of jobs
  • Published proceedings
  • Biosketches
  • Biographical Information
  • Webpages
  • Blog entries on science
  • Book reviews for publication
  • Articles for general audiences
  • Highlights of research articles
  • Annual personnel reports/highlights
  • Memoranda of understanding
  • Requests for waivers

OK, that is all I can think of. I have written almost all of these types of writing assignments over my career. I haven’t written a textbook, yet, but I really want to. I think I have worked out schemes for writing each of these types of things, and I will write a couple entries about some of the most prevalent ones (or you will). Do you have any advise to offer? Post or comment!

Express Yourself: Giving Good Presentations

Valley_girl_posterI was recently apart of an interesting conversation about speaking styles. Robin, a frequent poster, mentioned that she mentors her students on speaking styles when they are practicing giving talks for conferences or for interviews. We were particularly discussing Up Talking. First, let’s define Up Talking. Up talking is when every sentence sounds like a question – even if it is a declarative sentence. Here is an example:

Regular declarative sentence: “The sum of the angles on a sphere is greater than 180 degrees.”

Now, restate the sentence with up talking: “The sum of the angles on a sphere is greater than 180 degrees?”

This speech pattern is often designated to young women – particularly teenagers. It is called up talking now, but when I was a kid, it was called a Valley Girl accent. In its native environment, it is often associated with a huge number of “ums” and likes,” as so, “Like, the sum of the angles on a, like, sphere, is um, like, greater than 180 degrees?”

Like Robin, I mentor my students about their presentation styles and specifically point out when they Up Talk. It is not just a plague of young women, I should note. I have met several male professors who Up Talk during regular conversations or during presentations. There are other things to keep in mind about presentations.

(1) Tone of voice. We just discussed Up Talking – don’t do it. Every fact should be declared, and the end of the sentence should go down in tone – not up like a question. You should also have a lower voice. Especially if you are in a male-dominated field – which is almost every field of science once you get to the professorial level – you need to speak with lower tones. Men have a harder time hearing higher tones. If your audience is mostly men, you want to be heard, so you should practice lowering your voice during speaking. Also, avoid too much “vocal fry,” the rasping vocalization that is now attributed to young women, too. I should note that some recent press has pointed that a little vocal fry helps women to lower their tones and be taken a bit more seriously. Hilary Clinton uses mild vocal fry to accentuate points with lower tones. If you are worried your voice will waver due to nerves, you just need to practice, practice, practice.

(2) Use of pointer. If you are nervous when speaking, your hands might shake. You should put two hands on the pointer to steady it. Also be careful not to point off the projection screen and not in the faces of the audience. Make sure you are pointing where you want the audience to look. If you cannot use the pointer well, it is better to not use it at all.

(3) Body movements and gestures. I am a really animated speaker. I gesticulate a lot with my hands and have been known to use my entire body to make a point about my science. I try to do at least one dance in each talk I give that illustrates my point. But, I try to not randomly pace back and forth. I try not to fidget too much. I want my gestures to have meaning for my presentation, and I try not to gesture for no reason.

Another good hint for presenting both in seminars and when teaching – go into the audience. I know it sounds strange, because there is this barrier between the speaker and the audience, but walking into the audience can connect you to the audience. It works very well during questions if you walk toward the person asking the question – into the audience if you can – it demonstrates a caring for their question and ideas. It shows warmth and respect, but you still command the presentation.

(4) Demonstrations and Active Learning. This sounds like I am talking exclusively about teaching, but I am not. If demonstrations and active learning can wake up an audience of students who might not want to even be there or listen to your lesson, think of how powerful it could be for a group of people already interested in the topic of your talk. At a recent SmallResearchConference, I gave a 20 minute invited talk. The 3rd of the day of 12 talks that ran from 8 am to 10 pm (with a long afternoon break). I used demonstrations and active learning techniques to engage the audience. I let them know what I was doing, and many loved the active learning aspects of the talk. I had a number of people ask me about best teaching practices afterward, and many loved the talk – even if they didn’t work on exactly what I did. One conference attendee came up to me and said, “I am from a SmallLiberalArtsCollege, and I use active learning in class. At first, I thought it was stupid to use it in a talk at a conference. But, you know what, I remember your talk better than any of the others. So, I think it is good to do.”

If you are giving a job talk, you should definitely do this. At many research universities, you don’t give an example teaching lecture, so your research talk must demonstrate how well you can teach as well as your past, present, and future research. Using demonstrations and active learning techniques will enable the interviewer faculty that you are good at presentation and will likely be a good teacher.

I am sure there are other things to consider, but this is what I thought of at first sitting. Post and comment to give more advice about best practices when presenting your work.

Sticking Up For Yourself

FEMEN_Calls_for_Sex-BoycottAs I have discussed in prior posts, academic science is full of criticism. Most of the time, the criticism is important and helps you to make your science better. Sometimes, not so much. I still contend that women take much more criticism than their equally-qualified (or less-qualified) male contemporaries, but I haven’t seen any specific studies on it. Have you?

Either way, part of what you have to do in academic science is to stick up for yourself. Whether criticism is constructive or mean, we all need to learn to stick up for ourselves against it. Here are a few places where you have to stick up for yourself and some advice on how to do it. Disclaimer: I am not perfect at this and would love comments or posts with more information from others.

Response to Reviewers of Manuscripts: Reviews on papers are a good place to start with this topic. You will get criticisms in reviews – even National Academy members have criticisms and must respond to them. Here is what I do to respond to reviewers. I find this method both cathartic and productive.

Step 1, I print the reviews. I have a harder time reading things on the screen – especially critiques. As I read the reviews, I write whatever the first response to come to my head is. Sometimes it is easy, like, “Cite this paper,” or, “Emphasize this more.” Sometimes they are more elaborate like, “We can do these experiments: one, two, three, and they will probably take 2 months.” Sometimes my responses are just plain rude, such as, “Did this reviewer even read the manuscript?” or even that old chestnut, “F*ck You!” Yes, I write these all on the paper – dirty words and all. They are my first responses – whatever pops into my head – and they are very useful.

Step 2, I meet with the research team, and we all go over the responses and what we need to do to fix up the manuscript. This is usually major issues, like new experiments. I have others give me their first responses, too, if they want to. We air out everything and figure out how to address all the critiques.

Step 3, I identify the locations in the paper that require correcting and updating and set to do it as soon as possible. This is revising the manuscript. This is the obvious step.

Step 4, I write a response to reviewers. The actual response is very different from the responses in Step 1. For each criticism, I write a point for point response. Sometimes it is easy, like, “We cited this paper to address this concern,” or “We re-wrote this section to emphasize this point and clarify our reasoning.” The hardest responses are ones where you need to rebut the reviewer. None of us is perfect, and sometimes we need to let the reviewer know that their point was actually not correct. No big deal, right? It happens. But, reviewers are in a power position over the authors, and you don’t want to rub them the wrong way. When I have to rebut the reviewer, I make my case very strong with a lot of evidence and references. I have even been known to consult other experts of the field to have conversations about these issues. This is important if the reasoning behind something is unpublished “common knowledge” of the field. Every field has this common knowledge, but most of the time it isn’t published nowhere you can point to easily. If the reviewer is not in the exact same field as you, they might not be aware, so you have to inform them. I don’t just ask them to take my word for it, but I reference real conversations with other experts of the field who I asked if I could name in the response. No other expert has ever said no. I have talked to others, and I think this approach is unusual. No editor or reviewer has ever said it was wrong, so I will keep doing it, if I need to.

Critiques on Grant Proposals: These are more difficult to stick up for yourself because you don’t get to respond to reviewers. But, if you are resubmitting the proposal, you need to go through the reviews and respond to them implicitly within the new proposal. I basically go through the same method of printing the reviews and responding. I also have had co-PIs do the same exercise in a multi-PI proposal, and many found it fun and helpful and emotionally de-stressing. Then, I identify the areas of the proposal that require the changes and re-write based on the reviews.

On my first panel where I served as a reviewer, one of the proposals I was reviewing actually quoted their prior reviews and directly responded in their proposal.  At the agency I was reviewing for, the panel changes every time, so the new reviewers (me) would have no idea that they were responding to critiques except by this method. It was very effective. I haven’t employed this myself, but I do respond to the critiques of prior reviewers.

Even if I am not resubmitting because they do not take resubmissions or the research fit is not right for that program, I still read and try to understand the critiques. Very rarely, I get a really rough review. My first year as an AssistantProfessor, I wrote a grant to a foundation for a young investigator award. One of the reviewers said, “It remains to be seen if [WomanOfScience] can even successfully start a research program.” Ouch! It was really harsh, but it was reality. It was my first year, and it did “remain to be seen,” but it wasn’t for the reviewer to judge in the proposal review. That is what the tenure evaluation is meant to judge. In order to stick up for myself, I called other near peers and had a conversation about it. Swapping stories of jerky reviewers on proposals always makes me feel better before I start the task of trying to make productive lemonade out of their nasty lemons. It also helps me to decide if I should try again at a certain funding agency with the certain idea, or if it is time to move on.

Letter Writers for Promotion: We hope that all our promotions will be wildly successful, and we will all sail over the bar to get tenure, become full, and all other evaluations. But, this really just isn’t the case all the time. These critiques can kill a career, so sticking up for yourself is imperative. Once you go up for tenure, that might be all she wrote, although I know several people who have come back from failing tenure and went back on the market after unsuccessful tenure bids, so it can be done. Most jobs have a “mini-tenure” review process, and this is the time to identify issues and address them. Much like the case against the reviewers of papers, you need to understand the issues, determine how best to address them, and build a case in your favor to make sure you do better at the next promotion evaluation. I suggest doing basically the same process as above.

Step 1 helps you to identify what went wrong and come up with gut instincts as to how to correct them. Step 2 should be done with a team – hopefully you have mentors who can help you. They do not have to be in your department or even at your college. In fact it might be better if they are away from you. It will help you to get an outside prospective from someone who will not also suffer if you do not get tenure and promotion. Your university invested heavily in you, and they want you to succeed. But that also puts pressure on them, and they can lose effectiveness as mentors under this pressure. Going to outside mentors takes bravery. You have to expose your soft under belly to your mentors to allow them to help you. You will have to be vulnerable. So, these are people you will have to trust to have your best interest at heart. Then you will have to go through step 3 – and make the changes and implement the solutions your team have come up with. There isn’t really an mandatory equivalent to step 4 – writing the response – but it may be important to do just that if you don’t get tenure. Having a clear, thoughtful response to critiques is important if you want to challenge the decision or to try for new positions at different institutions.

Other Places: Sometimes we experience critiques in other places such as in email exchanges, in person at faculty or committee meetings, when getting critiques on a proposal or a manuscript from colleagues in person, or even in blog posts 😉 My advice, which I certainly could use a reminder of frequently, is to try not to react immediately. I advise that your initial reactions to bad news, critiques, or even personal attacks should be private. This is often hard to do, but good off-the-cuff reactions take practice to get them right. Public reactions should be carefully planned, if possible. I feel like this 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 perfect condition to absorb negative comments.

Sometimes the best course is to ignore things. Ignoring something might go against the title of this post which suggests that you should defend yourself, but sometimes it is the best thing. For instance, I recently got an email from a colleague who scolded me because I used a public space for a laboratory end-of-semester party. The public space is adjacent to office space where his students sit. When we went to have the party (all 13 of us), there were only two students (of an office that seats 8) in the office space. Both of these students were  wearing headphones, and it was the second to last day of exam period at 4pm. I didn’t think I was bothering them, and no one said anything at the time when I could have changed anything. Yet, in an email later, I was scolded and told that I needed to ask permission of the students in the office to have my event. I should also mention that I have had these events there previously without scolding, and no one ever said anything before. My first reaction was to write back and defend my actions, but I decided against it. I just ignored the email. I figured if it was really a big deal, he could talk to me in person. I also suspected he threw out the email without much thought. I saw him multiple times the next day without a mention of it from him and with his usual nice self. I think ignoring the situation was the right thing to do there. Sometimes ignoring something is a statement in and of itself. You are saying, “This is not worth my time.”

So, what about you? Do you have any helpful hints on how to respond to criticism. To stick up for yourself in a good way? Any comments or posts would be greatly appreciated! You can receive notice when a new post appears by pushing the +Follow button.

Top 10 Reasons Why I am a Feminist

DoorPinsI am a feminist. This is not a radical stance. It means that I believe in equality between men and women. I have a couple pins on my door that sum up how I feel. They are pictured on the left. The one I like the most says, “Feminism is the RADICAL notion that WOMEN are PEOPLE.” Yes. Very radical. That we should be treated as human beings. I was trying to figure out why I am so radically in favor of fairness, and I came up with the top 10 reasons why I am a feminist. Please comment or share your own reasons! Push +Follow to get updates on this blog.

10. Designing Women and Murphy Brown.

Yes, really, the TV shows. I grew up, like many Americans, watching a lot of TV. Designing Women was a show that I connected with because these women were strong, big-mouthed, business women in the South. I grew up in the south in a state that has taken many backwards steps recently on the front of women’s issues. These women were role-models and they were what I thought strong women could be. They weren’t perfect. They were funny and snarky. But, they were leaders, business owners, and career-minded women.


And Murphy Brown was just amazing! She was strong, brave, a career-woman, out spoken, snarky, funny, and just everything I wanted to be as an adult woman. She spoke out and nailed political idiots. She was actually attacked by a real politician although she was fictitious, and the writers smacked back. I see now that she was safe – not being a real person who’s real career could really be in jeopardy – but at the time it was empowering to feel that you could control your own destiny, say what you wanted, be smart, be funny, and be good looking.


9. The Cosby Show


Yes, another TV show. I watched a lot of TV. Oh, the Cosbys! They were great. They were both professionals. The dad dealt with the kids more than the mom because she worked outside the house and he had his office in the basement. Their kids went to college. They played jokes on their kids to teach them lessons. Is there anything bad about this amazing show? I dare you to watch it and not be awestruck and inspired about what you can achieve.

8. Salt-N-Pepa.


The rap group, Salt-N-Pepa were also amazing role models of strong women who didn’t take shit from anyone.  They could be hard in baggy clothes, like the men, or they could be sexy. They talked about taboo subjects because they were important. They were brave and funny and strong. I still love them to this day, and I listen to their songs when TheMan is trying to keep me down.

7. John Stossel


Yes, the dude on TV. When I was a kid, he did a lot of reports on 20-20, the news magazine show on ABC. Why my parents let me watch so much TV, I have no idea. Anyway, John Stossel did a series of reports when I was a kid about about bias and how people are treated differently for looking different. He did a report in a fat suit to show how people treat fat people vs. thin people. He did a show about race. He also did a report about women wherein he dressed as a woman to see how he would be treated differently compared to when he was a man. I remember distinctly that he said he didn’t only get treated differently when dressed as a woman, he felt different. He felt shier and less at ease with himself and his body. In particular, when he was sitting at a bar, by himself, dressed as a woman, he felt the need to look busy. He looked in his purse and fiddled with things. He was nervous. This was because he felt uncomfortable being a woman alone at a bar. In our societies’ eye, this is improper and makes women feel anxious. This was amazing to me. Even a man, dressed as a woman, feels the same way I do! Society’s influence is so strong and pervasive.

6. Research on How Girls are Treated in Class.


Based on some other John Stossel report, I initiated a study of how girls and boys are treated differently when in school. I found primary sources and the report was a good thesis by the time I finished. I found that girls are expected to act nice and quiet and be “good” but boys were allowed to be smart and creative and be obnoxious. I could see in my own experience how girls and boys were praised for these different actions, and that pissed me off – even as an early high schooler. I vowed to seek out institutions where I would not be treated differently. It eventually led me to the SmallWomensLiberalArts College for undergraduate education (see 2).

5. Gymnastics


As a kid, I was a gymnast. Not Olympic level, but I trained with girls who were. I was level 9 in 7th grade, which is highly competitive. I was in a state in the south that was the most competitive place in the country for gymnastics at the time. Gymnastics made me strong, determined, and hardworking. It also made me put up with a lot of jerks. My coaches were big jerks. I used to make myself sick to my stomach thinking about going to gymnastics. I went to therapy to try to figure out how to deal with them. They told me I was stupid, which I knew I wasn’t. They told me I was worthless, which I knew I wasn’t. I am thankful for school and my parents who gave me high enough self-esteem to fight the daily onslaught of insults. So, gymnastics helped me learn to deal with jerks. It also made me strong – physically. I could kick almost anyone’s ass, as long as the fight lasted less than 2 minutes (gymnastics is not known for endurance training). I was 4 ft, 10 inches of solid muscle. I had wash board abs. Knowing you are physically strong is very empowering.

4. My 8th Grade Math Teacher.


In 8th grade I moved states from the deep south to a northern, apparently more progressive school. The progressive school did not believe in honors. So in 8th grade, instead of honors 8th grade math, I was put in regular 9th grade math with regular 9th graders. It was so boring! I would do my homework in class and not pay much attention to the teacher because I didn’t need to. I did everything on time and correctly – making almost perfect scores. I approached the teacher at the end of the school year about applying to a program at a local university to do more advanced math. She flat out told me that I would not get in because I was a white girl. Wow! I was really pissed. I certainly wouldn’t get in if she didn’t support my application. And, yes, she was also a white woman.

3. My 9th Grade Math Teacher and A New School.


After 8th grade and the boring year, my parents moved me to a small, open enrollment school with honors. The school was awesome! Best yet was my math teacher. He was an older man, a heavy smoker, and he meant business. We used a Chicago University text book series and we had to work through all the problems in the book doing at least 1 section per night. Because I was from another district, I couldn’t take the bus home. I had to sit at school and wait for my parents to pick me up. I asked if I could go faster, so I could fill the time with math instead of nothing. I finished 3 years of math in one year. Mostly because I wanted to, but a little to show up the math teacher from 8th grade who I never ever saw again that I could. So there, ttthhhhppp! Another great thing about this school was that is had a math team! I actually lettered – yes I got a Letterman Jacket – in math team. The team had both girls and boys – pretty evenly split – and was a big source of pride for the school. I was only there for one year, but it was life changing in so many ways – not just educationally, but also because I met all kinds of students. From these students – many of whom were women – I realized I had the power to change my personality to be more outgoing and how I really wanted to be.

2. SmallWomensLiberalArts College.


Thanks to my personal research about the differences in how girls and boys are treated in classes, I opted to go to a Women’s College for undergraduate. Like many other people, my college experience was extremely formative. I had the opportunity to do my own research, I had excellent professors who thought I was great, I had a great group of fellow women undergrads in my classes and we all worked together on homework and helped each other all the time. It was a great community to mature in and figure out what I wanted from my life and career.

1. My Mom.


My mom has always been the biggest role model for me of a woman who can work and be a great mom at the same time. I am very fortunate that she set that example for me. Although she doesn’t feel that she had a career, she did, as a computer programmer. She didn’t have a permanent job because she worked on contracts, but she still had a career that progressed and changed and morphed from programming COBOL on mainframes to working in the financial industry as an analyst. She also was a math major and taught me that women can be analytical and do math and science. Her ability to organize the family and our house while making more money in the family was a constant support for me when I decided I wanted a career and family. Thanks, Mom!

More than Resistance

A woman combatant in the French Resistance, ne...

A woman combatant in the French Resistance, near Chartres, in August 1944. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my last post, I described a resistive load that women and minorities face in academia. I had two very interesting and insightful comments. Thanks for that. I would love for people to comment and keep the discussion going. Both commenters brought up something far worse than resistance to forward progress. They both mentioned sexual harassment and even abusive behavior.

Robin said:

The hardest thing for me to deal with in my faculty career, to be painfully honest, is not the occasional rejection of papers or proposals, not incompetent administrators or demands of unreasonable department chairs, not getting the cold shoulder from colleagues. It is facing the ugly reality that sexual harassment occurs on my campus. Even in the 21st century, older men too often attempt to use their power and authority to gain sexual access to younger women. I have seen with my own eyes the emotional and career damage that results and –even worse– the reluctance of the victims to report.

Women are not fragile flowers who need 24/7 body guards to keep us safe as we work alongside and under the supervision of men. But we do need a better means to stop the misbehavior of university faculty who misuse their power and authority in a way that threatens the well being of female students, postdocs and staff.

Perhaps this is not the kind of “resistance” you were thinking about, but I suspect that sexual harassment in the STEM workplace has affected more women than you might think.

Social Scientist said:

Needless to say, the system is deeply gendered and raced, and not unrelated to the sexual harassment that women continue to endure (see Robin’s comment). One of the eminent (male) faculty members in the BILU grad program I attended in the 70s actually invited a female classmate to join him and a group of male grad students in a gang bang (yes, his own words). Things are subtler now, but the attitudes of entitlement (and chauvinism, racism, misogyny, etc.) inherent in the system remain–in part because they’re shared by some of the non-white males who made it, because they’d rather try to feel like members of the club (even if they really aren’t, quite) than wannabes.

I would like to discuss strategies to deal with this type of thing. What do people recommend? I have recently written a post about harassment. And there was a good post of TenureSheWrote, too. Should female grad students and undergraduates to go to female faculty? That puts a lot of stress on the female faculty. What if the female faculty member is still pre-tenure and feels that she cannot speak freely without risking her career?  What is the faculty member is an older woman, but she is unwilling to listen? Are their organizations on campus that can assist? It would be helpful for readers to chime in with their ideas.

Oddly, just days after posting my original post about the SexualHarassingEmeritusFaculty, he died. Some senior members of the department decided to use faculty meeting time to have a reflection time for him. My HusbandOfScience emailed the entire faculty to ask how long the reflection time would take, because he would like to actively BOYCOTT the memorial service. I told several of my senior male colleagues that I would also be boycotting because of the Sexual Harassment this man imparted. So, I outed this harasser after death. It feels a bit unsatisfying, though. I should have done more.

Hope to hear from you. Post or comment! Click +Follow to get updates on this blog.

The Resistive Load vs. the Drift

ResistorsAs I said earlier, I recently went to a BigIvyLeague University to give a talk, and I met with a group of young scientists – men and women – for lunch. The meeting turned into a mentoring meeting, as any meeting I have with young scientists tends too. As I said, there were two women postdocs, and we were discussing women’s issues. Another part of the conversation was about the impediments to advancement for women. Different people experienced the resistance at different stages, and this is normal since no two people’s trajectories will ever be exactly the same. Of the two women postdocs, one felt that she was being disregarded and put down even in graduate school. The other had a happy experience in graduate school, but was beginning to feel the resistance now as a postdoc. Of my WomanOfScience friends, many did not feel it until they got to a tenure-track job or even until after tenure. Myself, I had an 8th grade math teacher tell me that I could not advance more than a year in math. Perhaps my early exposure to the resistance is why I am so hyper-aware and intent on changing things.

Studies have shown that the glass ceiling for women in academia is at the full-professor level, as I describe and quoted primary research in this blog post. So, despite the onset age of the resistive load, the trend of the resistance, or other personal factors of each woman’s career, the highest resistance comes just at the precipice of really becoming a fully acting, voting, participating member of your department and college making similar wages as your colleagues. More on this issue in future posts, I think.

The main reason why I wanted to discuss the resistive load was because the meeting directly after the lunch, I met with a young, newly hired WhiteMale Assistant Professor. I had met this guy before at a small conference, and I knew he had been a postdoc at the same BigIvyLeague University where I was visiting, and where he was now tenure track. Some BigIvyLeague Universities do this, when the person is truly a superstar, so I assumed that this was the case, although I didn’t know his full record. This guy is young, and he was very open and honest when I asked him about his trajectory. He said that he had not had many other offers or even interviews, and that he was not, in fact, a superstar. The only places he had interviews were places where people already knew him. He said that this was because he had a low publication rate. Of course, BigIvyLeague University knew him, and his postdoc advisor was key to getting him this position. I consider this a gross case of “The Drift” where someone just continues to advance without any forethought or even any real effort. It is kinda like being in the lazy river at a water park. You get pushed forward.

I often see these people who appear to “Drift” in Second Generation Academics, whose parent(s) were also academics. Second Generation Academics are always typically extremely good at what they do, and in the meritocracy of academia  they advance seemingly effortlessly. In actuality, I think they just understand the game intuitively because they were raised in it, but they are good and working hard. Unlike a Second Gen Academic, this guy is an extreme version of a true Drift. He is literally coasting with no cogent plan. He isn’t applying to grants, or really trying to get students. He is trying to get a few more postdoc publications out because his publication record was reportedly slow.

The juxtaposition of this Drifter with the hard-working excellently bright, quick, and enormously put-down women of the lunch meeting was almost sickening to me. I was somewhat in shock as he told me his path and his non-existent plan. I would like to think that the system would weed this guy out, but given how far he has come, I cannot be sure. Being at a place like BigIvyLeagueU helps in so many areas, like getting good students and postdocs, getting grants, and having papers accepted based on BILU’s reputation. And the worst part was that I really couldn’t blame this guy. He is a nice guy. He is an open and honest scientist. So what if his publication record is slow? What boggles the mind is the system, the structure that promotes this guy and denies even better women and minorities the chance to  work in academia at SecondTierStateU without a hope of even getting to a place like BILU. Or, if you do get an offer at a BILU, they don’t have spousal accommodation, so you have to sacrifice other parts of your life for the benefits of BILU. Indeed, several women I met at BILU did just this.

This post has been long and rambling, so I apologize. These thoughts have been kicking around in my head, and I am not quite sure how to approach them to reconcile the fact that excellent women have so much resistive load against them. What do you think? When did you first feel the resistance to your forward progress? Do you know any female “Drifters”? Even the most excellent and well-promoted women I know really deserve it and still suffer from impostor syndrome, self-doubt, and are truly excellent yet still under-recognized. Post or comment here. Remember to hit +Follow for updates whenever I post. I hope to post more frequently now that classes have ended for the semester!

Better Self-Organization

2475011402_bf70c92575_o‘Tis the season… for writing a huge number of letters of recommendation. This is happy, but I am always worried that I will miss one and be the reason why some poor person didn’t get into UniversityOfTheirDreams. It is a big responsibility to be a letter writer, and I do not engage in this activity lightly.

Each student who asks me for a letter, I require them to send me a statement of their research and give me a CV or resume. This helps me to write a better, more informed letter. It is also the same as when I suggest that you prep your letter writers in previous post. You should always have a conversation and give them written information to help your letter writers.

I have also started something new this year to help keep myself organized: a list. This year, I am asking all  students who ask for letters to give me a list of the schools to which they are applying, so I can make sure I send them all. Most students were surprised that I asked for all this information. But, it is all part of my new leaf to be better organized.

My new organizational schemes have been working most of the semester, and I am happy to say. Another thing that I rehashed was to have a notebook I always have with to do lists and notes for work. Much like a lab notebook, which I was really excellent at retaining, this notebook has all my important information. This semester, I ticked off entire do lists. Sadly, as soon as one was complete, I was able to create a new list de novo from my memory entailing an entire page work of more “to dos.”

I have also started a spreadsheet for manuscripts to track their progress and what I still need to do. This idea came from another, very coordinated WomanOfScience. It is a little disheartening at first to see all the papers I need to work on laid out in their various states of incompleteness, but it is also good to see when they make progress. I am hoping to clear some into the submitted regime over winter break.

So, what about you? Any special organizational schemes to keep on top of your work? If so, please share.


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